Shining City in Ruins
Letter from a failing civilization.
Once upon a time, I so loved America.
Such an inspiring origin story. The pilgrims worshiped freely and dined cheerfully with the indigenous tribes. As a young nation, we defeated a tyrannical empire. We were guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press. We were given the unheard of absolute right to petition and peaceably protest the government.
We freed the slaves. We pursued our Manifest Destiny from coast to coast. We invented the cotton gin, light bulb, phonograph, television, assembly line, transistor, computer, internet and Hollywood. We pioneered manned flight, split the atom, eradicated polio, landed on the moon and unraveled the secrets of DNA.
We defeated fascism, built the land of opportunity and opened our doors to the world. In a classless society, we invented modern democracy. And, according to the cultural norms of our Protestant forebears, we work harder than anyone toward what we aspirationally call the American Dream. We have the largest economy and highest standard of living, little day-to-day corruption and an unshakable rule of law. We are the only superpower.
Plus SNICKERS bars, the joy buzzer and the Weber kettle grill. That’s us, too.
That litany I learned and internalized, beginning even before I entered kindergarten in 1960. As we stood by our indestructible oak and iron desks, pledging our allegiance to the flag, we knew we were special. We lived, did we not, in history's richest and most successful society, the cradle of liberty, the exceptional, shining city on a hill — or, as we were assured again and again, “the greatest country on Earth.”
As a kid, you’ll be shocked to learn, I was argumentative and skeptical, yet for the most part I bought in. Even in college, amid the convulsions of Vietnam and Watergate, I found myself defending the American project against all manner of criticism. On imperialism, I argued that the Cold War, and associated nuclear threat with an evil empire, forced our hand. On racism, I pointed to the end of Jim Crow, school segregation and redlining, and invoked affirmative action, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the swelling Black middle class. On militarism, I defended our role as policeman to the world, and cited a code of conduct that differentiates our armed forces from, say, the barbaric Russians. Even after My Lai our soldiers were prosecuted, weren’t they?
On quality of life, I said the physical and legal infrastructure is vast and dependable. You don’t have to bribe anyone to receive government services, or engage in similar casual graft. As for poverty, I noted that on our shores it is not typically of the grinding variety; our poor mostly have cable. And the government, in varying degrees of wisdom and competence, functions.
Of course, I understood that slavery, the Trail of Tears, the Robber Barons, Tuskegee, McCarthyism, Chile and Vietnam were not to be dismissed, so I used the phrase “on balance” a lot. In all good faith, I have made these arguments for 50 years. Not that American society was perfect. But that it was built to incrementally fulfill the bold promise of our founders toward life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
God, what a sucker I was.
Now — awash in theocratic authoritarianism, civil violence and planetary destruction — I realize how naive we were. After all, promises are made to be broken.
Sure, if you squint, society still works. We have electric power 24/7. The mail eventually shows up. The court system is more or less intact. But the hallowed nation we were told to revere has failed us fatally, as monied interests and ideologues methodically abused the tools of democracy to subvert it, making a mockery of the American promise.
A destroyed atmosphere. Grotesque wealth disparities. Entrenched racism. The drug-offense gulag archipelago. A Christian Taliban ruling half the states. The cult of the military. The bizarre and bloody obsession with guns. The embrace of bigotry and ignorance at the highest levels of government. A campaign finance system that has bought and paid for Congress. Unaffordable health care. Unaffordable child care. Unaffordable higher education. The wars in Iraq. The normalization and extraordinary success of the Big Lie, along with thousands of smaller ones.
All with 100 million of our countrymen cheering every step of the way — because why?
Because we are not exceptional at all. Turns out, like every society, we are vulnerable to ignorance, bigotry, superstition, propaganda, cult of personality, resentment, hatred, fear and just plain stupidity. A century ago, we watched in horror as the most scientifically advanced and cultured nation on earth was engulfed by Naziism. We said, “It can’t happen here.” Yes, it can. And we should have seen it coming because it was hiding in plain view. The Koch Brothers. The religious right. Fox News. Lobbyists. Sarah Palin. Clarence Thomas. Big Energy. Wall Street. Reaganism. They weren’t sneaking around. On the contrary, they made a religion of their hateful vision.
The culmination was the ascension of that sociopathic buffoon, Trump. When he emerged, we thought we were watching a reality TV show. No, it was a Twilight Zone marathon.
Some episodes, of course, sprang from the political left, where the simple principle of basic justice has been petrified into a rigid orthodoxy. With its speech codes and catechism of sanctimony, the righteous face of liberalism is now frozen in a perpetual sneer. It’s self-defeating. It’s exhausting.
And it’s the convergence of these unholy forces that has robbed me of so much: Trust. Pride. Gratitude. Faith. Hope. And even commitment. I survey the ruins of our founders’ vision , and realize — to my horror — that as our founding vision has blurred, so has my love for my country. “One nation, under God, indivisible and with justice for all.” Yeah, sure.
Maybe, on balance, the United States is still measurably more livable than the competition. (If you wish for an earful, just ask an immigrant who has prospered here — especially if they hail from an unstable society.) But here’s the thing about all those lesser societies, the ones with too much bureaucracy or too little freedom; the ones with corrupt presidents or inferior Wi-Fi; the ones with not enough economic sectors and an excess of organized crime:
They have never betrayed me. They have never reneged on a sacred promise. They have often left me disgusted; they have never left me ashamed.
So where does that leave me? Shall I flee, with all the sacrifice that comes with such a decision? Shall I continue to shout into the darkness? Shall I simply surrender? Over the past 20 years, my relationship with America has roughly followed the path described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. First denial, followed by anger. Next bargaining, and then depression.
In my grief over the death of the American Way, there remains but one more stage. Acceptance.
May that day never come.