It is such an odd feeling to be adrift in the world. It used to seem to me that every globe was mechanically calibrated. As a scale always returns to zero, a globe seemed to return the Americas to the front and center position regardless of which way you turned it. Well that old centering mechanism is broken. The globe now stops wherever the momentum of the spin ends.
Of course it’s a metaphor, a metaphor and a child’s perception about America’s belief that it was the best country on the planet, an absolute fiery furnace of industry and a fountain of prosperity, the source of invaluable capitalist know-how and the Protestant work ethic – and the last, best mediator of humanitarian behavior and global justice. And although it all sounds a bit self-righteous and boastful from our current perspective, it produced results, both positive and negative, and kept Europe busy enough that it experienced 70 years of peace among nations that had previously involved the world in two world wars.
We have come down from those lofty heights to confront our flaws, our ‘sins’ of pride. Perhaps in our zeal to convert nations to democracy we lost sight of ideology and/or confused it with economics. Because it seems today that it was all about money. Communism as described by those who thought it into being (Marx, Engels) was both a governmental ideology and an economic system and as it turned out, an authoritarian state that used a virtual Iron Curtain to keep its own sad secrets. And yet there was and is a global tug-of-war over whether democracy and capitalism or communism will win in the ideological war by collecting the most nations. A democracy/republic did not necessarily specify any economic model, but other democracies and republics did practice various brands of capitalism, far simpler than what capitalism became in the Industrial Age, but enough to join the governmental system and the economic system in holy (or unholy) matrimony.
Because America was so active in Europe after World War II and since Europe and America had the same goal, to prevent another great war, and, given the fact that Russia who had been an ally in the World Wars had slunk off behind the Iron Curtain to see what it could do with its new Communist state, we came to find global strength in our alliances with European nations in NATO and later in the UN and in the G8 which eventually became the G20.
In fact the distance between America and Europe seemed to shrink and England even referred to the Atlantic Ocean as ‘the pond’. Americans at first may have been seen as brashly confident, youthful, strong, and attractive. However, as the men who stayed in Europe and led the armed forces America left in Europe aged Europe began to question whether this was a matter of protection or occupation. Americans became ‘uglier’ and Europe as a result of its too-long familiarity with Americans began to feel a cross between amused at our temerity and pissed off by our arrogance, elitism, and hubris. Still it seemed our alliances with Europe were even stronger now that they could see our flaws, and that America’s strength was recognized around the globe.
Our fall from grace, or from our former confidence in our own ascendancy, did not begin in 2016. Losing a war we never should have been in, the war in Vietnam, may have been the first blow. The cultural tears in the fabric of our nation grew to be enormous between those who backed the war and those who didn’t; those who went to college and lived near universities and those who started families immediately after high school; between those who embraced the idea of giving women power over their bodies and their persons because of the sudden availability of birth control pills and then Roe v Wade and those whose religions were opposed. The divide may be thought of as the equivalent of placing the two camps of Americans on colliding tectonic plates.
At the same time we had to deal with our racism. We had the national shame of the Civil Rights Movement playing out on televisions all over the world and the world could see that the ‘land of the free’ was not really so free. We had the assassinations – John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy – all body blows to American ebullience and pride. That set us to grieving and continued the painful process of becoming a real nation with a history both glorious and inglorious. America got a few grey hairs. But there was further to fall. Our factories began to leave. Good jobs became scarce in the North and then in the Rust Belt and later in the South.
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, symbols of America’s financial dominance fell. The Pentagon, symbol of the nation’s military power was attacked. Washington, DC the seat of our republic/democracy was saved only by brave Americans on a plane who died to stop an attack. These were sure signs that there were people out there in the world we once felt that we owned who hate us and who now felt we had become vulnerable. American staggered after those blows, it almost seemed that we could not recover, and perhaps if all three attacks had succeeded we would be in a very different place right now. America was shaken to its foundations and the fears that our democracy could end became very real and are with us even more powerfully today than they were in those dark days. The strength and unity we had in those quiet days when no planes flew in America’s air space should have given way to a more mature analysis of what is good and what is bad about our nation, but with sides being taken and divisions growing ever wider there is no mature analysis in sight.
Should we still open our doors to immigrants? Should we still offer refuge? Do we remain with fossil fuels until the last dregs are hauled out of the earth and the oceans take over our beaches and the storms rage; until we are the huddled masses we once welcomed to our shores? Are we so offended by the insistence of diverse cultural groups that we need to change our forms of address to honor their sensitivities that we cannot learn to accept political correctness as just a new level of civility and not an attack on our freedom? Are we so prideful that we turn this into the most serious problem our nation faces, which it definitely is not. America without Trump might just be having an identity crisis. With Trump we may have turned this into an existential crisis.
Just as people rarely get to go through their whole lives without experiencing setbacks and grief, our nation, no longer a nation represented by cornfed boys with brush-cuts, became middle-aged and a bit dumpy and disillusioned. We lost two more wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (well we can’t say we won, can we) and we opened some beehives and as the bees poured out we thought we would avoid being stung. So we go out and find ourselves a dumpy, disillusioned President just to double down on our identity crisis. We pick a guy who cuts us off from all our old friends who might have enjoyed our come-uppance, but who would also have commiserated with us. Perhaps off our high horse we could have worked even better with our allies. But oh, oh, we might have been asked to take in some of the dispossessed Syrians.
We pick out a guy who cozies up to all our old enemies and to the dictators who drive us to the edge of sanity with their come-here-go away-I’ll-kill-you mood changes using missile launches as punctuation. We no longer accept immigrants and we treat our neighbors like dangerous enemies. We send invoices to all our friends dunning them for money that is supposed to put us in the black according to our President’s wacky bookkeeping (as our deficits rise ever higher). It’s embarrassing to most of us, it looks strong to the rest of us. Still divided, the rancor grows between us. He (the royal he) exploits the new gaps of coastal versus rural interests and this man from the biggest coastal city of all pretends to identify with rural Americans and they buy it.
The old man in the White House, imposing solutions devised in discos decades ago, is stoking divisions into hatreds. What will hating each other ever get us? When we were in decline for some reason we chose the one person who could be the death of us. Is this a suicide pact? Is this the bottom that will finally inspire the people who love America to help our nation rise from this mid-life crisis to become a nation that hews to the creed that birthed it, but that never-so-far informed it? Do we have farther to fall? Is our nation not middle-aged but really at the end of its life as this man is, or do we have many more useful years left? Is he a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Do we leave our old friends and allies to deal with all the transitional problems of these times. Do we continue to antagonize even our neighbors in our own hemisphere? Do we refuse to help the world solve the issues of polar melting and ocean pollution. Why, rather than choose a wise man whose age and experience could help America find the wisdom it needs to face the future, did we choose a hipster doofus, a player, a crook who pretends to be wise but who only knows how to feed the pigeons (another metaphor). Can we get our mojo back? How long can we stay adrift in the universe without becoming utterly beside the point. I don’t feel a need to be the richest nation in the world. But I did think we would help lead as the world solved logistical problems to ensure a future we might all look forward to. I thought we would share our educated brains with the rest of the educated brains around the world. Instead we elected an anti-intellectual.
Where does the globe stop when our children spin it now – not here.
This is a view from the cheap seats. I always sit in the cheap seats although I am afraid of heights.