Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

Tipping Points

The professor interviewing him before a student audience demanded a human moment of TV anchor Will McAvoy. He got one: a five-minute diatribe, laden with statistics, on just why the U.S. is not “the greatest country in the world.” The way that explosive philippic is set up in the first episode of HBO’s “The Newsroom,” it seemed as if, after a career of playing it down the middle, creating balance even where none exists, Will McAvoy had reached an epiphany, a sudden realization. When he reached that tipping point there was no going back.

As a point of irreversible change from one state to another, the “tipping point” might have originated in epidemiology to describe when an infectious disease reaches a point beyond any local ability to control it from spreading more widely. As contrasted with a slippery slope, a tipping point is a slippery cliff: you can dance on the edge, but unless you pull back in time, you will inevitably fall.

In business, as described by author Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, 2000), some examples include the first low-priced fax machine in 1984, which sold slowly until, by 1987, everyone had to have one. The same path was followed by the adoption of cellphones: in the early 1990s few people had them, but by 1998 a tipping point had been reached and nearly everybody had one.

A less trivial example could be human-caused global climate change. Most recently in the June 6 issue of the science journal Nature, authors Anthony D. Barnosky and 21 co-authors “review evidence that the global ecosystem … is approaching a planetary-scale … ‘tipping point’” making it “necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.” In other words, we are soiling our resources so badly even Tide won’t get it out. And since most wars are fought over resources, there will be blood.

In history, there were tipping points that brought about the French Revolution (1848, 1830), the American Revolution (1775–1783), the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Chinese Revolution (1949), the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and the Russian Revolution (1917).

What makes the concept of tipping point so dramatic is that the point of inevitable change is often knowable and avoidable. But just as often that the point is only crystal clear in the rear-view mirror, as the car hurtles over the cliff. “Oh, yes,” you find yourself saying – or perhaps something more scatological – “that is where I should have turned back. Oops.”

One thing that was not a tipping point: there is no empirically demonstrable event in history to justify the current tipping point between BC and AD. There are much more important events in history from which to start our calendars – and they don’t rely on mythical men and negative numbers!

You might assume this country is too pluralistic to ever tip toward theocracy. But witness, for example, the resurgence of stupid: anti-vaccination efforts denying the germ theory of disease and leading to rises in curable disease, like whooping cough, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, typhoid, hepatitis, meningitis, pneumonia, influenza, diphtheria and polio. As Dr. Lance Rodewald, director of the CDC’s Immunization Services Division, pointed out, “When you choose not to get a vaccine, you’re not just making a choice for yourself, you’re making a choice for the person sitting next to you.” Incredibly, in the U.S., all but two states (Mississippi and West Virginia) allow parents, for religious reasons, to opt out of otherwise-mandatory vaccinations of their children. Is this a return to disease as demon possession? Germs for Jesus, anyone?

The case for the US heading down the road to theocracy was observed by journalist Bill Moyers in a 2005 essay: “True, people of faith have always tried to bring their interpretation of the Bible to bear on American laws and morals,” Moyers wrote. “It's the American way, encouraged and protected by the First Amendment. But what is unique today is that the radical religious right has succeeded in taking over one of America's great political parties. The country is not yet a theocracy but the Republican Party is, and they are driving American politics, using God as a battering ram on almost every issue: crime and punishment, foreign policy, health care, taxation, energy, regulation, social services and so on.”

But that was seven years ago and I’m still not going to church. Maybe there’s not going to be a tipping point because, as I believe, there are still people in this country who care about not just their own freedom but the freedom of their neighbor, as well.

Instead, I think there is a real tipping point in our American future. The wave of tea-bagging that flooded the House of Representatives in 2010, with politicians who see the opposition as not just in error but in sin, might just have undone themselves, as right-wingers often do. The Tea Party has spent its energy on getting members of Congress elected and what has America to show for it? A stagnant economy, with stagnant wages, in which we make nothing, invent nothing, explore nothing, imagine nothing. They talked about jobs, jobs, jobs and legislated abortion, contraception and the protection marriage – an institution that needs protection from heterosexuals!

I believe Americans see all of this. Are Americans about to have an epiphany themselves? We may not anymore be enchanted with Mr. Obama, because the bloom is surely off his rose. But Americans have to see the other guy and his party as the ones who led us to that cliff, that tipping point. Neither party can get elected if they, like Will McAvoy, “speak truth to stupid.” But before we tip over that edge maybe we will take a turn like another fictional newsman, Howard Beale, in the 1976 film Network: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” I know I’m not.

The preceding was a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Saturday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central Time (8-11pm Eastern Time) on Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: Tipping Points

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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