Monday, November 5, 2012

Post No. 181: The Most Deadly Mental Illness in America

© 2012, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

We’re not fans of CBS’ 60 Minutes, because we’re not fans of folks who let their values dictate their thought processes. In our view, one’s analysis of issues ought to be a thing apart from one’s values. For us, the presentation of news ought to be as value free as humanly possible. The 60 Minutes folks rarely ask the logical, follow-up question in the pursuit of balance.

But last night was different. First Senators Harry Reid (Democrat) and Mitch McConnell (Republican) sat side by side while being interviewed. They provided their views as to the source of gridlock in Congress. Nothing new came out of the discussion; however, we gained some perspective through the second guest.

David McCullough is an award-winning American historian who has written numerous books, including those on Presidents Adams (John), Lincoln, Roosevelt (Teddy), and Truman. He was initially interviewed in his 8’ x 10’ office in the back of his Cape Cod home, where we saw him hunting and pecking on a turn–of-the-last century manual typewriter. When asked why he preferred the relic over a computer, he quipped, “I don’t like to hit a button and see a month’s work disappear.”

Per McCullough, despite complaints today there is nothing new about extreme partisanship and personal attacks. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, national candidates branded each other thieves and common criminals. One even accused his opponent of being a hermaphrodite. (Fortunately, we did not have cameras, or we suspect that the foundational photo would have gone viral.)

The Good Historian also reminded us that there is nothing new about a country feeling it is in a state of decline. While he was a kid, McCullough’s Father always voted Republican. Following the election of Truman in 1948, his Father was absolutely certain the U.S. would become a third-rate power.

Years later, the Elder McCullough would quietly say, “I sure wish we had old Harry back….”

Upon leaving Cape Cod, instead of moving the camera to Washington, the interview transitioned to Independence Hall and other historic locations in Philadelphia. The men who sat in the room, where the new governance model was invented, feared for their lives since they realized that their discussions were treasonous. According to McCullough, they even closed the windows of the building during the heat of the summer of 1787, out of concern that there might be eavesdroppers.

In thinking about it further, perhaps we’re giving the 60 Minutes folks too much credit for this broadcast. It was really McCullough who brought clarity and a sense of historical perspective regarding this very toxic environment.

And maybe we’re overly complimentary of McCullough’s comments, since he managed to succinctly state in a phrase something which we have felt but have had difficulty articulating in 4-1/2 years of blogging.

Paraphrasing McCullough, what is most troubling about politics now, particularly with the tons of money being spent, is that there is, “a dearth of ideas.”

At an earlier point in our existence, when the Institute was located in one region of the U.S., we’d assemble people with varying points of view and from different disciplines, and after working together, folks would say, “Let’s give it a try.”

In another, we’d go through the same process, and people would find every imaginable objection and complication leading to a state where nothing was done.

The toxicity in the air can be significantly traced to our national attitude. It’s not as though it is totally unreasonable. There are a couple of factors contributing to this zeitgeist.

1) Uncertainty - we’re no longer secure in our role as top dog. Osama bin Laden did a lot to foster that mood - he bit us in the ass and globalization has further contributed to it; and

2) We’ve lost our edge educationally and technologically (and we know it). We rode the coat-tails of our prior triumphs for far too long. Today, too many kids (through the power of the Internet and electronic media) want to be entertainers and athletes, and play in reality TV shows, not scientists, engineers, and inventors.There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with the former; but everything in the Universe is about proportion and timing, and technology drives everything.

Right now, the Randle Patrick McMurphys of the world are running the institution. We need Nurse Ratched back, to shock us to our senses, with the assistance of the college students of today.

We’re not generally ones to pine for practices of the past, opting instead to come up with new approaches. But this might be, like our praise of 60 Minutes, one time where we make an exception, and revert back to some of our past practices infused with youthful ideas.

(You can view Part 2 of McCullough’s interview next Sunday, November 11, 2012.)


  1. I also watched 60 Minutes and found the interview with McCullough informative and reassuring in the sense that not much has changed in political diatribe. It is reassuring because on balance I think elections have probably turned out pretty well anyway. I would, however, like to see some serious effort to remedy the situations that allow candidates to lie profusely and clearly without any worry of consequences. I believe actions do have consequences--apparently everywhere but politics.
    Good article!

  2. Thanks Dan.

    There was some reassurance in listening to McCullough's comments. However, what is clearly different today is the technology permitting the literal instantaneous and wide dissemination of stuff. That did not exist in an earlier day. Philadelphia natives may have heard negative statements about a candidate in earlier times, but it would have taken months for a newspaper, poster, or pamphlet to make its way across several states.

    We have lots of entities that purport to be "fact checkers." What if some bipartisan commission assessed fines for various degrees of dishonesty, and the candidates had to agree to be bound by the commission's findings in order to run?

  3. You could probably make adherence to being a candidate at the state level, though you might see a legal battle over the definition of national or state/local for senator and representative. I doubt you could do it at the national level, possibly for constitutional reasons (I need to do some research on that). I think we ran into that issue regarding term limits.

  4. Interestingly, we just ran across an article suggesting that there are biological differences between the brains of liberals and conservatives. We proceeded to the website for the seminal source, Current Biology, and were unable to locate the specific article referenced quickly; however it does not strike us outside the range of biological logic and we will continue to read the various articles about research at University College London. Jonathan Haidt has also written about the psychological differences between the two groups, and we'll try to hunt down his latest piece.

  5. Thanks for the leg work Douglas. We do not always have the time to further research issues raised. Additionally, your point about examining "new stuff" with a critical eye is noteworthy.

  6. Today, too many kids want to be stock brokers and investment bankers, not scientists, engineers, and inventors.

    There, I fixed that for you.

    The Wall Street brain drain is well-documented and many articles have been written about it, whereas I don't see any real evidence that more "kids today" want to be on that darned newfangled televisual contraption than before.


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