Letters @ 3AM
Subject: The decline and fall of the former United States of America (F-USA)
[Note: Though originated by scholars as a useful abbreviation, "F-USA" has accrued an unfortunate slang nuance exploited by tasteless comedians. In this brief summary monograph, at the risk of wordiness, we will instead refer to "the former United States" or "the former U.S."]
We must begin by stating without equivocation that the former United States deserves to be honored as a crucial experiment in human history and surely the most creative society the world has yet seen. Save for religion, spirituality, and the theatre – in which it could be argued that the former U.S. was at best derivative and at worst backward – one cannot name a human endeavor in which that society failed to create fundamentally new forms. Music, literature, sports, cinema, education, dance, war, psychology, architecture, visual and plastic art, governance, transportation, engineering, agriculture, commerce, communications, medicine, and every science – for better and for worse, all these and more were forever revolutionized by that society's innovations. From the cotton gin to the Internet, its inventions were envied and copied the world over by cultures as different from the former U.S. as China and the Muslim nations.
Why the former United States was so inexhaustibly creative is a subject that will long be debated. Among many reasons are that it was the first large polity in which royalty was permanently abolished and all government made elective, the first in which many could rise above the societal level at which they were born, and the first where common folk could own their own land. At its founding, its citizens enjoyed more freedom and autonomy than any citizenry in history. Its constitutional system, the most original political system devised up to that time, enabled many who were at first excluded (slaves, women, etc.) to gain rights. And the former United States was the first nation in which all the world's races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions interacted and intermarried in relative peace – relative, that is, when one considers how elsewhere those same races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions had murdered one another for centuries. These factors released tremendous and still-undefined energies in the human psyche (energies blocked by the strictures of previous cultures), resulting in a cultural atmosphere in which anything seemed possible.
Of course, it has also been argued that a country situated like the former United States could not help but bountifully prosper. Here was a nation with no strong rivals on its borders; a nation protected from invasion not only by vast oceans but by the vastness of its territory (impossible for an enemy to overrun); a nation with so many varieties of climate and topography that it was gifted with abundant natural resources of every description, more so than any in history. So, in fairness, history must ask: How could such a nation fail to be bountiful?
By contrast, consider its neighbors. Canada was (until recently) too cold for widespread settlement. In the Latin American countries, the native populations were too numerous to nullify, much of the land was topographically inhospitable, and the climate was too tropical to exploit with the technology of the 16th through 19th centuries. The settlers of the former United States, however, found a continent that was rather thinly populated, while its eastern topography and climate were not unlike what the colonizers were used to, so it was well-suited to their level of technology. Also, Latin America was conquered by cultures still under the influence of the Inquisition, while the former United States benefited from cultures of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, in which (relative to most human history) new ideas were encouraged.
In short, and to put it crudely: In its founding conditions, the former United States had a lot of luck – but hidden in that luck was the beginning of that society's fall. Early on, as a culture, the people of the former U.S. came to believe their luck was a kind of divine providence and that, being divine, the luck of their society would never run out. Also, a generally shared belief system held that the Creator would not so bless a nation that was not good – so it followed (in this belief system) that they deserved their luck. This, in turn, reinforced their assumption that their luck wouldn't run out. These beliefs, held almost reflexively and unconsciously by many, contributed to an arrogance that was one (but only one) engine of their undoing.
Oddly, every colonizer, settler, immigrant, and slave in the former U.S. came from cultures whose luck had run out not once but many times. Indeed, the vast majority would not have come if their culture of origin had not somehow failed them, and failed them mightily – for it was always a risky enterprise to begin anew in the former U.S. But this country was such a new phenomenon that it was believed – on all sides, by all factions, and in many ways – that the human condition itself could change. Indeed, in some ways it did. Eventually, all sorts of behavior that had never been openly tolerated anywhere blossomed in the former United States and spread to other cultures, until the entire world had to deal, in one way or another, not only with technologies but with public behaviors and assumptions unheard of before the founding and blossoming of the former U.S.
So it is mere historical petulance to deny (as many have) that the former United States was a great country. No country since the Greece of Alexander and the Rome of Augustus has catalyzed so much change. As with Alexander's Greece and Augustus' Rome, evil as well as good resulted. But if we measure greatness by influence, then the former United States was undeniably great, and the powers that have risen since – China, India, Brazil, Europea – have risen on its shoulders. (Some would say on its back.)
But every society makes mistakes for which it must pay. Luck always runs out – or so we must assume, since luck ran out even for this gifted and resourceful country.
It is one of the great ironies of history that the former United States finally failed at that which it had been best at: pragmatism and materialism. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, other cultures accused the "American character," as it was called, of being pragmatic to a fault. Here was a society that could invent, fix, use, and build anything, but (so went the accusation) it had no depth. Until the 1920s, other cultures discounted U.S. arts, though those arts were formidable. Until the proliferation of radio and movies, other countries made fun of U.S. styles, though these media instantly made U.S. styles infectious throughout the world. In sum, until well into the 20th century, the world's opinion was thus:
Here was a society that understood the mechanical as had no other – industrial mechanics, biological mechanics, quantum mechanics, the mechanics of economics – but (so went the accusation) it understood little else. Here was a society of ultimate materialists, in the highest sense. With materials, they united a more vast area than had ever been united, communicating instantaneously through telegraph by the mid-1800s and, by the late 1800s, transporting material and personnel across vast distances faster and in more directions than any society ever – a speed that steadily increased as their means of transport multiplied. Here was a society that understood, as had no other, the development and allocation of resources. By fair means or foul (and there were plenty of both), here was a society that put into action what others had merely dreamed. Flying. Workers living more luxuriously than medieval royalty. And so much more. All of which would have been considered miraculous in earlier times. Other societies might be great at thought, at concept, at grandeur, but here was a society that could invent and employ the electrical generator and (tragically, as it turned out) the internal combustion engine, making so much possible that had never before been within reach. By comparison to others, their manners were rough, their language often graceless, their expectations inflated and silly, but they could do. How they could do!
They even had a phrase for it: "good old American know-how." They knew how to do.
How did they lose that ability? How did such a country become, in the end, helpless and beyond saving? (To be continued.)