Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"There Is No Life Without Satisfaction"

The United States still has formidable strengths. Its economy will eventually recover. Its military has a global presence and a technological edge that no other country can yet match. But America will never again experience the global dominance it enjoyed in the 17 years between the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 and the financial crisis of 2008. Those days are over. - Gideon Rachman, "Think Again: American Decline; This Time It's For Real", Foreign Policy,  January/February, 2011
 Is America's role as a global leader over, given inevitable decline at home? Americans are running up a $1.6 trillion budget deficit this year. The use of food stamps and unemployment benefits remains at record levels. In the last two years, unemployment rarely has dipped below 9 percent. The housing market is moribund. Gasoline is at a nationwide average of $4 a gallon. Our aggregate debt exceeds $14 trillion, up $5 trillion alone since 2009. Medicare and Social Security will soon be insolvent at the current rates of disbursement. States like California, Illinois, Michigan, and New York are almost insolvent.
These depressing indicators—coupled with the rise of a confident 1 billion person India and China—have convinced the Obama administration that America is neither ‘exceptional’ nor able to assert its accustomed preeminent leadership. Decline, not American ascendance, is the administration’s buzzword, a pathology shared with the imploding welfare state of the European Union that can no longer afford the redistribution of wealth to its Mediterranean members. - Victor Davis Hanson, "America In Decline?", Defining Ideas, June 16, 2011
I shall go with the rest,
We cannot be stopped at a given point . . . . that is no satisfaction;
To show us a good thing or a few good things for a space of time - that is no satisfaction;
We must have the indestructible breed of the best, regardless of time.
If otherwise, all these things came but to ashes of dung;
If maggots and rats ended us, then suspicion and treachery and death.
 - Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
 It is the silent question we dare not whisper too loudly or often: Is America in decline?  Are we, like all the great nations and Empires of the past, sliding down ensuing days, destined not only no longer to be a superpower, but perhaps to surrender that vague but persistent hope that our time is only a prelude to better times ahead?  Does the current economic crisis, its stubbornness, its world-wide impact, mean more than just another slump that shall, as these things do, end?  Might it be it presages the end of was called, with a sense both of boosterism and not undo hauteur, The American Century?

We are a people besieged by cares and fears.  We cannot ignore the reality of bad times.  We wonder if there will be an end.  We hear battling reassurances, conflicting remedies are offered, contradictory signs are held aloft either that we might be crawling up from where we have been or we may yet fall even further in to the pit.  Some say the solutions are easy yet not one is doing them.  Others say the solutions are difficult and require sacrifices.  Still others insist the system is rigged, and therefore must collapse.  Then, of course, we are told if we only allow things to remain as they are, repress the urge to tinker, things will get better because they do.

In all this, no one consoles us they, too, have gazed in to the abyss.  No one has told us that things, indeed, are bad; that things might well grow worse; that some of what we are experiencing lies within our ability to control while some does not.  There have been no voices that have consoled those so broken they have surrendered.

Most of all, there has not been a single speech that challenged us, telling us that even in the midst of tough times and tough choices, we may yet move forward as long as we are clear toward what we wish to move.  The platitudinous appeals to "American exceptionalism", the ridiculous reassurances without the demand not for sacrifice but for work and effort and a common striving toward a specific goal: these are the pabulum served to us by callow, terrified politicians of all parties, so frightened of the reality in which we find ourselves, they cannot give us the one things we might need.

The sad fact that things are bad.  The sad fact that there is no "answer" or "solution".  The promise that all of us, together, can make our way out of the thickets and brambles of economic desuetude* only if we do so together.  The promise that, no matter how hard it may be, we can do it precisely because it is difficult.  More than any program or policy or ideology, what the American people need is a reminder that our greatness doesn't lie in wealth or commercial cunning or military power or diplomatic finesse.  We need to remember it is just we, the people, who make America; for precisely this reason, we are a great people.  In all our differences lie our strength.  In our continental span, we find our neighbors.

We have forgotten the singular lesson of Whitman's vision of America: That we are is enough.  Who we are is a glimmer of the divine.  In what is thought of as the banal and everyday lie the source of our greatness.  For all our faults and failings, for all our crimes and misdemeanors, for all that will still plague us once these times are a distant memory, we Americans have forgotten that we, together in all our marvelous diversity and difference, are already great and powerful.  We can, indeed, rise to the challenge of the times, not at all in need of someone to lead us there.  All we need is the reassurance that what has always been the case is still the case.

*I've always wanted to use that word.

Virtual Tin Cup

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