Editor’s Note: This is an intelligently written piece about the currently dismal state of the American spirit. Whether you agree with all the author’s opinions or not, it’s worth a read. It may be important to note that the author uses the term liberal in the classic sense of the word, meaning in favor of personal liberties.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard ’round the world.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn,” 1837
For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ’round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts, heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises never before held and shared as widely as they were in America.
The creation of the United States really was a Novus ordo seclorum, a New Order of the Ages, a society’s first self-aware, if fumbling and compromised, effort to live by the liberal expectation that autonomous individuals could govern themselves together without having to impose religious doctrines or mystical narratives of tribal blood or soil. With barely a decorous nod to The Creator, the founders of the American republic conferred on one another the right to have rights, a distinguished group of them constituting the others as “We, the people.”
That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers, or we’ve sleepwalked ourselves and others into the cage and have locked ourselves in. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ’round the world from 74 American schools, colleges and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December 2012.
These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.
They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises and practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders. And we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”
Many Americans are adapting to living with variants of force and fraud that erupt in road rage; lethal stampedes by shoppers on sale days; security precautions in their homes against the prospect of armed invasion; gladiatorialization and corruption in sports; nihilism in entertainment that fetishizes violence without context and sex without attachment ; the casino-like financing of utterly unproductive economic activities such as the entertainment I’ve just mentioned and the predatory lending that has tricked millions out of their homes; the commercial groping and goosing of private lives and public spaces, even in the marketing of ordinary consumer goods; and the huge, new prison industry that Americans have created to deter or punish broken, violent men, most of them non-white, only to find schools in even the whitest, “safest” neighborhoods imprisoned by fear of white gunmen who’ve often been students themselves.
Abroad, meanwhile, thousands more shots, fiendish and celebratory, are being fired into the corpses of American national-security and nation-building projects by terrorists and fanatics we were told had been decimated. These projects cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, limbs, homes and hopes, including those of American soldiers, contractors and idealists. Their sacrifices can’t justify retroactively what shouldn’t have been undertaken in the first place.
Stressed by all this republican derangement, millions are spending billions on palliatives, medications, addictions and even surveillance designed to protect them from themselves. All those vials, syringes, security systems and shootings reflect the insinuation of what Gibbon called “a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire…” until Roman citizens “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honour, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army.” Only a few late-Roman republicans, recalling their old freedoms, concluded, with Livy, that “We have become too ill to bear our sickness or their cures.”
What went wrong?
You might argue, and quite rightly, that “We, the people” have always subverted the truths we’d held to be self-evident, beginning with slavery and continuing with plutocracy. Yet somehow the republic kept experiencing what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,” thanks only partly to the fortuitous confluence of two oceans’ protection, a vast continent’s ever-alluring frontier and unending streams of aspiring immigrants:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land,
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates will stand
A mighty woman with a torch
Whose flame is the imprisoned lightning,
And her name: Mother of Exiles
True enough, the republic thus limned by Emma Lazarus in “The New Colossus,” her poem for the Statue of Liberty, needed those exiles for its labor market. And it still had a guiding aristocracy of sorts, but supposedly only “an aristocracy of talent and virtue,” as Jefferson put it, and not one of blood and ill-gotten wealth. True, too, certain lingering Puritan beliefs had nourished in the embattled farmers (and, even long before 1775, in some of the Puritans themselves) a conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. That injunction to defy worldly power sometimes in the name of a Higher Power legitimated individual conscience and autonomy right up through the nonviolent defiance of the best of the civil-rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society.
A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve.
The moral silence and often bankruptcy of states and markets leaves citizen-leaders to be nourished and trained all the more intensively in institutions that stand somewhat apart from the state and markets. The Puritan founders of America’s oldest colleges understood this, but they expected that those colleges’ graduates would serve a theocratic state that would control markets and everything else. We’re right to dismiss the Puritans’ theocracy because it was repressive and hypocritical. But we’re wrong to have lost a side of its animating spirit that would have kept markets from controlling and devouring republican government and even our bodies and ourselves.
Symptoms and scapegoats hide the disease
Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.
They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.
Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.
Even our war-makers’ and -mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us.
But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.
I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.
Our cure would also require reweaving a fabric of public candor and comity strong enough to resist the rise of ressentiment, a public psychopathology, once associated with the rise of fascism, in which insecurities, envy and hatreds that many have been nursing in private converge in scary public eruptions that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big. Ressentiment’s “little-big man” seeks easy targets for frustrations borne of exploitation by powers that he’s afraid to face and reckon with head-on. Blaming scapegoats warps his assessment of his hardships and options and drives him to wreak vengeance on them as soon as there are enough little-big men (and women, of course) to do so en masse under a Glenn Beck or a Sarah Palin.
Whether ressentiment erupts in racist violence, sectarian fanaticism, anti-Communist witch hunts, totalitarian show trials, politically correct cultural revolutions or sadistic escapism, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. Under the ministrations of gifted demagogues, its grievances and pain assume a fleeting brilliance that soon collapses, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on its own cowardice and lies.
Its targets often shift. The 9/11 attacks brought a reprieve of sorts to African-Americans, the republic’s most enduring scapegoats, when the burden of white censure pivoted toward Muslims. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam lost credibility, but so did whites such as the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, who kept on insisting years after 9/11 that the first black president was a Muslim and a friend of terrorists.
The slipperiness of scapegoating became clear to me in 1993, as I wrote about a deranged black gunman, Colin Ferguson, who’d opened fire in a Long Island Rail Road car, killing six passengers. Even while holding him responsible, I saw him bearing symptoms far more widespread than his private demons. Noting Ferguson’s enthusiasm for a politics of rage, paranoia and death threats then prominent on a black radio station and in demagogic street politics, I warned that even deranged loners are sometimes better attuned to our subconscious hatreds and fears than we care to admit. That was true, too, of Jared Loughner, >the white paranoid-schizophrenic and anti-government fantasist who killed a U.S. District Court judge and six other people while trying to kill but severely wounding U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others in 2011.
While apocalyptic religious and racist ranting can provoke emotionally disturbed people, so can journalism and entertainment that massage hatreds too diffuse to be called racist, religious or ideological. Some school shooters nursed the depictions of violence and lust that are pumped incessantly into young Americans’ horizons with the help of new technologies and investment strategies that ride reckless misreadings of the First Amendment. This hasn’t been done with malevolent intent as often as it’s been done in a kind of civic mindlessness by media corporations incentivized and indeed forced by market pressures to bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets by exaggerating fears of armed home invasion, government takeover and vengeful victory by gunplay.