Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why I Remain Cautiously Optimistic About the US In Spite Of It All

It’s been a long, hard year to be a rational American, this year 2011.

The economy has yet to recover from the beating it took at the hands of the financiers and other darlings of the supposedly infallible free-markets back in 2008, nor does it look to be recovering anytime soon. The long-term economic trends militate against it. We’ve got an economy where 70% of the activity comes from consumer spending, but we’ve got a middle class that’s been shrinking since 1973 and which is slowly and steadily being deliberately cut off from the kinds of high-wage, high-benefits jobs that promote exactly the consumer spending upon which the economy relies. That’s what union-busting, out-sourcing, the continued emphasis on improving productivity at the expense of hiring workers, and the myopic view that workers are an expense rather than an investment will get you. Welcome to 1929. Hold on tight.

We’ve got a political system that seems to relish and encourage this and that would take a decade of steady improvement in order to be considered merely dysfunctional.

The Republican Party has been taken over by its lunatic fringe, advocating policies that would have gotten them committed to an asylum as recently as fifty years ago and which may yet see them march to the gallows for their open warfare against the United States. The Democrats are in full capitulation mode, unable to figure out that they’re in charge of most of the federal government and that the majority of the public – even the majority of Republicans – is on their side on almost all of the issues that matter. The result has been chaos, brinksmanship, and a growing realization among the few Americans still using more than half a dozen brain cells at a time that the United States no longer has the intellectual or moral capital to continue its self-proclaimed role as a world leader.

It was a nice American Century while it lasted.

The climate is growing warmer and there is still a sizable group of my fellow citizens who steadfastly refuse to believe it. That the nonbelievers does not include the military brass supposedly revered by the first group – the Pentagon has been wargaming the future conflicts that will result from global warming for over a decade now – doesn’t seem to matter.

You can’t turn on a television without hearing assaults on things that by any accounting of American values and traditions ought to be considered unmitigated goods – public education, free speech, community organizing, and so on. There is a screeching minority absolutely opposed to any form of community beyond the atomized individual unless that community is ruled with absolute despotic authority by the screechers themselves. What they cannot control they seek to destroy, and having destroyed it they hope to rule over the ruins.

And yet, for all that, I remain cautiously optimistic.

It’s not like we haven’t been down this road before, for one thing. The Gilded Age was a period of laissez-faire just like the one we seem to be hurtling toward and it, eventually, came to an end. Whether we will survive the damage in the interim is an interesting question, but so it goes.

American politics has never been pretty, intellectually well thought out, or uplifting in any moral sense. It has seldom been as shrill or as vapid as now, particularly not in combination, but the pendulum swings back eventually there too.

And, perhaps more to the point, the Culture Wars are over, even if nobody will admit it or shut up about them.

A lot of the impetus behind the current Teabagger insanity stems from cultural issues, not economic ones. Sure, they screech about limited government and fiscal responsibility all the time, but that’s not what they’re there for. Those are just the things they talk about in order to distract you from what they’re trying to do.

Hell, if they were really interested in limited government and fiscal responsibility they’d have focused on implementing them in the legislatures they’ve taken over. Did you see any of that? Didn’t think so. I didn’t see any of it either.

What I saw – and what they’re really interested in – were attempts to impose their constricted vision of culture onto the rest of us, whether we want it or not. Specifically they seek the return of the United States to a wholly fictitious past where everyone was white, Protestant, straight, married or soon to be so, middle class or higher, politically passive, culturally homogeneous, spoke only English and lived either on a farm or in a town of no more than 1500 people.

When they say, “we want our country back,” that’s the country they’re talking about.

Did I mention that this never happened? Was the phrase “wholly fictitious” sufficient to get that point across, or do I have to throw in synonyms like “hallucinatory” or “drug-induced”? None of those descriptions have ever been accurate, not at any point in American history. Not one.

But here’s the thing: if that’s the country you want back, you’ve lost. And as that becomes clearer and clearer, the political and economic nonsense you’re trying to peddle based on that mythical past disappears as well.

And it should be crystal clear to anyone with a firm grasp of reality that the culture peddled by the Teabaggers is, in fact, disappearing.

The percentage of ethnic and racial minorities in the US is rising, and within the next few decades there will not be a single group that can claim a majority. These groups mix more and more, and fewer and fewer people have problems with that. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner made sense in 1967, but to most of my students, even in the fairly socially conservative town I live in, it’s frankly bizarre that an interracial couple would cause such a stir.

Religion as a driving force in American culture ebbs and flows on two off-setting 60-year cycles, one of which concerns itself with reforming the theology of individual believers and the other of which concerns itself with making sure that your behavior conforms to the dictates of their faith. Doing the math, can you guess which one should have peaked in 2010? Expect the next great theological revival in 2040, but between now and then you can look for coercive religion to make a slow retreat from American politics. It will be back, of course, and it never truly goes away – but if history is any guide at all, for the next few decades it will be waning.

Only about 30% of Americans now believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, the way the radical right wing would have you believe and the way they insist everyone already does. This has held steady for a decade and is actually a decline from the 40% who felt that way in 1980. On the flip side, 15% of Americans now identify as either atheist or agnostic, roughly double what it was in 1980.

Gay rights are no longer controversial with most Americans, even among Republicans. Most Americans favor allowing homosexuals to serve in the military and most now favor gay marriage as a matter of civil rights. And the younger the demographic, the more pronounced that trend is.

That said, more and more Americans look at marriage itself as one option among many – a good option, no doubt, as I can attest from personal experience, but not the only one.

This country has never spoken only English – as late as 1915, for example, one out of every four Americans spoke German on a daily basis. I haven’t heard much from the “English Only” nitwits who used to flood my email inbox, but I have noticed that more and more ordinary products in my grocery store now come with multiple languages printed on the labels. Money talks and ideology walks, and the fact is that non-English speakers now make up enough of the economy that they can have their needs addressed. They’ll learn English eventually, most of them – if you want to get ahead in this country you’ll learn English, something all immigrants know – but the idea that this is somehow an “English-only” nation ought to be dying a painful death by now.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans think their schools are doing a good job, two-thirds think teachers are underpaid (only 4% think they are overpaid), and a majority would not want their children in for-profit private schools.

The Culture Wars are over and the right-wing extremists lost. They know they’ve lost. That’s why they scream so much.

That’s why they will either die out or change their tunes.

And that’s why I remain cautiously optimistic about the future of this country, even in the light of current events.

I’ve already got my country back. It just needs to own up to it.


Beatrice Desper said...

"Nearly three-quarters of Americans think their schools are doing a good job",

Given their resources, schools are doing as well as they can, but I wouldn't argue that they are doing a good job.

David said...

I would.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Great post and it has given me hope.

David said...

Thanks, W.L.! And welcome aboard. :)