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Why I'm here (this blog's raison d'etre) - Part I (of II)

Is the United States in terminal decline, or is the American Republic so durable and its institutions so well-created that nothing can undo it? If the answer is the latter, this blog will have a short existence. As soon as I get a little more evidence for it, I will close up shop and occupy my time some other way. If it's the former, it's about time "We The People" did something about it.

On the face of it, this is a question for historians, who, by virtue of their training, can (or ought to be able to) see long-term trends. Much of what we experience today, after all, has been seen before. That's why George Santayana remarked, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This is a point lost in our 24/7 media frenzy, whose purveyors promote the novelty and urgency of the most minute and trivial of events as though it's all new and of the greatest import.

I will say more about this at some future point. For now, a lot of people (or at least most of the people I talk to) are concerned about the direction our country is taking. It is my aim, therefore, in my own humble way, to offer some thoughts on how we can right the ship. Perhaps you will join me.

Since this is an introductory essay, I can only make a few, general observations. First and foremost, I believe we have lost sight of our civility and our basic civic values. We think that our neighbors aren't very smart and they're lousy parents. That was the gist of an op-ed, written by Catherine Rampell for The Washington Post at the end of 2015. The author cited studies from the Pew Research Center and the American Family Survey to show that, whereas Americans think very highly of themselves, they also have little faith in the people that live next door or down the street from them. All those folks are lazy, have unhappy marriages, and can't control their children. Everyone around me is stupid, but I'm always right and I always have the right answers. Put like that, it sounds pretty obnoxious, doesn't it? So why do we indulge in it?

We'll talk more about that, too, although I'm not a big fan of endeavoring to get at the root causes of things. I will leave that to the experts, although the reader should feel confident that whatever I say here will have some basis in credible and citable research. Otherwise, it seems to me that, these days, the "blame game" is a convenient way to point the finger at the other guy, while absolving one's self of any part in the mess.

Our current national malaise is shameful. We have the enormous privilege of living in a free society, a Republic of free individuals who have an impressive array of rights. People forget that or take it for granted. Allow me to point out that a good portion of the world does not have it so good. In fact, most of the people living in recorded history did not have it so good. In most places at most times, the vast majority of the population lived in squalor, hopelessness, and destitution under the thumb of a few chosen or appointed elites. The talents of the vast majority were dismissed, ignored, or never developed. The established political or social order kept folks down like so much cattle.

We don't need that here. Moreover, we don't deserve it. The sorriest part of our current social climate is that our lack of civility is so out of character with who we are as Americans. No one can deny that our history as a people includes prominent and ugly strains of racism, injustice, and bigotry. Yet we have also integrated generations upon generations of immigrants into the American melting pot. Many of these immigrants--Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Madeleine Albright, and Martina Navratilova, to name just a few--have made great contributions to our politics, society, and culture. According to recent research, we are the most philanthropic people on earth, outgiving the British and Canadians two-to-one and other countries at a much higher rate. This is a long-standing tradition for the people of the United States. From organizing relief for starving children in Belgium during World War I to rescuing the Vietnamese boat people, America has given of its resources and its people much more than the rest of the world combined.

However we got to where we are now, it’s time to turn in a different direction, back toward civility, back toward solving problems together as free citizens in which “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” means something. The American people are better than an angry mob. Together, let’s start acting like it.

Next time, I will establish a couple of rules for posting here. I welcome open discussion and since I don't have all the right answers, I would like to hear what you think, too. Maybe we're the ones that can stem the decline (assuming there is one).

As a final note for today, George Santayana was known by this name to the English-speaking world. The given name of the philosopher, born in Madrid in 1863, was Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, which is way cooler.

NB: Sections of this blog post are excerpted from my op-ed, "Putting the 'civil' back in American civic life," which appeared in the Alexandria Gazette of 4 November 2016.

Comments

  1. Indeed, we face many problems that go a little deeper and have been growing, like an infection, for longer than we care to acknowledge and have been putting our heads in the sand hoping it will just fix itself, depending on an individual's point of view as to what needs to be fixed, and now we have reached a pretty contentious period that nobody wants. Well, maybe some people want exactly this, but I digress. I believe very strongly that simply being civil and polite are the cornerstone of the foundation of our healing process, or should I say, becoming more tolerant of views we may not agree with.
    On my own FB posts, when they take a political bent, I have several strict rules which are enforced and the respondents know I stick to them. #1 No swearing of ANY kind. #2 Absolutely no name calling or condescending, demeaning lol's #3 ALL politicians are to be addressed by their proper title. I can't control what other people think or say (nor would I) but I CAN control how I express myself and treat other people, and what i will allow on my posts, which are free to be commented on by anyone, providing they follow the simple rules. There are many deep and profound thoughts and quotations that have come down through the centuries. But the one I like best I can use every day-- The Golden Rule.
    I don't believe our nation is irreversibly doomed, but much needs to be done and the best way to start is one person at a time. As Eric Clapton, and others, have sung- "'fore you 'cuse me, take a look at yourself."

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  2. I'm Kate from Sugar Land, Texas. I enjoyed this post and look forward to more of its kind - it's certainly refreshing to be a part of a civil dialogue as I think we can all agree that we're tired of the bickering and name calling. I appreciate the historical perspective as well,
    and while reading it brought to mind one of my favorite quotes (CS Lewis):
    "If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it's pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We're on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on."
    I love the hunility involved in admitting we're on the wrong course and making the decision to do an about-face.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I tried to discover when Mr. Lewis, a prolific British author who wrote exceptionally well on a wide variety of topics, from Christianity to children's literature, penned this quotation, but I didn't try too hard. Since he passed away in 1963, however, it just goes to show that our ability to right the ship has been a bit lacking. Maybe we can change that.

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