Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Tired of winning, already? (to my American friends, with love)

Like with so many subjects, the Clash said it better (and shorter, and louder) forty years ago: ”I’m so bored of the USA”.

I know, I know, they are still the “indispensable nation”, an economic giant (their economy alternates as the world’s second biggest with the whole EU, which is not technically a country, both being already smaller than China), its military might far bigger than all the rest of the world combined, a cultural beacon shining its rays over all aspects of the life of the mind (from academic philosophy, whatever that is, to popular music and films) and of course an exemplar for the ages of what inclusive government (“of the people, by the people, for the people”, in the unforgettable words which close Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) should look like.

Only what it actually looks like nowadays seems to have lost some of its luster… and from the inability to properly govern itself a lot of noticeable cracks are becoming more noticeable, like:  

·         An economy that not only finds it more difficult to achieve past rates of growth, and seems every decade more stagnant than the previous one (a recurrent theme of this blog, and not confined to the USA), but that is becoming more blatantly unequal and has serious problems distributing the wealth it still manages to create (and that stupendous growth of inequality is what would constitute a distinctly American phenomenon: Europe outperforms the USA economically )

·         No noticeable cracks in the military front, except for why on God’s green Earth do you, guys, spend so God damn much in it, given the rest of the world doesn’t really care? It’s all right to claim that Europeans have been free riding for decades under Washington nuclear umbrella and they should spend more to defend themselves (but from who? From the evil Russians, who in 20 years will be less populous than Vietnam and haven’t been able to bring to heel tiny Ukraine in five years of low intensity war? From the threatening Muslim and Sub-Saharan nations to the South that would rather migrate than invade, because their citizens emphatically do not want to live under their current social arrangement?). It’s all right to get your pants in a bunch about the increasing assertiveness of a rising China, but if after 16 years you still have not been able to pacify Afghanistan (or whatever you were trying to achieve there) maybe it is time to reassess if more aircraft carriers (price tag: 13 billion USD) or more F-35 jets (a real bargain in comparison, only 100 to 150 million USD a pop, depending on how many are finally manufactured) are really needed to combat today’s real threats (as opposed to those envisioned by military planners three decades ago)

·         A culture that seems to cannibalize itself in an endless repetition of trends and mods that stopped being original in the late 60’s of the past century. Look, I love classic Rock’n’Roll as much as the next guy (and my share of Country, too, and I unashamedly declare myself an avid fan of the Star Wars saga, so don’t take the following as preaching from my high horse or trying to claim some extra legitimacy from being the most highfalutin’ guy you’ve ever heard). Thomas Pynchon is still my go-to fiction writer, and I find John Rawls one of the deepest thinkers of the XXth century. Norman Mailer was absolutely tremendous (more at the beginning of his career than at the end), Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike… they all taught me profound and subtle and… TRUE things about human nature in this particular time of our history. European thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer or Herbert Marcuse produced some of their best work there and even Derek Parfit visited frequently and benefited from discussion with local scholars. And, although I haven’t seen a full TV show (not even a complete episode) for decades, I hear that this is the golden age of television and that the amount of creativity and brilliance and genius in exploring the nuances and follies of the human heart have reached heights never heard of in the history of our species. Which is all great and good, but kids go less and less to the movies (another cultural form traditionally dominated by Hollywood) and watch less TV, preferring to spend time in social media (yep, I know Facebook and Instagram are both based in the USA) and playing videogames (an industry that is geographically highly dispersed). Let us leave it at the point we can all agree: cultural dominance, understood in the traditional sense of “soft power” (the ability to promote one’s own values and tastes) is increasingly slipping away from the USA.

But of course all those cracks are being exposed, deepened, accelerated and highlighted because of the rot at the core of the American social system: a political process that seems to be dramatically out of whack, as exemplified by the election of a person with the most “questionable” character (more on that in a minute) and, derived from that, in the inability of both elected chambers to agree on basic, necessary measures for the smooth functioning of the republic. Things like a Healthcare structure that doesn’t leave a significant fragment of the population frothing at the mouth (“socialized medicine!”, “death panels!”, “tax cuts for the rich in exchange for people being let die in ERs!”), increasing the debt’s ceiling so government can keep on working, simplifying a tax code everybody agrees has become dysfunctional and of gargantuan complexity or approving a budget that deals with the ballooning federal deficit in light of the upcoming massive increase in retirements of the baby-boomers.

Please note with the above enumeration I’m not saying the USA is in a particularly dire situation or in much worse shape than the rest of the world. Any regular reader of this blog already knows I tend to disparage the whole West in similar terms, and there isn’t a single nation or group of nations I would identify as distinctly virtuous or as being in a position to give moral lessons to the rest. The whole world already embraced the dominant reason of the age (Desiderative Reason) during the second half of the last century. Such reason is “exhausted”, meaning that it can not awake the enthusiasm of the masses, or gain its allegiance, or simply convince them to trundle along however unhappily. As a result, growing majorities reject it and express their dissatisfaction through the most intimate way such expression of their lack of identification with the collective future such reason dictates may take: what I have termed “gonadal vote”, choosing not to reproduce a form of life that at bottom they find not worth it. Furthermore, and in addition to not reproducing themselves they may reject each of the particular tenets of desiderative reason by not accepting the socially defined rules for determining social hierarchy (thus resorting to the biological default mode of such determination: strength and charisma in a new tribalism/ feudalism we already see becoming more prevalent in the economic realm) and by not accepting the socially determined set of sanctioned, “proper” desires (the alternative always being perceived by the majority of the social group as self-destructive and anti-social).

Again, par for the course, and as long as somebody doesn’t come along with a valid alternative (one that can be enthusiastically accepted by a sufficient majority as providing a better basis for collectively living) all we critical thinkers will be able to do is criticize this or that particular aspect of our dying, decaying, decomposing, increasingly clunky and malfunctioning system. Back to my dear and near USA, then, as it presents a particular form of decadence and decomposition I think it is worth noting.

Which will take me to a brief detour through my latest research in a particularly dark age of my native country: the years between 1930 and 1939 in Spain, the decade just before the Spanish Civil war (in which my grandparents were caught, and immediately after which my parents were born). The sad, worrisome aspect of those years is how people were studiously but inadvertently sorting themselves in two camps that were becoming more and more “irreconcilable”.  To facilitate the sorting and identification each half of the country felt the need to embrace a set of opinions and external signs that unceasingly became more encompassing. In the early thirties you could be politically progressive but still religious, a lover of traditional music and foods and maybe even enjoy bullfighting. By the middle of the decade it was getting harder to be “moderately progressive” in politics, as even the supposedly moderate socialist party (as opposed to communists and anarchists) was for the nationalization of the means of production and a quite interventionist program in the economy, education and organization of the workplace. But regardless of politics and its preferred orientation of the economy, a host of other aspects of being a citizen were being colonized by the political orientation: a “progressive” (a term not much in use then, for what I’ve seen, they would think of themselves as people “of the left”) should necessarily denounce the inherently reactionary character of religion, the constraints to human flourishing imposed by any tradition and thus reject traditional songs, cuisine, dressing and forms of entertainment (including, of course, bullfighting). That created some cognitive dissonances, as the popular base of many leftist parties was not as well educated as to thoroughly enjoy modern culture, but let’s leave that aside for a moment. The mirror image of such phenomenon could be seen at the other extreme of the political spectrum, as followers of “the right” had to necessarily embrace the Catholic faith, and every other traditional form of being in the social world, while denouncing vigorously any innovation as contrarian to the national spirit (in their parlance, “national genius, bequeathed to us by the blood and the sweat of our hallowed ancestors”).

Seen from the perspective of almost eighty years it is clear that in both sides there should have been scores of people of honor and integrity, of common sense and decency, but one of the amazing results of my diving in the period is how little trace they have left. What you read (and occasionally hear in the radio addresses that have survived) is more and more rancor, more and more depictions of the other side as a conglomerate of pure viciousness and pure evil, more and more cartoonish misrepresentations of what the other side thought and said. No discourse of them was less than a bunch of hideous lies and irrational threats. No program was less than an all-out, uncompromising effort to erase the own side from the face of the Earth that, if put in practice, represented an existential threat to every decent man’s and his family’s existence. And as each side ended up reading the same (disjoint) set of newspapers, hearing the same radio programs (no TV yet) and talking to like-minded fellow travelers, all seemed to reinforce one another’s worse fears, all contributed to exacerbate one another’s basest impulses until they were actually killing each other, starting with some elected representatives and escalating in a bloodbath from which the country, almost a century later, has not fully recovered (as attested by the never ending trickle of books and films that still deal with the conflict, the majority of them in such a partisan manner that it is difficult to believe they are attempting to reflect such a distant event).

¿Sounds familiar? As well it should, because any casual observer of USA politics should recognize the dynamics just described as not too dissimilar from the one currently ruling the political discourse in their country. First, the never ending expansion of the badges of belonging to a definite tribe: if liberals say the world is warming and human activity is a main cause, any self-respecting conservative will denounce it as a hoax. If left-leaning media say the theory of evolution is the cornerstone of all the biological science any proud right-leaning citizen will educate himself to find the cracks and faults in the theory to “disprove” it. If progressives favor cosmopolitanism and the adoption of foreign tastes in music, clothing, literature, movies, food or even sexual preferences any traditionalist properly bred will reject such tastes and adhere to the good old cultural forms of the hallowed 50’s of the past century. And, of course, as liberals, left-leaning people and progressives cluster together and end up forming a homogeneous, internally consistent tribe, so will conservatives, right-leaning people and traditionalists, each group having more widely encompassing norms and behaviors to better identify themselves and exclude the others.

Second, the two major tribes are sorting themselves out and having decreasing contacts between them. Without a compulsory military service (the draft) and an increasing ideological alignment within professional occupations (so university professors, movie industry executives, hotel workers and software programmers increasingly vote Democrat; whilst military personnel, rust belt industry workers, investment banking analysts and policemen lean more heavily towards the Republicans), and the advent of e-commerce allowing each citizen to obtain the necessities of life without human interaction,  it is more and more common for Americans to spend their whole lives without having to interact with anybody from a different political persuasion (which, as we have seen, encompasses more and more of their vital outlook).

As a necessary consequence of the first and second observations, it comes as no surprise a third one: each half of the country thinks in increasingly more disparaging terms of the other half. What you hear in Fox news (but again, it would be an error to think that it is a problem circumscribed to just one of the sides, the same happens in Salon, the Daily Kos, the Huffington Post…) about “libtards” is just shocking. How can such a bunch of unprincipled, unpatriotic, overall silly and amoral and depraved bunch of degenerates hold such sway over public opinion (the maligned “mainstream media”) and be so close to forever ruining the shining “city on a hill” that the forefathers so arduously built by turning it into a communist dystopia? Seen from the other side of the aisle, how can a cabal of greedy, selfish, scheming billionaires have so utterly brainwashed enough of their fellow citizens to be so close of thwarting the promise of the republic and turning it into a fascist dictatorship? Seen from afar, I see America as distinctly far from becoming either, but when I read some of its media I wonder to what extent my perception may be deluded.

What I do see, as I’ve already predicted (Whoever wins tomorrow, everything is going to hell! ), is them advancing at increasing speed along the slippery slope of dehumanizing the political adversary ,with too many people already caught in that poisonous dynamic. We know how that game ends (not only Spain has the blemish of a Civil War in its history, you know), what we do not know is, alas! how such dire consequence may be prevented. 

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