Friday, November 26, 2010

Airport Travel and its Discontents

All this week, while I was in California for Thanksgiving (complete with freezing temperatures to accompany a week long festa of pasta, prosciutto, and provolone and other good things), I have repeatedly been asked by people about my experience of security at the airport. At Knoxville’s small, user-friendly airport, there was (not surprisingly) nothing out of the ordinary. Returning home Friday from San Francisco International Airport, on the other hand, I would not have been surprised to have had to go through the newest body scanning machines, etc. In fact, the only thing outstanding about my experience leaving from SFO was the enormous crowd – more than one might have expected on the day between the holiday and the weekend.

Judging from the news coverage (or, rather, hype), this latest development in airport security screening is, to put it mildly, controversial. On this, as on almost all other subjects of controversy, there is certainly plenty of room for legitimate differences of opinion and appropriate debate. Are these particular procedures really the best ones available to meet our security needs? Is this particular equipment really as safe as is being claimed? Have the screeners really been adequately trained to deal with people in an appropriately respectful manner? Etc. On all these matters, there is obviously room for debate. And, indeed, in a free society there should be debate. But, of course, what we have been hearing on this subject recently is hardly debate at all, but more of the same polemics that have poisoned our political culture and are tearing apart our social fabric.

To me, what we are hearing these days about this latest development in airport security screening seems to be just more of the same sad approach to our public life that has become the norm especially in the past decade or so – and shows no sign of diminishing. Americans want to be safe and secure in the air. Indeed, some seem to hold society somehow responsible if they are not – at least in the sense that they feel entitled to compensation from the state if they are victims of terrorism. At the same time, however, they don’t want to have to endure the slightest inconvenience, let alone anything resembling so old-fashioned a concept as “shared sacrifice.”

We see this, of course, not just in regard to the momentary controversy du jour of airport security. Rather, we run into it across the board in almost all aspects of our national life. Recall the immediately dismissive response from the ideological Left to some initial proposals floated by President Obama’s bipartisan deficit-reduction commission. Does anyone really doubt that entitlements will have to be curbed eventually if we are to get the deficit under control? The Right speaks eloquently about the crime of generational theft that the deficit really represents, but who on the Right is any more ready to bite the bullet on Medicare? And forget about tax increases! Again, what intelligent person really cannot understand that revenue must be increased to control the deficit? As a society, we are increasingly like those Californians, who (as one commentator has pithily put it) want to subsidize themselves like socialists, while taxing themselves like libertarians.

Is there no end to this nonsensical substitute for intelligent political discourse?

The solution certainly is not rallying for sanity or any other such self-righteous conversation among yet another niche group listening to itself in its own self-constructed cable-TV echo chamber. If anything, the solution likely lies with those who do not watch cable-TV news (or listen to talk-radio). People who do not watch cable-TV news, who do not nourish their prejudices on the ideological posturing promoted by MSNBC or FOX, are in fact the majority of Americans. Theoretically, in a well functioning democratic republic, it ought to be possible for the majority of Americans to influence our national “debate” and take it in a different direction.

There are, admittedly, structural dimensions to the way American politics is set up that may hinder such an outcome. The bigger problem, however, is that perennial problem of intensity. Some people perhaps disdain cable-TV news and talk-radio because they find its polemics unattractive. Most people, however, do not listen to cable-TV news or talk-radio primarily because they are less interested in politics than those who do. They are also less likely to be registered members of political parties and vote in party primaries. Indeed, they are less likely even to vote at all. Meanwhile, those who care the most intensely about politics are, not surprisingly, the most ideological and the most partisan. In the narrow world of political activism, they are the ones who matter most and set the tone.

Since most people are not avid consumers of political news, the need for effective filters to help people make sense of public policy issues is evident. Historically in the US, this essential filtering function was performed at election time by political parties – and performed fairly well. The gradual transformation of our political parties from broadly based, social coalitions into narrowly based, ideological interest groups has correspondingly altered the content of that filtering process. Meanwhile and more significantly, the diminished role of political parties in the nominating process, the greater openness of the process to more narrowly ideological candidates empowered by access to the media (and the money which enables independent candidates to get access to the media) has created alternative filters, more powerful in many cases than political parties. The result is that even those who are not enough interested in politics to pay a lot of attention to cable-TV news and talk radio are likely to be directly or indirectly influenced by those sources when they are processing information to form opinions and/or to vote in elections.

Meanwhile, we wait in vain for someone (our President, perhaps) to explain to us that Americans might actually have to accept some level of disruption and inconvenience if we want to fly safely.

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