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Sundries
...a sweatshop of moxie

Friday, September 26, 2008

Clash Of American Civilisations

Let me pause from my usual Your Daily Sarah routine of the last weeks. I want to discuss a weightier topic today with the readership.

When you are a foreigner, like I still am in many respects despite my flag-waving, you are actually "taught" certain things about Americans:

- People in the street, who are barely literate themselves, will scoff at Americans for their lack of culture and geographical knowledge

- Academics in our schools and Universities will present American history in as predatory a light as possible

- News media and famous intellectuals of the day will, with infinite Schadenfreude, rail about the downhill nature of the American state

Do they want America to fail? Yes, some foreigners do. But many, many more do not.

Even the ones who do, wish little actual harm to the American people -- they just want America the nation to be more "like others". In short, they wish to end American exceptionalism, built they believe on religion, military power and above all, capitalism. As they see it, this triumverate is hopelessly out of date, barely past the Industrial Revolution. The modern response for any clear-thinking country should be securalism, peace, and socialism, but America just doesn't "listen".

But it's more than that. Their unease is almost animistic in scope -- I believe that for some people, good comes in measured doses. Call it the Gold Standard of Karma.

To some people, it's as if America has hoarded most of the goodness available in the world. It "prevents" others from advancing. That is an affront to many people, some of whom consider themselves to be far better, as a nation and as a people, to be beneficiaries of Fate's bounty.

Consider these facts.

Few nation-states have access to two oceans. No nation was able to carve an inland empire and populate it not just coastally, but inside the interior, like America has since 1620. Brazil doesn't even come close. Even States which would be uninhabitable in other countries, due to extremes in weather, function at 100% normalcy (such as Alaska and Arizona, coincidentally enough...). The 50 States are all solvent, at that, contributing to the common weal. Lastly, despite very real structural problems, like slavery, segregation, and runaway markets, the American state sails on 232 years after its birth whereas other republics are in their fifth or more incarnations.

Why? Why?

The American way of life is the reason.

When I came to this country, no one had to tell me to love it. I did that on my own. I embraced this country knowing the realities I had seen elsewhere were exponentially worse than anything existing in America, even in crime and drug-use.

I did it despite having come from a vibrant, successful country, where I had a wonderful road paved ahead of me due to my academic accomplishments and social background. I chose uncertainty, but the choice wasn't fraught with nervousness. I was coming to America, after all. If bad things have to happen, it's better that they happen here. Recovery is quicker.

Part of the reason recovery is quicker is that most Americans know that their country "works". How exactly, why exactly, by what miracle exactly, no one really seems to know. But it does.

So knowing this, they do small things that help it along. They love their flag. They revere their Constitution. They have a strong sense of civic duty and volunteerism. They join up to fight for her in droves, out of conviction, not because they have a mandatory military call-up when they turn 18. Yes, they are willing to risk their lives, even in times of war.

And, above all, they hold this truth to be self-evident: that America is a good country.

It's a self-judgement from a hyper-critical people.

They arrived at that conclusion at the knees of their grandparents, who taught them about pogroms, vainglorious absolute monarchs and arbitrary Martial Law. That isn't America. That was never America. That cannot be America.

This American ethos to make things work acts as self-fulfilling prophecy. They go out and find a solution, and then execute it, each generation adding its own twist to the solution.

They do this because whatever faults lie endemic in this nation, America was conceived as an oasis of reason and even today, acts as a springboard to greater freedom for millions of people who still wish to come here. The stakes couldn't be any higher, not just for Americans, but for the world, if only they'd be honest about it.

A really odd thing happened in the 1970s: some Americans were able to insinuate themselves into the country's narrative of itself. These people have a different view of America. For them, the cracks are craters, and the fissures are chasms. The intensity of their feeling was met full on by a cultural pushback, and we are seeing these two collide real-time in 2008.

This is the political part of his essay, that I'm sure you knew was coming.

Because it is my contention that, at the same time, the economic system, political system, and social system of America is undergoing cataclysmic stress.

If the Revolution was Act 1, the Civil War was Act 2, the Gilded Age was Act 3, the Great Depression Act 4, and World War II ushered in Act 5, then we are witnessing Act 6, not in 2001, as many people thought, but in 2008. It is our own mini clash of American civilisations.

On one side, you have traditionalists, people who believe in the free-market and in the strong world leadership America has projected since 1945. They embody that in their own life choices, too.

On the other, you have those who have suffered from both the social and economic side of this America, and though they may personally have overcome them, they believe America leaves too many people behind. If they believe in the free-market system, they also see other systems which are far more equitable, and wish to emulate them.

There is no "give" in either of these mindsets. One is as resolute as the other, each imbued in thinking its way is right. The first because it continues the spirit of America, the second because it believes it will better America.

The people who represent these two modalities will alter the future of America forever. Make no mistake about that. America has reached a point in its history where the choices they make today will define the way it looks in the next 50 years.

Let us, Americans and non-Americans alike, stop pretending with each other that we do not know all of this is at stake.

Let's stop using racism, agism, snobbism as excuses for pin-pricks to our egos.

Face the matter squarely -- there is no middle way in 2008. It's either The Old or The New, and THIS is why the election today is still so close.

America is still deciding.

Related

Roger L. Simon's Article On Why Bill Clinton Is Not On Board
America Will Lose Superpower Status Says German Minister
Deep-Seated Racism To Blame
It's The Second Amendment, Stupid

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4 Comments:

  • For a change, I agree with you (though not with your characterizations of the origin of modern liberalism.) We should quit denying it, this is about ideology. I always hear people say they are voting 'for the candidate,' but in my whole life I've met exactly one person who voted for Goldwater and McGovern (obviously an older person.) Two ideological opposites but two of the most honest and principled men to ever run for President, who were defeated in landslides by two of the men of the most questionable character to ever hold the office. So it is about ideology.

    As a liberal (your opponent, if this is a match) I would argue that modern liberalism springs from the finest of what America has always been. So let me explain what I see as the origin of modern (not Jeffersonian) liberalism (economic, as opposed to national and cultural, which are somewhat differentiated in their origin):

    Whether the America in which thousands of free people participated in the underground railroad and often did so at great personal risk and cost to help those who needed help, or the America which Tocqueville wrote about in which Americans were the most welcoming people in the world, or the America which Emma Lazarus wrote about, America has always been a land of people helping people. And it remains so in small communities today.

    In an increasingly complex and urban society much of this role shifted to charities, churches and other institutions that could help those less fortunate in a more efficient way than one at a time.

    After the crash of 1929 however, the sheer scale of those needing help (when unemployment reached 25% nationally and up to 60% in some localities) overwhelmed the system. Not only could soup kitchens, missions and the like not keep up with the load but in many cases they were raising less as their own supporters when from being providers to needing help themselves. The Hoover administration, guided as it was by free market principles, refused to do more than make token efforts to help feed the masses-- and its defining moment came in 1931, when WWI veterans marched on Washington demanding bonuses they were in fact owed but which were not in the government budget. Hoover sent federal troops in to attack and evict the 'bonus marchers' and it put the ugliest possible face on conservatism and guaranteed the election of a Democrat in 1932.

    But the New Deal, as Roosevelt called it-- worked. Though it still took several years to work through the depression, he was able to simultaneously put people to work so they could buy necessities and build a lot of infrastructure that had not been built before that. My wife's grandfather was a member of the Conservation Corps and helped carve roads and trails into National Parks. He took a lot of pride, even when he was old, with what he did-- and after he came back from WWII he was able to get a job as a heavy equipment operator, a skill he had learned while working in the conservation corps-- so for a few dollars a week the government got him off the unemployment rolls, got some work done and gave him a practical education that he made a career out of. He also, despite coming from a Republican family, became a lifelong Democrat. Millions of others did as well, seeing the government accomplish much that neither free enterprise nor private charities had been able to do.

    Profoundly, this is when many people began to view the government as a provider instead of just as an arbiter.

    And in fact, in many cases the Government has done a great deal for us that private industry either was not up to doing or had no interest in doing I listed nine of them here.

    It is true that economic liberalism morphed somewhat after Roosevelt in that it went from programs in which people were expected to contribute in exchange for help to those in which people often received something for nothing. And some people gamed the system-- leading to outrage among people who worked hard and saw their taxes taken and given to people who had no interest in working. Hence the Reagan revolution of conservatism and the welfare reform that Clinton took credit for after signing in the middle of the night.

    However, as an economic liberal, while I will concede that the reforms of welfare and other entitlements needed to happen, it is now outrageous to me to see conservatives continuing to complain about the support we give individuals like it was 1980 while they have pushed us into enormous debt by pushing trillions in tax cuts for the very wealthy and trillions more in corporate welfare (for example, the so-called medicare prescription drug plan which has not only confused seniors who like my mom were better off with the original medicare benefit, but also handed or committed for the future as much as $1.4 trillion (twice the size of the proposed Wall Street bailout) to pharmaceutical companies.

    As an economic liberal I'd posit that it is in no way an infringement on the free market to invest in universal healthcare, public transportation and college tuition support-- these things benefit society as a whole and make a lot more sense than handing it to a few wealthy individuals or companies who may or may not find America to be the best place to invest it. This sort of societally responsible capitalism does as a matter of fact work in most industrialized countries.

    Regulation is important too. Without laws regulating what businesses can and can't do, well see about 1900. Laws like minimum wage, the forty hour week, child labor laws, pollution controls and workplace safety laws are there not because some good-hearted conservative decided to put them there, but because they were fought for, often at the price of blood-- and put there by liberals, mostly during the Roosevelt administration but in some cases before or after that. Those laws have however benefitted everyone. The free market had a lifetime (pretty exactly) between the end of slavery and Roosevelt to get children out of factories or implement basic safety requirements, and it failed. So the Federal Government made it happen. And life went on, but a better version of life.

    Now that this comment is longer than your post, I won't discuss national or cultural liberalism here though I might.

    By Blogger Eli Blake, at Fri Sep 26, 04:18:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Eli, I had to stop after your wonderful comment of your wife's grandfather. Not out of dismay, but because I need to hit the gym!

    I will be back later to give your commentary its due, though I thank you for its scope very sincerely.

    I'd just like to leave you with this thought.

    For me, America is not about liberalism or conservatism. It is not, even as I once said to my parents, that this is a conservative people who have made a liberal country. That's too cutesy a definition.

    Instead, I think that America's defining ethos is reform.

    The problem, if it can be seen as one, is that reform is not the province of one mindset, world view and therefore Party.

    Republians, Democrats, everyone throughout history has reformed this country according to their lights.

    Contrary to what most Republicans think, I believe Senator Obama is a reformer too. But not as much as Senator McCain (arguably not as much as Governor Palin), and represents wholesale change more than reform.

    That's a harder act to sell in this country, and this is why you see people hesitating.

    He should've appropriated "the maverick" moniker the way McCain appropriated the Change one, the moment he wrestled the nomination from Senator Clinton. Mavericks are American, completely and absolutely American. Agents of change sound...foreign.

    I think that will come back to haunt him, but we'll see.

    This is still Senator Obama's election to lose, and always has been. This debate tonight couldn't be more important if one tried.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Fri Sep 26, 04:31:00 pm GMT-4  

  • I have had, not surprisingly, similar thoughts to yours on these issues.

    You are missed on that other blog.

    *HUG*

    By OpenID erniecu73, at Fri Sep 26, 04:38:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Sorry to go all Cedarford on you here, but if you truly want to “discuss with your readership,” you should ask a more specific question. ;)
    Do they want America to fail? Yes, some foreigners do. But many, many more do not.
    I lived abroad- two years in Switzerland, a year in Germany, during which I interacted with them professionally and socially, often in their own language. As an American, I confronted various levels of animosity. Mind you, this was the early 90’s during Bush I and the first Gulf War. The most striking aspect was how much was genuine and how much was obviously learned. People who had actually traveled to the States, generally had a more favorable opinion, than those who learned everything from the media. I don’t blame them. The same thing happens in this country amongst the states. Many Eastern coast and Midwestern Americans look upon California with a certain level of contempt and disdain.
    In short, they wish to end American exceptionalism, built they believe on religion, military power and above all, capitalism. As they see it, this triumverate is hopelessly out of date, barely past the Industrial Revolution. The modern response for any clear-thinking country should be securalism, peace, and socialism, but America just doesn't "listen".
    An end to American exceptionalism is tantamount to the end of America as I understand it. It’s not unreasonable to suppose this could happen (I didn’t think until recently that it could happen in my lifetime). My question is what will supplant American power? Secularism, peace, and socialism are demographically not in the cards for the world. That is as painful for Europeans to admit as it is for Americans to admit financial insolvency.
    If bad things have to happen, it's better that they happen here. Recovery is quicker.
    Part of the reason recovery is quicker is that most Americans know that their country "works". How exactly, why exactly, by what miracle exactly, no one really seems to know. But it does.
    Recovery in American works better because its residents must be more resourceful. And also because they are free to fail and fear it. In Europe, you are prevented from both abject failure and spectacular success.
    They join up to fight for her in droves, out of conviction, not because they have a mandatory military call-up when they turn 18. Yes, they are willing to risk their lives, even in times of war.
    There is an enormous cultural divide between the intellectual left and the military which began in Vietnam era. They don’t even integrate socially. You realize for example, that the US Navy was essentially kicked out of San Francisco and split its forces between San Diego and Seattle. San Francisco essentially no longer hosts a significant military presence.
    On one side, you have traditionalists, people who believe in the free-market and in the strong world leadership America has projected since 1945. They embody that in their own life choices, too
    “Traditionalists” as you have conveniently defined could also be “conservatives”. My own conservatism was not passively taught to me but rather actively learned. Also, my receptivity for it blossomed late, as I was rather liberal for much of young adulthood.
    they also see other systems which are far more equitable, and wish to emulate them.
    On September 5, 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama said And so I hope that out of this crisis we all begin to reflect - Democrat and Republican - on not only our individual responsibilities to ourselves and our families, but to our mutual responsibilities to our fellow Americans.
    JFK famously asked: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” Aren’t BHO’s words just an exhortation to: “ask not just what you can do for yourself—ask what you can do for your country”? Sounds nice, almost scriptural, evoking generosity and selflessness altruism (to be honest, it’s McCain’s message too—Country first!). The conservative’s problem is that commonwealth (material or spiritual) and generosity towards others is premised on the existence of individual wealth. Obama’s message is an old one and that is to share pre-existing wealth more equitably. He is silent on the creation of wealth and frankly, he suggests ways to reduce it.
    On the other hand, I can read “our individual responsibilities to ourselves and our families, but to our mutual responsibilities to our fellow Americans” as a moral hazard or temptation: you know what, it’s not just all about personal responsibility, so go ahead and ask what your country can do for you, because there should be some responsibility there too.
    There is no "give" in either of these mindsets.
    At the moment, there appears to be no “give”. But that depends, I think on the proximity to the election, and one’s own personal involvement in the intellectual machinations surrounding it and how much blog you smoke. A lot of other people just don’t care. I know this because I ask them. Some still can’t even be bothered to vote.
    Face the matter squarely -- there is no middle way in 2008. It's either The Old or The New, and THIS is why the election today is still so close
    I’m working on a theory about why modern elections must be close, based on probabilities, but I’m keeping it to myself for the time being.

    By Blogger chickenlittle, at Fri Sep 26, 06:05:00 pm GMT-4  

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