Friday, August 21, 2020

The Unraveling of America?

I just read another article about America’s demise. This one is titled The Unraveling of America . It is written by the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis (RollingStone, August 6). There are many such articles. They all have to do with (1) America’s disastrous response to Covid-19, and (2) Donald Trump.

These doomsday scenarios about America’s future are usually written overseas, gloatingly, expressing profound anti-Americanism. You get to read about “pity” and contempt for America, about “America giving up” about America being “finished,” or at least the American century being finished. Any compassion, as our country’s death toll approaches 200,000, and perhaps half a million by next spring? Zero.

But this is not what I want to talk about today. What I wish to address is whether the point made in the title of this article has merit or not.
While I find gloating about America’s misfortune despicable, I do agree with most of the criticism voiced by these authors.

It is true that America’s response to Covid-19 has been THE most inept one in the world. Our country has the highest number of infections and deaths, both in absolute and in relative terms (apart from a few small city-states such as Bahrein, Qatar and San Marino). Make no mistake about it: We are number one.

Davis is not far from the truth in labeling us a failed state at this time. Items: (1) The country is incapable of controlling the epidemic. (2) It is ruled by a tin pot dictator who would be laughed out of office even in backward Third World countries. (3) The government cannot even pass emergency legislation to rescue the dozens of millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, who are about to become homeless, who cannot access medical care, even in the middle of a pandemic, and who can no longer feed themselves and their children. (4) The criminal-in-chief is attempting to knee-cap the country’s postal service so as to steal the election, brazenly admitting what he is doing, destroying a service which delivers hundreds of millions of essential mail items to the people, including life-saving medication, paychecks and other essentials.. Is this not a failed state?

However, these critics’ analyses are flawed.

1. They tend to blame Americans’ moral character: Americans are viewed as racist, selfish, sexist, homophobic, indifferent to their fellow men’s suffering. Of course, there is that, but no more here than elsewhere. Some anecdotal evidence:

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been taking a daily one-hour walk around my neighborhood. This is a  low-density suburb, with very few pedestrians. During my walks, I usually take a couple of breaks, sitting down for five minutes on a bench or on some other structure (not because of fatigue, but because of lower-back pain). And you know what? No day goes by without motorists stopping and asking me whether I am okay, and whether I want them to drive me home! This happens whenever I sit down for a moment. Americans care.

2. We also often hear that our culture is “hyper-individualistic”. “Experts” are asked why other countries have handled the pandemic so much better. Their cliché answer: Because Americans are exceptionally suspicious of government edicts and regulations (like wearing masks).

But this is not an immutable feature of American culture. We were not always this way. Only recently have we BECOME this way. We underwent a conservative revolution. Before Donald Trump there was the Tea Party. Before that, Ronald Reagan charmed the public with seductive falsehoods, claiming that “the government is not the solution, it is the problem.” The plutocracy has cleverly brainwashed many Americans into rejecting the social contract.

There was a time when Americans understood the meaning of the social contract, as expounded by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes: The individual gives up some of his freedom in exchange for collective peace, security and well-being. Without such a compromise, society cannot exist. In Hobbes’ words, life in the state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” a constant “war of each against all.”

During and after World War Two, Americans trusted their benevolent government (led by President Roosevelt). The nation was a cooperative community.

3. Americans are also said to oppose distributionist economic schemes. They are pathologically fearful of anything that can be labeled “socialist.” They object to taxes.

This, too, was much less so in the past. Equality was not a dirty word. During the 1950s, the marginal tax rates were over 90% - even during a Republican administration! Union membership was four times higher than now. CEOs made 20 times what their average employee earned. Today, this has grown to 300 times that amount.

The problem with Americans is ignorance, not malevolence. It is the misconception that the government is the problem rather than the solution. The failure to see that the alternative to a good government is chaos and anarchy, a condition which the country is currently approaching.

4. So what about “The Unraveling of America”? Have we reached the end of the American era? And what about America’s future?

Well, troubled as this country currently is, it does not differ from other nations which have experienced ups and downs in the past. As Wade Davis himself acknowledges, great powers come and go. Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Britain have all experienced world power status at one time and decline at another.

But (former) imperial powers have often enjoyed soft landings. By and large, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Britain and other former great powers are okay, are they not? The Netherlands can wax nostalgic about their 17th century Golden Age, but does it matter? Britannia no longer rules the waves, but what difference does this make to the British people? Europe is no longer the world’s geopolitical center, so what? Actually, the Europeans are far better off this way.

America should enjoy a similar soft landing. It must begin to cultivate its own garden. It must provide its people the same quality of life as that is enjoyed by the Western Europeans, the Japanese, the Australians and the Canadians.

For this to happen, we must elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They are not magicians, but they certainly would begin to normalize American politics and conditions.

If we do not succeed in electing them, then all bets are off. If we give Trump and the Republicans four more years to destroy this country, they may succeed in doing so irreparably. Tampering with the US Post Office in order to prevent a fair election is an inauspicious beginning.

What critics such as Davis forget is that Trump has NEVER been supported by a majority of Americans. Trump may well win. There is voter suppression and cheating by the Trumpites, maybe too many Americans will fail to vote, the electoral college is undemocratic, etc. In that case, the polarization would worsen, the forces of nihilism would gain strength. There would be civil disorder and political violence, but effective resistance might no longer be possible, as the authoritarian government would be in firm control of all branches of the government, including the White House, Congress, the courts and the military, We would be not unlike Russia. The future would be bleak.

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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