August 6, 2007
From Liberty Street

Crack Up

John Turner

The collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis has brought a flood of commentary about whether America is falling apart.  A single disaster wouldn't have unleashed so many predictions of doom unless there was a backlog of suspicion that things haven't been going well in the United States for some time.

On The McLaughlin Group, Pat Buchanan declaimed that we have lost the ability to carry out major national projects. John McQuaid, writing in the Washington Post, called us "The Can't Do Nation." The same issue of that paper had a long article by Glenn Kessler reporting that 190,000 rifles and pistols shipped to Iraq have simply disappeared, as far as U.S. records can tell. "They really have no idea where they are," said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center of Defense Information. They may not have any idea, but I do, and my suspicions don't shine favorably on the competence of American military management.

Against the wave of complaint there has been a faint undertow of rationalization based on the new complexities we face. The world is very complicated, say some super patriots, and the United States has been appointed by Providence, or some other equally mysterious force, to shoulder the world's burdens to a degree no one else is obliged to do. But victory -- whatever that might be -- is around the corner if we will maintain our resolve.

Resolve is, indeed, the challenge. But not in the way right-wingers suppose. Bridges are not falling apart because we don't know how to repair them. The problem is we can't decide we want to repair them. And our indecision about bridges and roadways is simply one feature of a rampaging uncertainty about what sort of country our citizens want to inhabit. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, we can't get straight what the consequences of our own desires will be.

We want, for example, to be an empire, with the power to pretty much tell the rest of the world how to behave, and, in particular, how to behave towards us. But we don't actually want to live under the constraints of an imperial government or to pay the price, in taxes and lost lives, that imperial suzerainty requires. We want the biggest, most overwhelming military force the world has ever known, but we don't want the other people of the globe to dislike us when we spread that force over the earth and use it to make people do what they don't want to do.

We want everybody in the nation to be well off, and have a fine house, and first-rate medical care, but we don't want even to tiptoe towards the question of whether we can have that and also maintain a system for raking in dollars that produces the most disparate distribution of wealth in the developed world.

We want fine roads and pretty parks and well-lit clean cities but we don't want to pay taxes for them.

We want all the fruits of technological development but we don't want to give disciplined attention to the knowledge and skill that produces such development. Perish the thought that any true American should have to undergo the agony of learning calculus.
We want the sweet reputation of being a grand democratic people but the great majority of us can't be bothered to read even a single book a year that explains what our government is doing.

We want to feel good about ourselves and go to bed at night with a sense of confidence, but we think that should come about by some researcher, somewhere, inventing a pill that will produce the desired result. And we want that pill for free.

We want trim, athletic, functional bodies but we want to nourish them with gobs of non-nutritious fast food. And when we get fat from gorging ourselves on it, we want a pill to take care of that too.

In short, we want a lot of things that aren't going to happen unless we change our ways. And we don't want to change our ways. Nor do we want politicians or political debate that will remind us that many of our social habits and desires are less than mature. We want all our national leaders to tell us every day of every year that we are simply great. So, that's what they do.

To go back to the Minneapolis bridge: anyone who has been even a cursory reader of newspapers knows that the national infrastructure -- as we call it -- is in a state of advanced decay with a load of deferred maintenance that would take decades to get in hand, even if we started immediately doing twice as much about it as we're doing now. Why should we be surprised that a bridge fell down? For that matter, why should we be surprised if a dozen of them fell down in a single day? It's the surprise of adolescents who haven't yet imagined that actions have consequences.

America isn't necessarily falling apart. It just finds itself unable to grow up.


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