The new meanness


One of the most popular shows on television is CBS' "Two and a Half Men". And I've often wondered at its popularity.

It is a very well-written and acted show, as far as it goes. But if you watch it for any length of time, you come away with a wretched taste in your mouth. It is, without a doubt, a show with characters who have no redeeming qualities. Everyone is gleefully mean to everyone else, reveling in cutting barbs and casual humiliation. Obviously, it's a comedy painted in broad strokes, as sitcoms normally are. However, if you watch it on your local station in reruns before the prime time schedule comes on, you'll be forgiven for wondering why anyone should give a damn about what happens to any of the show's characters.

And yet, for more than a decade it has been one of the most popular shows on television. Before Charlie Sheen melted down, he was the highest paid actor on TV thanks to it. Millions of people tune in to watch a weekly display of dysfunction so severe that suspension of disbelief becomes increasingly difficult.

Obviously, you can't judge an entire culture by the popularity of one television show. But here is another data point. Bloomberg has an article helpfully entitled "Obamacare Shows How Americans Are Becoming Jerks". From the piece:
What's clear is that the shifting views on health care predate the Affordable Care Act. The number of Americans who think health care is the government's responsibility hovered around two-thirds for the first half of the 2000s, peaking at 69 percent in 2006. Then those numbers started falling, hitting 50 percent in 2010 and 42 percent this year.

The shrinkage of American generosity during that period wasn't just about health care. The onset of the recession corresponded with a change in public opinion on a range of issues, and in most cases the effect was to make Americans less caring about others.

Starting in 2007, the portion of Americans who said the government should guarantee every person enough to eat and a place to sleep started falling, from 69 percent to 59 percent last year. People who said the government should help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt, fell from 54 percent to 43 percent over the same period.

The Great Recession was a gut check to a nation which had been promised, since the end of the Cold War, that "history was over". Life would be one continual economic boom, and people could just go about their lives in splendid apathy. In that kind of environment it was easy to be for national healthcare, help to the homeless, aid to the poor, and other altruistic programs. Even during the height of Republican dominance in the G.W. Bush years, Americans felt more charitable towards their fellow citizens.

Ever since the near-collapse of the economy, though, Americans have retrenched. A frightened meanness and selfishness seems to be the norm. Instead of banding together and helping each other out, as President Obama continually encourages people to do, we retreat to our corners, guard what's ours, prepare for the worst. Another example of this in popular culture is the wide popularity of "doomsday prepper" shows, with paranoiacs preparing for all sorts of apocalyptic scenarios, ready to defend what's "theirs" with violence when the government and social order inevitably fail. Unspoken is the thought that if the preppers spent their time becoming part of their communities and working for the common good rather than preparing for Armageddon, then perhaps The End wouldn't come to pass. But, as seems to be the current currency, fear and paranoia sell more than optimism and common purpose.

The country is getting meaner. And it's no coincidence that it's getting meaner at the same time that there is a man in the White House whose entire message is that we are each others' keepers. The previous Administration so betrayed the peoples' trust that anyone coming with a message of compassion (remember "compassionate conservatism"?) is seen as suspect. They're simply more flowery words, and won't stop the next economic collapse.

But they're more than words. President Obama has matched words with dogged action. From the auto bailout to ACA to pushing for immigration reform, he's done the work to, eventually, ease people's fears. Yes, the Great Recession was a splash of ice water in the face of a complacent electorate. And it's obvious that enough of that electorate believes in Obama's message to have elected him twice. Yet too many of our fellow citizens have yet to recover from the economic meltdown; they trust nothing and no one, seeing a hostile world out to crush them. Any move to make the country more just they see as a "handout" to "those people". As many of them as possible need to be reached; the 27% will always be against anything that smacks of humanity; but the country cannot function if a large minority is dead set against it.

The new meanness exists, and it's strong, but nothing says that it's destined to win. The race we're in isn't a sprint; it isn't even a marathon; it's an endurance race across trackless wastes, which requires every ounce of strength and resourcefulness. But if we're to have a human life, it's one we must win.

Turn off the culture which promotes fear and casual cruelty. Go out into your community. Meet your neighbors. Talk about what everyone needs. It's the only way anything good ever happens.