01 Russell’s Last Visit (Sept. 2012)
During our Revolutionary War, we had the fire of change burning in our hearts—so much so that we defied a Monarchial world order. The Dutch had introduced the concept of self-government but both their geographical and cultural settings made it impossible for them to give birth to a truly separate national ideology. They were too old to start over from scratch—they and their neighboring nations had too much inertia in the direction of the status quo to allow a pivot into something truly original.
Our Civil War, again, was based on the ideal of continent-wide unity. Being the last civilized nation of that age to ban slavery was a great part of it, but its roots were in the maintenance of the United States of America as a Union of States. Europe was still too mired in its antique cross-nation wars and competitions to create a similar Union of European States (something it would take them two World Wars (and the near-destruction of all Western Europe) to find.
The end of the Civil War, and the dawning of the Industrial Age, led to America’s explosion of strength and wealth. But the nature of power and of riches is to exclude the weak and the poor. The greatest imbalance came during the Great Depression, which left most Americans wanting, and only a handful of rich and powerful ‘Robber Barons’ left holding the moneybags, and most of the political influence. The Second World War ended the joblessness problem, and increased America’s sense of unity—but both effects were superficial enough to allow the USA of the 20th Century to create permanent pockets of horrible poverty and deep bigotry, while it exploded in technology, communications, transportation, and of course, electronics.
Here in the 21st Century, we have long ago lost the frontiers—not just our own West, but all the Terra Incognita of the globe—both poles, the deep sea, and even the near-earth orbital zone of outer space. Industry has grown into a self-sustaining Rube Goldberg that both threatens and sustains us. Our laws, after two-and-a-half centuries, have become deeply layered, and too dense for new entrants to easily shoehorn themselves into the economy. Our population has zoomed to the point where we have given up our oldest and proudest tradition—‘give us your tired, your poor, your wretched refuse longing to be free’. Now we talk of electrified fences and infra-red-sensing border patrols. ‘Hard work and honest effort’ never were a sure path to success in business, even when such was our favorite delusion. But today’s Capitalism has literally outlawed those ideals, in favor of profits and shareholders’ wishes.
So, America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, is now an exclusive nation, an owned nation, and a nation dependent on its addiction to capitalism, credit, competition, and powerful political lobbies that veto the will of the people. Our laws have become as arcane and impenetrable as the most ancient legislations of the Old World. Our freedoms have been usurped by Industrial Privilege and Monopolized Media. Our hopes have gone beyond ‘college degrees for our children’ into a world where we hope that our college-graduated children can get a job at the neighborhood mall.
We were great at exploring, pioneering, developing, researching, learning, and teaching—but we have done all that and now we find that we have little talent for simply living. Our Yahoo sense of discovery and Yankee ingenuity are both played out. We are faced with a world where we are no longer as special as we were.
Don’t get me wrong—when we were special, we were very special—and now that we are less special, we are still head-and-shoulders above most of the world’s governments. But there are now places such as Great Britain, France, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands (and several more) where the quality of personal freedom is equal to or surpassing our own, where economic opportunities are greater, where immigration is less difficult, where industry and finance have far less say in the legislation and culture of these nations. They are, at the very least, our equals. We probably had a hand in helping them get there, but you can’t live on a reputation—WWII has been won and ended for some time now, and Europe has been free of threat of the Soviets for decades.
We Americans have to start seeing ourselves more like the Canadians see themselves—not as Cop, Judge, and Executioner for the World, but simply as a bastion of modern civilization. Our biggest problems are internal—for now, looking outward is little more than star-gazing and we have become a divided nation, a commercialized nation, and a source of half the world’s production of BS. We are not comfortable with self-reflection, self-awareness, self-searching, or self-discipline—rather ‘Eastern’ notions for citizens of the USA—but highly desirable for a post-modern nation.
Seeing ourselves the way others see us; Seeing things from the other’s point of view; accepting uncomfortable (or inconvenient) truths about ourselves, our culture, or our future—none of these things has value in a Capitalist culture. But in the real world, self-knowledge and the acknowledgment of hard truths are invaluable weapons against humanity’s biggest danger of our time—the rate of change.
The faster an environment changes, the more difficult it becomes to plan and prepare. The changes that come at us today are daily ones, sometimes hourly—humanity has historically enjoyed a far more glacial rate of change in both technology and culture. Communication lag-times could reach into years, or at least weeks—and that was just the rate at which the news of change was spread. The actual changes were measured in decades.
We oldsters still think that way. Hence the popularity of VH1’s “I love the 70s” (or “80s” or “90s”) series. Its charm (for me) is in that feeling I get when I look at Michael Jackson’s single sequined white glove—I feel ‘weren’t things so much simpler and innocent back then?’ To compact our present day lives into similar half-hour segments would require today’s shows to be called “I loved 2008” (or any other 21st Century year).
Please do not mistake me—seeming innocence, perceived by an individual like me (in my youth) doesn’t change the fact that no era of humanity has been ‘innocent’ in any but relative terms, or as a product of some white-washing campaign that had not yet faded and exposed the truth. Revisionist history, an up-and-comer of my schoolyard years, taught us to mistrust an individual interpretation of time’s great sweep—which led to the ‘death of history’.
This is where we are at present—the liberties taken by Hollywood in the telling of an historical period or event are less revolting, now that we judge history books to be of similar veracity—and conflicting accounts of past chroniclers are given equal voice—with the assumption that both may be untrue in some way. I sometimes suspect that the Powers That Be encourage this perspective as a way of moderating the clear examples of past power-abusers which we could otherwise learn from. However, in my more rational moods, I accept that people avoid learning from history without any help at all.
To sum up, America is no longer an energetic child with boundless opportunities—it isn’t even an uncomfortable adolescent, seeking itself and its values, with little concern for the future. No, today’s USA is a middle-aged cynic, disappointed of the promise of its youth, fearful of the loss of strength and ability it once had, and apprehensive of its future—which is turning out to be a lot less ‘special’ than we had always hoped it would be.
Our country has too much overhead and too little engagement with the challenges of the future—and a propensity to fantasize that we are what we once were—the new kid on the block. The Industrial Revolution long over, we tend to see the Electronics Revolution as its natural extension—another boom market for America, that others will be slow to adopt. But Electronics are more democratic than we are—and are easily adopted by any country, or indeed, individual with a desire to push the envelope. And our current economic and cultural inertia virtually guarantees that we, the USA, will be one of the laggards in that race—and in the development of off-world industry as well!
We assume that digital code and space exploration will remain our strong suits in spite of our neglect, and other countries’ growing interest. We have lost our yeast, so to speak, and from now on, America will have to grow and strengthen through immense effort, without a ‘tailwind’ of novelty and easy successes.
Our idea of ‘public education’ once gave us a huge lead over countries that minimized its importance—which was most of them, in the beginning. But it is now an old, accepted axiom of national strength. Our ratings, compared to other countries, show our present public education system to be either very near to last place or, in some subjects, dead last! Our proud heritage and our present neglect of education is a tsunami of obsolescence that will inundate our nation in just one or two more generations.
While Americans are ‘teaching the controversy’ to each other, the rest of the globe is hightailing it after the mysteries of physics and medicine. Even our universities and colleges, which somehow retain primacy in comparison with the rest of the world, will find no faculty prepared to teach in these institutions—except those foreign experts and researchers willing to teach in the ‘backwater’ country we are in danger of becoming.
And the world, itself, is older and more awkward—the population is at seven billion (way more than nature alone could support); the natural resources are becoming more and more difficult to find and exploit; the ocean, atmosphere, and ground we stand on is more polluted every day; and the biological diversity of our planet has been shaken, not stirred, with some out-of-niche intruders (lapses of world travelers’ efforts to keep things in their proper place) taking over entire bio-spheres with no defenses against the interloping specie. These ‘blurrings’ of ecological dividing-lines removes the geological separation that protected plants and animals from each other’s niches since Life began—not a good thing. And pollution, all by itself, can kill off species, even entire biomes.
They say that it’s harder to fix an automobile when it is driving down the highway—and that is a major problem for civilization, too. It never stops—in fact, it’s going too darn fast—and fixing our civilization’s problems pose the same difficulty—we can’t stop the world and fix its engine—we have to do it on the fly. Worse yet, we now have a time limit—if we don’t adjust ourselves before pollution reaches lethal levels, before the biosphere collapses, before climate change freezes the planet in an ice age, before overpopulation causes a total collapse of civilization, or before the next unlucky Tunguska-event from space—we won’t have the chance.
It’s funny how facts, like the above, can sound a lot like hyperbole. But we created a hyperbolic world—nuclear explosions, forest-clearing, carbon-burning, freak storms—you name it, we’ve been busy at it for over a century. Our margin of safety is no longer incalculable—we cannot tell ourselves there will always be more trees, more fish, more land, more everything. It is now possible to calculate the very day (conditions being constant) that the last tree in the Amazon rain-forest is cut down, the exact day that over-used aquifers in our Southwestern states go dry—forever, the day that China’s largest cities are forced to evacuate because of toxic contamination of the local atmosphere.
It is the final nail in our coffin—our potential doomsdays are too fantastic to take seriously. Also, there have been many Chicken Littles throughout history, predicting humanity’s Doom—next year, next month, or tomorrow—and they are always wrong. So, of course, it would be foolish to take me seriously—I’m just another over-excitable nut-job. Yes, I may be crazy—but no crazier than the world we live in.
There is one sensible thing we can all do, difficult though it may be—we can start seeing the USA as a part of the global civilization, rather than its leader. Think about it—with the world in the fine mess it’s in, why would we even want to take credit for its leadership? Plus, one thing becomes more painfully obvious every day—the globe has no leadership. No one is refereeing, no one is taking responsibility, no one is facing the hard truths about the world. We stick by our competitive, animal roots and tell ourselves that the cream always rises, that civilization is self-adjusting—and so it was, before we gained the fantastic powers granted to 21st Century people. We are powerful enough to tip the world out of balance, but we still insist that the world will right itself. Only by replacing competition with cooperation can we survive our looming, self-imposed disasters.
02 Russell’s Last Visit (Sept. 2012)