Cook: The United States of P.T. Barnum

Cook: The United States of P.T. Barnum

October 8th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Twenty years from now, we will look back at this type of hostage-taking, shutdown politics as the first step in which such political cannibalism became normal.

Today, of course, we are aghast, angry and impatient at the gross abnormality of it all. Yet time will pass, and what was once seen as obscene will one day be ordinary and uneventful. Today's shutdown will be tomorrow's back page news.

Because no one will prescribe any correction to prevent this from happening over and over and over.

Because no correction exists, here in the United States of the Extreme.

We may be the most dichotomous country on Earth. Our highs are nose-bleed high and our lows are so very low; like an hourglass, we populate either end, with little room in the middle for the things that matter most.

Like a middle class. Or manners, common ground, respect.

The greatest nation on Earth also isn't. The center is barely holding in America; in his 2007 "Blessed Unrest," Paul Hawken lists all the ways in which the United States leads all developed and many developing countries:

Drug use. Teen pregnancies. Hazardous waste production. Use of antidepressants. Prison population. Child hunger. Obesity. Death by firearms. Recorded rapes. Military spending. Poverty. Illiteracy. School quality."The United States is the only country in the world besides Iraq where schools need metal detectors," Hawken writes.

It should come as no surprise then that in such a land of extremes, a small minority of politicians can dismantle Washington over political difference. Yet the shutdown is not an out-of-nowhere asteroid, crashing to earth. It is the fruit of a warped tree that has many branches.

"Perhaps the problems we're experiencing are the culmination of an education system that fails to educate its children," said Dr. Ken Chilton, professor at Tennessee State University.

When we over-test our children, we crowd out any time to cultivate the lifeblood of democracy: civics, active citizenship and critical thinking. These are the arenas by which we learn how to think, debate and listen with intelligence, grace and wisdom. We become Americans through civics, not MTV.

Civics ought to be a required course every year of school; students should move on to the next grade only after they have repeatedly passed the same citizenship test given to naturalizing immigrants.

"The education establishment is complicit in creating a P.T. Barnum society," said Chilton, the former head of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

A P.T. Barnum society is spectacle-heavy, a land where twerking and Ted Cruz get the limelight, and thinking for one's self is discouraged. A poll from several years ago showed that far more Americans could name the five Simpsons than the five freedoms in the First Amendment.

Which brings us to another culprit: Big Media.

"There's a direct connection between the shutdown and hyperbolic, partisan journalistic outlets driven more by profits than the search for truth," reads David Rohde's Atlantic essay "How the broken media helped break the government."

The 24-hour news cycle has destroyed truth and objectivity in the name of ratings and breaking news spectacle. Rohde, for kicks, recently spent several prime-time hours switching between Fox and MSNBC.

Hosts on the latter called Republicans "wacko-birds" and "crazy," "birthers" and "frauds."

Hosts on the former called Harry Reid a "sick, twisted old man." Another said the Affordable Care Act -- whoops, I mean Obamacare -- was so sick with problems "it was pretty much impossible to list them all."

"Over the course of the night, Fox made more exaggerated claims and out-of-context statements," Rohde said. "But theatrics, demonization, and smugness reigned on both networks."

We're stuck between a circus and a shutdown.

And I can't quit thinking of Ronald Reagan's forehead.

It was 1981, and President Reagan had just been shot. Then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill came to see his political enemy in the hospital. Then, in a gesture almost unimaginable by today's standards, O'Neill knelt by Reagan's bedside, and the two recited the 23rd Psalm.

Then, O'Neill kissed Reagan's forehead.

(This story comes, ironically, from Chris Matthews' new book "Tip and the Gipper.")

Can you imagine this today? Boehner reading Psalms with the President? Harry Reid kissing the forehead of a Tea Party Republican?

We'd better start.

Because without a vision for such things, we the people will perish, and the extremists will inherit America.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.