Letters @ 3AM
Subject: The decline and fall of the former United States of America [F-USA].
Subhead: Ironies of Idealism and Identity as Relates to the "Wiggins Aphorism."
In brief, the former United States failed because its people overvalued their ideals and undervalued their resources. By "ideals" we do not mean those inscribed in their Constitution, with its superb and original Bill of Rights – though these, too, were slighted in so many ways that historians wonder whether they ever were taken seriously. An example: By the year 2000, the Bill of Rights' 9th and 10th Amendments were institutionally ignored on a vast scale, by the left as well as the right; in fact, by then it was doubtful whether even the well-educated could recite or discuss amendments nine and ten without consulting reference materials.
Another example: Congress abdicated its sole right and power to declare war. The many wars fought by the former U.S. after 1941 were embarked upon unconstitutionally by the executive alone, often with little or no protest. Laws administered selectively, even arbitrarily, can hardly claim to be laws. This nation's once famous (though always exaggerated) "rule of law" became an ad hoc patchwork of those laws that were generally followed and those that were not. It was inevitable that gradually such a government would lose its moral authority.
But when we speak of "ironies of idealism," we do not speak of professed ideals, which are everywhere plentifully professed and just as plentifully violated. We speak of ideals by which a people live. In the former U.S. these were basically two: progress and freedom. In practice, what was really meant by "progress" was innovation, and what was really meant by "freedom" was individual gain. These ideals were believed in passionately across the political spectrum.
Innovation was thought to foster individual gain, and individual gain was thought to foster innovation. In tandem, both were believed to result in collective prosperity and security.
The former U.S. hadn't a value system by which to judge the worth of innovation selectively. Innovation was employed indiscriminately, as a value in itself – at no matter what cost to community. Political preference made no difference; right, center, and left employed the same innovations promiscuously – labor-saving technology, communications devices, the "progress" in transportation from rail to cars, etc. This promiscuity shattered their communities more drastically than hostile acts or moral permissiveness could possibly have done.
Let us take, as just one example, agriculture. By 2007, technological innovations in agriculture were so efficient that a Kansas farmer with 7,000 acres required only two full-time year-round employees. For the farmer, this was profitable, as it was for the speculator in agricultural commodities; for the farmer's community, it was ruination. No permanent agricultural workforce meant no permanent support-structure – stores, services, etc. Gradually, farming towns across the country looked like ghost towns, or ghostly towns, with streets of boarded-up stores and crumbling infrastructures. "Profit" was defined simply as money, not as quality of life, and, in that definition, communities were no longer necessary to agricultural profit. In fact, cohesive community was no longer deemed necessary to any means of profit.
(Parenthetically, while on the subject of agriculture: It is remarkable that, after about 1900, the political and social thinkers of the former U.S. gave virtually no serious thought to agriculture, leaving it entirely to the mercies of the so-called "free market." We may justifiably question the realism, even the sanity, of any nation that forgets that agriculture is the foundation of civilization, especially of urban civilization, and that the fundamental issue of a nation's food supply should not be left to speculators. Not until climate change became too intrusive to ignore did this nation realize the massive consequences of that mistake.)
The great moral and intellectual failure of the former United States was that it never matured a vision, a living system of values, that balanced individual gain and innovation with the health of community. So individuals gained, amidst terrific innovation, while communities crumbled in varying ways – literally crumbling rurally, while cities and suburbs suffered a crumbling of cohesiveness, civic pride, and civic duty, all of which were unnecessary to profit and individual gain. Passionately engaged in their ideals of innovation and individual gain, this people was surprised to suffer the concurrent ills of living in noncommunities or uncommunities – ills that included the highest levels of crime and addictive behavior in the developed world, as well as confusions of morality and identity pathetic to behold.
Which brings us to the tricky issue of identity. The propellant ideals of the former United States were, as we have seen, innovation and individual gain. Community was given every variety of lip service across the political spectrum, but never did community compete as an ideal with innovation and individual gain. The highest rate of homeownership in the world was matched (and undermined) by the most insecure sense of community. One owned one's own home but owned it in isolation – which, for many, proved to be a terrifying experience. (What is more terrifying than isolation?) Without a true community, if you fall, nobody tries to catch you, and it's in no one's interest to help you up. Without a true community, you're not a part of anything; you are only your own quest for individual gain. That is not enough structure for a personal identity. Few can bear to look themselves in the mirror and say, "I am only my quest for my own gain." Yet that was the (unadmitted) existential situation of many citizens of the former United States – especially those of the middle class (by far, the majority). It is a given that, as individuals, we seek (perhaps crave) identification with a larger entity, a larger sense of purpose. Without coherent communities, how did this people seek their sense of purpose?
The major nations of Europe and Asia looked on in bafflement as the former United States became the only advanced nation in which religion revived as a major political force – to the point where a politician who did not profess a belief in God doomed his or her chance for higher office. But religion was merely the only fundamentalism called "fundamentalism." In fact, this people's fundamentalisms were many and varied, though similar in their passionate, exclusionary insularity. Leftist, intellectual fundamentalists ghettoed themselves in universities and university towns, where, inventing constantly more complex jargons, they lost the ability to communicate with anyone unlike themselves, thus abdicating their societal function as intellectuals. Business became a fundamentalist activity in which the god of short-term profit trumped any other consideration. Work was done with fundamentalist fervor, such that, on all levels, this people worked harder, longer, and enjoyed far less leisure than any other developed nation. A kind of artsy fundamentalism gripped even so-called "high culture," much art became incomprehensible to those outside artsy circles, and rare was the writer, for example, whose social circle included anyone but writers and their hangers-on. Even sports and entertainment became fundamentalist subsets in which teams and participatory TV programs had massive, passionate followings. Politics, too, became fundamentalist; all factions – but especially the far right and far left – were fundamentalist to the point of absurdity, routinely undermining their stated goals to protect the purity of their beliefs. It was all a matter of identity – a rudderless people desperate to identify, as individuals, with something larger than their quest for the "freedom" of individual gain, while becoming more and more confused by their addiction to innovation.
These fundamentalisms focused intensely on issues of no structural importance (abortion, "family values," smoking, gender issues, the Super Bowl), while ignoring infrastructure instability, food supply, climate change, etc. Each fundamentalism blamed the other for how their society was disintegrating all around them. Each failed to see that their shared ideals of individual gain and promiscuous innovation were the real destroyers of their communities and sense of purpose.
Almost until their collapse, this nation (in general) continued to revel in unheard of individual gain – causing the Texas philosopher Ramsey Wiggins to speak the aphorism that would serve as the epitaph of the former United States, a sentence now known 'round the world:
"They got what they wanted, and it cost them everything they needed."