Monday, January 11, 2010

Step 1: admitting you have a problem

I'm forgetting where I read the comment over the last couple days of reading editorials and forwarded articles, but one of them contained the European observation that Americans are very self-satisfied. It may have been in the article about Chinese researchers returning to China out of patriotism, challenge, and the desire to make more of a difference than they can here in America. Not sure. But tonight my nephew and I were talking about the many things that America has become mediocre in--education, health care among them--that once we led, and I mentioned this observation. We joked about Americans having come to the idea that we're #1 in everything and deciding that it was time for us to relax.

That's not much of a joke, I'm afraid. Obviously Americans think we're #1 in everything. Like every other empire that became #1, we became complacent while making ourselves a target for derision and takeover. The uniquely American aspect to this is the angry denial and rationalization we've descended to. We've forgotten how to lead, I think, but we haven't forgotten the sense of entitlement in leading, so that instead of meeting challenges and renewing ourselves, we've simply become more angry and confrontational about our bruised egos. It's apparent in so many things from index finger-waving jingoism to wanting to kick butt worldwide. We're a people who know that our country is in decline but are so afraid to confront that truth that, instead of meeting the challenges of an emerging China and a potential India, we angrily denounce anyone who reveals our flaws as traitors and threaten (or attempt) to beat up anyone who challenges not our actual position in the world but our perceived position in the world. And for an angry, militaristic people, that means force, from the personal to the global.

Luckily we've gotten past the Bush Doctrine, but Obama doesn't seem to be much better. Rather than accept the obvious futility of our situation in Afghanistan, he's decided to meet it with more force. America has become the possessive boyfriend of the world: we don't know how insecure in ourselves we really are, but our only response to that is to threaten anyone who's perceived as taking away the object of our affection. At the heart of every bully is a deep insecurity, and we are a very insecure country. The anger and confrontation of the right wing, bordering on hysteria, in this country reveals much more about that insecurity than we want to admit.

All of this comes from the bloated self-satisfaction I mentioned earlier. If we'd never rested on our laurels, we might have met the challenges of the late 20th century, but we came to the belief that because we want to do it (whatever "it" is), it is therefore the right thing to do, and any suggestion contrary to that is treason. I know, this is really all boilerplate psycho-political musing, but what struck me on this was that at the base of most of the ills America suffers, and makes others suffer through, is that satisfaction with ourselves. Unless we, as a country, are able to admit that we are failing and that the future of representational democracy lies in confronting the failure rather than the critics, we're doomed to becoming a historical afterthought while repressive, China- (and Russia-) style oligarchy represents the wave of the future.