I wonder if you, like me, saw the numerous commercials for video games and movies during the recent college football playoff games. Did you notice that the great majority of them were about war, about fighting in cities and on battlefields, about blowing up buildings and people, about brutality, carnage and destruction? And were you shocked or at least surprised that this kind of war-porn has become so common place in American culture?
My guess is that most viewers saw nothing remarkable about all this. We have lived so long with seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention the wasteful and feckless Vietnam War, which still haunts the American psyche) that we believe being “at war” is a permanent condition of our culture (as it has been for the entire lives of many of the students at my college). We regard war as we regard the common cold — an unpleasant but unavoidable fact of life.
Yet we know so little about the costs and consequences. The financial costs are staggering — some estimates exceed $6 trillion — but the more consequential costs are the day-by-day destruction of an American culture that valued peace, harmony and civility.
It is unnecessary to cite instances of the increasingly negative and mean-spirited behavior in our public life: We are surrounded by it at the national, state and local level every day. And we experience the anger-as -moral-high-ground in our daily lives and on social media. The constant bullying in so many of our schools and the all-too-frequent school shootings have become standard features of American life.
While it is de rigueur in some quarters to blame the occupant of the White House for our new culture of conflict and contempt, Donald Trump did not create that culture. His emergence as the Republican nominee from a field of nearly 20 well-mannered candidates and his election in 2016 were the result of — not the cause of — a dystopian culture. Trump was elected because his demeanor, attitudes and beliefs reflected what many Americans wanted. (Hillary Clinton, too, frequently employed war-like rhetoric and attitudes during her campaign for the presidency. Her “basket of deplorables” comment is an unforgettable example.)
No country that is permanently at war, that sends soldiers to blockade immigration, that dismisses war crimes and pardons those who commit them, that makes the assassination of leaders of other nations a proudly proclaimed public strategy, can foster a civic society that truly values peace and harmony. The wholesale devaluation of what we used to consider “civilized” conduct in every-day life is a direct result.
Although the Mideast wars in which we are fighting seem distant, they are not. Over time, they have become a corrosive part of our lives, like a hidden cancer degrading our culture, our minds and our souls.
Donald Eastman is president of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.