Thursday, March 03, 2016

The American Spirit Broke America

I read this article in Time by Edward Felsenthal this week. He was talking about the general situation of the Supreme Court now that we're in the midst of a fairly significant transition. He especially talked about the changes made by Scalia's participation on the Court, specifically his penchant for ideology over process or cohesion or compromise. He's oft quoted as saying he's in the business of law to shape ideas, he wrote his scathing, lengthy dissents "for the law books," and didn't care much for deciding cases, but for being right.

Perhaps because of his thirty year tenure in the public eye, his ability to tell a story and ingratiate people to himself, Scalia's been among the most prominent political figures for two generations. He exemplifies the rugged individuality and moral and intellectual superiority that's come to be known as "the American Spirit." Of course, this is not his invention, but his death is an avenue for exploring this singular particularity of our nation... and what affect it's had on our way of life.

We're not a country that tolerates gray areas, at least corporately. Even as we become more comfortable with ambiguity in private, we like to know where we stand when it comes to right and wrong. When we go to war, it's never a complex, multi-faceted issue; it's either pure good or pure evil. When we get hit, we hit back harder. It's this need to win, to be right, to defeat evil and wrong, to punish the enemy - this is the American Spirit and it's pretty much crippled good governance.

Congress is hopelessly mired in gridlock, partly because we've got two entrenched parties who see their only way forward as assuming opposing polarized positions, but also because state level political victories have led to punitive redistricting, which provides most of our Representative virtually no real danger in re-election.

The Presidency has become a game show, with otherwise intelligent egomaniacs fighting over who looks better on camera - which has now culminated in the ultimate channel of the American Spirit reigning on high and espousing exactly the kind of rhetoric we've been taught, deep down, to embrace, but have also been taught not to express out loud. We've got the reality show ringmaster breaking that unwritten rule and the people are just following their training in this combative, superior American Spirit.

Not to get too deep, but we've been seeing it in the Court for a while now. The very fact that we see jurisprudence divided by right and left is indication enough. There are at least five commonly accepted methods of constitutional interpretation - even the "conservative" members of the bench often disagree strongly on how things are decided - but we're more concerned with who's "winning" and who can be proved "right," when right and wrong, for our political and judicial purposes are really just decided by the whims and biases of five people in black robes.

"We can't win unless everyone wins," is usually the response from people like me - re-framing the competitive drive to encompass a more communal outlook on things, but that doesn't go over well with the cowboy ethos of the American Spirit. It becomes a dismissive platitude because it's saying that opponents aren't just wrong, their also ignorant. It's saying, "they'll thank me later." You may have seen the two competing memes that bear this out: "We'll make American great again for you too," or "Elect Bernie so those Trump supporters can get the mental health care they so desperately need."

It's one thing to say: we don't need to be right or to win, or, at the very least, in being right and winning, we don't need to demoralize, dehumanize, and destroy our opponents. That's true, but it just feels so icky to the American Spirit.

Well, it's time we recognize that it's this American Spirit that has broken America. It's not the wackos on the right or the wackos on the left (and they're all wackos to each other). We all embody this win-at-all-costs ethic. That's never going to change until we address the stark individualism that we inherited from the enlightenment.

The founds of the US were almost entirely influenced by French modernism, the triumph of the individual. Our political class might disagree about the extent to which individualism should be protected and catered to, but they all accept it as a core value - even our most popular democratic socialist. Everyone, almost to a person, sees the US as a collection of individuals. We've got it on two levels - we're a collection of individual states, each made up of individuals. This all sounds great in books or in speeches, but we've long seen, addressed, and quietly ignored the real problems this presents.*

We might be able to address that notion of everyone wins or no one does, but we can't do it with the individualism inherent in the modern American system. We can't see the whole as a collection of individuals, but an indivisible singularity (and we can't just see America this way; we sort of have to see all of existence this way). It's really the only answer.

I don't mean that we should forget individuality, but that we need to understand our individuality only exists as we participate in the whole. You can't actually separate any individual from the whole - at least outside of a philosophy textbook.

That's the reality. Our American Spirit leads us to deny this with every fiber of our being, but reality bears out the result of that stubbornness. We're looking it in the face right now, in every form and facet of government. I suppose it's not unique to America - it's the spirit seen in every empirical nation in history, the sense of superiority and dominance - but it's always been couched in selfishness, in focus on the individual - whether it was the individual monarch in years past of the individual everyman that rules modern democratic thought.

We've gotten what we deserve, but it doesn't have to be this way. The question is whether we're capable of doing the hard work it takes to change the very core of our being and thus the core of a nation.

*Look up "tyranny of the majority" sometime - it's far too off topic fort his post, but it presents one of those gray areas we've lived in since 1776 and just refuse to talk about.

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