George Burns said…

“Too bad all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair.”

Even God was young once…

I feel this one is especially timely, given that it’s election season, and I wonder what Burns would make of our current media culture. In his day, the amateur wonks were indeed relegated to taxicabs and barbershops, with only a small, captive audience. You endured a rant, perhaps occasionally nodding and grunting to show you’re listening, and then you dash out of the cab or the barbershop as quickly as you can. If you thought of them at all after that experience, it might just be with a rueful shake of the head, muttering, “Some people…”

Today, of course, you can get the same level of ill-informed, vehement political discourse just by turning on a cable news channel. And you don’t even get a haircut out of the bargain.

One of the great things about America is that anyone is allowed to express their opinion about politics. One of the worst things about America is, well, that anyone is allowed to express their opinion about politics. It’s the price we pay for freedom, people. And if we confined it to just those simpler, one-on-one rants, perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad.

In this day and age, though, the ever-hungry 24-hour news cycle needs fresher faces and louder voices, people who will bring in the viewers and bump up the ratings. It doesn’t matter if they have their facts right or if they have any kind of expertise in the topics they’re ranting about. All that matters is that they have a platform from which to speak and an audience that won’t go away. As long as people keep watching them, they must be right. Thus, for every event there is an opinion. For every statement, there is a reaction. No matter how quotidian the non-event might be, someone, somewhere can figure out an angle to get angry from, and the cable news cameras will be more than happy to be there for them.

Of course, Burns’ comment can also be connected to the oft-rephrased quote, my favorite version of which comes from Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” While Yeats was using it as part of his apocalyptic vision, it’s all too true in regular life. The people with experience and knowledge in a certain field are acutely aware of how much they don’t know. Thus, the more you learn, the less certain you can be about everything you think you know, and you make sure to consider your opinions and your statements carefully. On the other hand, people who know very little about a topic often feel like they know everything there is to know. They have a few little facts or an idea that makes sense, and they take it and run with it. And god help anyone who tells them they’re wrong.

We do this because, deep down, we like to believe that we have some handle on what’s going on. We like to believe that there is an order to the universe and that we know what it is. Whether we understand correctly or not is irrelevant. All that is necessary is to say, “I believe,” and leave it at that. The brain will take care of the rest, employing various logical fallacies – confirmation bias among the most useful – to continually remind us that we’re right, regardless of what the evidence might say to the contrary. It takes an effort of will, a decision, to think critically, and it’s a way of thinking that you must carry on all your life. It’s work, and it carries not only the responsibility to back up your statements, but the risk that you might have been wrong all the time. Some people – a lot of people – can’t handle that kind of responsibility and risk, and so go on in the belief that what little they know is really all they need to know.

Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal found a great way to express the phenomenon as well:


We’ve all been there, and I think if he were alive today, Burns would approve of the idea.

John Quincy Adams said…

“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Maybe not, but those are the eyes of a man who’s seen monsters.


All right – no more of this fancy-schmancy psychological navel-gazing! Let’s get into the realm of history, international relations and American imperialism!

John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States and the son of the second President, John Adams said this (or at least a variation of it) in his 4th of July address, 1821, as one line in a mercifully short speech on American foreign policy. The speech itself is to answer the question, “What has America done for the world?” – a pretty big question for a country just over thirty years old.

In the speech, Adams tells all who would listen that America stands for freedom and liberty, both for herself and others. Wherever people stand for equality and freedom, America will stand with them. Wherever people struggle for the basic rights that are the birthright of all mankind, they can look to America to lend its approval and best wishes. “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled,” he says, “there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.”

But she’s not planning on getting herself involved.

Adams, like many modern Americans, had quite high regard for the influence of the United States, but believed that if we were to start stepping into conflicts that did not concern us, we “might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….” We would be too powerful, too influential, in we would inevitably start imposing our will upon the wills of nations. This speech told of a careful neutrality, America as a cheerleader, but not as a player.

This was an interesting position to take, given the rabid expansionism of the United States, its complete disregard of the independence of the Native Americans, and the fact that Adams had a hand in one of the ballsiest moves ever pulled off by an emerging nation: the Monroe Doctrine, which told Europe to stay the hell out of our goddamned hemisphere. It seems that when Adams spoke of not interfering with other nations, he was assuming that everyone knew the nations to our north and south were exempt. To his credit, Adams didn’t do any invading, or even a whole lot of meddling, but despite this speech, he had a hand in creating the political and cultural conditions for future presidents to meddle to their hearts’ content.

Andrew Jackson. Not pictured: The giant barrel of oak-aged, double-distilled, fine Tennessee crazy.

And that’s the rub of it, really. I think Adams wanted to believe it was true, but he probably knew in his heart that it was a naive dream. For example, he was more generous to the Native Americans than most, but I’m sure he took one look at Andrew Jackson’s face during the campaign and thought, “Those people are screwed.” And in his speech, he spoke of “…equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights,” knowing full well that there were millions of people in the United States who had none of those things.

Perhaps Adams wanted an America that was influential, but not powerful – at least not in the sense that we usually understand power. He wanted America to stand apart from the constant warring that tore Europe apart every decade or so, and for good reason. We could be an example to others, something to look towards and aspire to, but we wouldn’t go around remaking nations in our image. The world would certainly be a different place if he had gotten his wish.

But the truth is, as we all know, America is a rabid monster-hunter. We make Van Helsing look like the neighborhood welcome wagon. The world has no shortage of monsters, and America is more than willing to go out and destroy them.

Perhaps it was easier back in 1821, when the world was bigger. With the Atlantic Ocean between us and Europe, it was easier to look out and see it as a barrier that was not worth surmounting. The affairs of Europe wouldn’t touch us over here, so we were safe to lend our moral support as we saw fit.

In the last nearly two centuries, of course, the world has become so much smaller. America cannot afford to let some monsters live anymore, and so we go after them. Our nation isn’t as self-sustainable as it once was, so the well-being of other countries is more in our interest now. We cannot simply cheerlead, but we rather must give aid. That does backfire, of course, and has done so very many times. But the underlying principle that Adams states in that speech and in that line is still sound: we aren’t indiscriminate hunters on the international stage. We get involved when we feel it is in our interest, and when we think it will leave the world a better place. We’re not always right, but we at least mean well. Usually.

Though I suspect Adams, were he able to look at the last 200 years of American history, wouldn’t see it quite the same way we do.