From Liberty Street: Despair

More and more one comes on notes of discouragement. Here, for example, is a comment plucked from a recent posting on the internet. "I think this country is doomed to fail. Not from outside invaders, but from rot and apathy within. I wish I could be more 'upbeat', but lately just feel beat."

In America -- and anywhere else, I suppose -- democracy has to based on the faith that most of the people, if they know what's going on, will support equity, decency, and fairness. But, now, skeptical questions begin to arise. What if the average man or woman doesn't care about fairness for others and wants only personal gain? What if people are so lazy-minded they will make no effort to inform themselves about public affairs? What if a sense of hatred and cynicism becomes so pervasive that efforts towards altruism and generosity are banished? Where is our democracy then? Where is our Constitution?

Many believe that these feelings come from a corrupt and greedy government in the hands of a small group of ideologues determined to transform the nation from a democratic republic into an imperialist oligarchy. I, myself, have said that the Bush administration is characterized by a desire for domination abroad and the rule of the rich at home. But, ultimately, we can't blame our problems on George Bush or on any group of people clustered about him. Our problems come from ourselves.

In 1782, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur published a book titled Letters From An American Farmer in which he explored the character of the average American and asked the famous question: Who then is this new man, this American? Now, 214 years later that question is in dire need of being asked again, updated to something like: Who are the American people in the first decade of the 21st Century?

If a perfect answer was impossible in the late 18th Century, just think how much more difficult it is today. And, yet, the question needs to be faced, and asked. If there now is, in America, a problem with democracy, it can't begin to be addressed until we explore the basis of democracy, the people themselves.

If the question were posed and the answer sought as vigorously as possible, I don't know what the outcome would be. Like all other Americans, my experience extends to a relatively small group of people. I think I know something about them, their strengths, their weaknesses. But whether they are typical Americans, or whether there is any such thing as a typical American, I have no idea.

There are some things we do know that would have to guide the exploration. Our children are not as well educated as the children of other, so-called developed societies. They don't know as much about any serious subject as children in Europe do. This cannot be written off to defective techniques of schooling. Education is a desire, not a mechanism. So what has happened to that desire in America?

We are much more inclined to resort to violence than comparably developed nations are. This is true at both the personal and the governmental level. The murder rate in America is several times what it is in any European country. We avidly support the death penalty when no other Western country does. Our foreign policy is based, first and foremost, on military power. We believe, for example, that the problem of terrorism is to be solved by killing all the terrorists, no matter how many there are. No other nation believes that. So, what's the meaning of violence in America?

We gobble up energy at a rate known nowhere else in the world. We know, for example, that if all the other people of the globe used energy at the rate we do, life support systems would be put under such a strain they would probably fail. Our scientists have told us that the atmosphere is being heated at a rate that will cause widespread flooding within a quarter century. And, yet, we do nothing to rein ourselves in with respect to energy use. Why not?

Our political system is grounded in the practice of fulsome flattery. Every politician feels obliged to tell the American people how wonderful they are. The evidence is fairly clear that if a politician does not do this, he or she will fail. Almost everyone knows that flattery is a technique of manipulation. So, why do we have such an appetite for it?

These four questions are just a beginning. But if even they were addressed seriously we would take a major step towards knowing what our democracy is and where it is likely to take us in the coming decades. We would know whether it makes much sense to try to maintain the Constitution that was presented to us more than two centuries ago.

For myself, I have no faith in the people, in the sense of believing that the voice of the people is the voice of God. History presents us with too many cases of  populations succumbing to hysteria, bigotry, greed and cruelty to make a religion out of belief in the people. On the other hand, I am optimistic about what the American people would do if they decided to achieve self-knowledge. I think that if they knew who they were, they would embark on a campaign to enhance their strengths and to set aside their weaknesses. And I think they would move towards supporting the principles which have traditionally sustained us -- constitutionalism, balance of power, opportunity for all people, personal liberty and a respect for life.

Yet, we have to think before we can empower ourselves to act. And if there is cause for despair, it has to be a feeling that the people will not think, no matter what. I don't believe that's true. But I confess, the possibility of it gives me the creeps.

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