We live in an age of falsity, in which words have lost their meanings and concepts are reinvented as the situation demands. The United States is in a jobless recovery — even if that phrase largely disappeared from the American lexicon about 2004. Good news somehow must follow from a rising unemployment rate, which itself underrepresents the actual percentage of Americans long out of work.
At the same time, we are supposed to be relieved that we are in a contracting expansion, where fewer goods and services are proof of a resilient economy. In our debt-ridden revival, borrowing $1 trillion each year is evidence that we don’t have a spending problem.
If an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent and the economy shrinking by 0.01 percent a year — with a fifth consecutive $1 trillion annual deficit — are indicators of recovery, what would the old 5 percent unemployment, 4 percent growth in GDP, and $300 billion annual deficits mean? Or do the meaning of words and the nature of “facts” depend on who is in the White House at the time, or rather on whether the president is trying to make us more equal or to enrich the 1 percent?
At key points, whole controversies vanish without a trace. Suddenly, about four years ago, Guantanamo was no longer a gulag. Then it became no longer much of anything — in the manner that renditions, preventive detention, tribunals, and drone assassinations likewise disappeared from public discourse even as they became institutionalized.
We can scarcely remember now that the country tore itself apart over the waterboarding of three confessed terrorists, as it snoozes through its government blowing apart 2,500 suspected terrorists — and anyone caught in their general vicinity when the drone missiles hit. I think the logic must have been that a reactionary George Bush wished to waterboard a few confessed terrorists more just to bend the law than to derive any information that might save Americans — whereas Barack Obama actually reads the great ethical philosophers as he “reluctantly” signs off on targeted assassinations that have no doubt saved more people than he ordered killed. And we have to understand that if we were to object to such a kill tally, we would thereby be endangering the greater good to come at home over bothersome details abroad.
We have only a faint memory of promises of no more lobbyists in government, no more revolving doors, a new civility, a new transparency, and a new bipartisanship. Do we now even remember all those slogans that went up on the barnyard wall, and have since been painted over? When the president lectured us that the captains of Wall Street were not to get bonuses for snagging federal bailouts, he was not speaking of his future secretary of the Treasury, a progressive who does what must be done for the people.
An ambassador and three other Americans were murdered, ostensibly because of an anti-Muslim video whose producer still languishes in jail in California. The party line was that Libyan demonstrators, irate over that Internet production and out for a walk one evening, brought along their GPS-guided mortars and machine guns to spice up a demonstration at our consulate. Things can always get out of hand, when a right-wing chauvinist makes a hurtful video.
In this age of fakery, what is legitimate dissent? Is it Hillary Clinton attacking an administration in 2003 (“I’m sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and disagree with this administration, somehow you’re not patriotic. . . . We have the right to debate and disagree with any administration”) or Hillary Clinton nine years later, as an administration insider, turning on her interrogators in an effort to deflect inquiry (e.g., “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”)?
Al-Qaeda must be imploding, as its new profile from Libya to Mali is proof of its overstretched presence. The Muslim Brotherhood is largely secular; jihad is a personal spiritual journey; we ordered an overseas contingency operation to get bin Laden, who had been responsible for some man-caused disasters, and one of whose acolytes waged workplace violence that threatened our diversity programs. After Chuck Hagel forgot what he had said, what the president had said, and what his inquisitors had said, we knew he would be confirmed as defense secretary. All these are mere bothersome details that should not impede the general truth that the United States is now on the right side of history, at home and abroad.
Suddenly our troubles are blamed on those now known as the 1 percent, who make more than the new moral cutoff line of $250,000 per year. These public enemies are fat cats and they use corporate jets. Worse, they don’t build their own businesses, and they profit when it is no longer time to. They make money way beyond the point where they should have stopped, they don’t spread their wealth, and they don’t pay their fair share. Sometimes we would almost imagine that they worked for Citigroup, vacationed at Martha’s Vineyard, or used insiders to cash in on cattle speculations. Millionaires are rightly grouped with billionaires, who have 1,000 times the money, but they are not the same as thousandaires, who have one-1,000th the money.
Whether the president is responsible for the economy depends on the circumstances. Bush did nothing to improve the economy between 2001 and September 2008. But he is responsible for the bad economy from September 2008 to January 2013. Neither house of Congress has any real responsibility for our economic fate, so between 2007 and 2011 both were irrelevant. But one house of Congress does sometimes. So starting in 2011 the House of Representatives in two years caused the mess we’re in now, in a way that the Senate and House had not in the four previous years.
Golfing used to be proof of plutocratic remoteness and idle folly, where rich guys dress up in funny clothes and putter about. Now it is a green sort of downtime for our commander-in-chief to unwind in the best tradition of Dwight Eisenhower. Thanks to Barack Obama, golf is now finally recognized as politically correct recreation. The president shoots guns “all the time”; we know that because the White House both released one picture of him with a gun and earmuffs, and ridiculed those who thought the occasion unique rather than ordinary.
When watching Al Gore plug his latest alarmist book to progressive interviewers, I can no longer remember whether he is supposed to be a selfless public intellectual who, at enormous financial risk, started a new progressive television channel to promulgate long-needed awareness about politics and the environment, or whether as a rank speculator he scrambled to push through a secretive deal to sell his $100 million inflated interest in that channel to an anti-Semitic, anti-Western news conglomerate, run by an authoritarian Middle East dictator laden with oil-cartel profits — right before new higher capital-gains taxes might lessen his take by 5 or 6 percent. There are apparently two sorts of wealthy people: those on the left who reluctantly make big money and seek hyper-profits and tax avoidance as means to a noble social end, and those on the right who eagerly seek needless profits and tax reduction to enrich themselves and not society.
The world’s premier cyclist says that he was lying about his doping for most of his career, when it was in his interest to fabricate, but that he is no longer lying now that it is even more in his interest to come clean. The hottest singer in popular culture now confesses, after a long silence, that she faked singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Inauguration — that she lip-synched not a ballad at a football game, but the National Anthem at the president’s inauguration. And she faked it for our sake, she says, out of a sense of professionalism. Both believe that once they crossed the threshold of fame, the prosaic protocols no longer applied to them.
In the tradition of heroic Notre Dame football stars, we are moved by a collegiate football standout sharing his lamentations about a dying girlfriend on the eve of his Big Game — except that the story is so contorted and fanciful that most are more confused by the truth than they were by the lie. To reinforce the prevailing narrative of race and class in America, we want to believe that Trayvon Martin — no doubt innocently walking home from the store — was gunned down by a racist redneck vigilante, and so we must invent a new term to describe his shooter, “white Hispanic,” as our media endlessly air a doctored telephone transmission to produce the desired result. If the therapeutic culture wants something to be true, then why should inconvenient things stand in the way of what should have happened?
“Impartial moderators” in the media used to go through the motions of declaring that their intertwined Washington marriages or their prior partisan employment did not affect their objectivity; now they don’t even make the effort. If in 2008 Gwen Ifill had a hagiography coming out about candidate Barack Obama, as she was pegged to moderate the vice-presidential debate, by 2012 Candy Crowley had no inhibitions about fact-checking Mitt Romney — and only Mitt Romney — in the middle of his answers, even though her interruption and editorializing were less factually accurate than the statements by the object of her scrutiny. Again, there are no rules per se; the question is who has good intentions and who is without them. The facts follow accordingly.
Even on the rare occasions when public figures are caught, doublespeak follows. “I accept full responsibility” is the new nothing sentence of contrition, rarely to be followed up by resignation or demotion in rank and pay. “We will not rest until the guilty parties are brought to justice” means even less — nothing much other than to remind us that after six months the latest terrorist killing will be mostly forgotten. “My actions were entirely inappropriate” is a banality offered as verbal penance in order to continue, rather than end, a career. Plagiarism — ask Maureen Dowd or Fareed Zakaria — is an archaic word for a little borrowing, an e-mail confusion, an overzealous research assistant, the complexities of Microsoft Word, or a right-wing gotcha game. To preach against hubris, one must practice hubris.
Why do now live in an age of so many meaningless things?
Our elites in academia and the media have some culpability. Thirty years of nihilist postmodern relativism — no absolute truth, just constructs based on race, class, and gender privilege — have finally filtered down to the popular culture. An obsession with celebrity also has meant that we increasingly worship the antics of the wealthy and famous and decreasingly worry what they had to do to obtain or maintain both.
In the new progressive age, the exalted ends of equality sometimes require that the means of achieving a place on the public stage should remained largely unexamined. If there is no consistency, no transparency, no absolute standard, then it is because the task of fairness is hard and occasionally requires extraordinary sacrifices for the greater good. And to the degree that someone is deemed cool, then cool trumps most everything else: Google executives don’t outsource. Rappers are not misogynists. Green apostles don’t have conflicts of interest. And men in camouflage with assault weapons don’t just kill less than 1 percent of those Americans lost each year to gun violence, but account for all sorts of vastly more evil things that we cannot even begin to describe.