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Introversion and...

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The millennial generation that Johnson describes toward the end of The Best of Times was remarkably uninterested in government. One Stanford senior told Johnson, “A lot of our generation feels we’re doing so well now, and America’s succeeding in so many ways, that there’s not anything you feel charged to change at this point.”

It was a belief that was almost certainly not confined to the young: the sense that government was, in the end, pretty irrelevant, just another show. It now sounds like the most self-indulgent myth from the 90's.

The encouraging news? The American people didn’t buy the media hype. Johnson defines the schism among Beltway Washington, the media, and the American public: “From beginning to end,” Johnson writes, “the American people display great maturity and sound judgment as they assess the scandal being reported so incessantly and excessively. And from the beginning, the overwhelming public reaction stands in stark contrast to the view of the scandal as reported form the political insiders of Washington.”

But there was a lot of immaturity in the group if truth from a baby boomers perspective be known. Despite all of what Johnson says about America she projected unusual symbols into the world cultures. Symbols the others pondered. Symbols she never really understood herself or even realized she was creating. So other cultures studied and learned about her symbols while she came to be more and more oblivious to them. Had the toxin powers of products and symbols finally overtaken American culture? In many ways, the growing “battle of symbols” contained the answer.

The international posture of America in the 90s was an extension of these domestic trends. In an era of excess, introversion and overproduction America had little interest in pulling itself away from its narcissistic trance into the mirror of its own culture. There seemed renewed echoes of Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism updated into perhaps a bright genre of New Millennium Edition.

But America had created a type of “grand glass house” visible by all the world but invisible to those inside the “glass house.” It was the usual problem with this grand culture of symbols. Always broadcasting out the grand symbols into the growing world culture. Yet seeing (or willing to see) the way the others might view the grand “glass house.”

It was one way-transmission of symbols. Others in the world were receiving the symbols but America received few symbols back from the world. Especially the Islamic world which must have been fueled to a sense of anger with these symbols of America they pulled down via American films and television programs through satellite dishes and scratchy radio broadcasts over radios.

After all, truth be known, most Americans are not too happy about their behavior and the behavior of their nation in the 90s. Was it all just a bad dream? Is the collective consciousness of the culture maybe waking up from some bad LSD (or make that Ecstasy nowadays) trip in the 90s in some type of Freudian group reawakening fantasy?

So, you can be sure that a lot of other people in the world got the symbols from America of the 90s. Only in the abbreviated form featuring our top daily soap operas, afternoon talk/confrontation television like Jerry Springer, the worst we had to offer (the most channels) from Hollywood. Can America blame the rise in fundamentalist Islam and the si-called “third world” dislike of America?

I was starting to think it wasn’t a very likeable place, this country I had once loved so very much. I could start to understand why others might hate it. But, at the same time, I could also begin to feel a love for this strange old land of mine.

God I hated her but at the same time I loved her so very much. I had hated her before. But I don’t think I had ever loved her so much. I could suddenly feel how others outside our own cultural gravity might feel about our culture.

The effect was ironic. At a time when America’s grand rival of Russian communism fell and the nation rose to unprecedented world power, Americans had an unprecedented lack of interest in world affairs.

The political introversion of America in the 90s is captured eloquently by one of America’s greatest historians David Halberstam in War in the Time of Peace (Scribners, 2001). In an era when Americans were feeling fat and happy at home and the nation at the pinnacle of its power, there was a reluctance to commit itself abroad. For Clinton, always close to the public pulse, Halberstam notes that foreign policy was “an inconvenience, something that might pull him away from his primary job at hand - domestic issues, above all the economy.” Clinton learned that even successful wars like the Persian Gulf War paid back little political gain in an increasingly self-indulgent culture. It was a lesson Clinton did not forget.

Even moral wars like Bosnia were unable to attract attention of an introverted nation. Washington preferred not to think about the big issues involved. Halberstam notes that senior members of the State Department did not want to know about Serbian atrocities such as the systematic execution of Muslim leaders, the detention of Muslim men in concentration camps and the rape of Muslim women.

Halberstam argues that the media helped America buy its head in the sand. As newspapers were exposing the Serbian atrocities, experienced war correspondents languished in their European bureaus, unable to get pocket change from their superiors to travel to Bosnia. All of this fit into Clinton’s belief that the American people were not eager to know about the persecution of minorities abroad.

The introverted domestic focus led to increasing cuts in overseas news bureaus. Veteran foreign correspondent Nina Burleigh confirms this cut-back in foreign news. Burleigh, who has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and New York magazine, was among the first American journalists to enter Iraq after the Gulf War as a reporter for Time magazine. Writing on the Web site TomPaine.Common Sense in October of 2001 an article titled “Forgetting Foreign Affairs” she observes:

Foreign news cutbacks are not a recent phenomenon. National newspapers and magazines have shut scores of overseas bureaus in recent years. The cutbacks not only save money for the bean-counters but reflect an editorial decision-making process that judges Americans’ need to know based on focus groups. This tool of advertisers and political consultants has declared that ‘serving the public’ means more stories about cars, celebrities and cures that don’t involve pain. Forget foreign affairs.

The result of this is another aspect of America’s one-way transmission of symbols. The effects are disparaging. As Burleigh says, “The foreign news blackout means that the rest of the world knows far more about America than we know about ourselves, let alone what we know about them. And this triumph of ignorance means that Americans can’t even comprehend what motivates those who hate us.”

This lack of interest in Arab affairs Nina Burleigh experienced as a freelance journalist went far beyond the glossy, fashion magazines. As she notes, “The television networks, newspapers and magazines have all been cutting back on foreign coverage for years. A few months ago, one of the nation’s biggest news magazines cut loose a group of reporters, among whom was their most experienced Middle East war hand.”

As a result of these years of diminishing foreign news coverage, Burleigh says America entered the terrorist crisis in a perilous “knowledge vacuum” with little chance of things improving:

Sadly, we have no indication that Bush’s advisors are any more informed on the complexities of the Arab region than the general population. Their public statements don't show it. And it doesn’t look like the American media is poised to shed much light either as we enter darker days.

Consequently, as Burleigh concludes, Americans have little to go on to assess Osama bin Laden, his followers, the Arab people, and the states that (we are told by the President) harbor the terror networks. “The White House would have the public believe that we’re hated because we are the land of the free,” she says. “If only the current state of affairs were so simple.”

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