2018: Passage to Promise or Collapse?

In my most charitable description, 2017 was a wake-up call for America; a year marked by surprise, anger, sadness and regret. In 2018, each of us must consider the blessings of the past and the challenges of the future while embracing an honest assessment of the role we must play in setting a course that reflects the values and dignity of predecessor generations. 2018 like 1776, 1865, and 1945 is one of those seminal years in American history that will determine the fundamental welfare of our citizens for the next two to three generations until we, inevitably, face a crisis of identity again.  The answer to the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” seems an abstract or, at best, rhetorical question.  Yet, in practice, it is the question at the top of the pyramid formed by our values, and beneath which our norms, policies and behaviors flow.  It defines us in every way.  Trump’s answer, wrapped in the patriotic tones of “America First,” is a deceit of epic proportions that aims to destroy the American Dream and abdicates American leadership across the globe.  No self-respecting American can sit this one out.  It is time for all hands on deck.  Trump is a cancer that is eating the soul of our republic and is an existential threat to the future of our children and grandchildren.  He, and his willing bootlickers, must be banished to the ash heap of history so that we may right the ship, which is currently listing toward peril.

On behalf of my fellow Baby Boomers, I apologize for where we are today—for allowing this monster of avarice and deceit to seize the reins of American power and influence.  Although it is true that Millennial voter turnout may have prevented Trump, they did not create him.  He is an early member of the Baby Boomer generation, born to parents who endured and sacrificed much during the Great Depression and World War II but, unlike their parents, went on to a contrary life of radical self-involvement with an insatiable appetite for consumption and aggrandizement.  We Boomers presided over the greatest period of expansion in American wealth and power with the conscience of a sociopath.  Numerous studies in presidential history argue that any sitting president is simply a reflection of the soul of the electorate, and Trump is unexceptional in this regard.  Together with Millennials, Boomers can take America back; redemption can be achieved in 2018, but the clock—both temporal and electoral—is ticking.

The identity of promise—of Global Stewardship—is denominated in the values of our founders including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without regard to race, religion, creed, or national origin.  Those who embrace these values are caretakers of the American Dream that assures everyone access to opportunity balanced by responsibility within a framework of meritocracy.  This is the ethic of greatness; of a relentless subscription to humanity and humility undaunted by fear.  Stewardship means that the days of American power acquired through coercion are over.  In the future, it will be earned by the extent to which America enables others to achieve their dreams within the context of their unique and legitimate cultures. We must engage with the world in coopetition: competing to cooperate.  It is not our duty as Americans to judge and condemn, it is our duty to protect each other and to support each other as a matter of humanity, rather than as determined through the narrow lens of nationalism.  ‘Promise’ also embraces the fiber of hope—it is prospective—that America’s greatest days lie in the future, not the past.

The identity of collapse—of “America First”—is a narrow, isolationist, and demeaning nationalism that attempts to crush the American Dream and abdicate America’s role in the world.  Its proponents believe there are more threats than opportunities in the world.  That “those people” want what we have and we must fight to protect our borders, our classrooms, our government, our military, and our churches, from the insidious encroachment of intellectuals, socialists, non-Christians, and non-white and non-English speaking peoples. Exploitation trumps stewardship while ignorance is cause for prideful celebration.  Its leaders prey on those threatened by progress with empty promises of returning them to yesterday’s greatness.  For American firsters, there are no shades of gray, only black and white; in every contest, there is winner and there is a loser.  Moreover, the ‘Collapse’ identity plays host to the conceit of a swindler whose prospects are assured by the extent to which he can divide America and concentrate power in his own hands while stealing the wealth and liberties of hard-working Americans.

These are the stakes: the two very different identities in contention for the future of America for decades to come.  This is the year—2018—when, someday, you will be asked, what did you do to protect the American Dream?  What did you do to save America and the world?  In 2018, complacency is complicity.  Unlike prior generations, it is unlikely you will be asked to leave your family to go off to a foreign land with no assurance of your return.  But, you must set aside the whining and fear and stand up for your future.  Participate by contributing through work and financial resources. Focus on flipping Congress in 2018 away from the harlots of Trump’s tribe so that we might preempt their embezzlement of America’s future.  America’s nightmare will not end by counting on someone else to save you.  The time for surprise, anger, sadness, and regret are over.  It is time to win for all of us here today and born tomorrow.  Let’s roll.

By |2018-05-30T20:37:39+00:00December 30th, 2017|American Identity, Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

Get Off Your Knees America!

Unintentionally, the defiance first exhibited by Colin Kapernick and later adopted by more than two hundred fifty NFL players, coaches, and owners (although with evolving and wide-ranging purposes) has provided Donald Trump with a new opportunity to dog-whistle his white nationalist base and feed his insatiable megalomania.  Trump’s consistent aim—to divide the country and consolidate power in his petite pasty palms—has actually been bolstered by those who laud the kneelers while patting themselves on the back as if they too are modern-day revolutionaries.  Rise up America, this is no time to be on your knees.

Setting aside the profound naiveté of those who are surprised they were so easily cast as unpatriotic—as anti-American—by Trump and his fellow lapel-pin patriots, expressing defiance during the national anthem is an epic strategic failure.  That is not to say the kneelers are less patriotic than Trump, however, true patriots are those who embrace the symbols, norms, institutions, and laws of the United States, and who stand and fight to preserve them from any existential threat, even when that threat is the president of the United States.  True patriots do not reject America’s symbols; they redefine and magnify American values to forge a new more inclusive identity.  No American in contemporary history did this as well as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King understood that to succeed he had to unite people in support of a higher interpretation of American values and pursued his aims within and in support of the nation’s laws and institutions, always in a non-violent manner even while being jailed, abused, and eventually assassinated.  King’s dream—that changed America and the world—was sought with a transcendent sense of grace while never bowing his head (unless in prayer) and certainly never kneeling in defiance of the flag or the national anthem.  He stood tall against the tyranny of racism and delivered America to a much better place.  He even succeeded in getting a good ol’ Texas boy and president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, to relinquish political control of the southern states to the Republican Party (where they have remained ever since) in order to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

King’s approach carried significantly more risk, and could not have felt nearly as rewarding as players who kneel in defiance while television cameras amplify their celebrity.  But, King recognized that in the end success depended on being seen as the greater patriot than those who perpetuated the sadistic and exploitative postbellum frameworks of Jim Crow.  His updated version of American identity offered a more genuine interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s aspiration “all men are created equal.”  Perhaps most importantly, however, was the way King saw himself as a servant rather than a celebrity.  He explained in one of his lesser-cited sermons, “The Drum Major Instinct” that greatness was born from service.  Drawing on the lessons Jesus gave his disciples, King said,

If you want to be important—wonderful.  If you want to be recognized—wonderful.  If you want to be great—wonderful.  But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.

Vanishing the existential threat Trump poses to the United States will require a great deal more effort than kneeling during our anthem.  It requires a level of service and commitment that establishes a higher level of patriotism and elevates American values to forge a new identity.  Rather than averting our eyes and praise away from our flag we must hoist it high to preserve the American Dream and to reignite respect throughout the world.  It is our anthem and our flag, not Trump’s.  As the saying goes, failure is not an option. Every day in every way we must stand up for a better America that serves the interests of all Americans in a thoughtful and compassionate manner.  Do not fail wishing you had done more; do not look back and wonder how could this happen?  Rise up now for yourself, your family, and the promise of the American Dream.

By |2017-11-07T14:33:26+00:00September 27th, 2017|American Identity, Donald Trump|0 Comments

Who Will Save the American Dream?

As Trump tramples the American Dream in favor of his despotic nightmare, no one party or candidate has emerged as its savior.  The Democrats best effort at fashioning a new narrative has given us the limp ‘n lame “A Better Deal” while the progressive icon, Senator Elizabeth Warren, decries a “rigged system,” both weirdly attempting to sound more Trumpy than the other (see my recent post “Democrats, It’s Time to Wise Up,” August 15, 2017).  Whoever develops a narrative wrapped around the tenets of the American Dream—under attack since the rise of the Tea Party and under siege during the Trump presidency—will likely do very well in 2018 and beyond.  However, to date, Trump’s opposition has become so disoriented with the horrors of his presidency it is either strangely emulating him as in the case of the Democratic Party leadership, or so narrowly focused on particular issues and interests as to be blinded to the strategic imperative of crafting a more powerful narrative to capture the support and enthusiasm of enough Americans to seize power and affect change.

The American Dream is a very simple proposition, first put forward in 1931 during the Great Depression by historian James Truslow Adams in his essay, “Epic in America.”  Adams wrote,

[The American Dream is] that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. [It is] a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Perhaps the American Dream is being ignored as a rallying cry because it is too obvious.  Perhaps Trump’s opponents are taking it for granted.  But, it is exactly what Trump is attempting to destroy in his pursuit of fascist power, and it is precisely what needs to be employed to unify Americans against the hackneyed recklessness of Trump’s Republican Party.  “Make America Great Again”—Trump’s fraudulent appeal to the American voter—can and should be defeated by the simple elegance of “Caretakers of the American Dream.”

While Trump advocates exclusion, uniformity, regression, supremacy, stasis, exploitation, indifference, dominance, authoritarianism, segregation, fear, division, and hate; the opposition is eerily silent about inclusion, diversity, progress, equality, development, empathy, democracy, integration, courage, unity, and love—the characteristics that underpin the American Dream.  The opposition is so appalled it appears confused, or at least distracted, which is, of course, exactly what Trump wants.  And, each and every progressive issue and interest fits nicely under the umbrella of the American Dream as it embraces fundamental American ambitions, including “the pursuit of happiness.”  Fairness, equity, and justice are at the Dream’s heart as civil and human rights, healthcare, immigration, and respect for science and the environment fit comfortably in its shadow.

The British scholar, Lawrence Freedman, argues in his epic study, Strategy: a History (2013) that strategy is “the art of creating power.”  Trump and his Republican Party have waived the flag in support of white economic nationalism to create theirs.  It is time someone or some party started waiving the flag to save the American Dream, where our power as a nation truly resides.

 

By |2017-09-27T22:03:40+00:00September 5th, 2017|American Identity, Donald Trump, General, Leadership|0 Comments

The Chosen Ones

The following is Steding’s keynote address at the Third Congressional District (D3) Summit in Ridgway, Colorado on July 21, 2017.

Recently, I watched an interview of Elon Musk, the great inventor, entrepreneur, and American immigrant from the 2017 TED conference.  He discussed the many seemingly outrageously optimistic objectives he has for everything from building a new tunnel system for commuters under Los Angeles to his new line of Tesla cars.  If you haven’t seen him interviewed before, he is a very kinetic individual.  His eyes, which flutter and dart from one idea to the next, reveal the intensity of his ambition and the size of his intellect.  Toward the end of the interview when asked why he pursues so many objectives with such confidence and abandon, Musk’s eyes settled, and he did something we rarely see him do, he paused. He paused, took a deep breath, and simply answered: “I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior … I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”  That simple and heartfelt response really resonated with me when I think about the future of America, and I suspect many of you here today share Musk’s sentiment: when we think about the future of America, we just don’t want to be sad—for ourselves, friends, family, neighbors, town, state, county, country and world.

Today we should also remind ourselves that there are many reasons the United States is the envy of the world. We actually do things right most of the time. As Winston Churchill once suggested, we get things right after trying everything else first.  Americans are imaginative, optimistic, hopeful, caring, hard working and always have an unshakable desire to do better in the future.  And yes, American’s are also precocious, arrogant, and even grotesque, a perplexing combination often creating confusion around the world.

We believe we can make ourselves into whatever we want, unencumbered by where we were born or whom our daddy is. Our ancestors do not define our stake in the world. Our self-image is largely prospective. This uniquely American condition requires, at its very core, that we be individually capable of exercising free choice and willing to accept the consequences of those choices, including electing folks who will represent us in a fair and respectful manner.  In short, we must exert our political will.  Otherwise, we end up with elected officials who want to “take America back again,” which is foolhardy to suggest and frankly impossible to accomplish because, as Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times and new resident to Ridgway wrote recently, America is always “ceaselessly becoming.”  Those who peddle fear, anger, and intolerance only act to reveal their own shortcomings and their own misunderstanding of what truly makes America great.  Those who embrace hope, summon courage, and engage with empathy for their fellow citizens must unite to stem the tide of vitriol and secure the future of an America that preserves the prospect of the American dream for future generations.

·      I believe that the values of the vast majority of Americans will prevail over those who espouse win/lose, zero-sum thinking, wrapped in deceit and fear.

·      I believe we will return as exemplars of self-restraint and moderation, rather than zealous missionaries of consumptive duplicity.

·      I believe we will renew our commitment to diversity and find a way to keep the gates of America open.

·      I believe we will educate our children to know more than we do—that we will succeed in enabling their dreams.

·      I believe we can and will rein in the effects of climate change and eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether, perhaps even in my lifetime.

·      I believe we can engineer a system that protects and rewards merit balanced by empathy and mitigate the pernicious effects of concentrated wealth and its natural progeny plutocracy.

·      I believe we can be good stewards of a globalizing world and that we will continue to be welcomed in the capitols of the world as those who enable and lift the lives of others—who compete to cooperate.

·      I believe we will honor our American heritage and come together to relight the city upon the hill, rather than strut down the path to irrelevance.

But it all depends on the will of the people, of the will of folks like you, the self-chosen ones who have accepted the responsibility to rescue our imperiled union and the values of liberty and justice for all from those who wish to turn back the progress made by now seven generations of great Americans.

It is our collective political will that will successfully navigate this period of crisis and transform our identity from superpower to global stewards; that the nation of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton will not become an isolated, self-centered, and decaying archetype of liberty.  And while there is never a clear roadmap toward a certain future, history suggests that Americans will do what they have always done: combine seemingly disconnected and disparate ideas and materials into new inventions and innovations to create previously unimaginable solutions to our greatest challenges.

Your future and the future of this country are in your hands.  And, although the challenge seems daunting at times, you and your family, neighbors and friends have the power.  I want to turn now to something you’ll need on this journey—to exercise your political will—and that is what I call transcendent courage.

There are five elements of transcendent courage:

1.     The first is the capacity to see things as they are, which comprise what I call your truth.  The truth in transcendent courage is based in the simple reality that we know what the right thing is to do.  The difficulty comes in listening to and honoring our sense of truth (allowing its transcendence) against the pressures of competing influences. Those who possess transcendent courage are the most innocently (or unapologetically) honest among us.  They live in their truth all day, every day.

2.     The second element of transcendent courage is the capacity to subordinate consequence to the necessity of action; consequences are inconsequential.  Fears are faced down.  The prospect of immeasurable burden is accepted with grace and dignity. Risk, ridicule, and loss are accepted as the inevitable partners of a courageous life, one which, above all, honors (its truth.

3.     The third element of transcendent courage is selflessness.  Many people define their lives by their service to others.  They measure their self-worth by the extent to which they make others smarter, healthier, happier, and safer.  Teachers, doctors, clergy, police, firefighters, paramedics, military, and community volunteers come readily to mind.  By their very nature or life choice, people who spend their time serving others have a significantly greater propensity to possess transcendent courage.  Service to others teaches us the intrinsic value of selflessness.  It isolates the influence of adoration and compensation from consideration.  It gives us the opportunity to embrace our humanity and feel connected to community while enhancing our self-esteem.  Selflessness produces that warm feeling many call peace.  Selflessness is the liberation of the soul from the oppression of our desires.

4.     The fourth element of transcendent courage is self-acceptance.  Are you comfortable in your own skin?  Do you like you?  Have you resolved with yourself who you are?  People who have access to transcendent courage accept who they are and live lives bounded by dignity and imbued with grace. They are at peace with themselves, in the present.

5.     The fifth element of transcendent courage is the transmission of strength.  I’d like to tell you about Sara.  I met Sara at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders where she was being treated for an aggressive form of leukemia and where I was a volunteer.  Sara was five when she started her treatment and like most five-year old girls Sara liked everything as long as it was pink, purple or somehow related to Barbie. Sara had pale, crystal-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, always gathered with a satin, clip-on bow. She loved to have her nails painted and preferred patent leather shoes. Soft and shiny was her style, which meant that both silk and fleece could be mixed in the same outfit without offending her aesthetic sensibilities. Sometimes she looked like a kid who had dressed herself while standing in her closet, blindfolded. Everyone who spent just five minutes with Sara loved her, including me. Sara is the most courageous person I have ever known.  During Sara’s three years of horror battling leukemia I never saw her cry out, whine or complain.  I will never forget the last few days before Sara’s death. Sara was the first one to accept what was coming. She helped everyone else through the painful anticipation of losing her. She smiled every moment she was awake. She never expressed concern for herself. She only wanted to make sure her mother, father, and little brother would be okay.  Sara’s legacy is the strength she transmitted to those around her.  Her courageous behavior made anyone who was in contact with her a better and stronger person. This is the fifth and final element of transcendent courage. Those who act courageously enhance the lives and behaviors of everyone around them.

Those of you who marched on January 21st of this year are really no different than those who tossed tea into Boston Harbor launching the American Revolution for independence, or the abolitionists who fought to redeem America from its original sin of slavery, or who fought fascism in the 1930s and 40s, or those who rallied to the side of civil rights and against the Viet Nam War in the 1960s. You are the true patriots, the chosen ones to protect and assure our future.

At D3 we have adopted an ethic—a manifesto—of “six words to write on the wall” to guide our efforts.

1.     Authentic.  Keep it real, and keep it true. In periods of crisis there is not enough slack in the system to reward work that is almost right.  Only the real stuff wins. The question is, what is the fundamental value you wish to express in its simplest form?  Seek to promote values that are pervasive and durable throughout the system, product, policy, or personal regimen.  Once identified, set them like cornerstones to support everything you do.  The best example of authenticity I can offer you is Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who launched a civil rights revolution with fewer resources than any of us has today.  He had no money, no weapons, no statutory power, and no technology—no Internet, social media, cellphones, or even fax.  But, he had authentic beliefs and convictions that resonated with millions of people, expressed as his “Dream.”

2.     Resilience.  Here is a not-so-newsy flash: you, your family, your company, your community, your city, and your country will suffer a blow or blows as we unwind from the current crisis in the chaotic and messy climb toward a new more settled state.  Crises, like forest fires, are indiscriminate.  Even if you avoid catastrophic damage, collateral damage is a certainty.  Many herald schemes of sustainability and independence, but they are just part of this larger objective of resilience.  To survive we must have the ability to bounce back.  In our personal lives, this means we have to be mentally and physically fit, and have access to sufficient financial and human resources. Have go-to folks that can bolster your efforts in those areas where they are stronger than you.  Take personal responsibility for your lot, however you define it.  When the blow comes take the hit, dust yourself off, and get ready to hit back.  Make yourself a hard target.

3.     Gonzo.  Honor the ethic given us by the late Hunter S. Thompson.  In shorthand, gonzo means that you should write all the rules down so you know what not to do.  Channel your inner Gonzo.  The vast majority of rules, policies, and structures were adopted to protect those in power, not to protect or serve you. In the ascent from crisis, those who set aside tradition and define their world in their own terms will be profoundly successful and yes, much happier.  When you face the inevitable admonishment “you can’t do that” or “that isn’t allowed,” simply respond: watch me.

4.     Transcendent.  Rise above the rabble.  Don’t be drawn into the muck of ignorance that is so-often the marker of organizations and factions whose survival depends on the condemnation of opposing perspectives. Be wary of ideologies and theologies that practice judgment and condemnation.  They are debilitating.  Retain your free will.  Read often and deeply; look for character, structure, and meaning.  Pursue knowledge beyond your comfort zone.  What does the artist know or do that might benefit the scientist?  This is the best way to nurture the power of an opposable mind.  An opposable mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of—that transcend the moment.

5.     Stealth. High profiles are dangerous in periods of crisis.  Humility and self-restraint are clearly preferable to hubris.  There are many people who enjoy health, wealth, and happiness who never stick their head in front of the camera. Be like them.

6.     Grace.  There are many definitions and interpretations of grace, so let me start by suggesting the grace I speak of is when the proper balance of virtues are combined with other elements and resources to produce something beautiful.  A state of grace then is the modality that produces beauty, whether it is an object, product, service, idea, or writing.  Pierre-Auguste Renoir often argued that the most durable things in the world are those that are beautiful.  Grace is the capacity to bring everything together in such a way that people say wow that is beautiful, or amazing, or just plain cool.  I am suggesting that grace is when you bring authenticity, resilience, gonzo, transcendence, and stealth together in just the right way to assure your destiny—which is indeed a truly beautiful thing.  Then, you are in a state of grace.

In my final comments today, I’d like to share a poem by William Ernest Henley, written in 1875 and subsequently published under the title, Invictus.  I use it as a source of strength and inspiration when the world seems daunting.

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

“We the People,” is arguably the most powerful phrase ever written in the history of humankind.  But remember this: no one person has the authority to decide who “the people” are, yet each one of us bears the responsibility of making the “we” happen.

Go forth to engage and unite with a calm sense of resilience to establish a new America whose influence is gained not coercively, but referentially by empowering people throughout both America and the world.  This is not a fearful America, nor is it bounded by bigger walls and bigger guns.  It is an America that believes in itself and its traditions of inclusion and empathy, and of its passion for education, innovation, and leadership.  This America views dynamism and creative destruction as prerequisites to continued greatness, rather than a “great” that can only be found in a romanticized Rockwellian past.

Our future will be determined by the decisions and actions of individual Americans every day.  Like water carving a new gorge in a mountain of stone, it will be the collective will of the people, expressed in their nearly imperceptible movements that will set the course of the future.  I believe that the loudest, most angry, and most fearful among us will not prevail; it will be the actions—not rhetoric—of the vast majority of us who decide how to behave as Americans that will lead America into a bright and prosperous future.

Thank you very much.

 

By |2017-08-15T19:55:20+00:00July 22nd, 2017|American Identity, General|0 Comments

Global Stewards or America First?

Although the word “unprecedented” was used constantly in 2016, and though there were many behaviors and statements made that were indeed unprecedented, what was going on—fundamentally—was not.  We do this to ourselves about every eighty years.  We renegotiate and redefine our answer to the question: What does it mean to be an American?

Toward the end of each American crisis (and we are nearing the end of the fourth American crisis) we define a new identity.  After the American Revolution that gave birth to our country, we identified as Land of the Free.  After the Civil War and Reconstruction, we became the Land of Opportunity.  After the Great Depression and World War II, we became Superpower.  Today, as we conclude this crisis—the War on Terror and Great Recession—we have a choice of new identities: Global Stewards or America First.

Global Stewards is the direction President Obama was taking us, and likely would have continued under Hillary Clinton had she been elected.  President Trump has proposed a nearly opposite identity in his inaugural address, America First.  Trump’s advocated new American identity has visceral appeal to many Americans.  It makes folks who feel left behind, or feeling suddenly dispossessed of their position in American social, economic, and political order, empowered, or at least comforted in the moment.  It taps resentment of government as its clarion call.  It is, however, a diabolical ruse intended to concentrate power in the presidency of Trump without regard to established American values or the rule of law.  It is profoundly dangerous.

America First is a fearful, zero-sum, win/lose, and isolationist future for America.  It puts America’s position in world order in peril by allowing other powers like China and Russia to move aggressively—both politically and economically—into Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.  It relies on deceit and divisiveness to exercise power over Americans for the benefit of the very few, represented most obviously in Trump’s selections for his cabinet.

Trump won the presidency not, however, by fear and anger, or even by Mr. Comey or Mr. Putin.  He won because too many Americans were complacent or apathetic.  Voter turnout and civic engagement operate at pathetic levels in America, but in a democracy you get the government you deserve.  Moving forward, many more Americans must take responsibility for themselves, their community, and their country if we are to transcend and defeat the mockery of American values President Trump represents.  We must unite and engage with a calm sense of profound resilience if we wish to protect the future of this great nation.

 

By |2017-06-05T22:11:05+00:00January 23rd, 2017|American Identity, Donald Trump|0 Comments

Rebranding America

The cacophony that pervades American discourse today, where volume and pitch offend every meter of reasonableness, provides clear evidence that the struggle for American identity is once again underway.  Every eighty years or so America resets its image; reboots its brand.  It is never an easy or comfortable process and this time is no different.  Before I get into the current issues, however, allow me to provide some historical perspective.

Upon reaching the shores of Massachusetts Bay in the summer of 1630 on the ship Arbella, John Winthrop, echoing Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, framed the requirements and expectations of his voyage-worn future colonists in a sermon that resonated throughout American history.  His Model of Christian Charity[1] articulated a sense of independence, duty, and blessings to those who honored their covenant with God.  Winthrop claimed,

the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own Articles’ and that ‘he ratified this Covenant and sealed our Commission [and] will expect a strikt performance of the Articles’ that if neglected in any way would cause ‘the Lord [to] surely breake out in wrath against us’ but if we set the example of His Word, ‘hee shall make us a prayse and glory… for we must Consider that wee shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us …[2]

Winthrop envisioned “Massachusetts as the ideal place to build a Puritan utopia untainted by the corruptions of the Church of England and distant from a suspect English monarch.”[3]  It was up to the colonists to live up to the standard of the “chosen people” living in the “chosen land”—a “City upon a Hill.”  He defined the Puritan ethos of the new American colonies: independence from the hierarchy of the Church of England; a constant struggle with sin, salvation, and battles against evil; and a high commitment to work and its just rewards with “attention fixed on God.”[4]  In so doing, he also set theological covenant as a standard of social order.  Winthrop believed he could “transfer the principles of nationhood found in ancient Israel to [his] Massachusetts Bay Company with no need for explanation.”[5]

Over the last two hundred thirty-eight years, this sense of American exceptionalism has proven to be the most durable of all aspects of American identity.[6]  Every president, regardless of political affiliation or disposition, has embraced the idea of America’s special role in the world.  Most American citizens, albeit with different interpretations and varying degrees of fervor, similarly believe in the ‘specialness’ of America. We should remind ourselves, however, that by world historical standards a two hundred thirty-eight year-old country is just a pup, at most a testy teen. And like an adolescent, our identity—what it means to be an American—will evolve, subject to new interpretations of old values and perhaps even new values, to craft a new image to be projected across the world.  Notwithstanding the somewhat clumsy brilliance and beauty of America’s early years, we must be mindful that the great powers that preceded America faced the reality of maturation and decline.  There is no reason to believe we won’t face the same arc of maturation.  We might aim to age gracefully, retaining our sense of exceptionalism—preferably as an exemplar rather than missionary— but a graceful course is far from certain.[7]

This process of American re-identification is natural and recurring.  It actually follows a discernible pattern that includes a four-phase cycle comprised of periods of objectivism, then radicalism, idealism, and finally crisis, each full cycle spanning approximately eighty years.  The first cycle began after the Revolutionary War and founding of our country, then again after the Civil War, and then again following the Great Depression and our entrance into World War II.  At the end of each period of crisis a new American identity is negotiated that more or less endures for the next eighty years.  Following the founding of our country, America embraced an identity as “the new world.”  After the Civil War, America identity evolved to “the land of opportunity.” Since the mid-1940s, when America last re-identified itself as an emerging “world power,” our collective identity has been focused on attaining superpower status.  Today, twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and our own (mis)adventures as a political superpower and overseer of the world’s financial markets, we are faced with a diminished, if not severely compromised, sense of American exceptionalism.  In effect, we are standing in the middle of another period of crisis and renegotiation of identity, which is always contentious as evidenced by those at the extremes making more noise than the vast majority who sit between them. Liberty, capitalism, democracy, civil and human rights, all of which we believed, as President Lincoln did, would collude to form a more perfect union—the “last best hope of earth”—needs yet another makeover. [8]

Our union today is hardly cohesive and the invocation of hope seems an empty refrain. “Superpower” no longer rings true when the institutions we have developed to serve our interests and project power appear to be collapsing under the weight of hubris and avarice.  Since the end of the Cold War, rather than following the example of President George H.W. Bush by behaving with a sense of restraint and humility, America’s leaders—political, business, religious, and academic—have puffed out their chests and spewed their decrees with the bravado and rectitude of a freshly saved sinner.  These behaviors are markers of a period of high idealism that precede every crisis.[9]  And, as if our own guile was insufficient, now comes a tome of criticism aimed at a fundamental tenant of American exceptionalism—capitalism—by the economist Thomas Piketty.  Not since 1959, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev flustered then Vice President Richard Nixon in what became known as the “Kitchen Debates” have Americans had to bear such criticism about capitalism.  However, unlike Krushchev, Piketty’s study is well researched, well written, and delivered with a clear expression of limits and, moreover, humility.

Piketty’s basic argument is that a society’s adherence to the principles of capitalism—as the most efficient system of allocating capital and distributing wealth—results, in the long run, in a highly skewed distribution of wealth in favor of the very few that, among other effects, compromises other liberal democratic values, including democracy itself.  In short, capitalism threatens democracy.  This is based on his finding that the rate of return on capital is consistently higher than the rate of return on labor, by about three percentage points.  Over decades, this condition (absent significant policy interventions or war) moves more and more wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people.  Furthermore, he shows, that the impact this has had on the concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1% is no more alarming than in the United States.[10]

We need look no farther than Washington, D.C. to see that the effects Piketty warns us about are blooming with the ferocity of fertilized dandelions on the Washington Mall.  Money has always held sway over politicians, but now more than ever moneyed interests funded by those who enjoy higher returns from capital have a vice-like grip on Congress. We no longer “get the government we deserve” through our votes, we get the government people like the Koch brothers have purchased.  Across the street from Congress, the Supreme Court is doing its bit too.  It has decided, as Mitt Romney claimed on the campaign stump in 2012, that corporations are citizens too.  Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission (2010) and other decisions like the more recent Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) that support this notion of corporate personhood, and which I expect may someday will be viewed as just as ridiculous as the holding of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), provide a growing body of evidence that suggests a slide from democracy to plutocracy—those with the gold rule.

Plutocracy is not all bad if all you want is a more functional government.  Fewer people with influence means more things are likely to get done, but will they be things that benefit most Americans, or few?  Moreover, plutocracy threatens more than the democracy it supplants, it threatens the very essence of individualism and independence, which are at the core of another tenant of American identity: liberty.  When those with the gold rule, there are a whole list of other “INs” that are at risk: invention, ingenuity, inspiration, initiative and innovation; inclusiveness, integration and integrity; and perhaps most importantly, intelligence and intellect—our collective brainpower.  Opportunity, like wealth, becomes concentrated too.  As Piketty points out, in the history of 19th century France, the last time similar levels of wealth concentration occurred, inheritance rather than merit defined the path to wealth and opportunity.  Is that where we want America to go?  Will whom we marry matter more than an advanced degree?  Will the next iteration of American identity be that of a wildly wealthy few and a mass of commoners for whom the American dream is restricted to something to read about in the diaries of their grandparents and great-grandparents?  Will privilege trump merit?  Will democracies continue to be replaced by authoritarian regimes across the world?[11]

If egalitarianism in America (heralded by Tocqueville in Democracy in America) is another durable thread of American identity, it is at best frayed and in need of repair.  However, such values like egalitarianism—broadly interpreted— may not have survived America’s coming of age as a superpower.  Egalitarianism today may be limited to those strands that support civil and human rights, not economic opportunity.  This issue is the anvil against which America’s next identity—especially as it pertains to its economic system—will be hewn.  Indeed, pundit-economists like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz believe economic rights are an issue of equality, rather than equity; of entitlement more than merit, while others who follow the teachings of Ludvig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek believe the Krugman/Stiglitz world is, to use Hayek’s phrase, the “road to serfdom.”[12]  Of course, seldom do the extremes of any range of argument—the polar endpoints—produce solutions with more benefit than (unintended) costs.  Even Alan Greenspan, a staunch protégé of Ayn Rand’s, realized (perhaps too late) that her argument of the perfectly rational man as a virtuous economic actor was deeply flawed.[13]  So, the question is, in this contentious period of re-identification, can we retain the benefits of capitalism while avoiding its apparent endgame of a very wealthy few?  Unfortunately, the answer is probably no.

Absent the destruction of capital that we saw in World War I and II, which, as Piketty illustrates, flipped diverging rates of return on capital and labor to converging rates, the only way to stem the concentration of wealth and affect redistribution is through various tax schemes, any and all of which are anathema to the Mises/Hayek school and its many wealthy supporters.  Reading Piketty’s proposals of a global tax, or others who have put forward similar tax schemes is like reading a new version of Alice in Wonderland, prompting the query: did Piketty get into Lewis Carroll’s stash?  However, things happen, like the collapse of the Soviet Union, that still amaze people like me, so who knows?

The American values we have historically held dear; that basket of values that includes ideas like liberty, individualism, capitalism, merit, democracy, civil and human rights needs a new handhold we can believe in—a new identity.  Coming of age is an inelegant and klutzy process, but to-date America has handled it mostly well.  We have created more prosperity than any predecessor power in the history of the world.  When called to defeat evil like Hitler’s Third Reich, we put our blood and treasure on the line and, with great help from allies and, in particular, Stalin’s Russia, we won.  We have, for the most part, lived up to Winthrop’s ideal of a “city upon a hill.”  Adulthood is, however, knocking at America’s door.

  • Will our leaders be wise and graceful, or continue in the vain and bilious manner portrayed by too many today?
  • Will we be exemplars of self-restraint and moderation, or zealous missionaries of consumptive duplicity?
  • Will we lock the gates to America, or continue to embrace those who come from foreign lands?
  • Will we educate our children to know more than us, or fail to enable their dreams?
  • Will we honor science and take reasonable measures to affect climate change, or will we continue to chant “Drill, baby, drill!”?
  • Will we fight to engineer a system that protects and rewards merit balanced by empathy, or will we accept the pernicious effects of concentrated wealth and its natural progeny plutocracy?
  • Will we be welcomed in the capitols of the world, or be regarded with contempt and trepidation?
  • Will we honor our American heritage and come together to relight the city upon the hill, or continue to strut down a pathway to irrelevance?

In sum, will America be rebranded as ‘beneficent stewards’ of the future of the world, or will the nation of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton become an isolated, self-centered, and decaying archetype of entropy?  These are the choices we face as we step forward to rebrand America.  Other great powers in the history of the world faced the same dilemma; some succeeded, some failed.  There is no clear roadmap to follow and nothing will be determined in the next election, or Supreme Court decision, or annual statement of profit and loss.  This is a result that will be determined by the decisions and actions of individual Americans every day.  Like water carving a new gorge in a mountain of stone, it will be the collective will of the people, expressed in their nearly imperceptible movements that will set the course of the next eighty-year cycle.  The loudest among us will not prevail; it will be the actions—not words—of the vast majority of us who decide how to behave as Americans each and every day.

[1] Winthrop’s Modell of Christian Charity is available in his papers, volume II, at The Massachusetts Historical Society, http://www.masshist.org/books/winthrop.cfm.
[2] Winthrop in Conrad Cherry, ed., God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 40.
[3] Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (New York: Pearson Longman, 2006), p. ix.
[4] Ibid., p. 5.
[5] Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard Publishers, 1989), p. 34.
[6] See an expanded analysis of exceptionalism and other aspects of American identity in my forthcoming book from Palgrave Macmillan, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist.
[7] This notion of two forms of exceptionalism—exemplar and missionary—are thoroughly illustrated in H.W. Brands, What America Owes the World: The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), and Trevor B. McCrisken, American Exceptionalism and the Legacy of Vietnam: US Foreign Policy Since 1974 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
[8] Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1962.
[9] This period of idealism is a dialectic synthesis of objective method and ‘settled’ radical ideas/values from the preceding period(s). Assertion of this synthesis is projected on an often-unwilling populace, both domestic and foreign. Other common markers of periods of idealism include hubris, certitude, grandeur, and consumption-based economies. Conspicuous consumption. Get rich quick. Speculation. Deregulation. Class inequalities. High religiosity.  Periods of idealism include 1835-60, 1915-29, and 1985-2007.
[10] There are those, however, who dismiss the importance of the gap between today’s rich and poor in the United States.  Gilbert Chin and Elizabeth Culotta, editors at Science, suggest it is not so bad.  They point out that it is much worse in South Africa (even though it is worse than more likely comparable economies like those of Japan, Europe, and all of Scandinavia.)  I am not sure I can remember another time we have pointed at South Africa to make ourselves feel better, as Americans; at least not since apartheid. See Gilbert Chin and Elizabeth Culotta, “The Science of Inequality: What the Numbers Tell Us.” Science, 344:6186, May 23, 2014, p. 820.
[11] See Joshua Kurlantzick, Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
[12] Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom: A Classic Warning Against the Dangers to Freedom Inherent in Social Planning (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1944)
[13] See Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (New York: Penguin Group, 2008).  See also, Jerome Tuccille, Alan Shrugged: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan, the World’s Most Powerful Banker (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2002).
By |2017-05-27T17:39:21+00:00July 7th, 2014|American Identity|0 Comments

Re-imagining America

In my last post, “The Best in Us,” I argued that a breach of character—specifically the loss of honesty and humility—was at the center of our political, economic, and social problems in America. Bringing honesty and humility back to our discourse and decision-making is indeed elemental to the recovery of America. The lunatic fringe who stand on ideological and religious fantasies, and who spew invective that is void of any credible or durable ideal must be marginalized. Obama has tried, although addled by his own Socratic disposition and by the virulent and racist attacks against him, whereas a guy like Governor Chris Christie might have a better chance. Christie doesn’t appear to cotton to stupidity, and he seems to have the honesty thing down. His disposition and, lets face it, his ethnicity, may be more appropriate for the crisis we face. The last part, as repugnant as it is, is a sorrowful reality. That said, once we heal our character—in our leaders and ourselves—we must also move forward to re-imagining America. This requires a holistic makeover of American identity.

Now, before you go running around with your hair on fire accusing me of being an unpatriotic (or worse), let me be clear: the basics do not need to change. Independence, self-reliance, and innovation remain core values in a re-imagined America. But other myths, dispositions, preferences, and behaviors, which have found their way into our identity since the end of the Cold War twenty years ago, must change. Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War made us dumb, and 9/11 made us dumber. It is time to get things back on track. The “end of history,” which was hubristically claimed by Francis Fukuyama in 1992, was actually the beginning of our self-inflicted decline, which hit warp speed after 9/11. The post-evil-Soviet-empire era did not result in a prophesized thousand years of peace and prosperity; when coupled with digital technologies it simply created new ways to compete, mostly asymmetrically. Meanwhile, we Americans gorged ourselves on nothing-down ponzi schemes instead of doubling-down our investment in the things that made us great, most notably all things related to intelligence. Here are four things we need to re-think.

  1. The Power Trap. The United States won the hard power game based on brawn. Meanwhile, the rest of the world came up with new pathways to power that are soft, generally based in intelligence. China has focused on education and economics. Russia has focused on resource power, principally oil. Brazil has focused on agriculture, energy, and demographic power.  India is growing a well-educated middle class faster than any state in the world. Germany kept their debt low and invested in industry and trade. Ireland welcomed immigrants and entrepreneurs. But, the United States kept playing the old game: bigger weapons systems and odious domestic security schemes financed with debt and founded in fear. We are trapped in Cold War power narratives. Americans need to wake up to the new world and start thinking brains over brawn.
  2. The Wealth Myth. Since the Peace at Westphalia in 1648 that gave rise to the state-centric international system, wealth has been the denominator of power. The more land, resources, people, and money a state had determined its power in the world. Wealth is still important, but as argued above, intelligence (which is not always closely correlated with wealth) is now more important. However, there is another dimension to the wealth myth that needs to be considered anew. Wealth does not always mean we are better off. Affluence can actually weaken civil society. We need look no further than the last twenty years of American history. Even before the current recession began, depression was up, test scores and graduation rates were down, poverty and homelessness was rising, and the number one threat to our health was not some incurable disease, it had become self-indulgent obesity. All this occurred as the United States hit the pinnacle of its wealth and power in 2000. If we are going to succeed in facing the current crisis, we need to shift our focus away from wealth to well-being. We need to practice self-restraint and summon compassion. We must prefer austerity to audacity. We need to focus on those things that make us strong and content.  Dignity, respect, resilience, and, moreover our core values of independence, self -reliance, and innovation do not come from wealth, they come from strong bodies, agile minds, and whole hearts. They come from well-being.
  3. Our Growth Obsession. The orthodoxy of growth—that more is better—may be fatally flawed. We are reaching resource limits and facing environmental impacts that suggest we better get on the less-is-more bandwagon. As Herman Daly, a former member of the World Bank recently argued, “In an empty world, growth is good. But that is not the world we inhabit. We live in a world that is full of us and our stuff, a world that is finite in terms of the economic activity it can sustain.”[1] All of our current financial models call for growth. It has become the wicked requirement of affluence and the only relatively painless way out of overwhelming financial deficits.  However, what if we rejected that orthodoxy and, with a steady eye on well-being, conceived plans that aimed at contraction? What if we designed our lives and attendant expectations around less, not more? I will further suggest contraction, not growth, is the more reasonable way to survive the current crisis and to transcend the many maladies of affluence realized over the last twenty years. It may seem antithetical, even heretical, when considered through the lens of our current American identity, but it just may be exactly what our future identity requires.
  4. The Piety Preference. May we please retire piety from the political sphere? Until the 1970s religion was in the private and public sphere—at home and in church. It crept toward the political sphere during the 1950s as a point of differentiation with “godless communism,” then lurched further forward during the civil rights movement and anti-war demonstrations on the left in the 1960s, only to be met by even more fiery rectitude from the far right after Roe v. Wade in 1973. Since then, faith-based rectitude has produced more division—and violence—than at any time in US history. When I hear politicians and despots summon their faith I cannot help but wonder what Jesus, or Moses, or Mohammed, or Buddha, would say to them.  In America, where most politicians claim Christianity, I seldom witness even the slightest correlation between what politicians say and how they behave with the teachings of Jesus Christ. The fiber of diversity is what made America great, not the twisted interpretation of scripture for the projection of political power. To those who are elected to lead, please respect our differences by leaving your piety at home. We are a nation of laws, not prophecy.

It is time to think differently to save our future. As argued before, we must heal our character, but we must also re-imagine America. Old orthodoxies that served us well twenty, fifty, or one hundred years ago will not work today. They may even work against us. Our core values remain: independence, self-reliance, and innovation. But, the paradigms we employ—how we think about the world and our role in it—must be reconsidered. Things will likely get even worse before they get better, but the sooner we start the conversation about re-imagining America, the sooner we will all be better off.

[1] Interview of Herman Daly by Martin Eirman, September 5, 2011, “We need a Crisis, and a Change of Values,” http://theeuropean-magazine.com/356-daly/357-the-end-of-growth.
By |2017-05-23T19:45:51+00:00September 28th, 2011|American Identity, General|0 Comments

The Best in Us

It is often said that the worst times bring out the best in us.  As I reflect on 9/11 and the decade that followed, I oscillate between anger, sadness, and disgust.  At times my jaw is clenched, while at others the tears well up.  Then, too often of late, I just hang my head in disbelief.  As an historian it is impossible for me to avoid comparing 9/11 to other moments of crisis in America, to other ‘worst’ times.  The run-up and aftermath of the American Revolution, Civil War, and Great Depression and World War II are obvious candidates for comparison.  What I find is that the significant markers that define the beginnings of these crises are characterized by both grave challenges and collective determination.  Americans come together and address the crisis with a high sense of resolve, responsibility, and sacrifice.  Our character is lean and strong.  During this period of comparison there are many more similarities than differences.  It is in the out years, roughly three years and beyond the initiation of crisis, when more differences are found, and where prospects for the future are defined.

Our initial response to 9/11 was similar to other crises.  Flags were everywhere and while a few people behaved in a manner unbecoming an American, most of us kept our cool and rallied around our leaders with compassion for those who lost loved ones, and a determination to seek justice.  In the out years, however, we lost our composure by compromising two things: our honesty and our humility.  Ideological bullies like Vice President Dick Cheney began by lying about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda in Iraq.  Inside the Beltway of Washington DC they call it politicizing intelligence.  I will call it what it is: lying.  The lies enabled a call to action that has cost us at least two trillion dollars and, across the world, the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  Once our honesty was lost, what little humility remained since we had become the world’s sole remaining superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union was vanquished by our hubristic response to 9/11.  Once our humility was gone, our national character—our identity—was lost as well. We were all sucked into a charade that has proven catastrophic.  The promises of the Cheney bunch—of cheers, bouquets, and new democracies—were never realized and now we are stuck in a quagmire without a clear exit.  The tally of blood and treasure lost is far from over.

Dishonesty, and moreover, arrogance, appear to be the primary products of the out-years after 9/11.  Now we behave at home the way we have abroad.  Our leaders in Congress swagger about with Cheney-esque anger and certitude.  Ideological bullying has become the norm.  Meanwhile, our president hides in the White House like a prom king who has just realized the student body doesn’t love him so much after all.  What courage he had has been overcome by his naiveté.  No, President Obama, the old white pudgy boys in Congress are not enamored with a young fit black man in the White House.  They want you out and they will do anything possible to bring that about.  It is time for you to fight for our future and forget about a second term.  Use the rest of your term to be the best one-term president ever.  If you do, who knows, you might even have a second term.

As I watched the tears shed by the children remembering their loved ones at Ground Zero on September 11, 2011, I couldn’t help but also wonder about all the tears shed by the children of those who have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan.  As I watch Wall Street prosper, I wonder why we can’t do the same thing for main streets all over America.  As I watch the middle class rise across Asia, I watch and wonder why we tolerate its decline in the West.  As I watch students across Scandinavia and Asia excel at levels significantly higher than our own kids, I wonder how we expect to remain a superpower.  As I watch our security, health, and environment decline from our dependence on fossil fuels, I wonder why we don’t launch a massive public initiative to produce new fuels and new distribution systems.

Many wonder these days if Karl Marx was right; if capitalism will produce its own demise.  It is an interesting question given our current circumstances.  I conclude, however, that capitalism and democracy are not the problem, character is.  We must regain our sense of honesty and humility to face the many challenges we face.  Once our character is lean and strong again we will have the courage to do what we know is right.  We will not allow those we elected to serve us to continue serving themselves first.  We will, once again, summon the best in us.

By |2017-05-23T19:50:02+00:00September 11th, 2011|American Identity, Leadership|0 Comments

The Next Americans

I love the American story. I admire tales told by old-timers, especially about hardship, redemption, and survival. I am inspired by listening to young people express their dreams of how they intend to leave their mark, especially when I reflect on the fact that in many places in the world their peers are still unable to have many dreams, let alone express them. The Next Americans, which I will loosely suggest are the under thirty-five crowd, are today forging a new identity that will change America forever. My generation (Baby Boomers), ambitious and rapacious as we can be, is largely irrelevant in defining what it means to be a Next American. I accept this reality with a gulp of humility, a slice of regret, and a pinch of sadness. Yet, I believe in the Next Americans the same way my peers and I received the confidence of our predecessors: with a transcendent sense of hope.

The Next Americans have an unusual opportunity. While American identity constantly evolves and stalwart values like freedom, individualism, and self-reliance are often squeezed in the vice of circumstance, and at other times manipulated to the point of obscurity, periods of crisis offer the greatest opportunity to redefine the American story—to establish a new identity. For Next Americans, crisis is good. Every eighty years or so America comes full circle and is faced with a crisis. The American Revolution, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Great Depression and World War II comprise the first three. I have posited that in the interregnum between crises America follows a dispositional progression starting with objectivism where unity, reason, inclusion, pragmatism, tolerance, and self-reliance mark discourse and behavior. Then, slowly, we move into a period of radicalism when we begin to reject the status quo and are attracted to narratives of liberalism, activism, inspiration, and intuition. We reject standardization in favor of differentiation while we accept, if not expect, our government to play a larger role in society. This is followed by a period of überidealism that establishes a dialectic synthesis of objective method and settled radical ideas and values. Hyper-exceptionalism is projected on an unwilling populace, both domestic and foreign. Grandeur reigns. Conspicuous consumption, speculation, deregulation, class inequalities and high religiosity are normative. The timber of humanity that Immanuel Kant suggested was ever crooked is at its gnarly apex during this period. Then, as if the laws of physics hold a bias for self-correction, crisis returns, generally characterized by both severe economic stress and war. Notwithstanding the requisite humility of an historian—that history is at best an imperfect predictor of the future—it seems more than plausible that we have entered another period of crisis, more or less on schedule. It may be several more years—accompanied by even greater peril—before we move into the next period of objectivism. Meanwhile, American identity is once again up for grabs.

Who we are as Americans is the common denominator of every major issue we face today. The role of government, immigration, fiscal and monetary policy, foreign policy, social services, healthcare reform, education reform, the role of unions, taxes, and deficit reduction battles, all contribute to the debate of what it means to be an American. During every crisis we wrestle between diversity and inclusion on one hand, and the impulse toward uniformity and exclusion on the other. We decide who is worthy and who is not, often based on bigoted parochialism. We engage in incendiary discourse and watch old assumptions collapse under the weight of new realities. Adversaries and advocates both conjure (often) bizarre interpretations of what the Founding Fathers must have meant when they scribed our original documents. Those who feel threatened by dispossession from their historical position in social order become a danger to all, most of all to themselves. But, out of the chaos, ugliness, and pain, a new American story is born. Old threadbare myths gain new fiber from the churn of discontent, like a recovering addict with a new hymn in his heart, we form new narratives that stagger forward toward the future.

Many suggest that our problems are strictly economic. President Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville, is famous for his admonition, “It’s the economy, stupid!” I agree with Carville, if your job is to manipulate a political outcome in the favor of your candidate, but I would argue this is otherwise a false premise. The economy and the danger of current and future Federal deficits are indeed deeply concerning. As a former student of economics I give them their due respect and, like many who view the facts in a sober and clear fashion, I see no immediate solutions that avoid extraordinary pain. However, I also recognize that our economic consequences are an effect rather than a cause; there are more substantive objectives we must pursue if we are to assure the future of this great nation. I offer three.

First, we must strengthen what I call our operational code. What we have lost during the last several years is our capacity to reliably predict the behavior of leaders who we have come to rely on, whether they are political, business, judicial, or religious leaders. Ethics have traveled beyond situational to vaporous. What some call our “rule of law” has been twisted to such a degree that we are now unable to form reasonable expectations. We behave at home and abroad as if the rules only apply to those who are subject to our power. The result is a collective social dissonance that may even slip toward civil insanity. We must fight to re-establish a clear operational code and force, as necessary, compliance therewith. Leaders must be accountable to their respective constituents, shareholders, employees, laws, and faithful. If we do not, chaos, while tolerable and even beneficial in small doses, may become endemic.

Second, we must commit to the development and application of creative intelligence. Teachers are a treasure, not a burden or a scapegoat. They should be paid as if we treasure them to assure the best Next Americans train brighter and more creative American minds. Furthermore, basic research and development must be the focus of rebuilding a prosperous and resilient nation. For example, big and ambitious public projects must be undertaken immediately to invent/innovate how we produce, distribute, and consume energy. Our security, health, and wealth depend on it. Second-rate creative intelligence will assure us of becoming a second-rate nation.

Finally, humanity matters. We must, again, take responsibility for each other and ourselves. We must reject the ethos that suggests a government or other institution is responsible for our welfare. The health of our relationships by and between members of families, communities, generations, races, ethnicities, and religions must honor differences first (to establish empathy) and second, identify common interests to produce mutual benefits. For millennia we have formed collectives to assure security and prosperity. In the last several years, however, we Americans have grown selfish and jingoistic. We cannot afford to face globalism with the insular and bellicose chauvinism that has become the clarion call of phony patriots. If we continue to allow this to be part of our story we will lose.

I am pleased to know many people who are the Next Americans. They prefer diversity and inclusion. They realize that zero-sum orthodoxy is more often wrong than right. They reject rational choice constructs that are an artifact of twentieth century scientific prejudice. Ideas and relationships matter beyond the calculus and confinement of worn methodologies. For them, cooperation carries as much gravitas as competition. Well-being trumps wealth as the primary ambition. They see the world as a complex matrix of interdependencies and reject the exclusionary and judgmental simplicity of the Manichean imperative that condemns those who embrace unfamiliar traditions or worship a different God as agents of evil. The Next Americans will do as we all have: they will fail their way to success. In the process they will define a new America. They will determine our new identity. I am grateful they will be the next to call this great country their own.

By |2017-05-23T20:03:54+00:00July 3rd, 2011|American Identity, General|0 Comments

“Dithering” Might Have Been Better

While Sarah Palin criticizes President Obama of “dithering,” maybe that is exactly what we should be better at when it comes to foreign interventions like the recent one in Libya.  Here are some observations/questions I recently offered in a US foreign policy group I belong to, to, in part, stimulate discussion about US involvement in Libya.

  1. Analogies are dangerous. Rwanda was not Bosnia or Kosovo, and neither are any of them Libya.  The events associated with each are born from different places, times, people, governments, cultures, economies, and laws.  Still, our memories of them are powerful, and in the last several days the interpretation of each is and has been projected on Libya.  As historians we have to interpret the record associated with each while we place a huge warning label on our analyses that reads This Will Never Recur Exactly As It Has Here. (A sort of historian’s caveat emptor.)  In critical ways, each event is different.  Richard E. Neustadt’s and Ernest R. May’s Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers warns us of the danger of analogies.  Their study shows many cases of the misapplication of history, operationalized in policymaking through analogies, that cause us to ask, years later, why in the hell did they do that?  In most cases speed is a factor, and the simple enormity of what decision makers have to deal with, all the complexities and scale.  Analogies simplify and justify; they are the fuel of dispatch.  However, if we do in Libya what we should have done in the Balkans or Rwanda, will we do what is correct for Libya?  If we begin with the premise they are different, then how is doing what we believe we should have done in Bosnia or Rwanda even logical?
  2. We must be careful what we wish for.  Or, asked otherwise by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s representative for foreign affairs and security, “And then what?” Qaddafi (Q) didn’t become a mass murderer overnight, in fact, where is the evidence of slaughter?  Obama hung his case on Q’s psychobabble rhetoric, where Q claimed he would show “no mercy,” to justify intervening to stop Q short of Benghazi.  I can only conclude there was no evidence of slaughter by Q’s troops on the way from Tripoli to Benghazi, otherwise Obama surely would have hung his argument on something more than Q’s “no mercy” pledge.  (I reflect on much of Reagan’s rhetoric in the 1980s and find Q’s nearly childish.)  Q clearly had the rebels on the run, but genocide?  Q has a long history of violence, like other despots (we ignore), but I am unaware of any history of genocide.  Yet, we have committed tremendous resources to a nebulous task of “protecting Libyans” who will now likely face a long ground war with a desperate despot.  Many would have likely died, and now many likely will.  Where is the victory in that?  Moreover, when a conclusion is declared—however nebulous—then what?  Who will rule?  Whom will they rule and how?  Perhaps we should watch Egypt (an arguably much more stable and developed state) to see if freedom and human rights prevail over what looks like a government that will likely be controlled by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Time will tell, but maybe we should let it do exactly that.
  3. In the meantime, American identity is slowly changing, but politics are still politics.  The debate in the US on this issue, when you cull out the relevant pronouns, is really about the role of the US in the world—about American identity.  Involvement by the US in world affairs swings to and fro—from isolationism to overt exceptionalism.  Absent the pronouns, when you compare today’s debate to the days of Woodrow Wilson’s battle with Congress after World War I, there is an eerie echo.  We may be seeing Obama facing the same thing today.  Perplexingly, Obama seems a better fit for an advocate of a more restrained America, yet the facts (Afghanistan and now Libya) belie my perception of his intellectual disposition.  Then again, maybe it is just the primacy of politics.  After all, 2012 looms.  Both humor and pain can be found in the push and pull between the White House and the Congress (under the veil of legal issues like the War Powers Act).  Each is trying to create a position where, in the end, they can claim they were right.  So, ambiguity wins again!
By |2017-05-23T20:19:26+00:00March 25th, 2011|American Identity, General|0 Comments