The American Dream and the State of the Union

What a time to be alive.

It is interesting to find oneself in such a set of circumstances as those which presently face us while simultaneously making a concerted effort to note the near-ubiquity of similar lamentations throughout American history.  One of the best books I have ever read, The Great Conversation (the lead-in work for the unbelievably wonderful Great Works of the Western World collection), itself contained the common outcry that modern American man has degraded in quality when compared to his historic counterparts.  Indeed, one can hardly find a literary, religious, or philosophical tradition in any part of the world which does not hold up some distant age as a near-mythic shrine to the potential of humankind to which modern times pale disastrously in comparison.

But here we are, with what is at the very least a morbidly unqualified demagogue as President of the United States, and a citizenry seemingly incapable of holding him to appropriate standards.  As many have pointed out, the recent past is rife with politicians being driven from office or refused election for far less than the apparent wrongdoings of the current President.  Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about an affair.  Hillary Clinton was refused election, having been designated an unforgivable liar for, initially, wildly implausible claims regarding her role in the death of the honorable U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and the subsequent revelations that she did, in fact, transgress information security standards to an unacceptable degree.

In those times, I believed that the American people, partisan though they apparently were, had at their core a fundamental concern for the integrity of the American government.  Though they may have selected their items of concern out of partisan intent, they did seem, at least, to agree that the alleged items of concern were just that: items of genuine concern (supposing they were true).

But now, we have a President who has successfully represented components of our own government as insidious “deep-state” actors who seek to manipulate our citizens with lies and hidden conspiracies.  This representation serves as a foundation from which defense of any wrong, no matter how brazen or egregious, may apparently be mounted.  Despite the increasingly obvious fact that most of our fact checking organizations do indeed have a pitiably overt leftward bias in their work, it remains equally apparent that the current President lies with a frequency and vigor that outpaces certainly any American President in my lifetime.

And so in declaring the election of the current President an evil made necessary by outweighing the costs of his opponent’s alleged penchant for lies, we have earned for ourselves the most aggressive, remorseless liar for a President that we have, as a nation, perhaps ever had.  I find that I am forced into that observation with full awareness of the dangers of alarmist hyperbole and its constant presence throughout every era of American history.

That the American right has responded to this situation with initial resistance, eventual begrudging acceptance, and then full-blown endorsement and lockstep support would be bad enough, in itself, but my political experience had led me to a position where such a catastrophe was somewhat unsurprising.  After all, every single Republican Senator did join forces to declare not only that the Affordable Care Act was unacceptable as legislation, but, outrageously, that it was unconstitutional.  It was not that this was a wildly implausible accusation, but that the component of the ACA which was so declared had direct analogues in nearly every Republican attempt at healthcare legislation which had gained any serious attention between 1989 and the ACA’s proposal.  In fact, the Obama administration considered the so-called “individual mandate” to be the most effective means of garnering bipartisan support for the bill, given those direct analogues. Nonetheless, even those who had supported those prior legislative proposals now joined the others in declaring that component which had earned their prior endorsement not only unacceptable, but unconstitutional.

In addition to that, the Republican Vice President, Dick Cheney, had gone on national television and publicly asserted that he did not mind the fact that his administration had abducted and tortured innocent people to death so long as his mission of protecting America was accomplished.  I was left bewildered that such a thing could happen and so many Americans would not bat an eye.  It seemed, incredibly sadly, that I lived in a country of many who would gladly support a cartoonishly evil empire if given the opportunity.

So the American right had already earned my contempt and outrage to a degree that made their response to Trump not less outrageous, but at least somewhat precedented.  It was still astonishing that they would rally around him like so many secondary schoolyard bullies rally around their frontman despite sharing the receiving end of his denigration, themselves, but the Republican party’s capacity for uniting its members around extreme hypocrisy and even outright declarations of genuinely amoral principles had already been established.

But what has happened to the American left?  In my youth, I admired the wit and impressive intelligence of the liberal commentator Jon Stewart.  I loved with an ardent fervor the impassioned defense of freedom of speech from the likes of the ACLU, especially when it sided with the members of the American right.  Built into its very name, American liberalism seemed to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk in defense of individual liberty.  Regardless of how wrongheaded the right had seemed to become, it seemed the American left was dedicated, for example, to the fundamental principle of free speech on which the country was founded.  They cherished what may be the most unique feature of the country at the time of its adoption and defended it properly.

And now I have had the sad duty put upon me to watch, apparently helplessly, as friends who once struck me as competent political thinkers descend into an apparent mass hysteria.  The American left has become obsessed with identity politics.  Laughably silly concepts such as “microaggressions” and “gender identity” have gained favor as unquestionable truths.  “De-platforming,” the result of a childlike frustration with the pace of rational discourse, is now thought to be a necessary constraint to be placed on any who disagree with increasingly nonsensical positions.  While I have been taught, along with those same peers of mine who now support this outrage, that the freedom of speech, even when distasteful, is a necessary principle whose abdication will result in Orwellian states, it is astonishing to me how rapidly it seems that the foundation for such states rises in a suitable incubator.  Already, states are passing laws making it illegal to properly employ English grammar.  Universities are further attempting to become their own governmental analogues, legislating speech constraints, adjudicating their infractions, and executing punishment, all for matters which lie clearly in the scope of actual legal processes.  And they are doing so based on patently insane leftist theory.  The influence is growing, and leftward-leaning employers are gradually taking up their templates and enforcing them upon their employees.

I stand now between two apparent insanities.  It is a position that many have proclaimed throughout history, and it has led many to avoid casting a ballot during American elections.  It is a position I once eschewed as a result of laziness and an unwillingness to do the difficult intellectual work of evaluating competing political candidates in a quantitative fashion where degree matters and the enticing ease of stubborn insistence upon total satisfaction is dismissed.  I thought it nearly impossible that a serious mind could determine, given the choices available in my political lifetime, that one’s vote should be withheld entirely rather than applied in the direction of greatest, though not perfect, merit.

But that was before, I think, our current situation.  We now have the American right continuing to abandon its former principles with astonishing ease and rapidity in the pursuit of power.  They used to represent to me, at the very least, an intolerance for abdication of Western standards for gentlemanly conduct, but that, too, has been thrown out in some fit of power hungry gluttony.  On the left, we have a rise of actual totalitarianism seeking to make illegal even the expression of actual facts (e.g. that a person’s sex is not a matter of “gender identity”).  They conflate physical violence with distasteful verbal acts and portray their opponents as savage bigots deserving of the imposition of legal controls over the expression of their thoughts.

It’s absolutely incredible.  I do not know the cause of this situation.  Is it that my generation is uniquely incompetent?  In support of that notion, there seems to be a fairly obvious dearth of knowledge among many of my peers.  Where there is knowledge, there seems to be an additional fairly obvious dearth of moral theory.  Many of my peers, it seems, not only fail to understand the practical rationale for the current configuration of the country, but they also lack any moral conviction that aligns with that of those who first established that configuration.  As an example, when I engage in discussions with them, we often differ not only in the practical extent to which freedom of speech may be permitted, but whether or not it is even important at all.

But again, this seems a constant complaint throughout American, and human, history.  It is hard to discern whether or not today’s age is distinct from those that have passed in this way.  Regardless of the appropriate measure of severity at hand, the consequences seem certainly to be significantly greater than they have been.

Is this a cycle to which mankind is doomed?  I find myself speculating that it is the result of any number of other cyclical occurrences, such as participation in large-scale war.  As the saying goes, Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.  It is certainly easy to ascribe much to this cyclical theory; modern hardships certainly pale in comparison to those endured by, say, those alive during the World Wars.  Now, our wars are fought entirely voluntarily, and those outside of the population of volunteers are often hard-pressed to remark upon anything at all about the constant conflicts in which our country is immersed.  The juggernaut of our economy has strapped the citizenry with mandatory debt and enforced higher education as a prerequisite for nearly any job.  As a result, higher education standards have fallen to ensure the graduation of even the least capable so as to continue the application and collection of those debts which constrain our fates.

There is no question that we have diverged greatly from the initial American plan.  What was once a country held up as a destination for individuals who desired their own lives, as free from compulsion as is feasible for a country, is now a place where one is born into unavoidable integration with an increasingly despotic economic system.  No longer is there any land for one to stake for oneself; one must purchase one’s land at a cost that requires a lifetime of toil to repay.  To even be permitted to engage in that toil, one must purchase an increasingly pro forma “education” at a cost which one must also engage in much toil to repay.  All the while, political leaders have managed to strip down the progressivity of our system of taxation, enabling the accumulation of unprecedented stockpiles of wealth by an extreme minority of the country’s population from whom the remaining majority must beg for their pittance.

We no longer have the ability to reject many of the machinations of our society if they do not meet our standards.  The degree to which we may subsist upon our own labor has lessened so dramatically that it is virtually impossible to do in any meaningful way.  Even if the decreasing breadth of our individual capabilities, resulting from the increasingly narrow purposes to which we must dedicate ourselves, were not prohibitive of such subsistence, there is simply nowhere left to so subsist.  As a result, we are enslaved to a capitalism that increasingly resembles feudalism.  We are beholden to a tyranny of increasingly self-appointed, decreasingly qualified wealth stockpilers and officials put and held in place by the systems they have carved into our society, and whose merits cannot be meaningfully questioned or rejected without severe self-sacrifice.

We are so many train passengers facing so few bandits.  Though they could easily be thwarted by our numbers, none of us is confident in the support of one another.  Motionless, we are willingly robbed.

The American Dream, a concept which formerly represented that drive for individualism and independence, has become in the minds of many, a representation of a desire for comfort and ease.  And I’m afraid it is this which is leading to the infantilization of my generation, the desire for a nanny state to overlook them, and a total inability to maintain the individual qualities necessary to establish and manage a true Democratic Republic.

I know it’s my standard line, but, well, this is why.

If I’m right, I’m not sure what to do about it.  If I’m wrong, I don’t know why.

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