I’ve recently gotten into Mike and Mike on ESPN Radio, Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic’s sports-talk morning show. Now that I’m driving into work every day, it’s been my regular morning listen in the car. Earlier this week, they were discussing the report about the health violations at America’s sports venues. Greenberg was bothered by it, but Golic, their in-studio guest, and the vast majority of people writing emails into the show were largely ambivalent. Most people had the attitude that they’d rather not know what goes on on the other side of that counter. As long as the nachos taste ok, it doesn’t matter if there’d been rat feces in the box or if the employees didn’t wash their hands.
After listening to it, it made me realize that there’s an interesting parallel between that and how Americans in general have reacted to two far bigger news stories. The first was the Washington Post’s impressive expose of America’s bloated and disorganized intelligence bureaucracy that’s developed since 9/11. The second was the revealing of tens of thousands of secret documents on the progress of the war in Afghanistan.
Both of these stories are of huge importance. America’s expanding intelligence bureaucracy has no oversight, no organization, and is so unwieldy it does more to keep us from identifying and stopping actual terrorist threats than it does to actually stop them. The war in Afghanistan has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster for a number of years. It has no clear goal, no clear path to any improvement, and no easy way for us to get ourselves out without leaving behind a terrible situation.
But by and large, Americans shrugged off both stories. No one marched on the Capitol demanding that we stop wasting so much money on our various intelligence gathering operations. And Congressmen and Congresswomen who will mostly be re-elected in November dutifully voted to continue funding our occupation of Afghanistan, despite the fact that the public was reminded yet again that elements within Pakistan’s own intelligence services are actively supporting our enemy; and that the longer we stay there and keep killing civilians, the more we destabilize the region and minimize our influence.
Both of these stories (and the administration’s attempts to lash out at Wikileaks for releasing the documents) are certainly part of a pattern. The government, in its publicly stated desire to give Americans security, are doing so – whether foolishly or disingenuously – by following a totalitarian impulse. By believing that the normal mechanisms that restrain governments are a threat in and of themselves, we’ve allowed ourselves to go down a path towards an environment where government can’t be restrained at all. Students of history and those who’ve lived in other parts of the world understand the value of resisting this, but America still unfortunately has too many people who are neither.
As a result, we’ve reacted to these stories with a shrug and a “why should I care?” To a great extent, we’ve lost something that used to be central to American culture. The world has become so small and our view of its many complexities so all-encompassing, that far too many of us have become believers in predestination over free will. The idea that we have the power to affect changes has given way to a belief that we have no real control over the vast array of forces around us. The only thing that seems to trigger the opposite impulse is a terrorist attack or anything else that might kill us. That gets us off the couch and screaming for action, but it’s still not enough to get us angry when that action isn’t the right one. We’ve conceded our ability to control anything less than blindly allowing our government to do whatever it wants when it comes to fighting terrorism.
And that’s creating a major distortion in our ability to deal with what actually threatens us. The way that we’re responding to terrorism – by wasting trillions of dollars on futile wars and on vast government bureaucracies that inefficiently gobble up all of our communications – will actually harm us far more than any unstable religious fanatic with a grudge against American foreign policy ever will. And of course, the more American foreign policy follows a totalitarian mindset without Americans giving a fuck, the more unstable religious fanatics there will be with a grudge against our foreign policy. The money spent on that never worries us in the same way that money spent on safety regulations or infrastructure or education worries us. Even though that’s the kind of stuff that’s far more likely to affect us.
But as long as the nachos don’t kill us, we’ll keep buying them.