Is the sky falling on this Beacon on the Hill, ending a century of Yankee dominance, crushing the greatest, most brashly exceptional nation known to mankind? Is this worldwide wonder of freedom and democracy, the intersection of divine history and human destiny, kaput, on its last legs, about to implode? Not quite, not yet, and that’s no endorsement of the status quo: powers-that-be hold high trump cards.
Every generation endures end-of-the world scenarios, and we still dread last century’s, nuclear holocaust. Drama — let alone anxiety — commands our attention and heartstrings. Pandemics, portable nukes, fiery asteroids, religious mania, starvation, rightwing nuts, and looming climate change, all threaten millions. But anxiety, even nightmare projections, do not mean Armageddon is upon us, nor that pundits suddenly discover reliable crystal balls. Discretion is the better part of this valor.
Global warming looms, likely to cut world population and food production, but that’s neither extinction nor end of times – nor reformation of destructive capitalism. Want good news? Harvard professor Steven Pinker argues our belligerent species has cut wartime-violence killing sprees. Are we not exiting Iraq, sort of? Life expectancies, even for the impoverished, grow annually, if you count enough people. Only 43 Americans suffered capital punishment in 2011 (half the 2000 totals), mostly in W’s Texas. Okay, we live in grim times but take heart: we don’t guillotine yet. And most of life’s simple pleasures haven’t been banned, yet.
Centers hold on
No doubt, systemic cracks abound, thanks to myopic leadership blunders, not just across state and national politics but corporate’s best and brightest, sports top dogs, and fundamentalist denominations that turn Jesus into racist warmonger. Pedophilia, misogyny and reaction stalk the west’s oldest organized church. But even wobbly, distrusted centers, like moons and planets, can wobble in place a good long time. History testifies to the resilience of status quo, by definition adept at deflecting reform.
Consider how long it took to resolve slavery (or not, as racism lives on), enfranchise women (and minorities), or protect laboring children and the gamut of civil, gender, human and gay rights. Today’s well-funded, defensive elite, armed with police forces, high-tech weaponry and media propaganda, so dreads systemic change they equate sharing spoils with “the end of their world.”
Fortresses are designed for sieges, and I suspect things get worst before they get better. Yet does that justify the countless catastrophes predicted if that slick liberal, drone-friendly, Wall-Street-funding president doesn’t get re-elected? Even more earth-shaking disruptions come from fringe hysterics: national self-destruction descends if that slick liberal, non-citizen (alien, socialist anti-Christ) defies divine will by staying in office. What a quandary: a single election deciding which of two ways our world ends.
But anxiety aside, where’s compelling data that today’s enfeebled “Dying Empire” is expiring? Isn’t there equivalent evidence that reinforces retrenchment, fat cats shoring up weak spots and securing walls that resist reform? Few imagine violent domestic insurrection (despite guns galore) because so many project bloody retribution by police armies informed by drone surveillance. Though whistleblowers are punished, gun sales flourish, as do third political parties, and the Internet remains free, though gigantic government computers violate our privacy. No doubt, were the belligerent, rabid right to commandeer our entire government, brace for dreadful “systemic reforms.” But odds favor more status quo and 40 fierce Senators trumping change.
Mythic hill to die on
Our western culture has one predominant catch-all for the end of the world, courtesy of the New Testament finale: Armageddon. Ar-ma-ged-don is “the battle between the forces of good and evil predicted to mark the end of the world and precede the Day of Judgment.” (Revelation 16:16). With “ar” meaning “hill,” derivation is less epic, an earthly hill called Megiddo where our species gets its comeuppance. High time, say today’s angry moralists, echoing the irritable Old Testament chief.
What, is human history not already battleground between perceived good vs. indicted evil-doers? Have we not moved, however haltingly for 200 years, from widespread dictators to greater distribution of goodies to wider audiences, respect for law and judicial processes, even expansive self-determination?
True, our three-decade Yankee regression by leapers of faith in cahoots with business reactionaries is gumming up progress, but I trust the long-term, positive arc of history endures. Yet, where are alternative visions or philosophies to trigger serious, left-leaning systemic reform? Successful revolutions have definite contexts, especially breakthrough concepts (like democracy) that disrupt fixed communal mindsets. What revolutionary ideas can persuade our variegated masses to become rebels with a cause? In that absence, let us assess the daunting task:
1) Economic status quo is besieged but is hardly buckling. Despite ungodly concentrations of wealth, the core capitalistic order — reflected by healthy world stock markets and international business as usual –is accelerating from recession. Occupy protests urge more equitable distribution but I don’t yet see key strategies that garner critical mass support. Has this admirable protest impacted national voting at all, as did the Tea Party? Bruised candidate and lousy campaigner, Romney the patrician quickly overcame high negatives to pull even with a charismatic, personally-popular president, as you’d expect from a strong foe.
2) World leadership, with few exceptions, stands with high growth and big business, whether here, struggling Europe, booming South America, Middle East (dictatorial strongholds), or across highly productive Indian-Asian powerhouses. China represents state capitalism on steroids, with autocratic leaders restraining mounting internal contradictions and income discrepancies.
Where’s the legitimate, unified alternative — even a major movement — that challenges the world’s ever-evolving capitalist systems, paying homage to private property, profit incentives, centralized corporations, and monopolistic expansionism? Despite population surges, resource restraints and natural warnings galore, our president merrily targets 3.5% annual GDP growth, as if it’s 1950.
3) Yes, America is faltering, mainly against China, rising Asian producers and bright spots, like Brazil. Yet power shifts don’t produce the end of the world or power to more people, and China, with insatiable needs for oil, resources, and factories, is buying and/or financially colonizing the third world. Copycat top-down ownership plus nasty environmental exploitation drive Chinese expansion, mimicking excesses of late-western capitalism. Backed by wildly expensive military prowess, America and our large corporations will keep their castles and hold their own, with only token nods to funding externalities (what progress truly costs), just like 1950.
4) In fact, military power balances haven’t drastically changed since WWII, except that ex-communist Russia stumbled, displaced by quasi-communist China. Western militarism (with its religious commitment to violence, whatever threat or foe) plods on, without core budget cuts for guns, tanks or drones. Yankee militarism morphs into limited, “smarter” conflicts, less costly big wars in money and lives, perhaps even better at killing enemies, not non-combatants.
5) Populist movements, however conspicuous, are struggling (as in Egypt), assuming they get the necessary decades to foster functional, democratic governments. No easy fixes for severe tribal battles and daunting shortfalls in education, medicine and infrastructure. Protests like “60’s anti-war eruptions aren’t yet shaking advanced countries, even though politics and elections promise mainly crude propaganda by billionaires. Where’s the outrage towards zero debate about structural challenges, replaced by trivial squabbling over “impossible deficits” or the menace of “big government”?
In short, though there is good news, where’s persuasive evidence the world’s entrenched are dying? Where are critical mass protests to combat economic systems showing their age (and contradictions)? Corrupt, crony capitalism won’t be overturned because income disparities widen, and “regular” capitalism promises employment needs for decades. Early in defining tasks and foes, let’s beware of declaring premature dissolutions.
Whatever narrative upswings of history, and shifts towards empowerment, expect nasty bumps along the way. That quickens if the cynical withdraw, as in “we’re all screwed, why fight”? Or if others cling to a president whose populist talk contrasts with neo-liberal appointments, advisers, programs and decisions. Time not to overstate the sky is falling but assess the full power of the opposition and plan tactical moves and strategic alliances. For me, reinstating the best of our Constitutional restraints is a mandatory first step, with intense pressure on this president. Reform driven by our best, most inclusive legacies is a compelling philosophic engine, with a realistic re-dedication to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for the vast majority, not the privileged top tier.
Historic note: systemic change needs a context and a realistic new direction. Our revolution makes that point: finally, a landowning, asset-holding elite, with a nod towards halfway democracy, decided colonial obedience to a backward power was out — and concepts of self-rule grew, though over time. Had England not demanded intrusive new taxes (for costly, far-off European wars), the colony would not have rushed to wean itself from the mother country. Our revolutionary founders (all one-third of the country) didn’t revolt because they hated being English, but they refused to be bullied, specifically denied the economic and social freedoms they had enjoyed for decades. Inspect the Articles of Confederation, where weak state self-rule dominates, to appreciate how America’s truly revolutionary advance (a centralized, federal union) wasn’t the first dream, nor the first reform.