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The Undiscovered Country

Above photo: American flag lit by a full moon. Dvidshub.

We are responsible for our irresponsibility.

When I travel abroad, which is infrequently these days, I find myself more than occasionally expressing gratitude to those I meet. “We Americans are fortunate,” I explain, “in that others are usually able to distinguish between the American people and the American government.” I made a remark such as this most recently to a couple of distinguished Serbians I met at a conference this past summer. Our topic was the American-led NATO bombing campaign in what was then Yugoslavia during the spring of 1999. People in Belgrade and elsewhere still suffer the consequences of the depleted uranium U.S. bombers dropped—premature deaths, very high cancer rates, the whole nine. O, say, can you see?

Iranians, Guatemalans, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesians, on occasion Europeans:  I have shared this sentiment with various others over the years. Always I get the same response—kindly smiles, understanding—and I am grateful for this each time. We are indeed a fortunate citizenry, considering the so often egregious conduct toward other peoples of those purporting to lead us. People seem to know that what our government does in one or another circumstance is not necessarily a reflection of who we Americans are.

But turn this thought another way, and it is hard to see how we could be less fortunate. And this is not to mention the misfortunes our imperium inflicts on others. If we are not to be held responsible for these, we are responsible for not taking responsibility.

Where to begin? The newest surveys indicate that 55 percent of us do not want to send any more military aid to Ukraine. This is fine, the right position, but send more aid to Ukraine the Pentagon shall. Two-thirds of Americans consistently favor one or another kind of nationalized health care system. The fight for one has been going on since, if I am not mistaken, 1929. How far are we from realizing any such improvement—from achieving that which we want to achieve? And on and on.

Why, altogether, should ordinary non-bomb-dropping, non-drone-driving Americans be so dependent on the compassion of others? When, over the past 94 years, was the vast distance between the kind of society Americans want and the kind of society those in power hand them normalized such that the disconnect now goes unremarked?

It comes to this: On one side of the coin, lucky us that we are not held to account for the American imperium’s many cruelties. Turn it over, and we do not have a government that reflects what we favor at home any more than it does abroad: the kind of society we wish to live in, the “values”—I detest the word but let’s leave it for now—we espouse. In the end, doesn’t it come to this following? The world may understand that most of us are not high-handed imperialists, but it does not know much about what, in the positive, we actually are beyond what we are not. At home, corruption, money in politics, obsessions with power, crumbling institutions, and all the rest leave us ever less able to express our public selves in public space.

We cannot, if we net all this out, be very sure of who we are. And we owe it to ourselves, and most certainly to others, to know ourselves and learn to act according to who we truly are.

It was a remark made in the comment thread to my previous ScheerPost column that moved me to consider these things. A reader going by the name Arrnon offered a thoughtful reply to the piece. It included this:

The idea that there was ever anyone in charge is a quaint relic of ideology from the American century. The next century is about the undiscovered country, which no mgmt. pyramid[,] no matter how tall[,] will ever fully survey.

Appealingly elliptical, I thought—a little cryptic, even: The undiscovered country. I wrote a reply asking Arrnon, whoever he or she is, wherever he or she resides, to send along an email address via a private channel. I thought to exchange notes, in the best outcome ideas. I have had no response, and so I will proceed with my own understanding of what it means to speak of America as an undiscovered country.

Much has been written, including (very modestly) in this space, about what we might call “the ‘Bowling Alone’ thesis” after Robert Putnam’s celebrated book (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Putnam, a political scientist who lectures on public policy at Harvard, considered the decline of “social capital”—the bane of scholarly jargon, alas!—in America since 1950. Others have explored this grim ground: David Riesman in “The Lonely Crowd” (Yale, 1950), Richard Sennett in “The Fall of Public Man” (Knopf, 1977), and, a favorite of mine, Philip Slater’s “The Pursuit of Loneliness” (Beacon, 1970). The late and formidable Christopher Lasch turned the phenomenon this way and that in numerous of his books.

We are a fragmented people, an atomized people, a people whose consciousness has been privatized. Given the above-noted titles and others like them, there is no need to go on about this. We cannot, let’s allow ourselves the odd cliché, get our act together. There are very, very many reasons to conclude that America’s power elite—and here we stumble on the C. Wright Mills book of this title (Oxford University Press, 1956)—not only finds advantage in our collective waywardness, or shared befuddlement: This condition is effectively cultivated so as to prevent Americans from organizing themselves into any kind of coherent political force. By this I mean a force of their own design and making, as against the two major parties—which, as many others have said, are the graveyards of all serious political initiatives.

My mind goes to an observation Bertrand Russell offered in “Free Thought and Official Propaganda,” a lecture he delivered in London 101 years ago. “But the utility of intelligence is admitted only theoretically, not practically,” the great English rationalist told his audience. “It is not desired that ordinary people think for themselves, because it is felt that people who think for themselves are awkward to manage and cause administrative problems.”

Isolated from one another as if we are so many islets in a vast, unnavigable sea, discouraged from discernment and original thought, unable to communicate well among ourselves: Let there be no argument about any of this. These are characteristic of our condition. This is a shared psychological condition before it is a political or sociological condition. My conclusion ought to follow easily: To speak of an undiscovered country is to speak of ourselves. The undiscovered country consists of the vast land between our ears and running, a key passage, down into our hearts.

The question that came to me as I pondered Arrnon’s arresting turn is whether ours is doomed to remain an undiscovered country. Let me rephrase, as I know good and well we are not so doomed: The question is whether we have concluded, with our downcast eyes and in our rampant discouragement, that we are doomed never again authentically to connect with one another—always from here on out to bowl alone.

I do not and never will accept this kind of pessimism. It is too utterly irrational, too devoid of any understanding of history and the human organism. Lots of people seem to think that our condition now is permanent, and, O.K., its totalized aspects make it seem that way. But there is no grounding for this. Think of Soviet citizens and how we thought of Soviet citizens up to the very end. Think of the extraordinary political, social, and community consciousness manifest in the 1930s. Those people were our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. Think of the 1960s scene: Those people were we, or our parents.

I bring these questions to readers’ attention because I think we approach a passage during which I will be proven right or wrong on them. We need to recognize our moment as history and understand that it will impose certain responsibilities upon us.  Let’s look at this in two halves.

On the foreign side, our late-imperial conduct draws near to a denouement. As Michael Brenner, emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote just the other day with refreshing candor, we have already lost the proxy war with Russia; we cannot possibly expect to win in whatever kind of confrontation the ideological elites choose to provoke with China: This is clear even before they get started. Ours starts to look like the big moment, the point when there is no going any further with the post–1945 order. Something new will have to take its place. This becomes a responsibility—a responsibility, I mean, to ourselves but, just as much or more, to others: To return to the paradox noted above, we are responsible for our irresponsibility during all the decades of suffering our imperium inflicted on the world. We can either assume this responsibility now it or remain in a state of atomized passivity more or less eternally, telling ourselves there is nothing more to us.

It is a variant of the same at home. I wonder whether the mess amid which we live can get much worse. I am thinking here not only of what may amount to the worst presidency of my lifetime, and I was alive when Nixon slept in the White House.  I consider the corrosion of our most important institutions, above all our judicial system, even more ominous. Joe Biden will fade at some point. The repairs our institutions require will prove a very long-term project.

We are left, then, with a choice. It is the same choice those alive in the 1930s and the 1960s faced. Will we continue indefinitely to live submerged, so to say—an undiscovered country? Or will we come alive again, rediscover ourselves as those before us have done on numerous occasions in response to circumstances different from ours but with some things in common with ours? At home an authentic democracy, abroad, an authentic internationalism: This makes two debts, one to ourselves and one to others.

I call this a choice, but I do not think it truly is one. We have lost all sight of our potential, what we are capable of doing—individually and collectively—but I cannot accept that we, any of us, are content in this condition. Robert Putnam’s subtitle, it is worth mentioning, is “The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Our better selves, and I will not even argue that we have better selves, will not lie undiscovered indefinitely.

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