How others see us
We are no longer a picture of health (if we ever were)
Writing in the Canberra (Australia) Times (July 11, 2020), Crispin Hull, former editor of the Times, put a jarring coda to the herky-jerky, disjointed Ivesian symphony that has become the sad opus of American politics. In Hull’s view,
“The underlying weakness in present U.S. democracy is that partisanship has become so extreme that the nation is incapable of dealing with the major issues that face it. COVID-19 has illustrated that starkly, with every word and act predicated on party allegiance. Meanwhile, other problems like race, police violence, gun control, inequality, the health system, climate change and energy policy go unattended.”
Hull’s critique of the state of American politics and the general decline in comity and reason initially struck me as a rather harsh and imperfect painting of our nation’s condition.
Harsh but warranted critiques
However well-meaning, criticism offered by a friend is often harder to swallow than any malign critique by a stranger. We too often rely on our friends to reinforce our belief systems and to be unflinching advocates for our character even when we engage in questionable folly. But if that is what we expect of friends, then we have the wrong notion of friendship.
Those who feed us a long rope of unquestioning approval with which we descend far below our moral and ethical foundations are not friends at all; they are enablers who are just as apt to let go of the rope when our weight on their shoulders becomes uncomfortable.
The true friend will keep us from that fatal rappel not by bearing our weight when we are wrong, but by counseling us against the descent in the first place.
Winston Churchill put it this way:
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.” (in the New Statesman, January 1939)
Though others are suffering, we fare far worse by our own hand
Yes, the Australian government has its own share of critics, and there is much to criticize. Yes, there are immigration and race issues that continue to stalk the Aussies. They also face the conundrum of what to do in the deep shadow of the Chinese marketplace which is quite important to Australia. But their woes pale in comparison to the repetition of self-inflicted wounds we impose on ourselves here in the U.S.
A personal lesson that cut too close to the bone
A long-distance slap in the face
Our son lives in the New South Wales suburbs of Canberra. I was in Canberra to visit him and our new grandson the day Trump was elected. As we watched the election results come in 14 time zones away, the shock and disbelief from the Aussies gathered in front of the barroom television as the results came in took all the oxygen of hope from my heart.
“What just happened, mate?” and “How could that happen, mate?” were the common back-patting questions that were posed to me by so many Canberrans and American ex-pats gathered in that bar. I appreciated their sincere attempt to comfort me, but I also felt their disappointment as they walked away. Flying back to the U.S. a few days after the Trump victory, I kept asking myself the same questions. It was a long flight, filled with new doubts and anxieties.
Despite any issues Australians may have with their own politics, I think they have good reason to see our “democratic” system for what it has become: a shabby, discredited, disreputable, morally and ethically impoverished, ripped, torn, and stained image of what it could have been had we made the hard but right choices over the past 150 years — certainly over the past 60.
Another voice calls us out
In the August 6, 2020, issue of Rolling Stone, Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis writes of the Unraveling of America, and the “turning point” in history brought about by America’s response to Covid-19 and “…the absolutely devastating impact that the pandemic has had on the reputation and international standing of the United States of America.
“In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the world. For the first time, the international community felt compelled to send disaster relief to Washington.”
“‘For more than two centuries,’ “reported the Irish Times,” ‘the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity.’”
Compared to Hull’s relatively short editorial in the Canberra Times, Davis’s in-depth Rolling Stone article is more forthcoming with explanations of America’s decay — notably painting pictures of the chasms of inequality that divide us economically and socially. But I think both Hull and Davis paint the same picture, just with different brushes. Hull’s brush is broader; Davis’s brush more finely bristled.
I find merits in both articles because neither piece holds out any hope for America’s long-term viability — and that tracks with my own observations and conclusions developed over many years in government and journalism. In the end, it is sad that we have come to this point where once-dystopic views of our future could be waved off as pure fiction. The American dystopia is, to my way of thinking, a frighteningly real specter.
We must, must, must resolve to be patient and resist the overwhelming temptation to act in short-term interests against long-term necessity. Our American society has developed an almost fatal flaw by believing we can accomplish great things, hard things, overnight.
An imperfect Greatest Generation
The Greatest Generation — contrary to popular myth propagated by Boomers and foisted off on younger generations — did not achieve great things for the nation simply by winning WW II and creating a new American dream crisscrossed by Interstate Highways, protected by new vaccines, and lofted into space on the promise of a young president. No.
The post-WWII path for Americans, particularly those who were already disenfranchised — women, Blacks, rural poor, and immigrants — was still hard. Navigating all its twists and turns required long-term plans, great personal sacrifice, acceptance of failure, resistance to naysayers, and a willingness to persevere despite the barriers.
And even at that, we struggled and failed so many times. One only needs to look at what precious capital was expended in Lyndon Johnson’s push for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Just examine the carnage — human and political — that framed those two measures.
Wade Davis, again in the Rolling Stone article, puts it in more graphic and unvarnished terms:
“More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family. It was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose. In wide swaths of America, the family as an institution lost its grounding. By the 1960s, 40 percent of marriages were ending in divorce. Only six percent of American homes had grandparents living beneath the same roof as grandchildren; elders were abandoned to retirement homes.”
“What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose.”
A disappointing track record
We have not advanced much since then. If anything, we appear to be in retrograde 50 years beyond what we thought was the rebirth of some measure of social enlightenment.
Political, social, economic, and human rights advances cannot be achieved in a 60-second TikTok loop or with a thread of tweets.
It is hard to convince self-consumed questionably-adult politicians — whose election cycles are so incredibly, irreducibly dependent on big money and special interests — that they must debate, consider, reformulate, back up and try again, collegially, in order to achieve the long-term interests of the nation.
We have seen this embarrassing melodrama playing out over and over. This past weekend’s House-Senate trillion-dollar standoff followed by Trump’s “Executive Orders” grandstanding are classic examples of lock-step partisanship befouled with lies and dark strategies. Such adolescent behavior threatens public safety and financial security, and casts clouds of doubt across an already insecure nation.
A silver lining if we choose it
If we are to have an iota of hope for any sort of redemption in the years following 2020, we must put in place some semblance of a functioning Congressional and presidential partnership this November.
Can we not at least pour a voter-reinforced concrete foundation upon which to rebuild trust in our political system and faith in ourselves as honest brokers for change?
If we can’t, or if we simply won’t, we will most certainly have earned the scorn and pity that will be heaped upon us by our one-time friends.