Saturday, September 29, 2018

Very negative article on the prospects for the US

This is an article in which the author diagnoses a fundamental flaw in the US, namely a lack of common purpose and solidarity between the different people that live here.  This is something I've discussed on various occasions.  As a society, there seems to be a strong thread of punitive and vengeful thinking in our character.  Something bad happens to someone or a group, and our first impulse is often to look for the shortcomings of the victim that might somehow justify their misfortune.  Add to this a visceral racial animus and you've got a society that has a hard time banding together to improve life for all.  I agree with the author's observation that, in affairs big and small, we are often so intent on spiting certain people that we are willing to suffer a drop in our own quality of life in order to do so.  From our focus on incarceration and punishment of the poor and the addicted instead of rehabilitation, to massive efforts to exclude and terrorize immigrants instead of welcoming them, to a penchant for emergency response and military interventions as opposed to long-term support for economic development in other countries, we opt time and again for actions and policies that are more costly and less effective, as long as they hurt as opposed to demonstrating any type of "soft" traits like decency, solidarity, or empathy.

All this said, I don't share the author's totally dire prognosis for the future of the US, at least not based on these (admittedly worrisome) aspects of the national character.  On the one hand, my work transpires almost entirely in the developing world, where I am exposed to lots of societies that share similar flaws of a lack of solidarity and common purpose.  Many countries are home to yawning gaps between rich and poor, as well as pernicious ethnic animosities that prevent the forging of a better life for all.  There, as in the US, the project is to gradually build a sense of decency, of shared values, and of liberal democratic principles like equality, transparent and representative governance, respect for minority viewpoints, protection for the vulnerable, and freedom from oppression.  In short, every country in the world is in a long and arduous quest to ensure human dignity for all.  So for me, the fact that the US still falls short of this ideal isn't cause for despondency.  It just is how it is.  Life is messy.  (Incidentally, I hesitate to brand all institutions in the US as irreparably broken, as the author does.  There are plenty of troubling developments in our systems of public health, education, taxation, etc., but there are also very real movements to make our institutions more fair and more functional).

Lastly, the European societies that the author rightly cites as models we can learn from, countries he describes as being functional and constantly improving, are also involved in this same process of constant, difficult work to make life better for all.  Many of these countries did their growing and improving in the mid-20th century, precisely after a massive conflagration (actually a series of wars starting in the 19th century and before, not just the Second world war) did away with much of the countries' ethnic diversity (not just the Holocaust of the Jews and Romany, but also the postwar redrawing of boundaries and relocation of populations that "repatriated" ethnic Greeks, Germans, Turks, etc., as well as the coopting of subnational identities that turned Tuscans into Italians, Saxons into Germans, Provencals into french, etc.).  In short, most of Europe has been able to forge a common identity and a progressive society only in the absence of ethnic diversity, and now that these countries are becoming newly diverse due to immigration and the arrival of refugees, they are in fact facing existential crises, the rise of intolerant, spiteful thinking, and the whole slew of problems that the author of this article rightly identifies in the US.  So again, creating a better world, societies that ensure human dignity, is not a done deal where some have succeeded and others failed.  It's a constantly evolving story that involves all of us.

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