“There’s something rotten in the state of America.” Rather than Shakespeare, these words were written by Dick Meyer, the editorial director of digital media at National Public Radio and the author of a controversial new book about contemporary America entitled “Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the new Millenium”.
Meyer blames American discontent on what he calls the “one two punch” of the dramatic social and moral transformation of the Sixties and the equally revolutionary transformation of the digital revolution over the last ten years. Reminding us that the average American spends 9 ½ hours each day (yes, that’s nine and a half hours every day) consuming informational technology, Meyer argues that US media’s narcissism and hypocrisy has created a mood of low self-esteem and self-loathing in Americans -- “a crisis of phoniness, demonization, belligerence and Balkanization”.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote that the revolutionary consequences of the industrial revolution were so unsettling that “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Meyer believes that today’s digital media upheaval is having an equally alchemical impact on the cultural certainties of traditional American life. Today’s information revolution, he believes preys on the rootless, creating an ocean of “lost, frazzled and overloaded” Americans. Meyer puts the consequences into a memorable equation:
“Social change plus technology revolution equals American brain goes boom.”
It’s the ubiquitous anger that most worries Meyer. “Americans are down on America,” he tells us. Everyone in America has become a screaming version of Howard “I’m as mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Beale (played by Peter Finch), the deranged newscaster in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 movie, Network. Today’s American media is a toxic wasteland of furious Internet users, anti-social cell-phone talkers, whinging bloggers, screaming talk radio callers and thumb-pumping BlackBerry users. This collective anger is both a cause and effect of American discontent. The more media Americans consume, the more they hate themselves and the angrier they become; the more they hate themselves, they more they turn to media as an outlet to vent their anger.
What is really worrying about Meyer’s prognosis is that it was written before last week’s Wall Street melt-down. So he doesn’t see all the anger in America as having any real foundations and suggests that Americans have an exaggerated perspective of their own “precariousness”. But, reading Why We Hate Us today – with the American financial system teetering on the precipice of complete destruction – is truly terrifying. After all, what happens to American discontent in the new millenium if and when last week’s Wall Street Crash 2.0 metastasizes into next year’s Great Depression 2.0? How will an already mad-as-hell America react to an economic crisis that could unemploy and impoverish tens of millions of its hitherto prosperous citizens?
Dick Meyer is right. There is indeed something rotten in America today. And it could get worse, much much worse. Economic meltdown plus social change plus technological upheaval could add up to one furiously belligerent America. The world needs to take note. If the American brain really does go boom, it will bust not just America, but also the rest of the planet.