08 September 2010

The Coming America

I don't hate America. But I do wish our officially-sponsored American culture would stop behaving in the misleading and confusing ways that it does. I wish, in other words, that our culture would stop behaving as if, however ardently it may love, and admire, and gush over the glorious things human beings do, it rather hates - or regards as wholly expendable - those humbler creatures who do them. In particular I hope, one day, our American leaders and opinion-molders will discover that the best way of making our glorious achievements more humanly digestible is to do a better job of loving - rather than spitting out - the achievers. To say nothing of those lesser beings - workers, parents, teachers, pastors, etc - who help to make their achievements possible. You will not long derive any real benefit from things that are done if you go on treating the doers as so much cannon-fodder.

Speaking of soldiers (of one business or other) I'm reminded here of a story of how, on the eve of World War I, much of the press of Western nations was in an uproar concerning the destructive power of the new German zeppelins. The French and British press were especially worried over the danger the new weapons might pose to the civilian populations of Paris and London. Much of the American press was equally anxious over the possible threat zeppelins posed to the new Panama Canal. Talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of property. And since much of our current and previous US leadership appears to be in a similar - though not nearly so unabashed - frame of mind, I'm naturally hoping they'll grow out of it sometime fairly soon.

And (odd as it may sound coming from me) I believe they will. Someday I believe it will be evident to us - for I really do think we Americans will be the first to see it - that America is neither the hope of the world nor its despair, neither the deliverance of the world nor its prison: we are just over-rated. Indeed, I wonder if we won't prove to be about the most over-rated culture, or country, or civilization, or whatever it is we are, that has ever ruled the world since Rome. And by no means primarily by ourselves either. I find progressive-minded Europeans in particular to be second to none in their practical admiration of American culture. In fact one may argue, so abysmally ashamed are many Europeans of their own failures (you know, racism, colonialism, aggressive war, and all those other human blights of which our US history is so blessedly free), and so grudgingly - and hence honestly - worshipful are they of our success (and how American is that?), that they seem to be quite literally un-reproducing themselves out of existence.

Of course others will argue that the reverse of over-rating is at least as much true in our case. And yes, I was about to say that in some quarters the US is also the most over-demonized nation. But no, on second thought, in that category we only come a close third, with Russia slightly in the lead. And, of course, every generation gets exactly the kind of demoniac Russia it expects, and fears, and deserves. Yet I notice even the Russians, reliable as they've been in their Most Hated Nation spot for well over two centuries, are in recent years holding only a distant second to that sprightliest of newcomers, Israel.

But there is one chief reason why I say America is over-rated rather than over-hated. It is that for any national culture to be accurately rated, and revered, and imitated as we have been for the past two decades, it would have to be a kind of collective messiah. And if America is to be the earth's Collective Messiah, then frankly I dread with all my heart to see the earth's Collectivist Heaven.* There is just only so much even America can save and redeem; only so much that brashness, and eagerness, and uncritical love of novelty and ingenuity can purify and perfect; only so much that a shameless, remorseless contempt for history and memory, and for the whole reflective and contemplative life of Man can do for the good of mankind, before it starts seriously undoing much of the good that has already been done. Or, worse, before the unintended bad we do eventually outweighs or overtakes the intended good.

* And yes, I do believe there's such a thing as an American collectivism. Show me another modern society in which propietary domain is more eminent, or in which private organizational power is more deferred to, esteemed and respected as the indispensable engine of progress (not by Hollywood, of course; but then, much as we all sometimes enjoy their products - Avatar, etc - who among us really cares what they think?). From what I can tell, our US collectivist tendency is rooted in a certain time-honored mental habit we have, to which we're mostly oblivious. This habit, at which I hinted in the first paragraph, consists of:

(1) The high value we place on the dignity of individual human effort, initiative, ingenuity, enterprise, etc, things which are of their nature repeatable and replaceable; and
(2) the relatively low emphasis we place on the dignity of individual human beings, who are by nature wholly unrepeatable and irreplaceable, and so of a value incommensurate with whatever things they do.

One Day, however, I believe we shall have the means of forming a more just and less hysterical estimate of who we are, and of what we have been. And by "we" I mean both America and the whole world, including - one can only hope - the hysterical Europeans. And then, at last, America shall begin to realize the remaining three-quarters - or more likely, nine-tenths - of that truly glorious potential we've been sitting on and suppressing for the better part of at least two centuries.

(What? You're saying I've got my valuations completely backwards? That in reality, human efforts and achievements are the things of incommensurate value, and that human beings are utterly replaceable and interchangeable? In that case, why, I think you've proved my point.)
My guess is we've been in the grip of a major collectivist phase for at least 15 years now. In other words, I believe it will become clear - with sufficient hindsight - that when we soundly thrashed the Totalitarian Beast in the '80s and early '90s, we did not so much liquidate the Beast's assets as turn them over to new (i.e., more intelligent and efficient) ownership and management.

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