Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thoughts on the State of the Union

“Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.” (Lemony Snickett)

One of the most difficult ideas to get across to my students in my US history classes is the simple fact that there is nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the United States of America.

Most Americans don’t believe that. They look at the map, which clearly shows the US filling up all of the space between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel, and it never occurs to them that this didn’t have to happen, or that at any number of junctions it could have turned out very differently.

Powhattan might well have decided that the English colonists in Jamestown were a threat to his confederacy rather than potential allies to be folded into his empire, and wiped them out. He could have, you know – it wouldn’t have even required any action on his part, just simple inattention. The Jamestown colonists would have died out on their own. That would have been three straight failures for the English colonists – Roanoake, Sagadahoc, and then Jamestown. Whether the English would have bothered with a fourth try would have been an interesting question.

The French might have displayed a little more financial sense, just enough to overcome their desire for revenge after the Seven Years’ War, and not bothered taking up the case of thirteen ragtag colonies clinging to the Atlantic shore of the New World thumbing their collective nose at the largest military and economic power on earth at the time. It would have pulled the plug on our Revolution fairly quickly, and might well have spared the French theirs.

We might have lost our Second War of Independence in 1812 rather than fought the distracted and divided British to a draw. There’s a reason we wrapped up the war as quickly as we could once the Napoleonic Wars had drawn to a close and it has nothing to do with sympathy for the French. Even with that distraction the British still managed to burn the President’s Mansion and operate largely at will across American territory. The War of 1812 was the death knell of the theory that a citizen militia could meet a professional military on equal terms, a rude awakening that few Americans these days care to acknowledge, and we very nearly returned to the colonial fold because of it. Or, if the British didn’t want us back, they could just have shattered the American Union and moved on.

The federal government might have manifested a backbone more rigid than a soup noodle and not caved in to the demands of Southern slaveholders in the 1830s and 40s, which would have meant not forcibly removing the northern third of Mexico and incorporating it into the US. It always tickles me to know that the first illegal immigrants into Texas were white Americans sneaking across the border into Mexico.

The North might have lost the Civil War.

Well, no.

There was no way the North was going to lose the Civil War. The North had morality, manpower, transportation networks, diplomatic leverage, industrial production and most of the guns, powder, salt, and food on its side in the struggle to eradicate the treason of the slavery-defending South, and the only reason the war went on as long as it did was because the South had the better generals for the first part of it. As long as the North remained determined to eradicate treason with fire, nothing the South did was going to make the war end in their favor once it came to combat.

Of course, the North could well have said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish” at any point after secession and let the bastards go, and that would have had the same effect as a Southern victory. There were certainly calls for them to do so, and it might have spared the North a lot of aggravation and subversion later if they had.

And on and on. I haven’t even touched on Alaska or Hawaii, two remarkably contingent additions to the Union.

The idea here is simply that it didn’t have to work out the way it did, and if you were to start the clock rolling over from the beginning I doubt it would again.

More to the point, the fact that we have the country we have is not a given going forward either. Just because it did happen to work out to this point is no guarantee that it will continue to work out next year or next decade or next century. Just as there was nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the development of the United States to this point, so to is there nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the continued existence of the United States in the future.

It takes energy to keep a country together and moving forward. It takes vision. It takes people willing to do the hard work of making sure that the nation is there when the sun goes down and still there when it comes back up.

One of the great lessons of my childhood was watching the annual Fourth of July parade down at the local firehouse, where my father – and eventually I – was a volunteer firefighter. It took a lot of work to get that parade moving, which came as a surprise to me as a kid. It is a sign of childish thinking to assume that good things just happen automatically, and a mark of maturity to recognize that this is not so. I hit that mark at that parade. My dad saw that look on my face, took me aside and said simply, “Nothing good happens on its own.”

Parades, nations, it’s all the same.

There are a lot of people in this country willing to put in the energy, time and effort to make that happen, however. I see them out there. I’d like to think I’m one of them. That’s not the part I worry about.

The thing that scares me currently is that, more than anything else, keeping a nation going forward takes a recognition that there are an awful lot of people in it, and their concerns had better figure into yours if you want it to stay together.

This, more than anything else, we have lost.

I have watched the general collapse of the American political system over the last decade with increasing worry, as one party – and, for those of you about to make a profoundly ill-observed point, yes it is entirely one party and not a case of “everybody’s doing it;” please make a note of that and start paying attention from now on – has repeatedly placed its own interests above those of the nation. This is new, something that only became standard in the last couple of years, even in that party. It really isn’t something the Democrats have done and, until the last four or five years, it really wasn’t something the Republicans did either. But pushed to the lunatic fringe by the far-right-wing extremists who have taken over a once-proud and constructive organization, the Republican Party has made it clear that if it cannot have everything entirely its way all the time without exception, opposition, or hesitation, it is prepared to burn this country down and piss on the ashes. It very nearly did so last summer, and it looks ready to do it again soon. There is a term for this, and “patriot” isn’t it.

I have watched the general collapse of the American middle class over the last several decades with equal worry. The statistics are overwhelmingly clear and disturbingly specific, and at this point I could simply fill my entire allotment of space on Blogger’s servers with graphs and charts demonstrating them if I so chose. Fortunately for you, I will skip them. The point remains, however.

We live in an age where it is considered a sign of righteousness to seek a pre-modern distribution of wealth, with a few elites and a vast sea of peasantry and nothing much in between. That’s not what has been the driving force behind American prosperity since the colonial period, but I see few if any people at the top or on the right who see it as anything other than their mission in life to achieve this sorry state of affairs. What left there is in this country makes sympathetic noises but offers no constructive agenda toward reversing this trend.

I do see a groundswell of opposition to that coming up from below, though. The OWS protesters have been arrested, assaulted, pepper-sprayed, kicked, gassed and generally treated as invasive pests, when all they have been trying to do is point out that the situation in America has gotten out of hand, and for that alone they deserve recognition as Jeremiahs, shouting in the concrete wilderness about the sins of the nation. I’m not sure the OWS protesters really have any actual notion of how to solve any of the problems they’ve identified – the ideas I’ve seen attributed to them certainly don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence – but only a fool would say that they haven’t correctly identified the most pressing crisis of recent American history. People are now discussing what had previously been deliberately ignored, and even if the OWS movement achieves nothing else in its existence it will still have done this nation a service.

Perhaps most worryingly, for all this, I’ve seen the folks at the top, in their shiny impressive buildings, taunting and mocking. I see them and the politicians they own blaming the people at the bottom for not being wealthy, and I see them advocating positions that would have been considered barbaric by Gilded Age Robber Barons, who at least had the Gospel of Wealth to make them feel bad about their rapaciousness.

That’s not going to end well. Historically it never has.

It can happen here. There is nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the continued existence of the United States. When push comes to shove the only thing that is guaranteed is that there will be a whole lot of pushing and shoving going on. At that point the whole thing may well come crashing down. Greater empires have collapsed over less.

And something else may well fill the space between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel.

All that will be left to do is mourn the lost promise of what was once a thriving, prosperous, powerful and – most painfully, in the loss column – hopeful nation, one that at least for a while and in some very clear ways actually did serve as a beacon to the world as to how it could be done. Not in every way, no, not at all. But in enough ways to make its self-imposed destruction that much more bittersweet.

Nothing good happens on its own. But catastrophes? They’re pretty much autopilot.


LucyInDisguise said...

I wish every American Citizen could read and understand what you have written with such clarity here.


David said...

Thanks, Lucy. I appreciate it.

Rufus Dogg said...

Great stuff. Even things not as grand as creating a country depends on a lot of luck to make happen. Me. You. all about who met who on any particular day.

And once created, takes a lot of energy to keep going.

How do you feel about twitter? I share your stuff there all the time. Would make it feel more right if I could credit you.


David said...

Thanks, Rufus.

It's the maintenance part that is the hardest, I think. What is it the financial types say? "Past performance is no guarantee of future success"? Same with countries.

I'm not much for Twitter, though I have tracked stuff back to your page and have enjoyed seeing what you've posted there. I don't have a Twitter account myself. But as long as you're linking back here and not claiming it as your own, I think that's credit enough. I'm flattered that you'd think it worth passing along. Thanks!

Paul Anater said...

As one of the people who's followed Rufus back to this site from Twitter, I applaud you for your insights and thank him for drawing my attention to this blog. You hit this one out of the park and I've been mulling it over all day. Thank you.

David said...

Thanks, Paul, and welcome. As a teacher, I'm glad to know I've made you think!

tellthestories said...

Points for referencing the Gospel of Wealth. I am indebted to it for the results of some of my fundraising work but it makes me grind my teeth when I read it.

Even more points: Clear, compelling writing (I should not be surprised at this point, but given the communication wasteland in which we dwell...), and an important message.

Past performance does not predict future returns, indeed.

And, what Lucy said. Also. :-)

David said...

Thanks! I'm scoring points! ;)

Beatrice Desper said...

I love this:
I’m not sure the OWS protesters really have any actual notion of how to solve any of the problems they’ve identified – the ideas I’ve seen attributed to them certainly don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence – but only a fool would say that they haven’t correctly identified the most pressing crisis of recent American history.
FINALLY, I see my countrymen take to the street! I don't see how they'd solve anything either, but they have hit a nerve. Good for them!

David said...

FINALLY, I see my countrymen take to the street!

Bea, I do believe you have officially become French. ;)

KimK said...

“Nothing good happens on its own.” - the sociological equivalent of the 2nd law of thermodynamics?

Nice to read the thoughts of people chiming in to support the collective good. People who want to make things better for others and not just themselves.