What Became of America in My Lifetime

I was born in 1980, which was 35 years ago. The dominant geo-political drama in the world 35 years ago was the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. In and around the year 1990, quite unexpectedly, the Soviet Union collapsed, and nearly every nation that had been a part of it converted rapidly from communism to some form of democracy. That was a historical shock! Nobody in 1985 was saying that the Soviet Union would be gone soon. It was exciting when the Soviet Union fell, it made you feel good as a human being to see it dissolve, to see democratic demonstrations succeed, to see the Berlin Wall smashed to bits by giddy, euphoric Berliners. It made you feel like there was hope for the world, for humanity — that good was destined to triumph over evil. It was, for us in the United States, a triumphant and beautiful time. We had been right, our values had prevailed, freedom rang louder and brighter across the globe, democracy marched forward inevitably. Our shining city on a hill would lead the way forward for them. Albeit, we weren’t perfect. Albeit, we had problems of our own. But our faults were relatively small, even our former enemies admitted that; we had no skeletons in our closet to compare to the likes of Stalin.

Now, 25 years later, it is hard to imagine the fall of the Soviet Union as unexpected, even though it was. The rapid dissolution of the various Soviet states appears, in retrospect, obvious and inevitable. In the United States, we have spent at least the last twenty years telling ourselves that it was. Far from fearing them, we now feel pity for Russia and the other nations of the former Soviet bloc. Geo-politically, although Vladimir Putin scares everyone, he seems more in the mold of a petty 3rd world dictator than a formidable adversary. The new superpower that is occasionally imagined rising from the oceans of history in opposition to the United States is not Russia but China, even though China is also the United States’ second largest trading partner.

Some years ago, as I was cooking dinner, I came to the sudden realization that the national narrative of the United States had changed in my lifetime. This was startling for me. At 35, I am nearing middle age, but I do not feel very old. And I was still younger when I stood in my kitchen cooking dinner and abruptly realized that our national narrative, what we stood for as a society, what kind of world we wanted to live in, what we valued — had all changed. The society that I remembered growing up in, its values and ideals, its hopes for the future — no longer existed. The disturbing part of this was that it seemed to me that what had happened was not a conscious, volitional change, not a measured evolution, but rather an unconscious one. Just as our individual memories recompose and re-interpret the past from day to day, so our national, collective memory had been recomposed and re-interpreted. We are not what we were, we did not become what we aspired to be, but it seemed to me that hardly anyone noticed what had changed, and hardly anyone cared.

In the 1980s, still in the face of our Soviet rivals, America imagined itself primarily as a force for freedom and democracy in the world. The United States stood against the Soviets because we stood for the democratic process and the rights and liberties of the individual person, which were both zealously annihilated by communist regimes. We stood for human rights, for human values; on our best days, we liked to believe that we stood for humanity. As a shining city on a hill, an image sometimes disclaimed but never disowned, we imagined that the light we shone to the rest of the world consisted of the exceptional values that we collectively held, and the pertaining freedoms we enjoyed as a result of them. Our shine was our great democracy, our great society, not the glitter of our economic wealth. Any nation could be wealthy, after all, with luck, and the United States had been very lucky indeed.

It was not, to my memory, a large part of the national consciousness to reason: “Well, we are the richest, and that is what makes us the best!” Yet, somehow that vulgar equation has become the popular logic and received system of values that we now operate under in American society.

Somehow, in the very recent past, we came to unconsciously exchange our ideals of freedom and democracy, what we as a society stood for, for a cheaper ideal of mere capitalism.

This fits a picture of contemporary history that is obvious once stated, but which I have rarely, if ever, heard: that we are living through an age characterized by triumphant capitalism. This was supposed to be the age of democracy! But it is not that. Certainly, democracy in the United States is weaker than it has been for generations. Russia, as well, is not a democratic nation, and there is no serious desire on our part to push it to become so. China, of course, does not even make a pretense of being democratic, and this suits us in the United States; if China were to become democratic, their labor would not be so cheap. There may be those out there like I was, shocked to look around themselves and realize this, hesitant to accept the fact of the diminishing democratization of our era, and I could go on at length to justify the idea to them –> it is not hard to point out, for example, that for the past twenty years a profoundly unpopular political class in the United States has been overwhelmingly re-elected in every election; and that the wealth and power of our society has become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands to an unprecedented degree; and that virtually every area of our economy has become consolidated and conglomerated into the hands of a only a few major international corporations; and etc <– but I don’t want to become side-tracked or to belabor the point, which many others have already written at length about.

My point, rather, is that this era we are living through is the great age of capitalism. It is the era in world history when an economic model came to be substituted for a political one, to the extent that the democratic ideals the United States too recently stood for now hardly exist.

What we chose to offer the world, how America decided to recreate the world in its image — when we had the opportunity to do so, after the Soviet Union fell — was in the form of an economic model, not a social or political one. We did not give the world freedom or liberty. What we demanded, rather, to see in the world was capitalism, defined broadly as ‘good markets’, which meant in practice: markets that were good for us in the United States. Our previously dear ideals about fair political systems, fair legal systems, fair social systems, and the protection of individuals to live their lives as they individually saw fit — were easily forgotten. Our metaphorical shining city meant, in revision, that our streets were paved with gold, because wealth was the thing that gave the city its shine; because America had the most billionaires, and the most millionaires, and the biggest corporations, and the fanciest weapons, and the best funded laboratories, and the biggest televisions, and the newest phones.

So it is, that the Soviet Union was our great enemy, ‘the commies’; and so it is that China is our new great comrade, ‘the commies’. Because, the Soviet Union was an antipathetic trading partner, and China is a trading partner that we have been able to advantageously exploit.

For those who lived through it, take a moment to stop and think back to the Tiananmen Square Massacre [which is what it was called in the United States and is no longer, a ‘massacre’]. Stop to think back and remember the news coverage, what it meant, and how it felt to be an American in that moment. It was a huge national and international news story in 1989. Yet, it is difficult to imagine our society having the same response or interest, or even caring much at all, were the same event to occur today in 2015. Why?

Stop to really consider: If the Chinese government, tomorrow, rolls tanks over some groups of students and democracy protesters in China — would we, as a society, deeply care? Certainly, Obama would make some small comment, possibly even a speech, saying how he disapproves of their action. But, in general, it would be a business story! “How is the Dow responding to turmoil in China? Is the Chinese government still going to sign that new trade agreement? Do these events mean that China will become more restrictive on trade with the United States? The protesters had been slowing down production at iPhone factories, so now is an opportune time to invest in Apple stock.”

What happens to the Chinese at an individual level, to the individual human beings in China, or in any other nation for that matter — we, as a society, do not actually care. And 25 years ago we did! If the country in question is a trading partner with the right values, that is what matters to us as a society. And ‘the right values’ means only that their nation follows an economic system that interfaces profitably with our own. Greece = bad, China = good. Greece = not a useful source of cheap labor, and not a profitable environment for American corporate investors; China = a near endless supply of cheap labor with few labor laws, and a still-privatizing investment environment being continuously propped up and subsidized by the Chinese government. If they are ‘good capitalists’, they are good. If they are not ‘good capitalists’, they are bad. The individuals don’t matter, because living in a society that has adopted ‘the right values’ is the only thing human beings deserve to hope for anyway. These are the values of the America I now know, but they are not the values of the America I remember.

And what is the point? So the world changes, so what?

Actually, there is value simply in pointing the thing itself out. There is value simply in saying, “Hey, look at that. Did you notice that? Did you think about it? What do you think about it?”

But there is also a larger point, which is that, to the extent the United States is still a democratic society, we have a responsibility to observe what is happening to it, to be conscious of where we have come from and where we are going, or more importantly, where we want to go. As a society, we have been duped. It’s worth noticing that! The beautiful dream, the great vision that generations of Americans worked for, and fought for, and literally bled for, and literally died for, the beautiful world of free people and free ideas, was lost in a sort of historical bait and switch, and is being rapidly forgotten.

It’s not too late to change, but conscious, directed, volitional change requires consciousness of where we currently are at. The substitution of values and ideals that has happened, or the whittling down of what they were to a base equation of economic merit, has become endemic to the American consciousness, even down to the individual level. Our society has always been criticized for being greedy and materialistic, by the rest of the world, but today more than ever we are pressured (by media? by politicians? by ourselves?) to view our value as human beings in simple economic terms. The man is the gold. Men like Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page have a right to control our lives as they see fit, to the extent they are able to do so, because they have acquired the ability to do so! The fact that they have acquired the wealth/power that they have is the proof of the legitimacy of their use of it. Are they good people? Are they honorable human beings? Are they steering this ship we are all passengers of in the right direction? Those questions are irrelevant. The current prevailing logic of our society is that the wealthy/powerful individual’s accumulation of wealth/power is the proof of that individual’s quality as a human being. If someone is poor, it is obviously because of their failings as a person. If someone is rich, it is obviously because their achievements as a person. The proof of the legitimacy, or illegitimacy, of the individual’s actions is their success! And success means money.

Is it too obvious to point out how morally primitive that logic is? Certainly, it represents an ascendant social darwinism, a philosophy that has never benefited from intellectual merit, but it even begins to reach beyond that. We are literally witnessing a kind of monarchistic philosophy infecting our information-age world, where the possession of wealth and power is the justification of itself. The billionaire has the right to control our government, because the billionaire is a billionaire! We shouldn’t whine about it, because our own value and contribution to society is also measured by the size or our own economic portfolio, and if we were a billionaire then we would have the right to wield power too.

All of this can change. The people, the mass of humanity, still ultimately controls society. We can look around ourselves and choose what kind of society we want to live in. If we don’t want men like Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page to exercise disproportionate power over our lives, we can do something about it. Americans have done so in the past! But the first step is taking an honest look around ourselves and saying, where have we come from? Where have we come to? And where do we want to go from here?

It has become a popular cliche among leaders of the US military that any nation in the world where McDonald’s restaurants are popular is a safe nation that would never stoop to war or pose any strategic threat to the United States. That is true, not a joke! Among other problems with this ‘theory’, is the fact that these military leaders don’t seem to look around and realize that the United States itself, the birthplace of McDonald’s, has been the most enthusiastic and heavily invested participant in war throughout the world for the past fifty years.

And this is the problem with simple-mindedly boiling life down to an economic equation. Life is bigger, the world is bigger, humanity is bigger, and a whole lot more complicated, than that! And if my value, or your value, or the value of humanity, amounts to nothing more than a GDP, we may as well all shoot ourselves in the head right now. Because that picture of life is not a picture of life worth living.

That’s all I have to say for now., but I will be posting more articles that relate to this and other interesting subjects in the near future. Stay tuned! :)