Many of you will agree that America is full of nuts and crazy people. How do we know? We can see this everyday in the news, and in their political discussions being broadcast everywhere. All the big issues facing the nation are routinely subject to three regular treatments: no mention, distorted to irrelevance, or reduced to triviality. This is equivalent to suppressing the truth on a mass scale.
Why this mess? The reason is that America is an open society where noisy groups of people with strong beliefs compete for attention. They advocate their own selfish interests above the public interest and beyond any common sense. Notably, these groups include gun nuts, anti-tax nuts, oil nuts, and religious nuts, not to mention the supposedly enlightened health nuts and environmental nuts. Furthermore, the free press and the social media make money out of the news they gather or generate, regardless of truth as long as it attracts public attention.
Two questions readily come to my mind: Do people in other countries behave the same way? How can you govern a country that seems so crazy?
To answer the first question, let me pose a third one: How do ordinary people react when facing a big issue or problem? I am afraid the same three regular treatments apply: We wish the problem would go away; we reason with our own biased logic and conclude to our selfish intent; or we minimize it in our mind to triviality so that we can forget. Why? Knowing that a big problem exists is not a pleasant experience, and fixing it is really hard that we want to avoid. If you think you don’t behave like that, you must belong to an extraordinary group that deserves high praise. In every country, I bet people tend to behave in this instinctive manner. Nevertheless, the results vary greatly due to major influences such as self-interest, monetary incentive, tradition, culture, and how the country is being governed.
Because America is an open society, there are few taboos regarding what you can say or do in public. So Americans tend to talk and act more about their problems if not really trying to fix them. Does talking help? The magical thing is that the more you talk about a problem, the more likelihood that a new idea is found to solve it. Imagine if a society is forbidden or discouraged to talk about a big social issue, how can people even begin to solve it? To solve a big social problem, the first step is to bring it to public attention through honest and open discussions. Many social issues remain no matter where you live in the world. They include: crime, government corruption, business fraud, sex/race and other discrimination, child labor, human trafficking, and environmental pollution. The list goes on and on.
The fact that public discussion in America is distorted and corrupted these days certainly makes it hard to find a solution. Although talking is cheap, there is no other way to begin except by talking first, especially for a social problem involving different groups of people. No matter how one twists a big issue, the truth always stands out. Why? The truth is always the basic and simple thing that most people understand. Let me describe some complicated issues that America has managed to solve by talking about them for years before taking real action:
Slavery was commonly practiced and tolerated before the Civil War of 1861. At the same time, the country was torn apart for years by arguing about its injustice (simple truth) and economic necessity (distorted truth). Failing a compromise, they decided to settle the issue in a war between North and South. By 1865 when the South was defeated, slavery was eventually abolished.
After slavery, discrimination continued openly in the South in the form of racial segregation. During the 1950s, the oppressed black community began to protest, and the issue of race resurfaced in public discussions. The arrival of television reinforced the injustice argument by providing visual images showing police brutality against black protesters. By 1964, the Civil Rights Acts was finally passed outlawing racial discrimination. This time, a legislative solution was found instead of a civil war.
Throughout the long and difficult war in Vietnam, the White House and the generals constantly deceived the public that the war was moral and winnable (distorted truth). Yet, many people were smart enough to question its morality and execution. Protesters began marching in the streets and on college campuses. Again, television reinforced the argument that wasting American blood in support of a corrupt regime in South Vietnam in the name of freedom was not worth the sacrifice. Lacking public support, the US government began withdrawal in 1969 under the disguised policy of “Vietnamization” until finally being kicked out in 1975 when North Vietnam attacked in full force. Thus, the Vietnam War ended because of intense public scrutiny and criticism in the US, not in North or South Vietnam.
Health care in the US has been suffering runaway inflation for more than 20 years due to a very complicated system of misplaced incentives and insurance manipulations. Although largely confused, the public understands the simple truth, which is the rapidly rising cost resulting in over 40 million citizens unable to afford medical insurance. The open discussions about health care are usually filled with strong emotions and technicalities that leave the public further frustrated and confused. Yet, Obamacare was passed in 2010 in the face of strong opposition. Despite its complexity and imperfection, this health care reform Act is considered a milestone achievement that has eluded previous presidents who wanted to reform the system.
Have you heard about smart nuts and stupid nuts coexisting in the world? Both are crazy because of their bold and unconventional ideas, but the former (who stick to the truth) succeed whereas the latter (who distort the truth) don’t. The following are some of the smart nuts: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and a business visionary named Steve Jobs. People had been calling them nuts until they succeeded in achieving the seemingly impossible.
We have seen the dramatic changes as a result of China’s adopting capitalist production. The leader who headed this change was Deng Xiao-Ping, who started floating his bold ideas in the 1960’s. Although public discussion was forbidden in communist China, there were intense discussions among the top leaders. As usual, most of them thought that Deng was nuts. Worse, they even branded him a traitor and a “capitalist roader”. Deng was banished several times, but came back each time with stronger support until he finally achieved top leadership. This enabled him to implement his bold idea of turning China 180 degrees.
This brings us to my second question – How can you govern a country full of nuts? The answer is, let them fight it out verbally in the open without fear of disrupting order in the society. The smart nuts will win with their ideas, and the stupid nuts will continue to complain and distort the truth. Many great ideas will come out to the surface during the verbal fight as an unexpected bonus. It’s a much better policy to let a thousand flowers bloom than to maintain a silenced and orderly society where big problems are routinely swept under the rug.
If public discussions are discouraged or forbidden, the anger and frustration of the people will remain and may explode into the open in an armed conflict. In many societies, armed conflicts occur because open discussions are not allowed, thus providing no safety valve for the people to vent their frustration and anger. In a communist or authoritarian country, why does the regime invest so much unnecessary money in public security and the secret police? The reason is to suppress public discussions and new ideas for fear of undermining the status quo. Despite such tight control, communist and authoritarian countries seem orderly on the surface only. They have a tendency to implode due to corruption from within, as witnessed by the collapse of communism and the so-called Arab Spring.