Thursday, July 13, 2017

American Leadership?

Donald Trump's passive stance at the Group of Twenty summit in Hamburg, especially his distancing of himself from the group's commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change (I still can't believe the planet is going to fry because Steve Bannon made sure he was the last person Trump would hear from on this issue!), means to many observers that United States is no longer a world leader, becoming more isolationist and less engaged and involved with the world's problems.  America, they say, will be left behind.
But is it really a bad thing that America is longer willing or able to lead?  And hasn't the U.S. been left behind for years already? 
Let's get a few things straight.  The U.S. became the world leader at the end of World War II because it was one of two Western nations that hadn't been partially or completely destroyed by the war, and Canada wasn't up to the job.  The U.S. was the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth, but it wasn't necessarily the most wise or most learned nation on earth.  The U.S. lacked the wisdom of the ages, having been founded after the age of antiquity, the medieval period, and the Renaissance.  Even then, the country had a disdain for high art and deep thinking; anti-intellectualism had been an American tradition since at least 1828, when commoners, having gained the right to vote for President, had a choice between a man who could write - John Quincy Adams - and a man who could fight - Andrew Jackson.  We all know whom they chose.      
Lacking the imbued cultural and intellectual traditions of Europe, we Americans were already behind in many ways as early as 1945.  Europeans had recognized public broadcasting as a common good and a source of national unity; we emphasized commercial broadcasting from the start, with lip service to the public interest.  Centuries of sectarian conflict had alerted Europeans to the dangers of fundamentalist religion, but we Americans still embraced it (and still embrace it now) with fervor.  While Europeans had begun to accept scientific and intellectual thought challenging religious dogma, we weren't even allowing evolution to be taught in public schools and were mandating prayer in those very same school systems.  And our wealth only made us hungry for more wealth, as we set up a consumptive economy to maximize profit, not a sustainable economy to maximize quality of life.  The differences between profit motives in America and public interests in, for example, Britain became apparent in a joint project between the BBC and American broadcasters in the early thirties, where one BBC executive is reported to have told his American counterparts, "I don't understand how you Americans can worship God and Mammon at the same time."
Since 1945, we Americans have been promoting a way of life that is more of a parody of civilization than the real thing, with our lucrative auto suburbia and our disregard of cities and public spaces, an abdication of the common good in favor of individualism, the idea that every person is on his or her own (as opposed to individuality, the appreciation of uniqueness and non-conformity, which we have historically discouraged), and a sort of self-induced complacency that allowed other countries - including the defeated nations of World War II -  to surpass us in health care, public transportation, infrastructure, education, civic participation, support for the arts . . . everything, really.  
And what has our civilization produced?  A thousand channels of television that panders to the lowest common denominator?  Cartoonish action movies with lots of explosions?   A form of "music" in which mean-looking folks wearing ball caps backwards and gold chains around their necks spew out angry prose to the sound of computerized beats?  We've become a country that accepts religion at face value and questions scientific fact, when it should be the other way around, even questioning the theory of evolution because it contradicts the Bible  - and we're expected to lead the fight against climate change?   We've overthrown democratically elected and popularly supported socialist governments and replaced them with right-wing dictatorships in the name of combating Communism - and we're expected to set an example for freedom?  We've elected  a dim-bulb movie star and then a dimmer-bulb real estate mogul as President - and we're expected to provide wise leadership?  We turned higher education into a parody of itself, and a majority of Republicans - the current ruling party - think higher education of any sort is a waste of time and detriment to the nation . . . and we're expected to be provide intelligent guidance to other countries?  We're what H.L. Mencken called "a commonwealth of third-rate men" and an "Eden of clowns" - and we expect to be taken seriously as a first-rate nation?
We don't deserve to lead. We don't even deserve to follow.  We deserve to be left behind in our own stupidity.  And it's good that a nation like that doesn't lead the world anymore.    

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