Stubborn, Those Americans

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By George Weigel

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Speaking of “Amerika,” and we promise that this is absolutely the last time we’ll speak of “Amerika,” were Dr. John Mack’s worst fears realized? Did the nation’s bile rise during the week of February 16? Ben Wattenberg doesn’t think so. And neither does his friend Dr. William Adams of the George Washington University.

Adams, according to a Wattenberg column, decided to actually measure the audience response to “Amerika” through survey research. Several responses were illuminating.

Prior to the series, 49 percent of Adams’s sample thought that, overall, the United Nations was doing a “good” job. After the series, in which Soviet occupation troops traveled under a U.N. flag (to the consternation of Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar), 50 percent of those repolled (all of whom had watched “Amerika”) voted “good” on the U.N. question.

Adams asked his sample whether U.S. military spending was too much, too little, or about right. Prior to the series, the answers were 45-15-39; after the series, those who watched voted 42-15-42. Do Americans take their freedoms for granted? Prior to the series, 80 percent said yes. After the series, 78 percent agreed.

Wattenberg concludes that “Amerika” was like the non-barking dog in the Sherlock Holmes mystery. “Amerika” didn’t significantly change the public’s mind about much of anything. The dog didn’t bark. Moreover, Wattenberg reports, Adams got exactly the same kind of results when he polled before and after the film that supposedly triggered “Amerika,” namely the ABC movie “The Day After.”

The moral, according to Ben Wattenberg, is that “it’s not easy to change opinions in America. One program, or one series of programs, no matter how hyped, no matter how high the ratings, won’t spin people around. Americans have strongly held beliefs. In our free society, with open information, they base their beliefs on the objective situation, on facts as they know them…. [T]he lesson for activists, left or right, seems to be this: if you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to present new facts, a different objective situation that must then be verified and repeated over and over again.”

Which is reassuring, although probably not to Dr. Mack, who actually has a point, although not the point he thinks he has.

Your editor wrote a column, published just before “The Day After,” which called the film “nuclear pornography” and argued that a politics of fear leads inevitably to a politics of hate—which, in turn, ends up tearing the political community apart. And a bitterly divided America conducting civil war by other means is an America rather unlikely to take effective leadership for peace, security, and freedom in the world.

Fear mongering is bad news in a democracy. That still seems true. And, in that sense. Dr. Mack is right to be worried. But the locus of his concern ought to shift. He should focus on educators who impose their own nuclear nightmares on young children. He should worry about Dr. Seuss’s teaching moral equivalence to seven-year-olds through The Butter Battle Book. He should address the problem of political candidates who play partisan politics—demonological politics—with crucial issues of security and peace. He should warn against the politicization of science, as in the “nuclear winter” scare perpetrated by Carl Sagan. He should think about the difficulties posed by churches who, as Morehead Kennedy wrote, find it considerably easier to deny the Resurrection than to challenge the orthodoxies of the nuclear-freeze movement.

If the opinion-making and values-transmitting centers of our political culture continue to indulge in the politics of fear—as in “The Day After,” and as in Dr. John Mack’s response to “Amerika”—then sooner or later this will have a debilitating effect on our public discourse. Ben Wattenberg has the numbers on his side of the “non-barking dog” argument just now. But that is no guarantee for the future.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.