Not that long ago American society was known the world over for its open trust and the coarse but solid manners of its simple folks who held to an ideal of the helpful neighbor. It was just not that long ago that very few people locked their doors all across rural America’s small towns. When asked in a poll if “most people can be trusted” in 1960 still 58% of those asked thought so, by 1998 only 33%. Today I expect it would be even lower. Trust is the fabric of society, sadly, ours has been tattered and torn. Once that has happened trust can only be rebuilt by being re-earned and that is a slow process. The people and their governments in our time are much like a couple tentatively willing to make another go of it after an episode of infidelity.
In my experience there remains in the American people a strong tradition of honesty and a rustic simplicity as a type of ideal sketch of our national character. Quick to help a neighbor in need, there was a time when the rest of the world was quite sure a citizen of North America would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it more than they did. These rugged people from a rugged land were, it used to be said, the salt of the earth.
This might seem like naïve nostalgia for a time long past, romantic beyond all recognition but it is just reporting what I experienced in my childhood a mere forty years ago or so. It is interesting to consider that this characteristic of widespread trust survived the corruptions of the robber barons and the hardships of the world wars and the Great Depression. It did not however survive the onslaught of modern neoliberalism and what is often known as the Washington consensus.
The constitutional republic sketched out in America’s founding documents is presenting the world with a theory of power. It claims there is no power humanity’s highborn masters can claim legitimately through either force or revelation. Power, this radical philosophy claims, is born from human understanding alone. Power therefore must be held accountable and able to explain itself. The “safety and happiness” of the people is the one valid aim of government once human understanding is accorded more power than the (always only temporarily effective) fearful threats and manipulation by tyrants or tyrannical ideologies. Of the people, by the people, for the people recognizes that sovereignty is in fact to be found legitimately here, in serving the needs of everyday life and no where else. All the citizens of a country are not born to be cannon fodder for a divinely appointed strong man or spiritual slaves to an army wielding holy man. If wars are to be fought they will be to protect this sovereignty, the sanctity of the people’s daily life, and not to rid the world of evil on holy crusades.
History taught the founding fathers that at times the people become swept up in harmful delusions and require their government to keep an eye on the long term safety and happiness of the culture and to distance itself from the popular fever. All the institutions of our representative republic, as opposed to direct democracy, were architected with this in mind. On the other hand history is also rife with examples of governments being swept up in harmful delusions when they are coupled with absolutist claims and projects. Here is where uniquely western institutions and norms such as a free press and the legitimacy of questioning authority come from.
It is all about leadership and authority. The radical philosophy claims that the self evident truths about human life structure the only legitimate ends society can pursue, namely the “safety and happiness” of the people. The means by which these ends can be pursued are those things by which human understanding can be made to increase, namely rational discourse concerning evident things. What the republic had to remain vigilant against were the mind manipulators pedaling utopias and doomsdays, true believers in the non-evident of whatever stripe.
An example of power that must explain itself is the difference between worker and CEO compensation the people within a society find proper. In the pre-Walmart days when mom and pop shops and small businesses carried the bulk of our economic dealings, the owners and executives made a fine living, though nothing like what is expected today. Part of the crisis of legitimacy that is consuming the liberal democracies in our time is just such corruptions of the transparency of authority. Since such wide economic disparities as we experience today cannot be justified reasonably alternative mythologies are needed; in this case neoliberalism’ gospel of Ayn Rand’s CEO as both Nietzschean superman and long suffering Christ-like savior. The people, though befuddled for a few decades by the massive misdirection provided by the modern media onslaught, are not buying it. Power, in this case, cannot explain itself.
That is the basic idea applied to the economic life we share. Economics is an important aspect of the interdependent globalization of our time. In the global order the United States has arguably been the most important stabilizing factor providing both the reserve currency and the largest military. When circumstance lead to it being the sole superpower, economically it was no longer the world’s largest creditor nation but the world’s largest debtor nation. International inertia has kept the stability of the US dollar through the continued special agreements that keep the cycling of petrodollars throughout our spheres of influence. The rest of the world has not been idle all this time while America went on a fire sale and became the largest debtor. Forces are in play now to remove the dollar from its role as the reserve currency and de facto currency for oil trades.
However important these economic considerations are they are hardly the only ones worth contemplating. The ideas and ideals of the radical philosophy our founding fathers managed to incorporate cut straight to the bone. They touch on the very ground of our human experience by declaring our equality.
That our government’s representatives would ever torture another human being in our name is an acidic truth of dark deeds performed in dark times. In the past, decency required denial and honest disgust trimmed the sails of the overly zealous. No one can read a work like Cry of the People by Penny Lernoux and believe the representatives of the U.S. government were always acting as agents of goodness and light long before the country so lost its way it started talking about legalizing torture. Still, the constraints I mentioned were in place and American’s image of themselves could still hold to the ideals of the helpful, if often misguided, neighbor.
Legalizing torture was a betrayal of all I love about what this country has stood for. Make no mistake. This sent a very, very clear signal to the rest of the world that America’s moral bankruptcy was complete. Vultures have been circling ever since. My hope is that after we have extracted ourselves from being the world’s sole superpower and source of its reserve currency and we collapse down to our real size, once the rubble stops bouncing, we will remember our ideals.
We want to be able to have meaningful lives by being free to pursue happiness that is rooted in the self-evident truth of our human nature. Our founding father’s conviction was that with basic reasonableness we can come together as a society to agree about how the real needs of human lives can be met, as opposed to all those fundamentalisms which would sacrifice meeting the real needs of human lives on economic, political or religious altars. America’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness have been bowdlerized by corporations pretending to be politicians hired to sell consumerism as the be-all and end-all of our national identity. I don’t believe them. I think what they are selling is a lie. I think the American experiment has never been only about business and even now contains great potential for building strong, nurturing communities.
The hard times are upon us and in such times it is easy to get confused and wonder what the right things to do might be that would bring about actual benefit to ourselves and others. Following the trail of empathy acts as our Ariadne’s thread. To find the path of beauty through our times we need only ask ourselves will this or that increase or decrease the amount of trust and empathy in our daily lives and act accordingly.