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tv   Tom Nichols Our Own Worst Enemy  CSPAN  July 3, 2022 9:35pm-10:01pm EDT

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on book tv is author tom nichols. his most recent book is called our own worst enemy the assault from within on modern democracy. he is recently retired as a us naval war college professor professor nichols last couple years. we've been hearing that democracy is in danger. do you agree with that? and if so, what does that mean? absolutely agree with it. and i think it's in danger because of us. we are under attack. our electoral system has been under attack from authoritarian systems that have tried to
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influence the public and to interfere with the public debate in the united states, but the biggest danger is that we ourselves. we the people as citizens i think have become less civic. we've become more narcissistic. less participatory more transactional and i think that those are not the kind of values and behaviors that can sustain a liberal democracy. well, i'm going to have you expound on one of those points and i'm going to quote your book first and you write that the most important ingredient in the decline of modern democracy is narcissism. does that mean i think narcissism it's strange to say this after a pandemic, but i think narcissism has the has been the real pandemic that's been affecting us for a good 40 or 45 years. we actually have indicators and i talk about them in the book. we actually have metrics and indicators that people really have become more narcissistic
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thinking more about themselves less able to empathize with others less able to abstract away from their own interests to think about other issues. angrier in general not just about politics, but just to kind of general resentment against the world because it's not the way they want it to be or that they are unhappy with their own situation and you know, some of these are normal human emotions, but when they become dominant emotions in our public life part of being a democracy is being able to make decisions for the good of a community. rather than simply to say what's in it for me. and increasingly we are society that if we bothered a participate at all if we bothered a vote at all, we have a tendency to participate and to vote and to say things like, you know, i'm voting literally to hurt other people that i want something for me and i'm voting to hurt someone else as an
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almost as an aggressive act rather than as an active community engagement you put a time frame of 40 to 50 years on this narcissistic trend why 40 to 50 well, you know, it's it's fashionable to always blame the 60s for everything, but i think actually the 70s the early 70s and we called it the me decade and the only difference i think i have with other folks is i just think it didn't end. you know, we say the 70s were the me decade and then we went to the decade of greed and then we went to the kind of slacker 90s. i think the me decade just became the meat era from the early 70s on and i think there were a lot of business for this one of the most affluence rapidly rising living standards, i think particularly after the end of the cold war this lack of any kind of unifying sense of threat, which unfortunately i think is back with a war going on in europe, but and i think there was one other thing from the late 60s early 70s, and that was the emergence of a youth
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culture that we then made permanent. i think we live in a sort of permanent youth culture america worships youth. we target entertainment toward, you know, even if even middle-aged people still go for entertainment that's really kind of targeted at younger people. and so i think we took a youth culture that emerged from the baby boom, and we simply institutionalized it forever and i think you know part of the problem of a youth culture. is that by definition young people are kind of narcissistic and adolescent and somehow that just became our natural state did we lose de ratification delayed gratifications been gone for a long time and it was replaced replaced with a sense of entitlement. and i think again we in we sort of enlarged what we thought government could do to say government isn't just there to provide for the common defense and build roads and you know, make sure the lights go on but rather to say government is there to make sure i have a fulfilling life.
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and government can't do that for you. and so people i think that's been a part of people turning against government saying well, i'm unhappy somehow things are not working out. i don't have that sense of meaning in my life. and and i think that's how you end up with things like january 6th or people say i need a big crusade i need to be part of something big and important especially if that means overturning the government well in your book our own worst enemy the assault from within on modern democracy. we talk about the effect of immediate technology and social media. i think you know i'm actually a big fan of social media. i spent a lot of time on it. i can't you know, i can't criticize the medium that i clearly swim in every day, but i think the thing that it's taken from us is the ability to reflect. everything that happens all of the news we get happens in this
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gigantic torrent and it demands our immediate reaction. and we feel the need to instantly have a view, you know once and i tell people i don't spend in some days. i don't spend as much time taking news as the average person does and yet i'm i'm paid to have opinions about it, but even i disconnect from it, but i my one of my favorite moments about this was that i was on twitter and someone said this terrible thing just happened. what do you think? and i said, i don't know what to think. i don't have enough information yet and kind of humorously this person said, you know, that's not how it you're supposed to just say something right away. and i think that that's kind of grabbed us and it appeals to that sense of narcissism big events are happening. you must have an opinion and you have to know everything right now. you say you're paid to have an opinion these days where you paid? well, i i write at the atlantic as i've left government service. i now write regularly as contributing writer at the atlantic and over the years i've
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written for i was a columnist at the usa today and i wrote for other papers. so literally someone paid me to say, please have an opinion about this and yet i wasn't you know plugged into all these sources of information all day long as much as other folks don't i think it burns you out after a while. i think people literally cannot process that much information. since you left the government, which is just very recently. do you feel unleashed a little bit? on having an opinion. do you feel relieved that you can have an opinion? no, i was always i mean i have to say something very nice. my employer that former employer in the naval war college. we were an academic. we are in academic institution. and as long as i indicated that i wasn't speaking for the institution i was able to express myself as i wished. so no, there won't be some unplugged version of my views but and certainly my views in this book are undiluted and unvarnished tom nichols you talk about illiberal democracy.
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can you just give us a basic liberal democracy and illiberal democracy definition and why illiberal democracy plays a role in your book? absolutely. i think people have gotten it into their heads that democracy simply means the majority always wins. we don't we are not a majoritarian democracy that way our constitution is founded on liberal small l liberal principles of the 19th century the 18th century tolerance. equality for the law rule of law secularism and so that a liberal democracy makes sure that even while people vote to do things that there are constitutional guardrails around what they vote to do that cannot contravene certain eternal principles that we all agree are part of our society and illiberal democracy is one that just says when enough people if you get 51% of the vote and that vote is to
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take rights away from left-handed people or black people or orange people or read people whatever it is well, that's how it went. it's 51% the majority always rules and that is very attractive to people who feel disempowered but feel like if they're gather enough of them together they can rule and populist rulers who pursue those kinds of votes in places like the united states hungary poland turkey brazil, they appeal to that they say if you get enough people together, i will through whatever you want the constitution be --. did our own worst enemy grow out of the trump administration? no, you know as he plays a large role in this book he does but i i also tried very consciously as a scholar to think about this across time and a cross-cultures because you'll you'll see in the book. i talk a lot about the uk i talk
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about india i talk about things going on in places like poland and turkey. this is a global phenomenon that i think has been produced by the speed of information by rising living standards by affluence by boredom that comes with narcissism, but no, it's not a book about donald trump. actually. this is somewhat of a sequel to a book. i wrote about five years ago called the death of expertise where i wrote about why people silo themselves in about information and don't accept establish facts and only watch the kind of news. they to watch and people every time i talked about this and i was mostly talking about it as a kind of cultural phenomenon people. it's a but what does that mean for democracy? and i'd say yeah, nothing good. and so i finally decided just tackle that and say but you know this larger issue of what about democracy and that's where this book came from. okay. this is a self-selected audience out here at the tucson book
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festival liberal overall liberal. how is it that we've gotten bifurcated trifurcated when it comes to media socialization housing jobs where we live? because we because again we don't want to make the kind of compromises that require us to live with other people. and also because we have lived for 40 years in a society that's affluent enough to allow us to pursue our interests and our leisure alone, and i'm not the first person to notice this i mean years ago robert putnam wrote his famous book bowling alone right people. don't join both. i mean, it's a really great observation people. don't join bowling le they go with their family or their few of their friends and they go bowling they don't. hang with strangers and bowl against other people. i've pointed out to people that one sign of affluence and separation when i was young and people lived in multiple housing. they had porches people now have houses with decks. so you used to porches out on the street. now you have decks behind your
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house, and i think that that helped us to separate from each other, but it's also gratifying nobody wants to watch the news and be told the thing you believe in isn't true. you're going to have to think about your fellow citizens. you're going to compromise you're going to negotiate you're going to have to reason this out. it's much more psychically gratifying to have someone say you're right. you're part of the tribe. you're one of us all the other people are bad. how hard was it to write this book? it was very it was you know, let me just give a shout out to. poor wife who had to live with me while i was like this to lynn, you know, it was hard there were times where i just stopped writing it because i i i really could come to the conclusion that i was coming to which some of the conclusions were very disturbing and especially during the pandemic when i thought that a pandemic would be the thing that would make us pull together and get
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over this kind of, you know objections to expertise and to established scientific facts and things like that and instead we just pulled apart. we had a major political party led by donald trump who politicized a pandemic and i sought happening right in front of me that we just are not pulling together as a nation because we are so concerned about our own feelings and particularistic interests. so it was it was very difficult to write the book. i'm gonna reveal something. i usually don't reveal but you and i were just chatting ahead of time. your book and and i told you in my reading of it i said it sounds like you're trying to turn down the temperature. that wasn't the case. no, i'm not trying to turn up the temperature either but what i am trying to do is to be direct and uncompromising and get people to think about taking responsibility for their own actions as citizens.
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and that and that's you asked a moment ago, you know wasn't hard to write finding that tone where i didn't want to be overly poemical, but i also didn't want to be overly forgiving you know, that was that was kind of difficult. and so i decided to just be to personalize a lot of it a good friend and colleague that i read some of the chapters when you said look, you know bring your own. background in history into this and so i talk about my father. i talk about my own childhood growing up i come from a working class family. i grew up in the 60s and 70s and that helped me. kind of reached the message and the tone. i think where i'm pleading with people either angrily or out of exasperation. please please think about what you're doing, please think about your role as a citizen. well, you tell the story of your father who who died, but you called him an archie bunker republican oh, yeah, he was worse than archie bunker. i mean my my dad was like a lot
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of my dad was born in 1918. um, you know as i say in the book you could call him a man of his time, but that's just a nice way of saying that he was bigot like a lot of working class older guys the archie bunker types were and yet and the reason i brought up my dad. is that even with all of his, you know, very backward kinds of attitudes about people of color or women. he still venerated american political institutions. it did not bother him when barack obama was elected president. he never used racial invective about the because no matter what you might say. you know after a few beers watching the news or something you just in my dad's generally you just didn't say that about the president united states and the story. i tell in the book is that when just before he died we were watching a election news and i i said to my thought because we were both from massachusetts and we both knew, you know, mitt
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romney as governor. we thought he was an okay, you know, and i said i dad i don't think that's gonna i think president obama's gonna get reelected and my father very quietly said, they're both good men. we're gonna be fine. and i thought if my father after a lifetime of some pretty backward racial prejudices could look at president obama and say they're both good men. we're going to be fine any of us can do that. this is your fourth book. well, i've wrote a few this is my seventh book, but not sure people want to spend a lot of time over the holidays reading about nuclear strategy, which was the book i wrote for this. yeah. well, you've had some academics but academic books but for for general public, would that be a fair statement? yeah that were meant for a general readership. absolutely. one more reveal you and i are the same age and we kind of were lamenting the loss of a pleasant or time all this? yes, are we remembering it correctly. are we just well, you know one of the things i tackle in the
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book is nostalgia, which i think is very destructive. you know, i wasn't actually crazy about my childhood i grew up in a you know, kind of edge of poor working class family and a factory town. sure. i had a you know, i there was a local pond and i went and caught frogs with my cousins and all that stuff, but there was a lot of really bad stuff in those days. and so when when i think we are not wrong to remember any more bipartisan time. i worked in the senate 30 years ago and i we were we would work with democrats we could work across the aisle republicans and democrats together. so we're not misremembering that the part we're not remembering is when we say wasn't it a better time back in 1965. no, it wasn't especially not if you were black or a woman or some other, you know member marginalized member society or even just a working class white male who worked in dangerous factories, that didn't have safety requirements.
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i mean, you know when i was a boy it was when you and i were boys. when somebody said people our age were already considered old and dangerously so because of state of american health at the time we forget that my father had a heart attack at 55 and they put him a mild heart attack at 55 years old and they put him in intensive care for three weeks. you know, that was a different time when i whenever someone says to me, but you grew up in a better time i said, do you know what an oxygen tent is? here's the book our own worst enemy the assault from within on. and democracy the author is atlantic columnists and former naval war college professor tom nichols. we appreciate your joining us w.
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i'm going to call you debbie. just you know, i've known you for you know, many decades. we've all known you in in the public health field and it's a real, you know privilege for me to. be here with you to you know to talk about your brilliant new book. i want to just you know start simply. you know explain the title silent invasion and you know the reasons you wrote the book what you talk about a little bit at the beginning of the book.

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