HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 8, 2007
From Liberty Street

Loss or Lost

John Turner


More and more people are voicing the feeling that America is changing, and changing rapidly, in ways that are discouraging and, perhaps, disastrous.

On 60 Minutes last night, Scott Pelley asked Bruce Springsteen why, with all his financial success, he continues to write songs and go on tours (the question itself may be a big part of the problem). Springsteen replied that he wants to help the country recover itself, to rediscover the beliefs and ideals he used to associate with the essence of America. He feels, strongly, that those beliefs and ideals have withered mightily over the past decade.

This morning, in the New York Times, Roger Cohen in a column about the death of Carol Ann Gotbaum in Phoenix says that "American airports are now temples of zealotry." He didn't add much discussion of why they are temples of zealotry, but the implication was that something has happened to the American mind so that we now not only tolerate idiotic behavior by so-called security forces but we are so resigned to it we think it's normal.

On Saturday, Thomas Friedman -- Mr. Optimist himself -- wrote that the arguments of our presidential administration are insane. Republican spokesmen continue with the crazy refrain that using taxes to pay for anything, even their cherished wars, is unthinkable.

Bob Herbert says that the primary mission of the president and his "can't-get-it-right-wingers" is to make the extremely rich even richer. Gail Collins reports that a leading presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, wouldn't say anything specific even if you waterboarded him. It wouldn't be hard to find many more examples implying that the nation has become disordered and is on a path to a degenerate future.

Can all this be merely a bad mood caused by the foolish selection of a president who is inadequate and maniacally egotistical? Or does it bespeak something deep-seated in the condition of the population? I'm not sure, but I would bet on the latter.

Obviously, the emotional condition of an entire nation cannot be attributed to a single cause. There are always numerous factors at work in creating a national disposition. But when sense of self undergoes a rapid shift we have the right to suspect that something which has been occurring for a considerable time is coming to a head. In our case, I think it is that we are now reaping the effects of lies we have come to love more than we love the country itself. And all these lies can be placed under the heading of American exceptionalism.

We have sold ourselves the hokum that just because of our Americanness we can waltz pass the problems that other people actually have to solve.

We don't have to create a modern, effective health care system because our exemplary American enterprise will simply take care of medical problems without our having to think about them.

We don't have to devise a skillful diplomatic system because America is number one and the rest of the world doesn't have to be negotiated with, it just has to listen.

We don't have to sell as much as we buy because having cheap goods made for us by underpaid workers in other nations is a right bequeathed by God to the people of the United States.

We don't have to address the abuses in our criminal justice system because any American who decides to put on a uniform or work in law enforcement is deeply good.

We don't have to worry about polluting the land, because America is vast and pure.

We don't have to pay for government services because it is our birthright as Americans to know that taxes are always bad. We don't even need to find ways to make our government efficient because, as Americans, we don't really believe in government anyway.
These along with many others, including faith in the necessity and good intent of our imperialism, are childish delusions. All of them partake of the notion that good results don't require careful thought, work and discipline. They just come to us because we're Americans. I'm not sure it's logical to speak of the immaturity of an entire nation, but if it is, the United States appears to be having a terrifically hard time growing up.

Whether this is simply a passing phase of national history, a passing dip that all countries go through, or is the beginning of a long, painful decline is too early to say. I suspect it's more the first than the second. But even if I'm right our situation now is troubling nonetheless. It could be improved significantly if we would summon the will to swallow a dose of truth about who we are and how we, and our national leaders, are behaving.


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