What’s Wrong With The United States?
In his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World, Science As A Candle In The Dark, Carl Sagan wrote:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. *
Isn’t this all true today? We have Ubu Roi Trump as US President and officially in control of the most awesome nuclear annihilation button on Earth. We are mostly galley slaves chained to our capitalistic economic and perceptual oars, implacably driving ourselves into the geophysical tempest of climate change. We have cracked the secrets of genetic modification and have let this incredible power be held by tight-fisted corporations only interested in their own financial gain. We have a growing infestation of measles, a disease that in 2014 was thought to be nearing extinction but which has since 2017 expanded due to a decrease in immunization, reflecting an idiotic anti-vaxxer superstition justified as a “protect-my-child” panic. Our infotainment media is a wholly-owned subsidiary of plutocracy, for the electronic diffusion of corporate propaganda against the public interest, and for the mass virtual pithing of the public mind.
What is wrong with the United States? It is the failure of its people to unite with the vision of “with charity — and justice — for all, and malice toward none,” but instead to debase themselves into passive entertainment-dependent robots, or into ambitious careerists “led by their materialism and instinctive worship of power.”
The United States Of America is both classist and tribal. These are the fault lines of American greed and politics. The varieties of American bigotry arise out of envy and resentment, from within our classes and tribes. The nation itself is big and powerful, but greatness eludes it because its people are unwilling to overcome their pettiness. Internally, the classes and tribes are fragmented by ageism and sexism, as well as by racism where a class or tribe happens to be multi-racial.
As is always true when speaking about society, all generalizations are formally wrong because one can always find individual counterexamples. However, what is wrong with the United States is that the number of such counterexamples to the sweeping criticisms made here do not count up to an overwhelming majority of the American people. If they did then everything in our society would be different, as would everybody who is now “in charge.”
The decadent nature of our society is a mirror of our cowardly denied national consensus for a pathetic tolerance of anti-intellectualism, ignorance, superstition, moral irresponsibility within our particular class and tribe, shameless sociopathic egotism, criminality labeled as capitalism, bigotry labeled as religion, and religion practiced as hate-crime.
There is no sociological fix that can come down to us, externally, from our political and judicial systems — whose only functions are to protect capitalism from popular democracy and to mediate capitalistic disputes — nor from organized religions, which arrogantly claim to hold the answers to ultimate questions (they don’t), and which demand to regulate and compel social morality.
The only possible fix is the combination of attitudes and behaviors that emerge individually out of personal commitments to principled and thoughtful living, and then merge into a mass socialist consciousness, from which collective economic, social-humanitarian, technological and self-defense actions can be logically organized.
To say that this emergent (as opposed to external) sociological fix is “utopian” is simply to dismiss the possibility of ever seeing it achieve any degree of reality, however modest. I think it better to be realistic than defeatist: our “utopia” is easily possible if we “all” want it, and though that is highly improbable it is better to align our intentions for personal conduct with this vision than to acquiesce to a personal debasement of becoming another trivial mind-numbed soul-dead unit in the official hypocrisy of decadent materialism.
Why is it better? Because you would develop and realize more of your human potential, and because you would acquire greater lived experience that would justify an authentic and satisfying sense of freedom and self-respect. Also, you would have a greater positive effect on the people you personally come in contact with, most importantly your family. I believe the abstractions we apply to the masses and label as “socialism” and “utopia” and “green new deal,” and so on, can only materialize by bleeding out of the realities of individual lives of integrity, and then mixing into a rising tide of socialist revolution.
So, what movement should you join?, politician should you vote for?, petitions should you sign?, charities should you contribute to?, job should you try to get?, sect should you fight in in our sectarian wars for political purity?, in short what is “the right way?”
How do I know? All my specific choices to these questions can be argued with — even by people who agree with me in the global abstract — because every person’s experience of life is different. Our individual templates for personal action will inevitably be ill-suited for most of each other. The persistence of people pushing their own “right way” orthodoxies onto others, whom they share a grand fuzzy vision with, is what dissipates popular energy that could otherwise propel a worthwhile — if fuzzy — collective purpose, and which instead thus leads to an enervating argumentative fragmentation of the original socialist unity.
So, at this point I am left with only platitudes and a reliance on high-minded innuendo, if tasked to spell out a detailed program to fix our society “once and for all,” to wrest it from it’s late-stage capitalist Kali Yuga.
What I believe is that the effort to do this is and will always be never-ending and myriadly multifaceted, and that any worthwhile elements of socialism that successfully make the transition from popular aspiration to realities that can be experienced, will have had to emerge atomistically from individual lives of integrity — rather than being imposed deus ex machina — in order to blend and bond organically into the humane, compassionate and intelligent future society we can so easily imagine.
All I can offer here are recommendations for aspirational solidarity, such as expressed by Albert Camus: “I rebel, therefore we exist,” and for intentional moral character, such as expressed by Thucydides as a quote by Pericles: “Honor is the only thing that does not grow old.”
Maybe from such airy notions, and a bit of personal pride, we can surprise ourselves into finally making America decent for everybody. And that would be great.
* [Thanks to Dan Kaminsky and Ivan Sudofsky for pointing me to the Carl Sagan reference and passage.]