I. Our material world
Some have contended that a prominent aspect of the American character is optimism... the notion that things will – inevitably, but even faster with a good dose of motivation, enthusiasm, hard work, and know-how – be better tomorrow than today, and so on ad infinitum. This is tied, of course, to the idea of “progress”, which also has an air of inevitability (as in “you can't stop progress”), continuous improvement, the triumph of technology, and Utopianism... not to mention somewhat shop-worn notions like Manifest Destiny. And all of these ideas are, in turn, based on a certain variety of Protestantism, sometimes identified in our time as the “prosperity gospel” -- the idea that material progress is, and should be, a natural motivator for the righteous, and that prosperity is an unmistakable sign of merit (with the implication that a lack of prosperity is a sign of reprobation). (This, by the way, is a mindset typical of Old Testament times, of Judaism, and even of Hinduism – and is extremely anti-New Testament.)
I'm not going to claim that this more materialistic variety of Protestantism has replaced, or shoved aside, spiritual values in our culture. Rather, I'm going to claim that it has always been dominant, and has always, from the very beginning, determined our thinking in diverse areas, such as law, economics, foreign policy, “social justice”... even aesthetics, not to mention customs and mores. By contrast, people with a more spiritual bent – a more ascetic bent, even – have generally been considered dreamers and fools, and – that most devastating of Americanist adjectives -- “impractical”. One way to characterize our history, in fact, is to consider it a perennial struggle between “pragmatism” -- progress, technology, bourgeois values, etc. -- and things of the spirit. There is no greater sin in our society than to be “against progress” -- or even to be thought to be. Then, we are consigned to the outer darkness of Medieval ignorance and “superstition”, or placed in the company of stagnant Oriental empires. Since the lot of man is implicitly defined as never having quite enough “stuff”, anyone who opposes this view is obviously opposed to human fulfillment, happiness, and self-actualization. Never mentioned is that, beyond the basic necessities, “stuff” has a dismal track record when correlated with human contentment. Why else would we be the most prosperous society on earth, and yet have the highest percentage of crybabies (from all socio-economic levels, note)? We have yet to learn that material contentment is not an absolute; it's more the relationship of expectation to achievement. It's bad enough to be overly attached to what one already has; our problem is that we become attached to things we don't have, and are not likely to ever have. It is a sure formula for misery and discontentment in the midst of plenty.
But wait -- you might say -- aren't you constantly describing this as an “ideational” society, in which ideas, rather than pragmatic considerations, dominate? Yes, this is true, but if you look into it you'll find that most of our ideas are based on materialistic values and ultimately have materialistic goals. In other words, if ideas don't “pay off” in the long run, they're not worth considering. Never in the entire American corpus of ideas, notions, memes, or stray thoughts is there any hint that there might be something more important than material success and material prosperity – in the long run. The things we identify as “ideas” or “ideals” are not goals in their own right, but means to an end – namely more of everything. So yes, we are ideational in the short term, but materialistic in the long term – a paradox, I admit, but I think it's accurate.
Let me give some examples. What does the average American mean by “freedom”? Freedom to think, to meditate, to philosophize? Hardly. It boils down to being able to live where you want, have a family (or not), do the kind of work you want, and keep what you earn, with minimum harassment by your neighbors or the government. Fair enough; this was what the colonists wanted, and it was what the early settlers and pioneers wanted. And it's amazing to see the American public's level of tolerance of having more and more of these freedoms taken away from them with each passing day. The regime's argument boils down to this – we have to take away your freedoms in order to preserve your freedoms. Which makes about as much sense as having to destroy a village in order to save it (a favorite bit of absurdity from the Vietnam era).
And going back to the founding, what was American “independence”? How was it conceived? Mostly as a means by which we got to keep our stuff, engage in free trade, and be self-governing. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we admit it. The point is that most of the complaints against George III in the Declaration of Independence were material issues. It's not as if he engaged in religious oppression or spiritual intimidation of some sort – that was left up to the individual colonies, which did engage in such activities from time to time, as we know. But that problem was solved – wasn't it? -- with the First Amendment, which set up a “wall of separation between church and state”. Actually, it did no such thing. All it said was that Congress – i.e. the federal government – “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. In theory, the states still had that right – and it was exercised, in various ways subtle and not-so-subtle, for a long time afterward.
The point is that the founding documents, and the Founding Fathers, are relatively silent when it comes to spiritual matters, and when they do speak, it's typically with the tolerance born of secular humanism, if not outright skepticism, agnosticism, or atheism. In practice, of course, the United States turns out to be a much more religious country than the founders may have intended – but again, if you dig down you'll find that religious values are nearly always subordinated to material ones, frequently under the guise of patriotism or nationalism. In other words, let's achieve the material Utopia first, then we can worry about spiritual matters – except that the material Utopia never comes, so we never get around to what should be our highest priority. In our time, this means that we have to be “practical”, and use tools like progressive taxation, welfare, affirmative action, social policy, and industrial policy to achieve “fairness” (equality of outcomes), because if we don't take care of this first, then all of our spiritual activities are a sham and a sign of hypocrisy. (And once we achieve Utopia, we won't need religion anyway – so it's a “catch-22”.) And again, this is based on a certain reading of the Old Testament, and a distorted reading of the New Testament, by people all across the Protestant spectrum who are, in fact, our national leaders when it comes to “ideas”. From what other source, for example, do our notions of the American Empire derive? By what other set of standards do we look upon the rest of the world as our plantation, and crack the whip and dole out severe punishment whenever necessary? And what I say is that our pseudo-religious ideas are actually the most noble basis for this attitude, compared to the more common motives of greed, raw power, and downright sadism. The fact remains, however, that a Third-World citizen blown to pieces by an unmanned drone doesn't care a whole lot whether the person pushing the button was an idealist or not; he's just as dead either way.
This is, in fact, the point at which American “pragmatism” tends to jump the rails. Given that we're “in it for the long haul”, our ideas get in the way of success in both the short and long haul... and this is because they're delusional, muddled, and unsustainable, even as they are materialistic at base. I am always willing to admit that our ideas – our founding principles – sustained us as a civilization for a decent period of time, and lent themselves to an impressive level of prosperity and material well-being. But that's precisely the point. We did not become prosperous because of some mysterious causal relationship between our ideals and the material; it was always about the material, and very little else. It might almost be said that we were the first totally materialistic culture in history – and the most successful, compared to the many varieties of socialism that followed. What religion we had, and what little we still have, can be seen as an overlay – an aspect of our culture that thrived in spite of our materialistic base (or because of a lurking suspicion that our materialism was misguided).
Think of it this way. The “church-state” issue should be called a “spiritual-material” issue, and our typically American “ideas” are all on the side of the state, or the material... even if they are occasionally presented in pseudo-religious guise. And I include in the “material” category things like environmentalism, which though seemingly idealistic is basically materialism of a different sort. And needless to say, all varieties of socialism boil down to pure materialism in one form or another – as do most versions of “fairness” and “social justice”. (When's the last time you heard a social reformer or “agent of change” express concern about the spiritual welfare or spiritual needs of the underprivileged? I imagine Dorothy Day was about the last one who did so consistently.)
I might add that worshiping the Creation without worshiping the Creator is foolish and heretical. How many environmentalists are churchgoers? But is religion anti-environment? It is if you only take the Protestant “robber barons” as a model. But any good Catholic will agree that proper Christian stewardship should include respect for the created order, which includes the environment and issues like sustainability. It was actually the Protestants who invented the War on Nature -- as part of the Industrial Revolution, but it reflected a deeper (and heretical) world view.
II. Shattered dreams
With that introduction, let's examine, for a moment, how political ideas fail. Sometimes a perfectly good idea comes along, but it's met with such overwhelming resistance that it hardly stands a chance. Thus, the fate of the pillars of Catholic social teaching, distributism and subsidiarity. They came along (in “modern” form) at the same time socialism (as a generic idea) was waxing triumphant – namely in the early part of the 20th Century. They were countercultural, in that they seemed to call for a return to the land and to “the simple life” at a time when the city was considered the highest expression of human achievement (this was way before the fall of the city in America, most notoriously exemplified by Detroit).
Another possibility is that an idea, whether good or bad, is simply proposed in the wrong place and at the wrong time. It is not so much countercultural as it defies all political, economic, and social trends at the time. Conservatism, for example, was hopelessly countercultural in this country from the New Deal through the 1970s... libertarianism is countercultural now... and communism is also countercultural now, except for a few wretched holdouts in foreign governments and in academia.
There are also ideas that have merit, but their implementation is fatally flawed. Just about every Third World pesthole has something that passes for a constitution (unless they have sharia), and there's an even chance that their constitution is modeled after ours – but corruption, ignorance, and tribalism tend to trump the ideals of the dedicated few who dared to put pen to paper hoping the outcome would resemble the U.S.
But given that there are plenty of examples of the above cases, the most common reason that political ideas fail is simply that they are bad ideas. In one way or another, they defy what anyone with common sense knows about human nature, either individually or in groups. They may also fly in the face of Natural Law, which can be thought of as a subset of human nature... or they may attempt to defy, or overcome, economic realities or even physical laws. Or – they may be based on ill-conceived philosophical or moral premises – in other words, they have built-in fatal flaws, which may take many generations to manifest themselves; this is what I believe has happened in the present case of the U.S. We've been operating, since the founding, on what one might call “philosophical steroids”, but, just as with steroids, the time has now come when the price has to be paid.
Now, please notice that I'm not talking about whether a given set of ideas is humane, compassionate, or “fair” per se. Plenty of systems that – according to our, ahem, enlightened way of thinking about things – would be considered anything but humane, compassionate, or fair have shown considerable robustness and durability... probably because they were at least realistic in some significant respects (consider, for example, the Machiavellian concept of governing – or that represented by Hobbes' Leviathan – or even by fascism). An extreme on the humanistic side would be pacifism – but how is a pacifistic society to survive in a world where most other societies are warlike? And as to radical democracy, it seems to work quite well in small towns in New England, but as a model for a national government? There you quickly wind up with the absurdity of “people's republics” which are ruled by anything but the people – or with what we have, which I'll call “ceremonial democracy”, i.e. a thinly-disguised oligarchy.
The point is that what works works – at least for a time. Even anarchy – of the East African variety, say – works for a time, especially when it represents a regression to tribalism, or even gang rule. Our “inner cities” all have informal governments where the formal, official governments have failed; there is a perverse kind of order, even if it's not to everyone's taste. And do I have to even mention the informal but highly-effective social “systems” that characterize public schools and prisons?
So yes, it is a part of human nature to organize into groups, gangs, cliques, etc. for mutual support and protection – and it's part of human nature for these entities to enter into conflict with one another. There are gangs, combines, trusts, cabals at all levels – in this society as in all others. In many cases they may fill in, and be effective, where official or nominal governments fail. And even when they are idea-based (think of the “radical Islamists” fighting it out across the Arab world) there is a tendency for things to boil down to practical matters in the long run. One could almost say that ideas become more dangerous as their span of influence widens. A small communal village may be ruled by some ideas that others would find far-out and wacky – but if they work for that village, then they work, and whose business is it to try and interfere? On the other hand, when equally far-out and wacky ideas take over an entire country, or empire (as was the case in the Third Reich) they become a danger to themselves and others. And this, by the way, is one of the best arguments for subsidiarity – to confine governmental functions to the lowest possible/practical level, in order to serve not only the immediate needs of the people but also their long-term welfare, and to protect them from the ravages of foreign, alien, or oppressive “ideas”. (Notice how many bad ideas are actually imported from the point of origin to the place where people wind up being victims – communism from Germany to Russia, and then to China, and then to Korea and Vietnam, for example.)
III. It's our party and we'll die if we want to
It would be simplistic to claim that all bad ideas wind up being fatal in the same way, and according to the same timetable. Some cultures, even though they publicly and officially embrace certain ideas, have a kind of resistance to those ideas penetrating beyond a certain point. When I was in China – admittedly on a guided whirlwind tour – I was impressed not so much by the things that had changed since, say, the days of the emperors, but by the things that had not changed, in terms of attitudes, habits, cultural traditions, aesthetics, etc. It seems that, under Maoism, Chinese culture went underground, in a sense, only to revive and reassert itself under more lenient and prosperous conditions. I guess Mao only thought that he was stamping out every vestige of an ancient empire, and we can all be thankful that he was wrong. I imagine the same is true in Russia, where much of the traditional Russian culture and the “Russian spirit” had to be suppressed for the duration of the Soviet empire.
Can something of the sort be said for this country? The problem is that we are a new country and a new culture, in the overall scheme of things – and the bulk of our history is dominated by the American Experiment and the American Empire (the latter growing out of the former in what seems to be an inevitable manner). To put it another way, there is, as far as I know, very little in the way of colonial, or pre-founding, traditions or customs available for revival, or worth the trouble to do so – so we are left to fall back on someone's version of “the real America” or the way things were “when this country was the undisputed hope and light of the world”, or some such thing – and take your pick as to when that might have been. I've discussed this before – do we go back to Jacksonian democracy, or the Gilded Age, or Progressivism, or Wilsonism, or the New Deal, or the postwar boom, or... what? To each his own, when it comes to nostalgia. The problem is that each age, each era, contained within itself the seeds of what was to come. The cultural revolution of the 1960s had its origin in the 1950s... Progressivism had its origin in the Industrial Revolution... capitalism gave birth to the New Deal... and so on. And in each case there was plenty of zeal to bring down, destroy, and grind into fine power that which had come before – and yet we see plenty of remnants and echoes of each preceding age in the present. The present day is not history yet, but it soon will be – and it will become another layer added to the deep landfill of ideas and experiences that we have been building for 230-odd years.
The next question is, do empires inevitably have to decline and fall? (And make no mistake, America is an empire, not just a single country.) Well... all the ones we know about did, so what makes us think we're the exception? And again, the causes vary greatly, but a common element is that empires eventually run out of ideas – i.e. effective ones. And that sets off a chain of events – no ideas, no motivation, no energy, no self-confidence, no morality, no resistance to being overrun or replaced. An empire that is not growing is dying; stagnation is just death in disguise. Now... if we accept this cyclic phenomenon as inevitable – as “natural” in a way – does it mean that empires are always a bad thing, and that the human race should get over this fixation with conquering the world? Just sit around a billion campfires with dogs curled up at our feet and roasting small rodents on a stick? But this too would be unnatural. Man is, by nature, Man the Builder... and there is no use trying to squelch this most basic, and (at least on occasion) productive instinct. What is needed is not radical simplicity or “back to nature”, but a re-direction – again, sustainability should be the key concept. And if we're consistent about sustainability, it will mean that the empires that do arise will be more benign and less wasteful than the ones we have known – and who knows, they might last longer as a result. But even if they don't, the process will hopefully be less traumatic than what we typically see in history.
It may even be foolish to talk about “good” vs. “bad” empires, because they all leave us with a legacy of some sort. They all “add value”, perhaps unwittingly. The most we can do is arrange them along a scale according to which ones we admire... which ones left the most in the way of artifacts and contributions to human knowledge... which ones are more interesting or aesthetically appealing... and so on. As with foreign countries, we don't have to sit in judgment 24-7. And, like it or not, empires are the cornerstones of history, with wars and battles as the building blocks. Again, human nature.
See, it's tempting, at times, to interpret the declining stage of an empire as evidence not just of the process described above, but of an almost conscious self-destruction, as if there is some “altruistic gene” embedded in empires that, for the good of the human race in general, causes them to destroy themselves before things go too far. And we can see this self-destructiveness – quite clearly, in many cases – when we consider various empires in decline, including our own. To put it more bluntly, is America committing suicide (economic, diplomatic, moral) for the good of the rest of the world? And are our leaders aiding and abetting this process, whether they realize it or not? I doubt if this could be called an agenda item, but it does seem like such an inevitable process that one is almost tempted to think of it as another instance of Natural Law. When things get to a certain point, “something makes us” start fouling our own nest, and being ever more blind and stupid about things – things like the national debt, the environment, social policy, foreign policy, education, health, and so on. Our politicians, of course, lead the way in the “blind and stupid” department... but the people willingly follow. The Greeks used to talk about “hubris”, and how it was inevitably punished by the gods; maybe they were onto something. You would think, for example, that with greater power would come greater wisdom in the use of that power... but the opposite seems to be the case. The “bully of the town” was never known for his wisdom or insight... and neither is “the superpower”, whatever it might be (Rome, the British Empire, us, etc.). Or maybe the notion that “power corrupts” is more than a statement about material corruption; maybe it also has to do with morals and even sanity. Heaven knows, the bulk of what comes out of Washington these days seems to be the work of madmen – not that they are obvious lunatics (except for a few) but that there is a disconnect between their everyday normalcy and what they produce in the way of laws, policies, regulations, governmental organizations, etc. It is almost like a disease or a curse – call it the curse of empire. And the worst thing is that it blinds them to the welfare of the citizenry – those they supposedly represent. But the citizens are, by and large, afflicted with their own forms of blindness, and so it goes. The few who sober up, and have the scales fall from their eyes, are appalled – but good luck getting anyone to listen. (In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is thrown into prison.) It is a seductive madness, because it assures us that everything is OK and that everything is under control (which is true, but not in the way people think). And because it is seductive, it is clung to and defended with a ferocity that used to be reserved for things of real value – like race, tribe, land, tradition, faith, and family. This is the point at which the world of ideas becomes the world of delusion – but since we still live in the real world as well, all sorts of conflicts arise; we become “mentally ill” as a society. (“Mental illness” for an individual, you may have noticed, is all about conflict and the attempt to escape from conflict; it is the same with societies.)
IV. “Save us, or we perish!”
No one expects us to go gentle into that good night, any more than any other empire did. But certain pathologies arise, such as the desire to be rescued through some sort of deus ex machina. And thus the obsessive interest in aliens, space travelers, time travelers, and “the possibility of life on other planets” -- anything that might offer to save us from our folly. What are those radio broadcasts directed toward deep space but a cry for help – not just an offer of the hand of friendship. The religious will pray for material salvation when they should be praying for spiritual strength to endure whatever comes. And then we look to all sorts of false gods, both old and new – the government first and foremost, but also “equality”, Mother Earth, technology, and (ironically) an even bigger and better American Empire. We look for materialistic solutions to what are basically moral problems – not realizing that it should be the other way around.
And if none of this works out, we are perfectly willing to pack it in, as witness the plethora of global catastrophe movies and TV shows – which represent wishful thinking on some level. Yep, things didn't work out, so let's just bag it, or “pull it”, in the immortal words of Larry Silverstein. There is a longing for a cataclysm... a cleansing... or, for the apocalyptically-inclined, a chastisement. It is a realization that our sins have brought the Creation low, and that we have been very bad stewards. But in another sense it's a desire to escape – to, once again, avoid accountability and having to face up to our follies and await judgment. Suicide on death row, or cheating the hangman – one last gesture of defiance. But that's human nature too, and it's not too late to recognize it as such and start trying to do the right thing, even if it's only as isolated individuals. We can't stop the Empire, but we can preserve our integrity.