Ask A Genius 386 – New Normals or Decay of Culture
September 18, 2018
[Beginning of recorded material]
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Is Trump the new normal or not? A huge conversation between us preceded the recording today.
Rick Rosner: I will not have definitive answers to several of the questions here: is Trump an anomaly in American political history? Are politicians after Trump going to be Trumpish?
A related question: is depravity or salaciousness in popular culture part of an expanded arena of art? Or is it decadence that indicates the decay of our culture? Before you started taping, you and I were discussing the relative war criminality of Bush 43, the younger one, and Obama.
Bush 43lied us into the Iraq War, which led to the deaths of between 300,000 and even a 1,000,000 Iraqis and other people across the Middle East. You argued. I was persuaded. Obama was pretty killy to the point of committing a lot of war crimes in a destabilized Middle East with the drone policy, with screwing up in Libya with Qaddafi.
But neither of them compare in terms of horribleness potential to Trump. Trump has only been in office less than 2 years, so had less than 8 years of either Bush 43 or Trump. So, he hasn’t had the opportunity to mess up the Middle East.
But he has already been pretty killy. He loosened the rules of engagement for taking on ISIS, which led to increased civilian deaths. But the two pretty previous presidents were responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.
Our discussion with Obama giving a speech coming out against Trump and the Republicans saying that they are corrupt and interested only in maintaining power at the expense of traditional American values.
Him being that explicit is a new thing. While both his predecessor Bush 43 and Obama himself can be considered overly killy, to the point of being considered war criminals, especially from viewpoints outside the US, you are outside the US, Scott.
Obama stands up for a return to political morality. We can hope that he still has enough influence over much of America. That he will get people to turn out for the mid-term elections, which are now in 59 or 60 days from now.
We are hoping the Democrats win the house to put some breaks on the out of control White House and the thoroughly corrupt and compromised Republicans holding public office now, and high state office – governorships and controlling state houses and gerrymandering their states to give Republicans an unfair advantage in elections.
Anyway, I remember in the late 1960s and early 1970s reading a couple of science fiction novels, in particular, Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. Both by John Brunner. They present near futures about 20 years from then, where you had a president who is an idiot figurehead. A good-looking man who stood for nothing and did dumb stuff.
There’s actually historical precedent. Warren Harding was elected because he was a good-looking guy and among our worst presidents in the 1920s. Super corrupt and super incompetent, he died 2.5 years into office, I think, limiting the damage he did, but still damage.
He was elected on the basis of being handsome. In the 1980s, we had Reagan, whether you agree with him or not, who had actual substance and a political substance. You can argue that he, personally, was not super smart.
But he tried to appoint competent people. They fit his Republican philosophy. They were competent and experienced people, even if you did not like their philosophy or actions. He listened to professionals. He got into plenty of trouble.
His professionals got him into the Iran Contra scandals. But Trump is a more pure version of the science fiction vision of a vacuous idiot who is completely at the mercy of corrupt interests.
He is close to the president Camacho in Idiocracy. Plenty of people have, or quite a few people have, predicted vacuous national leadership. For the first time, we have a completely vacuous, amoral, corrupt, and stupid president.
So, the question is: is this just a crazy or one-time disaster? Or are we going to have idiot presidents half or two-thirds of the time until America falls apart? Science fiction writers also like to present futures in which America cannot hold itself together and then splits into several countries.
You could argue that would be the end of America. If America breaks up, that is the end of the American experiment. You could also argue changes. America turning into some crazy dictatorship where people’s rights are violated but no one cares because we are immersed in entertainment.
That would also be a type of end for America. There could be a third and likely end of America. As AI and augmented post-human humanity rises, forces become more powerful relative to the forces of national unity, so that the American national government becomes increasingly irrelevant over the next century.
The new economic and political structures arise that supplant the American governance. There is still an American government, but there are other forces that become much more important relative to an increasingly irrelevant US government.
A related question already posed before. I think of a principle often overlooked and still overlooked. In early science fiction and TV fiction, and movies, people writing about the future during the 1930s through the 1960s, often, presented rational futures.
They had the idea that as technology becomes more powerful and people essentially become smarter with the help of technology that people and civilization become more rational and life becomes cleaner and nicer.
It is the world seen in Star Trek. Where there is not a lot of foolishness, the public spaces occasionally seen with the crew of Enterprise returning to Earth. You see these big open plazas filled with well-dressed citizens. Everybody is behaving.
There is not a lot of floating or no floating advertising. It is not a grubby world. It is a clean-well-ordered world. It is not until Blade Runner in the 1980s where you see a grubby future.
Now, the grubby future is a default science fiction future. A lot of unimaginative crap science fiction takes that model rather than the clean science fiction novel. There is this one-season, probably, show called Altered Carbon set centuries from now.
It has the same rainy streets as Blade Runner and grubby sexualization of everything but more so – to cover for crappy writing and lack of imagination through showing a lot of genitals.
A more well-thought out but not necessarily more accurate presentation is Minority Report. It has a semi-grubby world. A world still plenty grubby, but has some nice parts; that has some public places flooded with advertising.
It floats in the air personally directed through individuals’ information-gathering equipment, e.g., contact lenses, and so on. Then if you look at actual culture, in the 1970s, things were pretty clean.
Bowdlerized, censored, one of the chief examples being The Brady Bunch, which was a completely sanitized version of life. They barely talked about anything. It was a completely harmless, sickeningly sweet sitcom that didn’t address any prurient issues whatsoever.
Now, you have shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There are a lot of filthy shows on television now. The question is whether filth or being able to talk about anything in popular culture.
I’ve been shocked to hear jokes about anal sex and blow jobs showing up in prime time NBC sitcoms. It seems crazy to me that we have come this far since the 70s, 80s, and 90s, when things were clean and censored.
The question is whether this serves a wider artistic service that is part of a better discussion better than the crappy, lazy, and censored 70s or whether this is a reflection of the degradation of our culture akin to the late Imperial Romans being depraved, corrupt, and this weakening their civilization to the point where the Roman Empire fell.
I do not need to go on further. Right now, what has happened in the last couple of years since the rise of Trump, there has been the corruption of American Evangelicals, where 10 years ago 70% of Evangelicals said that politicians’ personal morality mattered.
Now, it is down to 20% of American Evangelicals. 80% is pretty much saying that someone as corrupt as Trump is okay as a leader because he’s scoring wins for the Evangelical side.
To me, that says a pretty much complete moral surrender and corruption of the Evangelicals. An erosion of American political standards. That, I think, we’re at a moment of national political peril.
Then you can circle back to the question of whether the increased decadence or increased filthiness of entertainment is related or not. The increased scope of American entertainment that has given us Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos are considered by many, including me, pretty good pieces of art, occasionally rising to the level of great art.
This is called the “Second Golden Age of TV.” There is a lot of TV that is great. But is the greatness, which includes presenting really jaded views, helping undermine our culture and leading to our downfall?
Let me give one more example, Netflix show called Ozark. Every single character is corrupt and evil to some extent. It is a lazier, lousier, more derivative telling of Breaking Bad with what looks like a typical American family becoming entirely corrupt.
With money laundering and drug cartels, murders, nobody is good, even the youngest boy in the family at 14-years-old becomes a money launderer. It is not art. It is a default thing. It is one show, where everybody is terrible.
The end. That’s enough.
[End of recorded material]
American Television Writer
Scott Douglas Jacobsen
Editor-in-Chief, In-Sight Publishing
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