I’m tired. No, not of 2020. I’m tired of hearing how America Sucks™. There’s a big difference between “hey, racism and the Declaration of Independence contradict each other” and “lawl why don’t you have high-speed rail like the rest of the boys?” There’s an even greater gulf between fundamental atrophy and the vagaries of policy performance metrics. Germany was the “sick man of Europe” not twenty years ago. Keep that in mind while reading this week’s articles on America’s demise.
This is not to say we don’t deserve the beating the virus is giving us: we do. We saw multiple competent national responses to pandemics in the previous administration. We know America’s government is capable of handling this scenario. No state-of-the-art engine can compensate for a poor driver, while a poor driver does not indict the engine. However, it’s also true that America’s civic institutions have atrophied since I was a kid, that it’s high time we updated them. Many of its features, like the Electoral College and the Senate, are either vestigial or questionable, and you’ll hear no objection from me in dispensing with the cult of the Founding Founders. But none of the agony and soul-searching on display today is remarkable; it is merely an extension of the American story.
This rending of our own garments is no peculiar deficiency, any more than European cities, walkable since medieval times, are a unique virtue. America is struggling and lagging because it is at war with itself, split by a fundamental disagreement on where we are in relation to the words “more perfect” in our Preamble. One part thinks we’re still very far away; the other, despite all the evidence, thinks we’ve shot past the mark and are undoing an existent perfection. As recent events have sharply highlighted, across the slate of issues that continue to dog the nation—housing, healthcare, infrastructure, labor rights—the single header is the continuing stain of racism: America for some, not for all. The consequent victimhood does not strictly respect the lines of color or class, like a good little bully, but its skew is undeniable. We know where those tendrils lead back. And do not think, ancient lands, that your calm in this matter will last. The world changes, and what was once certain swiftly seems unsure. You who stand in judgment should have learned that lesson by now.
America is exceptional as a pioneer in this undesired but necessary war, not as a saint. You’ve been looking for its virtue in the wrong place. There are no post-racial paradises among the nations, merely better-cordoned bigotries than we see Stateside. The shadows and struggles that you see here are real, cast by the harsh light of ideals meeting the sharp crags of circumstance. The same bigotries remain to be fought worldwide; they are simply subtler in their visibility through dimmer ideals or softer situations.
Make no mistake: the old ideas of race and ethnicity have not depreciated. In Europe (to say nothing of China), ethnic minorities remain largely infinitesimal and disempowered, eclipsed by junior political parties, yet any slightest waxing has sprouted new weeds of hatred across its plains. Your discomfort over Syria speaks for itself. The Balkans are still littered with blood-stained wrecks of buildings from a war between people outsiders couldn’t tell apart if they tried. More finally, the baseline ethnic mixture of the Continent remains unchallenged. Gazing beyond, it wouldn’t be outrageous to claim that the average state on Earth remains an ethnostate, however polite and civil.
Europe has never had to face true demographic change. It kept its plantations on distant shores, took the extracted capital home, then washed its hands of them when the scheme blew up, ritualistically cleaving itself away from its bastard colonial children. The solution, though, remained the ethnostate. The Jews had to be sent away; who could trust a goyish scepter any longer? And now the very children of the Shoah repeat that refrain, a proper scepter in hand, its temptations no less cloying for the chosen, the baptized, the righteous. Evil is a fruit, and life finds a way.
In your eyes, though, we committed a stupid error, a paragon of American naivete. Our plantations became our houses. We brought our slaves home. We took the strangers in and made poetry of it. We made them all our neighbors. Now here they stand, asking us if we meant those verses. Alas, yes. America has always been an idealistic trailblazer, earnest enough to etch its founding principles everywhere without shame, confident in the strength and virtue of having them, of striving for them, regardless of how we measure up. More “mature,” “serious” nation-states, of course, know the deeper “truth”: statecraft is a circus of War-By-Other-Means, wielding power against power for the sake of power. Do note that everyone else pays lip service to freedom and equality, too. Russia’s constitution declares itself an explicitly secular state with a free and fair press. China claims it’s communist and very concerned about the plight of its workers who slave to build our iPhones. France shouts its beloved troika while asking immigrants to go back to Africa. Italy hunts for refugee boats in broad daylight. The shadow of the past dogs our heels in the present.
A quintessentially European shadow, if you’ll row past the rapids of memory. We tend to downplay how late “democracy” and the “rule of law”— political accountability and popular, peaceful transfer of power —came to the Continent. It was not the norm in 1914. Spain finally unshackled from post-fascist authoritarianism in times my parents well remember and at which their generation marveled. We Americans were not the first experiment in democracy, republics, constitutions, or parliaments. We were the first modern state of heft to make those things its explicit foundation and purpose: to actually mean what it said on some level. The idealism was the point, and it has grown in our time from seeds of red, white, and blue. That idealism sparked the curiosity of many monarchies and despotates in 1776, then their dread upon the fall of the House of Bourbon in 1793, then, late in the game, glee in 1861 when American idealism neared the brink of destruction. Now those realms are gone, and we are still here.
Such transatlantic comparisons found a home here as well. The Mexican-American War, among other sins, was agitated via comparisons to European peers: we were already very close to perfect, but lacked strength, which of course meant imperialism, colonialism, mercantilism, ie., the metrics familiar to them. Treaties, promises, or principles be damned. Contemporaries recognized this for what it was. So said Grant himself:
I was bitterly opposed to the measure [to annex Texas], and to this day regard the war [with Mexico] which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.
I can’t help but see the parallels when we and others wring our hands over America’s “deficiencies”. I admit that Europe at the moment exceeds us in the core competencies of governance, but with the qualification that said competence lies in territory America carved out. Building better cities for your citizens is a rather easy task; expanding the idea of who your citizens are and what you owe them is not. When American conservatives remind American liberals that the Nordic countries are small and homogeneous, they have a point, though one that tells on themselves more than they’d like. Denmark works so well because, well, it’s mostly Danes. They’ve not moved past the old idea of what that is; they’re just lucky that almost all its citizens already fit.
We instinctively hold America to its stated ideals because we know it believes them. It isn’t Fake™. If it were, we would smile knowingly and pass in cynicism, as we do when someone like Vladimir Putin proclaims his commitment to freedom and democracy. We’re jealous for American sincerity, sensing its rareness and fragility, ever imperiled by the familiar and exhausting instincts of cynicism and pragmatism, which have little to offer us in this brave new world. We need a rugged, intrepid tamer of wild frontiers, not another scheming player in another round of the Great Game. This is hard to see, understandably, in light of recent memory. We remember 9/11 and afterwards, when we lashed out with no one to stop us. The consequences of unchecked American pride are acute, whereas Russia and China have been quiet and well-behaved, so it seems. We live in an American world, and we’re tired of America’s bullshit.
But if America isn’t exceptional, no one is, and we should all just do whatever the hell we want, right? Genocide the Uigurs? Fine, go ahead. Nobody really believes in human rights anyway, amirite? It’s all fake, a trick, a gimmick. What about the Trail of Tears and Iraq? You’re lying to get ahead, just like us. This is the real prize for autocrats and why Trump excites them: he might, at last, defang America, permanently denude appeals to morality and principles, shorten the reach of higher ideas in the geopolitical colosseum, dragging us back toward the good old days when cynicism ruled and you could just buy or cajole anyone.
We have many tasks before us, some graver than others, but I’m not so sanguine that even addressing climate change is worth accepting a resurgence in ethnonationalism. If or when we find climate change behind us, bigotry will be waiting. Not lightly should we throw bones to it so it doesn’t bother us for a while. We in America wrestle with an enemy that waits for you on this dark frontier. You wonder, puzzled, why we’re thrashing against nothing. “Why don’t you have universal healthcare yet?” But you, Europe, marched for Floyd. Why did your young souls come out and shout the same words? Why did they topple your statues that lionized slaveholders and conquerors, saints of the empires you’ve swept under the rug? Though you had no Confederacy, its cousins are found among your ranks.
Sooner or later, we must agree that there are no other races among the single one we are, or not. We must decide whether we truly believe in the worth of aspirations; whether perfection is worth imperfection; whether ideals mean something beyond points on a scoreboard of tactical influence. The climate will punish us and our children for our transgressions against it, but we know no divine hand reaches out to strike us for cruelty towards our brethren. We slouch toward pragmatism because it’s easier: it enforces itself. Principles don’t. As the human spirit is inexhaustible, so is the pain it can bear and the energy that it can be made to produce. There will always be weaker siblings to exploit, always excuses of circumstance to justify it, and always enough profit to make it worth the while. This will lure us until we grind the lesson into our bones. That will not be done through policy, on a platform of walkable streets and single-payer. It will be done through caring and believing.
I’m tired of hearing otherwise, and so are you. America doesn’t suck. It needs work, work that’s well within our power. We’ve survived much worse. We can fix all of this. We can make America much more perfect and help the world while doing it. What saps our energy so is this self-destructive standard of all or nothing. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. It’s better to brush your teeth for thirty seconds than not at all. That personal revelation is both liberating and invigorating. The same we can say for our deeper beliefs. We see now how desperately and deeply America wants to be pulled towards those. Our failures so far are but more cause to advance.
I’m tired of this worthless despair, of pretending to watch things fall apart. That’s how things fall apart. We’ve shown we have the spirit and desire to slay these gorging parasites. What’s left is the will. Boundless energy is on the other side, even more when they are dead. Succumb, and our reward will be more exhaustion. A giant we yet remain, free to choose. Choose wisely.