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

America’s God Problem

There is a fine line between tonic and toxin and many Americans have crossed it during our climb from Puritan hardship to sententious abundance, perhaps most of all in our contemplation of God.  What follows is not a harangue about religion and faith; I have neither the conviction nor explicatory skills of renowned atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Sam Harris.  To me, neither theists nor atheists have made their case, my head and heart remain open to discovery.  Whether religious or not, however, we Americans had better come to understand both the virtue and vice of our religiosity.  Projected beyond the self, let alone beyond borders, piety creates predictable yet preventable disasters.  And the final victim may be the stability of our republic.

As philosopher Robert Wright observes in his study, The Evolution of God, belief in the supernatural has been with us since primordial times, initially as a way “to explain why bad things happen … and offer a way to make things better.”[1]  Since then religion and faith have been expressed and reinterpreted in both monotheistic and polytheistic ways, but essentially fit within the definition offered by psychologist William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, as “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”[2]  The evolution of God in America has taken its own particular course, dominated by Christian sects and quite unfortunately without consistent regard to James’ concept of harmonious adjustment to an unseen order.[3]

In 1630, just before arrival on the shores of what would later become the state of Massachusetts, John Winthrop gave a sermon of sorts to his shipload of anxious pilgrims aboard the Arbella.  He borrowed from Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and offered both prescriptions and proscriptions.  He said, “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.”[4]  Winthrop set the stage for what became a broad new interpretation of America that is alive and (too) well today.  America was a new land that could set its own rules and, as long as Americans abided by them, and set the example of “His Word,” they would live as a “City upon a Hill” that the world would look to for guidance and inspiration.  In Winthrop’s relatively few words, America became the new Israel, and Americans were God’s chosen people.

What followed was the development of a special American identity expressed in many new and different ways, from notions of “manifest destiny” to several presidential doctrines that all contemplate a role for America, divinely ordained, as the purveyor of Truth to the world about both seen and unseen order.[5]  In the process the world became America’s province.  Meanwhile, religion ebbed and flowed to and from the political sphere in America through wars, so-called “great awakenings,” and other exigencies, becoming firmly ensconced in political discourse by the mid 1970s.  Along the way, intoxicated by the certitude of evangelism and honed against the anvil of godless communism and modern-day terrorism, Americans neglected their own “Articles” and compliance with “His Word” and have exchanged the role of exemplar for zealot, sliding further still toward dispensing condemnations and even waging preventive war while caught in the mystical allure of the “City upon the Hill.”  Today, the prospect of the Lord’s wrath Winthrop warned of has been reassigned to non-Americans and, moreover, non-believers.  James’ notion of “harmonious adjustment” has been long forgotten.

The results of such zealotry now lay at our feet: a country that has lost much of its respect (and yes, power) around the world, and that is now attacking itself from within.  The tonic of freedom our Founding Fathers fought so hard to preserve in both word and deed has been poisoned by the toxin of righteousness. Virtue has yielded to vice.  What is called for now are the better religious values of humility, tolerance, and sacrifice; but what we hear from too many religious leaders, and by pols and pundits masquerading as theologically pure, is ever-increasing righteousness and venomous condemnations.  It is upon this altar our republic will either be lost or renewed, but as columnist Lisa Miller recently pointed out in Newsweek, the religious right have hardened their resolve to make the elections in 2012 about “God’s own special country” and remain furious advocates of “fear and domination.”[6]

I remain convinced that the next few years in America will prove as important as the first few some two hundred thirty years ago.  The way we behave now, toward the world and each other—whether or not we corral the perversions of Christian nationalism—will largely determine the fate of the republic.  As we gather this holiday season to celebrate our various traditions, family, and community, I would encourage each of us to address America’s God problem, summoning our better selves by setting aside bigotry and isolation in favor of tolerance and inclusion.

[1] Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (New York: Little Brown & Co., 2009), p. 27.
[2] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Press, 1982), p. 53.  (The original publication date is 1902.)
[3] I recognize, as Robert Wright did, that the mere suggestion of evolution and God in the same sentence, let alone the “evolution of God,” would seem heretical to many.  So be it.  The historical record is all anyone needs to demonstrate the gradual and certain variance that develops into seemingly new cognitive iterations of God over time. The most historical Christian document, the Bible, was written in many languages by many people at different times and has contributed mightily to the evolutionary dynamism of God.
[4] John 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.  For more of Winthrop’s writings see his Modell of Christian Charity in volume II of his works at The Massachusetts Historical Society, www. Masshist.org/books/Winthrop.cfm.
[5] Among the more important so-called presidential doctrines are the Monroe doctrine, which began as a hemispheric caution to the Europeans; then the Teddy Roosevelt ‘corollary’ that gave Monroe’s concept an expanded imperial tone; then the Truman doctrine that was directed principally at the Middle East; then the Reagan Doctrine that addresses essentially the entire world; and, more recently, the Bush doctrine that promulgated preventive war.
[6] Lisa Miller, “One Nation Under God,” Newsweek, December 9, 2010, www.newsweek.com
By |2017-05-27T18:30:45+00:00December 13th, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

Two Cups of Tea

With just a couple of days remaining before the midterm elections many people, including me, are bemoaning what appears to be a new low in political discourse that suggests a complete abandonment of America’s position as the standard-bearer of liberal democracy. If the evidence of yelling, screaming, head stomping, and complete disregard for the truth is any indication, on Wednesday, November 3, we could be facing a new Congress that is likely to turn the rotunda of the Capitol into a cage-fighting ring to settle petty political scores. And to be fair, neither party is innocent here. There are nasty people on all sides. It bears remembering, however, that American democracy has always been a messy and chaotic business and extremism is nothing new. Furthermore, extremism, like that which marks much of today’s Tea Party rhetoric, has a way of becoming diluted over time while offering new leaders a springboard to interpret underlying principles in more attractive ways.

Princeton historian, Sean Wilentz provides evidence of this phenomenon in his recent article “Confounding Fathers” (The New Yorker, October 18, 2010). He details an historical review of the John Birch Society and its tight parallels with today’s Tea Party. Wilentz argues that the extreme rhetoric of Beck, Palin, Limbaugh, and their many followers/imitators, is simply an update of the 1960s incendiary fodder produced by Robert Welch (founder of the John Birch Society) and Willard Cleon Skousen (founder of the All-American Society and philosophical mentor of Glenn Beck). In essence, today’s tea is Birch Tea. As the 60s moved forward, the Birchers experienced a straightening and redirecting of their principles by cooler and more astute minds like that of William F. Buckley, Jr. As Wilentz points out, Buckley’s biographer John J. Judis, observed, “Buckley was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right-wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn rather than leading toward the kind of conservatism [his] National Review had promoted.”

Buckley and other more practical conservatives asserted the principles of right-wing extremism sans the bombastic bravado. I can still hear Buckley intoning his arguments on Public Television with sharp wit and rhythmic cadence without bludgeoning his political adversaries. He had a sense of decorum absent in the practices of Beck, et al. In time, he also had a candidate for president in the governor of California, Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s brilliance resided in his profound interpersonal intelligence. Historians have roundly criticized him for his lack of analytical skills and interests, but one thing he knew was how to connect with people. He used soaring rhetoric to be sure, but it was always a shade or two less hot than the Birchers. He also knew the difference between rhetoric and policy. He invited the support of social conservatives by embracing their passion against abortion and for school prayer, but knew better than to use his power as president to assert government control over what he viewed as personal liberties. He was a rhetorical conservative and a pragmatic libertarian.

In a recent interview I completed with Reagan’s son, Ron, he suggested his father would be a poor fit in the Republican party of 2010. Ron believes his father would be barely conservative enough on today’s scale to make “center-right.”   What is also clear, however, given this reading of history, is that our concerns of the day shall pass. Brighter and more reasonable minds will prevail. The rough and garish will realize that enduring power, like that which Reagan enjoyed, is won not just through coercion and fear, but also optimism and yes, hope. Reagan believed in American exceptionalism more than any politician in contemporary history. While it did not always serve him well, it did allow him to favor inclusion over division, and optimism over fear. He was a compassionate exceptionalist, able to condemn communism as an “evil empire” while befriending its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Together, they set the stage for the end of the Cold War and an unprecedented period of economic prosperity.

Birch Tea won’t last, but it will provide elements to cull from its leftover leaves, which, when combined with more mild herbs, will offer a less bitter cup of tea. Perhaps it will be called Reagan Tea.

By |2017-05-25T18:32:05+00:00October 31st, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

The Age of Apate´

In the last fifty years, the American experience has hurtled forward from Kennedy’s Age of Camelot, to the Age of Aquarius, and now the Age of Apaté (a-pat’-ay), named for the Greek goddess of deceit whose evil spirit was released once Pandora opened her box. The lid on Pandora’s mythical box (actually a jar) was loosened by the alchemy of Ronald Reagan and the ambition of Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War. When Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika-styled reforms slipped perilously toward revolution the Soviet model imploded. However, what was once widely considered a great victory over godless communism—the collapse of the Soviet Union—quickly became affected, or perhaps more accurately infected, by the spirit of Apaté. Hubris and deceit were easier and, let’s face it, more fun than humility and honesty. With the Soviets out of the way, we Americans were free to assume a wide berth of exceptionalism to expand our reach and reign. And, we did it on the wings of Apaté.

Today, many debate today whether we have entered another Great Depression, or just a Great Recession, but it may be more accurately considered a Great Deception. From WMD, to credit default swaps, to non-reform reforms and unreal reality shows, we Americans have elevated the art of deception from a hapless wizard deceiving a dream-addled girl from Kansas, to a metastasized algorithmic ethos denominated in fraud. We face unimaginable deficits while we continue to ignore their obvious causes lest a noisy constituency or moneyed lobbyist objects. We wage war without a clear objective and no exit strategy to, among other things, protect our access to a source of energy that compromises our health and security while slowly but surely killing the planet on which we live. We are re-writing our history books to expunge our liberal heritage in favor of Christian nationalism—a crown of thorns to replace Uncle Sam’s top hat—as we elbow both reason and tolerance out of the public square. Bigger lies and more hate are essential ingredients in contemporary narrative.

Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, may indeed be the defining period piece of the era. As Charles Baxter aptly points out in his review of Freedom in The New York Review of Books (9/30/10), “the noble lie serves as the pivot point around which almost everything in Freedom turns.” Alas, at least all elements of American culture, including politics, economics, religion, literature, and entertainment are aligned—albeit around an axis of deceit.

Fear not, we will find our way out of this sticky web of deception; or perhaps more likely hurled into the stubborn certainty of a reality based in truth. The fanciful altered state of the last twenty years is coming to a painful end. As with most empires that vanquish their enemies, the last and greatest challenge is in facing itself. This too is America’s final imperial test. Our future rises or falls on our capacity to see things as they are under the blinding light of truth. We may or may not be different than the fallen empires that preceded us, but we will most certainly fail if we continue to indulge Apaté’s nefarious ways.

By |2017-05-25T18:38:13+00:00October 10th, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

Out of Crisis, a New US

Every seventy-five years or so America endures a period of crisis that lasts from twelve to seventeen years.  They include both profound economic and security effects that put the country at leviathan levels of risk.  The founding of our country was itself a period of crisis; later was the Civil War and Reconstruction, and in the twentieth century the Great Depression and World War II.  The current period of crisis in now three years old—marked by the date our capital markets began to realize they were standing in the quicksand of credit default swaps secured by vapor and hubris.  I would argue we are far from seeing the depth of the current crisis, nor are we even near a midpoint.  It would be ahistorical to predict otherwise.  We have yet to even seen the axe of conflict fall.  No, 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan don’t count – at least not yet, although they probably provide the framework for much wider conflict—a wider War on Terror— with many more actors involved.  I remain convinced that our capacity to start and perpetuate war far exceeds our ability to end it.  The preposterous realization that we are unable to even define what a win is, is all the evidence anyone needs to defend that claim.  Be that as it may, my intent here is not to debate the dilemmas that face policymakers and provide fuel for Gadarene punditry today; rather to explore what historians will later observe with the crisis behind them, as they write the inevitable story of how American identity was changed forever (or at least until the next crisis in around 2095).  If we are smart, we will write a different future than historians might expect.  But we better wise-up soon.

As we stumble our way by fit and spasm toward the future, we have choices about how we reckon with a world that, in the words of columnist Thomas L. Friedman is “really unusually uncertain.”[1]  Those choices are largely formed based on our cognetic disposition: a combination of intellectual capital and cognitive traits, which allow us to simplify the world and make decisions.  Our cognetic dispositions are formed through the processes of education, experience, socialization, and indoctrination.  We also forge relationships with those similarly disposed—of similar cognetic disposition—and wage confrontation with those who differ.  In America today, four major groups have formed that dominate socio-political discourse. They are: the Angry Patriots, the Faithful Followers, the Elite Globalists, and the Transcendent Epistemists.[2]  Each group competes with and between the others in elections, boardrooms, classrooms, media, and the streets.  Besides wrestling over resources, rights, power, and wealth, the larger and more important long-term battle will be over American identity.  This battle will determine the answer to “What does it mean to be an American?”

The Angry Patriots (APs) are perhaps the most familiar, given to the volume with which they assert themselves in the media.  They are a boisterous bunch – Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, et al.  The process of experience, as opposed to education, socialization, or indoctrination, dominate development of their cognetic disposition.  They claim they are a product of the school of hard knocks.  They are the torchbearers of American exceptionalism.  Fear is their currency of persuasion.  Mostly Republicans and Tea Partiers, they are publicly pious, although theologically shallow.  God is on their side by entitlement, but while they claim humble abidance to religious proscriptions and secular law, they often behave as if their pockets are filled with dispensations.  Their principal aim is to return America to the “good ol’ days” when they were on top of the socio-political pecking order in a world that (to them) is inherently hierarchical.  Knowledge is nice as long as it is rooted in common sense, but loyalty is more important.  Reason is often subjugated to muscularity; bigger bombs and bigger walls are more dependable than intelligence.  Signs or documents written in any language other than English are an attack on their sense of patriotic purity; language is symbolic – not about communication or understanding.  When challenged or threatened they favor isolation from the world.  Free trade or other theories of economic specialization can only cost Americans jobs.  Diplomacy is for sissies. For APs, the first clause of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State” has no bearing on the second clause, “ the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  Mosques are monuments to terrorism even while Christian churches are not so to the murderous Crusades, nor are Catholic churches to pedophilia.  APs employ a fair amount of libertarian rhetoric, as long as their entitlements remain—especially Medicare and Social Security.  Their mantras are “America first!” … “Not on my watch!”…  and “Not from my pockets!”

Faithful Followers (FFs) see the world through the lens of religion.  They find grace, solace, and power in their faith.  America is great, but God is supreme.  The Bible is the inerrant word of God, whose greatest witness was Jesus Christ.  Their cognetic disposition was predominantly formed through the process of indoctrination.  The Reverends Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, and John Hagee are FFs’ speakers of truth.  Evangelism is not only good, it is a biblical duty.  A day of reckoning is coming; God is on your side as long as you remain fearful of his wrath.  Faith trumps reason in a world that is scary and dangerous.  Sin is everywhere and can only be ameliorated by sacrifice to affect redemption and salvation.  And, while FFs are certain of their faith, their own self-esteem requires the frequent condemnation of others.  Certitude and rectitude are their dominant modality—unknowns are obviated by faith. Proselytizing, judgment, and damnation are paradoxically both liberating and oppressive.  Zionists are their theological and political allies.  They share a common belief in Eretz Israel, occupied only by Jews, at least until Christ returns and then the Jews had better see the light—fast.  FFs have come and gone from the political sphere throughout history, but today they are firmly entrenched.  They believe America is a Christian nation and advocate a revisionist history that casts the Founding Fathers as devoted and pious Christians.  If they had their choice, there would be one political party: the Christian Nationalist Party, but they most often settle for Republican candidates who pledge allegiance to their family-values dictates.  “Thou shalt not kill” is a situational commandment, which does not apply to murdering homosexuals or doctors who perform legal abortions.  Nor does it apply to Muslims.  FFs don’t see the relevancy of the question “Should we bomb Iran?”  They wonder why we haven’t.  Men are the dominant gender among FFs; they run the world, while women are caretakers of the home.  Like the APs, fear is the prevailing currency of manipulation for FFs.  If they had a crossover candidate to share with the APs, it would be Sarah Palin.  Social order is non-hierarchical.  It is (mostly) flat. There is God, and then there is man.  While race, ethnicity, and heritage matters to many APs, religion is all that matters to FFs.  If one has (a Christian) God, they have everything.  They have one mantra: “Praise God!”

Elite Globalists (EGs) are the too-cool bunch—the rising technocrats.  Socialization is the primary process for the development of their cognetic disposition.  The world is their oyster.  Borders and convention are irrelevant and technology can solve virtually anything.  EGs are actually quite engaging people if you can get them to put down their smartphone and quit talking about themselves.  Thomas Friedman (cited above), who drives his Toyota Prius to and from DC from his energy-gluttonous, 11,400 square foot mansion just up the road from the Bethesda Country Club (where he is a member), is an EG patriarch.[3]  Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are spokespersons.  If not for grooming issues, Michael Moore would be too.  Hip is important, pretty is essential.  Celebrities are the diplomatic ambassadors of EGs; knowledge and intelligence are defined by camera angle, not IQ.  While APs might call EGs lawless liberals, EGs see themselves as caretakers of liberty and the font of social invention.  FFs see EGs as interlopers who will be vanquished in the Rapture.  EGs look down on APs as pre-Mad Men-era carnivores, and see FFs as homespun curiosities who provide fodder for film festival documentaries.  Neither APs nor FFs will make an EG’s Facebook ‘friends’ list, unless accepted as a matter of charitable impulse.  No ideas are too big, or too grand to EGs.  America is limited only by its ability to re-imagine itself.  If it can be designed, it can be realized.  The United Nations, and both non-governmental and governmental institutions are good, and corporations are bad—unless an EG happens to own or run one, in which case it is assuredly green.  The institution of marriage is also important to EGs, if only for their homosexual friends.  Balancing a checkbook has never been a priority for EGs.  Public debt is a nebulous, transient, and essential component of economic development.  Religion is an inherited and quaint historical artifact that provides seasonal shopping opportunities, but is otherwise an archaic, albeit powerful source of conflict and oppression in an African nation they’ve never been to.  EGs who claim a relationship with a higher being describe it as spiritual, rather than religious.  God is love, not power.  While EGs eschew ideology and orthodoxy they are ardent subscribers to their own; and, they love their obscure, narrow special interests, which define who they are.  EGs want to be left to their own devices—and they have lots of them.  Social order is amoebic in the form of multi-dimensional integrated networks.  In other words, there is no social order.  EGs can be a powerful political block, and demonstrated as such when bound by hope and technology by team Obama, but by design they lack cohesion beyond their common fantasy to one day be on the cover of Vanity Fair.  They are confident, bright, quirky, self-indulgent, and bi-coastal.  They do not set their feet farther than 25 miles from either coast unless they are skiing in the Rockies.  If they’ve been to Kansas City, it was because their flight was diverted, and they will claim they never deplaned.  Their mantras are elongated monosyllabic exclamations like “Cooool!” and “Niiiiice!” and “Reeealy?!”

Transcendent Epistemists (TEs) are the (usually) quiet intellectuals whose cognetic dispositions are formed by education, which is a lifelong commitment.  APs like microphones, FFs like the pulpit, EGs the spotlight, and TEs just like books.  The eldest among them are described as wise and comprise the portion of the “Greatest Generation” who have not been co-opted by the purveyors of fear among the APs or FFs.  TEs live by the lyric of Lyle Lovett, “I live in my own mind / Ain’t nothin’ but a good time.”  They abhor certitude and cope by transcending the rabble of humanity where they can contemplate that which is not yet known.  Conversations about who, what, and how bore them.  They want to talk about why.  They view faith as the crutch of the common man.  TEs are areligious—mostly agnostics who have yet to hear a compelling argument by either theists or atheists.  Like Christopher Hitchens, they will not allow themselves to be saved on their deathbed when that day comes.  They indulge APs, FFs, and EGs regrettably, although they are at times both humored and terrified by each.  Their least favorite days of the year are holidays, when their focus on epistemology is interrupted and they are forced to endure the banality of socialization.  They don’t do Facebook.  They are inelegant, or worse.  Lousy guests, and lousier hosts.  Like EGs, they see the world as a borderless seamless system, and though they embrace the ideals of Immanuel Kant, they find the world is often better explained by the lessons of Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli.  They read the columns of fellow TEs like David Brooks and Fareed Zakaria, but know that knowledge seldom wins in the development of public policy.  They understand that to move the masses Dante’s sins must be teased and tweaked—titillation is essential.  But, they won’t descend into the muck to do it.  TEs are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, so neither today’s Republicans nor Democrats should waste their time with them.  TEs have few if any contemporary heroes in government; they simply view America’s liberal democracy as an experiment that has been hijacked by venal charlatans.  TEs believe entropy is inevitable, and even healthy.  They are, however, ironically optimistic.  They believe every question will be answered someday, and that today’s problems are absolutely solvable, if everyone would stop screaming and start listening.  They arguably get it better than APs, FFs, and EGs, but have no audience who’ll listen because of their unwillingness to subscribe to popular myths and contemporary orthodoxy.  Their silence is both contemptible and potentially tragic for America.  Their mantras are, “Question the givens” and “Leave me alone.”

These groups will shape the narrative that emerges from the current crisis—that defines a ‘new’ America.  On first take, simply as a function of exposure, the battle appears to have already been won by the APs.  They are also likely to bring a large portion of FFs with them in their quest to save America.  But their message—denominated principally in fear—may not prove durable in the long run.  Fear seldom is.  And, they do not appear to have a prospective leader that can attract a majority of Americans to the polls.  Palin already didn’t.  Another question is will whomever occupies the White House matter anyway?  My guess is they still will, if not for policymaking, for the symbolism that plays its own significant role in identity.  EGs are probably too self-interested to come together again soon as they did behind Obama, unless of course Obama regains his voice.  Which leaves the TEs.  They may find their own voice when and if the fear-mongers fade, or the depth of crisis forces them from the sidelines and people become desperate enough to shut up and listen.  Knowledge is a far superior basis for decision making than fear or celebrity.  Meanwhile, we do indeed stumble forward toward a new America, whether we like it or not.  Individually, all we can do is be careful who we listen to and exercise the best judgment possible in our own decisions. And, every once in awhile, tug on the sleeve of the quiet ones and ask them what they think.

[1] Thomas Friedman, “Really Unusually Uncertain,” The New York Times, August 17, 2010.
[2] This is far from an exhaustive taxonomy.  There are many smaller groups, and most people don’t fit neatly into just one.  But, these are the big ones who will form allegiances of convenience or necessity to assert power during the current crisis.
[3] See Garrett M. Graff’s feature on Friedman, “Thomas Friedman is On Top of the World,” Washingtonian, July 1, 2006.

 

By |2017-05-27T18:34:32+00:00August 22nd, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

The Fear Response

There are numerous theories about why societies rise and fall, proffered by even more numerous scholars who attempt to connect the dots of evidence and massage them with nuance into coherent narratives.  Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jeremy Black’s Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony, and Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? offer some interesting and varied approaches to the question.  They are each well researched and include reasonable arguments to a complex question.  However, in my seemingly endless search for simplicity—to understand the American condition—I have settled on one question, ignored by most studies, that I believe explains a great deal about how societies “rise and fall.”  The question is: How do they respond to fear?

The fear response is related to Stephen Flynn’s theory about resiliency as a measure of national power: “a society that can match its strength to deliver a punch with the means to take one makes an unattractive target.”[1]  But resiliency has at its core a cognitive component that emanates from societal IBCs (ideas, beliefs, and convictions), which contribute to our collective character.  It is this character, which evolves continuously, that determines how we respond to fear like the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, or the attacks of 9/11.  It is fair to say that fear brings out the best and worst in a society no matter how strong the collective character is at any particular time.

After Pearl Harbor, American society demonstrated both its cohesion and determination in defeating Hirohito and Hitler, but it also interned Japanese Americans.  After Sputnik, Kennedy committed the United States to sending a man to the moon, but he and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, also over-imagined the Soviet and communist menace and nearly started a nuclear war in the Caribbean and did, unfortunately, convince Americans that if we didn’t stop the communists in Vietnam, a contagion would spread that would threaten the lives of every American for generations.  After 9/11, American flags waved from anywhere we could attach them, but our fear produced the worst of us as American Muslim mosques were burned, and our leaders became willing fear mongers engaged in falsifying intelligence, and even color-coding fear for systemic consumption.  And, while the jury is arguably still out on Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest if we had a chance to do it over we wouldn’t have troops in either place today. The more interesting question, however, is what tips our fear response from best to worst?

This is admittedly a tricky question, but the worst fear response appears to have an inverse relationship with prosperity, measured by wealth and power; that is, the more prosperous we have become, the more likely a fear event produces the worst of us. In the three events mentioned above, our fear response was best when we were the least prosperous in 1941, and significantly worse in 2001 when America’s power and wealth were at an all-time high.  This seems counter-intuitive; after all, isn’t a wealthy and more powerful nation less fearful and more cohesive?  Apparently not.

Wealth and power provide their own toxic effects.  In 1941, fear inspired patriotism and produced self-sacrifice, discipline, diligence, and enterprise.  In 2001, our patriotism expired even before the flags faded; fear spawned hatred, jingoism, isolation, and hubris.  We have lashed out at the world and stand divided and vengeful at home.  We want to build walls at the border and persecute those who don’t think like we do, worship our God, or even look and speak like us.  And, we wag our fingers at each other and our government demanding our unfair share of what pie remains.  In our relative prosperity we have become poor of character.  FDR was correct in his day to claim, “all we have to fear is fear itself.”  Today, all we have to fear is ourselves.

I would like to argue, as Tom Brokaw has, that the “Greatest Generation”—those who stood tall after Pearl Harbor—were possessed of an intrinsically generous and courageous character, but I see too many of them screaming into the microphone at anger rallies today.  Their well-shined image has suffered with the rest of us, subject to the same toxicity of prosperity.  To add a further irony, our current national security complex is the largest most extensive security system ever developed with “1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies [that] work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.”[2]  Yet, we feel less safe than ever.

Maybe it’s not prosperity’s fault.  Maybe prosperity isn’t about wealth and power.  Maybe its about humility, responsibility, and self-restraint.  Maybe it’s about respect.  One thing becomes clear: if America is to retain its position in the world, we cannot afford our current sense of entitlement and certitude.  Personal responsibility and mutual respect for each other and the precious resources we enjoy deserve our better selves.  We must face fear with resolve, not color-coded fear mongering, lest we allow our worst selves to prevail.  It’s time to turn off the noise and recapture our greatness.  It’s time to stare in the mirror and ask more of ourselves.  The path we’re on will otherwise produce an unwelcome and painful poverty of economy, power and dignity.  It is time to rebuild our collective character.

[1] Stephen Flynn, The Edge of Disaster (New York: Random House, 2007), p. xxi.
[2] Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “A Hidden World Growing Beyond Control,” The Washington Post, July 19, 2010.
By |2017-05-27T18:36:51+00:00July 29th, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments
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