Guest Essay: What Ails Us

Reading time – 5:55  .  .  .

David Norman is a truly gifted executive coach and a good friend. He is also an erudite cynic, although he doesn’t use the word “erudite” to describe himself. Of course, that’s misplaced humility, because he’s an informed and insightful guy. And as you’ll see, he does use the word “cynic” to describe himself and does so quite deliberately.

He is a careful analyst of reality and has offered the essay that follows. Read his comments with your best critical thinking, because this is a challenge that we are going to have to face. To quote Gene Kranz, Mission Director of the imperiled Apollo XIII flight, “Failure is not an option.”


First, and as a backdrop, I see myself as a cynic, at least in George Bernard Shaw’s estimation: “The power of accurate observation is called cynicism by those who don’t have it” (The World). It is from this perspective that I opine.

Well known is:

In 1920, H.L. Mencken wrote in the Baltimore Sun, “Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” 

This was quite prescient, especially considering it was written some 96 years ago.

Lesser known, but often being quoted following Trump’s election:

In this 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman critically examines TV and how, in his basic thesis, it has negatively affected the level of public discourse. In the foreword, Postman examines two dystopian visions, Orwell, in 1984, and Huxley, in Brave New World, who depicted a population too amused by distractions to realize that they had been made powerless. In Chapter 9, “Reach Out and Elect Someone,” Postman examines how political elections have simply become a battle of advertisements, in which candidates develop images meant to work in the same way that commercials do, by offering an abstract image of what the public feels it lacks. “As a result, people no longer vote what is best for them, but rather vote what they are told they lack in their lives” [emphasis added]. Postman ends his work with “The Huxleyan Warning,” in which he returns to the basic premise that Aldous Huxley was right; i.e., that we are too amused by distractions to realize we have been made powerless (excerpts from here).

Amusing Ourselves to Death was published 32 years ago.

One Other Major Influence:

Ronald Reagan, in 1987, eliminated the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented.

It is not a coincidence that Fox News was started nine years later by Roger Ailes, ex-media consultant for Reagan, Nixon, and others.

Putting it Together:

The U.S. Population, as a whole, has become desensitized and avoids asking piercing, thought-provoking questions, choosing instead to be led (by the nose ring, as it were) by a TV “talking head” of their preference, one or more who support our limited world view (yet, interestingly enough, we don’t even realize that “our world view” is limited!). We listen, we accept and believe. As a population, we can’t parse actual reality from “reality TV.” Not only do we not turn against TV, we actually become further hijacked by “technologies” (as Postman describes TV, even before social media, and worship the words. Facts or alternative facts; it really doesn’t matter. “It” was said on TV; therefore, it is perceived as the truth.

[Quick sidebar: (1) Last year in my role as an executive coach, one business owner stated outright to me, “I hate my wife.” While shocked at the force and brevity of the statement, I asked several open-ended questions to get at the substance. In short, his wife, a stay-at-home-mom, would watch Fox News all day, live in her social media tribes into the late hours and “come to bed angry” every night. (2) Almost five weeks later, another business owner, in our coaching session, said, “I hate my wife .  .  .”  Identical reasons as stated above. Note: Two different wives!  But what a coincidence from a small population, my client base. And how illustrative of our TV-guided mounting anger.]

So, What Does This All Mean Now?

We should not have been surprised by the election results, but we (read that as, my wife and I) were shocked.

My contention and belief is simple: as a population we are not doing any critical thinking. Note that The Texas GOP, in their 2012 platform, “opposed the teaching of Higher Order Thinking (HOTS) .  .  .” We wouldn’t want our citizenry asking critical questions, would we? Yet people are not incapable of learning; many simply refuse to be informed – a willing and perhaps gleeful ignorance, if you will. I do believe, as does Postman, that we have dumbed-down American citizenry to a point that “they” (the ubiquitous, “they”) sit slack jawed, empty-minded in front of the TV believing that (1) Survivor is real, and, (2) listening to those “talking heads” who support their limited view of the world, thereby simply amplifying the noise and static in their heads and anger in their gut.

If, however, you are willing to learn and be informed, and have critical thinking skills (and, apparently, not associated with the Texas GOP), then you could not have mentally transposed Trump’s pre-election rhetoric and proven, egregious behavior into a possibility of him being successful as president. In the run-up to the election I simply dismissed his election as a non-plausible circumstance – it simply couldn’t happen in the U.S., I said multiple times out loud, “Don’t worry, I have more faith in our population.” Yikes! Yet, the signs were in front of me/us all the time, and was I ever fooled.

In summary, and to paraphrase Postman, we have dumbed-down ourselves to death, and have doomed ourselves to have an Orange-Marmoset-On-Head-In-Chief (OMOHIC), armed with Twitter as a megaphone, encouraged by White Supremacists (Bannon and Miller) as earwigs and backed up by three generals as Next-Line-in-Charge.

This is the fire under the boiling cauldron of today’s politics.

Throw into this cauldron an evil witches brew of a public that is increasingly vengeful, fragmented, scared, voiceless and hateful (as not only encouraged by, but also condoned by our OMOHIC). Flavor the mixture with a heavy dose of legislative and, to a certain degree, judiciary dysfunction. What possibly could go wrong?

How could this cauldron of acidic, epic ingredients not boil over into national and/or international conflict?

What’s your answer that question?

“Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.” Joseph de Maistre

Tighten your seat belt; this will be quite a ride!


Ed. comments:

Following the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre told us over 200 years ago:

“Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.”

“Every nation gets the government it deserves.”

What government do we in America deserve? Have we done the work of citizenship that is required for a representative democracy to function well for the people? As you’ve seen, our guest essayist suggests we have not. Roger Cohen agrees.

I entitled this offering What Ails Us because it is insufficient to swat at the symptoms of our dysfunction; we must deal with what is causing our national ailing. Don’t imagine for even a moment that Donald Trump is what ails us. He is a symptom, an unavoidable outcome of what we Americans together have put in motion. Figuring this out and repairing it will require critical thinking from everyone, including citizens of Texas, and especially including you. Share your best thinking below.


Ed. note: There is much in America that needs fixing and we are on a path to continually fail to make things better. It is my goal to make a difference – perhaps to be a catalyst for things to get better. That is the reason for these posts. To accomplish the goal requires reaching many thousands of people and a robust dialogue.

YOUR ACTION STEPS: Offer your comments below and pass this along to three people, encouraging them to subscribe and engage.  Thanks!  JA

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4 Responses to Guest Essay: What Ails Us
  1. dominickpalella Reply

    As you stated Jack, “The U.S. Population, as a whole, has become desensitized and avoids asking piercing, thought-provoking questions…” Unfortunately, the US Population, along with those claiming to be political reform organizations, are not desensitized, but are unable to respond to thought-provoking questions due to years of political propaganda indoctrination. They continue to accept an autocratic republic political system, instead of one functioning as a democratic republic. Political delusions keep them engaged in useless actions like signing petitions and marching in the streets, as if politicians pay attention to them, unless it is near their next election.

    While some are starting to show up at their representative’s offices, most are doing so with hat in hand, pleading with them to do the right thing. Others are engaged in temper tantrums to demand them to accept their political agendas. In the meantime, the corporate backers of these politicians are simply waiting to consider which of their servants to keep in office. Should they let one go to take an appointment or a lobby job to continue to serve their special interests? How long will the next officeholder betray their constituents, and take their cash for favors? Tough decisions to make!

    No one I am aware of has approached any politician to demand a right to become involved in the decisions they make for them. Whether this is due to the Dunning-Kruger effect, the Stockholm syndrome, political brainwashing, or a combination of psychological influences is hard to determine. Overcoming political delusions is about the same as those of religious ones. The most difficult task, and often a hopeless one, is to try to reason with someone who is convinced that he or she is right.

    In the context of political discussion, I’m learning to not challenge a person’s beliefs. This only invites conflict that is divisive and unproductive. Presenting and defending ideological principles is not useful when addressing issues, as they are only resolved or fulfilled by laws. If you want to identify yourself as a Democrat, Republican or some other label, you are assuming a stance that will be opposed by others on the other “side”. I suggest that we should not take “sides”, but encourage others to think about the common issue of democratic representation.

    This is our common lack of representation by our elected officials. The majority of our population does not lean toward the extremes of the political spectrum. I believe that most people are fair-minded and want what’s best for their communities and our national interests. The only way to achieve what we want is to have people who will listen and respond to us in our political system. This cannot be realized by politicians who make promises, but respond mainly to their financial backers. Obviously, the majority of our population, as identified with numerous polling organizations, wants sensible gun laws, and our wealthiest citizens to pay their fair share of taxes. If you think this will happen, without citizen direct involvement in government, please let me know.

  2. David Houle Reply


    I am passing this one along to a lot of people. It is very good. That said, we can never forget that simply because the current situation is so bad that the past was the good old days.

    The status quo of America since 2000 is: endless war, the worst Recession in history, collapsing infrastructure and educational institutions, a gridlocked and dysfunctional national government, an evisceration of the middle class by both technology and the global economy, and a general increase is institutions, press included, that are no longer trustworthy. This status quo existed under Bush, Obama and now Trump.

    As to we get the government we deserve. The 2016 election can be reduced to this:

    In a change year, the change candidate won [if the Dems had nominated Sanders, he would be president] and given a choice between two liars, we picked the one who better used the media and was more charismatic.

  3. Joni Lindgren Reply

    Maybe the answer is before our Congress when it comes to who is dumbing down our mentality…maybe it’s Congress and how many of our representatives are being paid off by big oil, big pharma, Wall Street and the wealthy.

    So far, if Trump gets what is on his wish list, the answer will become perfectly clear because here is a short list of what has already come out of his mouth…

    1) He’s going to roll back the Clean Water Act…which will pour coal and fracking by-products into our streams and rivers.

    2) He wants to gut many regulations, especially environmental regulations so that the profiteers can drill and frack wherever they want…he’s already put a gag order on scientific facts from the EPA and other agencies…where will our Congress stand on the scientific evidence showing that the earth’s climate is warming and man-made?

    3) Since taking office, 29 states have already got bills drafted that would punish protestors…where will our Congress stand on 1st Amendment Rights?

    4) His administration is repealing and replacing the ACA which could affect the other health care policies when it comes to preexisting conditions, cap on the amount the insurance industry will pay in one’s lifetime and 26 year-olds can stay on their parents’ policies.

    5) When Trump repeated that he was going to make America Great Again, did anyone hear what that plan might look like? If Great Again means to shut down the press, repeal the ACA, gut regulations that limit all the drilling/fracking and the by-products going into our drinking water, punishing protestors, emboldening White Supremacists, berating the press and dividing the population into categories defined as the root of our country’s problem like the judicial system, the military, the Muslim family who lost their son in Iraq and the Hispanics who Trump called “rapists”, gag orders on scientific research and his administration killing net neutrality…then Congress and those who voted for him didn’t read between the lines of his “making America Great again”…because the signs were all there!

    • Jack Altschuler Reply

      Just keep in mind that all of Trump’s outrageous behavior – the mean-spirited tweets, the baseless attacks, the “I’m hearing that . . .” excuses for his flamboyance – are distractions. They’re just the magician’s tricks, the circus sideshow. What he’s really after (what the magician is doing as he distracts you with his other hand) can be found at