Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The American State of Mind

Pondering the notion that Americans might actually elect John McCain led me to wonder if we are the stupidest and most uninformed people on earth, or the most gullible and easily deceived, or all the above. A case can be made.

If being stupid is repeating the same catastrophic actions over and over while hoping for some outcome besides disaster, then to my mind we indicted ourselves in 2004. If we do it again, there's no point saying "God help us." We're past help, too stupid to splash around in the gene pool.

Lots of us have agonized about how low we have sunk since George Washington was first sworn in, and why. Back then we really were "the land of the free and the home of the brave." Despite our shortcomings, back then we had a magnificent collective vision and were willing to die to achieve it.

We had just come from tyranny. That is why we hadn’t yet forgotten that, although liberty resides in the soul as our human birthright, it can’t be actualized or preserved without first understanding what it is and that it is worth any price.

This is the "freedom" state of mind. It is, ultimately, a self-fulfilling attitude. Without it, freedom and liberty just don’t happen. That's what worries me.

You know, it’s been almost 400 years since those English colonists fled the tyranny of religious and political repression to create a free society. Whatever the shortcomings then and since, they and our later forebears had a clear vision and set out to accomplish it.

Since then, however, we seem to have forgotten the meaning of being without freedom, or else we’d never have consented to being ruled again by a tyrant.

But we have consented. What do I mean? A tyrant is above the law, unitary, aloof, arrogant, and unaccountable. That is precisely the stated perspective of this administration, and its vision for us of serfdom, intimidation, disenfranchisement, and perpetual surveillance is being realized as we speak--above all through defiance of the Constitution. Everything—-wiretaps, torture, contempt for Congress, politicization of the Justice Department, cruel capitalization on tragedy, stolen elections, pirated Treasury, rigged voting machines, stolen archives, trashed economy, and planted "news"-—stems from this fact. Despite swearing an oath on the Bible to protect and defend the Constitution, this Jesus-lovin' President perjured himself. He thinks the Constitution is just a piece of paper. He disdains it, ignores it at will.

And what of us? Rather than take George W. Bush's lies and assaults on our liberty seriously enough to defend ourselves and our birthright, we've bowed and stooped, stammered and excused, enabled, and folded. We are as responsible for this disaster as he is. If we lose that magnificent vision and all that has been achieved before, our children can rightly blame us all: you and me.

Why? Because, no, actually we are not brave. All our founding myths and folktales notwithstanding, we have shown that we can be manipulated so easily that even an obvious lie will cause us to approve really appalling things out of sheer terror. That's weak. That's really despicably weak.

We’ve several times now proved our abject cowardice by caving to mere rumors of war and warnings of catastrophe. I have in mind why we occupied Iraq, are terrorizing undocumented Mexican laborers, are excusing torture, are permitting a surveillance culture, abandoned New Orleans, allowed Bush to steal our treasury and rape our land; why we are, again, relinquishing our right to universal health care, why we are refusing to impeach this war-criminal and treasonous administration. Treasonous? What else do you call it when the Constitution is trashed, the commonwealth stolen, and the Congress and the people are treated with contempt? What else when our generals conspire to deceive us so that they'll get Pentagon consulting contracts?

We're the shiftless, blissful agents of our own demise. All that anyone with a blog or a microphone has to say these days is that we’ll suffer dire consequences if we don’t do as we’re told and do it now. And then we do.

That makes us puking cowards. It makes us ignorant, puking cowards. We can be stampeded by lies and rumors because we're uninformed, and worse still, we cherish our ignorance. We're so proud of it, in fact, that we even ridicule education as "elitist." We're so stupid that we even ridicule education itself as "elitist," when, as anybody with two brain cells to rub together knows, manipulation is elitist and education its only antidote.

We’re probably the only culture in history that has not cherished learning for its own sake and expected (at least) its (male) youth to attain certain standards of knowledge as a condition of self worth, if not of success and cultural preservation.

But bravery, like liberty, is a state of mind. Follow me here. Bravery begins in the centeredness of soul that recognizes its own and its neighbor's worth. That is why a brave person can't easily be deceived or intimidated. When courage stems from self respect—that is, when it stems from having the strength to draw the line from the utter conviction that we're worth defending in the first place—-then brave people just do not accept being manipulated, lied to, and toyed with. Those things fly in the face of self respect.

So. When you come right down to it, the fact is that liberty, freedom, bravery, and courage all stem from understanding what's really valuable in life, and from the wisdom to act accordingly.

The genuinely courageous, and the authentically liberated therefore understand that Truth is as essential to self respect as it is to national security, and that self respect, therefore, is one of life’s greatest values. That is why brave people do whatever is necessary to encourage freedom of speech and ensure a vigilant, skeptical, honest, probing, and free press, whereas cowardly people try to silence it.

We can’t both be brave and fear the truth or fail to understand that Truth is most likely found in the clash of opposing convictions.

Alas, we can tell what we are by the state of reportage and debate in this country today. Our patron saints are Rush Limbaugh and the Militiamen, Ann Coulter and Bay Buchanan. Our brilliant analysts the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Howie Kurtz, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews. God Almighty. What they want, above all, is to control our thinking and stampede us into violent, racist, and xenophobic frenzies. Is that really what we want? Is that really what we think is in our best longterm interest? Have we learned nothing from the last 100 years?

Well, as my mother used to say, you can tell if God resides in an action by its consequences.

Anyway, maybe our susceptibility to the grossest manipulation and to institutionalized deception is a symptom. Maybe it indicates precisely that we've lost our self respect somewhere along the way.

Perhaps it was when we Americans chose to value flash over quality--around about the mid-1950s, I guess, when fins defined The Car. Perhaps it was when we decided to value profits over the people who achieve them, about the time Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers union. (The dues are coming now.) Maybe it was when we stopped teaching our kids that it isn’t winning; it really is whether you play the game with integrity. Maybe we lost that when Little League dads started cursing umpires instead of teaching their kids a better ball game. Maybe it was when we decided to equate dignity with celebrity and character with wealth. That gave us the Reign of the junk bond king and Britney Nation. Or maybe it was when we started building our mansions of particle board and Scotch tape, and our fortunes on Ponzi schemes, and our self esteem on designer jeans.

Maybe we Americans can be manipulated to accept deception in exact proportion to the extent that we ourselves have come to value appearance much more than we value reality. Think about that.

We love cheap thrills to the point that our kids can’t tell the difference between Yellowstone and Disneyland. We live our lives in fantasy worlds of cyberspace and television to the extent that reality either bores or offends us. How else explain cosmetic surgery and foregoing regular actual water for overpriced stuff that comes in a bottle? We flash our neighbors with a "prosperity" made of credit cards, interest-only mortgages, and Lease-a-Beemer. We reckon that a day at Wal-Mart or Saks or Neiman’s is a day of life in the Real World, laugh at environmentalists, and tell our kids they’re marvelous even if they’re despicable, cretinous little snots.

In this America we’ve made, of faux achievement, faux culture, and faux substance, we might as well be faux heroes and faux patriots, too.

Anything better would be wasted.