Politics & News
Identity and the Future of America

By Christopher Holshek

The following is extracted from Travels with Harley – Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity

Americans are more worried and anxious about the future than ever. Sure, every generation seems to think, for one reason or another, that the place is going to hell in a hand basket. This time, it appears to be a unique convergence of a number of things.

America is in decline because it’s broke, because Washington is dysfunctional and corrupt, and because it’s drawing back from a world it no longer can or wants to lead. Or maybe it’s because Americans are obese, lazy, addicted to sugar and prescription drugs, reality TV, social media, and the sound of their own voices. We are ignorant and ill-educated, and we don’t read. Or maybe it is because we are gun-crazy and violent, narcissistic, misogynistic, puritanical, hyped up on religiosity, and turning against science, math, art, and history. The American Dream is dead because today’s children will be the first who must expect to have less rather than more than their parents had.

Given all that, it’s a wonder how we became the country we are.

This time, however, Americans sense the country is in real and not just relative decline. Their way of life is changing for the worse, and there’s very little they can do about it–national insecurity. We are a nation unhinged by a midlife crisis, coming to grips with profound national and global changes. Frontiers have become limitations.

But America’s relative decline should be no surprise, really, considering our psychological point of reference. In 1945, we dominated as no other nation had in history. No wonder that era is thought of so nostalgically. Yet, when the Berlin came down in 1989, we failed to see we needed another national conversation about who we are and what we’re about as a changing nation in a changing world. So we muddled along, searching for the next big idea to help us figure it all out. Because the United States was the sole superpower, we had no sense of urgency about that collective dialogue, though things were changing more rapidly than we realized. That’s because in good part we were too busy being triumphant, convinced that the way we did things was universally good whereas the way others did was not.

A status quo power is more conservative and risk-averse. Real reform is nearly impossible because too many people who profit from the system have too much of a stake in things as they are. Meanwhile, the rest have decided it’s more comfortable and gratifying to be consumers than citizens–just give me a tax cut and go away until I need you again. So we dumbed ourselves down. Our attention spans shrunk with our mental bandwidth.

The world has been changing in ways in which our national business model has been increasingly ineffective. In most areas of national competitiveness, we’ve been losing ground. We’re living more on a legacy and less on a promise.

America has globalized just about everything but itself. The world we largely created is now closing in on us, and we don’t like it very much–it means we have to change our profligate ways, get out of our comfort zones, get in the global sandbox and play nice with the others, and compete and collaborate according to rules that suit others and not just us. The latest seismic signs of this megachange are 9/11 and the Great Recession–the end of our splendid insularity along with our dominance. These signals will keep coming in installments. The more we ignore them or fail to understand them, like climate change, the more extreme they will become.

Our self-inflicted problems will continue until the fundamental power relationships somehow shift back toward greater inclusion and moderation–socially, economically, and politically. The bad news is that it will probably get worse before it gets better. The good news is that our fate is still very much in our own hands–but not for much longer. The more our political bipolar disorder goes on, the more it costs us irrevocably, and the fewer and worse our collective options become. Our irresponsible political behavior is accelerating national decline faster than anything else. We have met the enemy and he is us.

Standing most in the way of America’s future is its paralyzing angst. Nothing embodies this more than our obsession with terrorism. Even though America is as safe and secure as it has ever been, the fear factor seems to drive everything. We still see the world predominantly in terms of threats, persistently pursuing a highly costly strategy of global dominance and intervening because we think we have monsters to destroy. The more we respond to the world out of fear, the more imperious and domineering, even arrogant, we become. That generates exactly what our enemies look for, and it makes their propaganda all the more effective. Arrogance, after all, is a substitute for the confidence of humility, and fear is fed by ignorance.

America cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave. When the world sees the large gap between what we say and what we do, and because fear overrules hope, then we are minding our weaknesses rather than playing our strengths. Team America is playing not to lose, and playing not to lose is a strategy for losers. Name me one championship team that has won that way.

The other problem with all this pervasive negativism is that it generates an unwillingness to face the frontiers of change, to step outside our comfort zones and reach out to the other side of the aisle, let alone the other side of the ocean, in a real sense of human connectivity.

The larger point is that most of our sense of decline is an emotional response to something we perceive, rightly or wrongly. There’s plenty of evidence that we’re going under, but this is …read more

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