Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The American Malaise

I have lately been reading “The Limits of Power” by Bacevich and the author makes a compelling argument about the sources of the American malaise. The basic contention is that sometime in the 1980s, American changed from “an empire of production” to an “empire of consumption” and this very American desire to have more without even considering the possibility of sacrifice and reform has led to a severe weakening of our national independence.
Our desire to have more and more without limit but completely on credit and from outside sources has led to a dangerous inability to remain “masters of our fates” as a nation. We cling to the boast of being the last superpower while at the same time and we have begun to use our fading but expensive military might to obtain our presumed entitlements. And worst of all, whether you choose to disregard the dubious morality of it all, it simply isn't working.
The break, according to author, could be clearly charted between the presidencies of Carter and Reagan. While Carter was attempting to re-think the American values- is there no limit to our entitlement as a nation, a world power? Should we always continue to expect more and more? To even question this idea was dangerous ground to step for any president wishing to remain in power; it seemed to go against the very core of the “American Dream.”
Reagan on the other hand, appealed to our national vanity and many of our long held but essentially mythic national beliefs- that America is somehow divinely inspired to spread its influence and its domination in the name of freedom to all parts of the world-. That Americans are, for this reason, a blessed and deserving to have a brighter future based on material wealth.
What we have found in this country, and maybe we ‘re more aware of it now, is one problem that we’ ve had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless, you might say, by choice. - Ronald Reagan
Here is an example of Reagan’s sense of logic that could never be refuted in a proud nation of the popular vote . If you are poor in America, it is because you choose to be. America is, after all, the land of opportunity and intelligence and hard-work are rewarded. America is the greatest nation in the world and if you are poor, it is because you are too lazy or ignorant to seek out those advantages open to every citizen. It was a heady mix of patriotism and wishful thinking.
The dark side, however, was intolerance and bigotry, a sense of privilege and arrogance and lack of sympathy or understanding to the poor, the unfortunate or defenseless and the ill. (And if we choose to treat out OWN citizens in such a manner, is it surprising the abuses of power that went on in Iraq?)
I remember seeing a tape of Reagan speaking in California from that era. He said that he had heard that some asserted there was hunger in America. He said it sarcastically. He said, "Sure there is; they're dieting!" or words to that effect. This handsome Hollywood millionaire making fun of people so poor they sometimes went to bed hungry seemed to me monstrous. I remember his wealthy audience of suburbanites going wild with laughter and applause. I am still not entirely sure what was going on there. Did they think Harrington's and similar studies were lies? Did they blame the poor for being poor, and resent demands on them in the form of a few tax dollars, to address their hunger?

Ronald Reagan, De-Mythologized By Juan Cole

Under Reagan, how did this attitude express itself in practical terms? One example that quickly comes to mind is the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s. ( There are numerous examples of course, from school lunch programs, to cutting funding for state run hospitals housing mentally disturbed patients) If government had chosen to address the AIDS problem at its earliest stages, instead of blaming the victims If resources had been spend attempting to cover the humanitarian ( as opposed to a judgmental and heartless) way, we might not have only saved our nation millions of young lives, we might also have heroically prevented the disease from becoming a world-wide disaster. Tragically, however, it did not.
Instead, the Reagan administration acted with slowness and inefficiency, denying the problem even existed. The president did not make even one public address of the epidemic until 4 or 5 years. Eventually, a response came to meet the needs despite and not due to, government policy and usually from within the minority community with grudging and inadequate national funding .
There was talk that this was a manufactured illness created to wipe out the homosexual community, or the black minority, or the poor. In fact, there was no need to create any such diseases in a lab. The triplet evils were more than sufficient: a lack of conviction and seriousness to address an emerging problem that some in government found too distasteful (or expensive) to think about , a cold lack of empathy for those in need of help and finally a confused sense of priorities when it came to spending our financial resources. This was much more effective at wiping out neglected populations than any disease.
A significant source of Reagan's support came from the newly identified religious right and the Moral Majority, a political-action group founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. AIDS became the tool, and gay men the target, for the politics of fear, hate and discrimination. Falwell said "AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals." Reagan's communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men." Reagan's AIDS Legacy by Allen White
And this attitude can now become entrenched into the American psyche. That somehow there are some people who deserve more and some people who deserve nothing and we have no impetus to change that basic truth. It is social Darwinism on its most cruel level. Mind you, it was not as though, Reagan and the administrations that followed were actually saving money. Quite the opposite is true, while Reagan was boasting of the need to cut spending on social spending , over the course of his two terms in office, between 1981 and 1989, Reagan cut taxes, slashed government programs and ran up huge deficits with a 35 per cent increase in military spending.
Katrina. If one wishes any further evidence on how far America has slipped from its highest values as a nation, if only in terms of what we wish to believe about our system, then one needs only to look at the events surrounding Katrina. How much clearer could those images be? The poor, the elderly and ill, the children and the underclass all were herded into a stadium and, all but abandoned by police and emergency services and simply left to fend for themselves against flooding and storms while the national government dithered and looked the other way. This was the ultimate legacy from the Reagan era, and the question remains, what have we really learned? Anything?
It calls to mind A.J.Toynbee’s “A Study of History”, admittedly heavy reading indeed, but many of his ideas arise from viewing history with a telescope as opposed to a microscope. He took a survey of the 26 civilizations and analyzed the causes of their rise from a primitive collection of tribes or proto-nations to a great and influential dominating civilization. Toynbee, in the second half of the work, broke down the causes for the civilization to crumble.
There are so many fascinating concepts that I am sure I could never do justice to them all but I can try to summary. An empire/civilization begins its decline much earlier than presumed and often its golden age is in reality its Indian summer. The rise of Militarism within a civilization is usually the signs of its own decay. ( the suicidal rise of Militarism is how he depicted it) When the creative minority, its artists and promoters of the Arts, turn away from the long established cultural values of the empire, then the collapse is usually not far behind. When a lingua franca is established then the civilization has peaked and when that universal language begins to dissolve then for obvious reasons, the civilization it begins to weaken. The causes of the decline are usually a result of its own inherent hypocrisies. Finally, there is the three and half beat rule, that is, in civilizations, there are a series of challenges and how its citizens and leaders respond to those challenges, either effectively or ineffectively, determines the viability of the empire. By the time the third unanswered challenge occurs the civilization has fallen.
And all of Toynbee’s signs are with us if we wish to examine ourselves without fear. The three beats: Would that be the AIDS epidemic, 9/11 and Katrina? The inherent hypocrisy of spreading freedom and American values by imposing U.S sponsored dictatorships upon the people we wish to liberate, or worse, by American military might directly? The hypocrisy of professing to believe in a fair and just legal system and yet denying even the most basic and long established right to a fair trial and habeas corpus, as well as the right to confront your accuser in a court of law? Can there be one law for Americans and another law for the rest of humanity? If so, then our right to establish free and just systems around the world is in serious doubt. It seems to be only a cover for the right to impose our will on other countries in order to loot them of the resources we feel we deserve as our divine right. If not, then we must take time for serious reflection and reevaluation of our supposed mission. Surely, we are not so arrogant to think we cannot live in a world that is both good for Americans and good for the other nations we share this planet with.
In his book, Bacevich is very careful to state that this is not a problem with one party or the other and it is not a problem of a single decade. This has been a metastasizing cancer for the last 30 years, perhaps longer. Like a cancer, it does not spread in a completely random fashion. Some parts of the body are more vulnerable than others, but eventually the life of the patient is threatened.
There is an immense and systematic failure going on in the last superpower and this can only be solved through pragmatism, honesty and the sacrifice of presumed entitlements.


  1. I see that Barack Obama wants everyone to learn another language, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Why not decide on a common language, taught worldwide, in all nations?

    It is totally relevant then, that UNESCO will meet in Paris, on 15th December, to acknowlege Esperanto, as a living language, in conjunction with the International Year of Languages

    An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670. A glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  2. Thanks Brian, I am working on a new article about the Imperialism of Language. Great idea.. always great to get some input.


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