Small World: Diagnosing the national malaise

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

“Where did we, where did our generation go wrong?” George asked. It was late at an evening dinner party. He was assuming the guests all shared his depression over the gridlock in Congress, Washington’s failure to manage the unending strife in the Middle East and our persisting economic recession.

Most of us probably did share his despair, but it was too late for deep thought. The answers would have to come on the drive home or in the shower the next morning.

That’s the way it always is with me: the brilliant sentences served up long after dessert has been finished.

So, what’s my answer? Stripping away the failed attempts at brilliance, I would say our society suffers from an excess of individualism and a shortfall in collective cohesion. We are an immigrant nation populated by diverse religions, races, classes and histories. Even when WASPs were in the ascendancy a century ago, there were geographic divides, conflicting interests between the slave-holding, agrarian South, the industrializing North and the expanding West.

Overseas wars submerged differences and patches of prosperity helped make us forget them. But in a society in which opportunity replaced tradition and innovation overcame customary structures and freedom defeated ancient disciplines, individual desires held sway and bonds of nationhood had much less strength. While older countries of Europe and Asia faced similar challenges, their homogeneity and sense of responsibility towards the community held them together. In the United States, the motto often seems to be, “Me first,” hardly ever the nation or city or society first, me second.

Not everywhere, of course. (Always the dratted exceptions!) It seems to me Maine has a greater sense of popular solidarity than Washington, D.C. Ohio feels less of a unified community than Vermont. That tells us something: Size matters. The United States might have become too big to be managed sensibly. Too strongly individualist to compromise. Too split up to follow a single, chosen leader.

Anyway, it’s a thesis; others will have other explanations of the national malaise (with apologies to Jimmy Carter). Others might respond to George differently. They might explain the prevailing malaise by citing one or more of the following ailments:

• Money is the root of our troubles. Politicians can be bought or rented. The rich zoom ahead while the poor fall further behind. Our values are distorted and walls grow up between elements of our society.

• Our society is unable to digest race and the persisting perception of superior-inferior intellects will not die away. Consequently, energy is wasted in scorning the other, rather than helping.

• Force is the answer — whether in pushing around foreigners we don’t like or in arming ourselves against miscreants at home. No one, gun-lovers say, should be able to tell us what weapons a citizen needs and who may hold them. For warmongers, the rule is foreign people can’t tell us what is best for them; we know.

• We don’t know or respect history or science. We prattle about what the Founding Fathers thought, but we possess few historic facts. Nor do we take into account the evolution of a changing society and its needs. As to science, we prefer to take a chance on hunches and what charlatans preach, rather than heed the warnings of true climate experts. Warnings of doom down the road imply sacrifice; it’s cheaper and easier to maintain business as usual.

• Our Constitution needs further amendments to meet modern problems. The Founding Fathers could not have foreseen, for example, the need for a more efficient congress, fair and effective gun controls and an explicit rule for declaring war.

• George’s answer: In our excessively idealistic struggle as a superpower during the Cold War, we neglected changes that were needed at home.

I could go on, but you will want time to spin out your own list of national foibles. Remember, the unexamined opinion article is not worth reading.

Coming soon: “What’s right with us?”

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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