11 July, 2012

Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy

I find it a bit difficult to accept that the greatest time to be American was in essentially any point in its history, although it seems a culturally popular idea that America has degraded from a perfect vision. Such attitudes are not uniquely American – British and Russian psyches seem in an endless arms race to be the most curmudgeonly nostalgic about an idealised and fictional past, irrespective of which period we're talking about – but in America's case in particular they seem to have gained immense political currency in recent years which has had a dramatic impact on public discourse and policy. My view of things is more or less this.

And yet they – really anyone in the Anglo first world - live in a period of history with higher literacy and numeracy than ever before, exceptionally longer life expectancy, better and more widespread access to information and telecommunications, more freedoms from government and robber baron tyranny – with well established environmental and labour regulations for instance - shorter less severe and less frequent recessions and depressions, better access to nutritional information and fresh varied foods, greater access to financial and legal services, better hygiene and far more leisure time than ever before, and the lowest reported property and violent crime rates in over 30 years. Even what it means to be poverty stricken has improved significantly in recent decades with most poor and unemployed people having access to clean, sanitary drinking water, decent housing with electricity and running water, and access to healthcare and education...sort of...even in America, compared to third world nations and its own history.

Over the past 60 years wars globally have decreased significantly in number, causing fewer direct and indirect deaths, spreading less disease, making fewer people homeless, and creating fewer refugees globally; democracy has taken root in more than double the number of countries that existed in the 40s, and we look set to see even more flourish, trade with each other, refuse to go to war with each other and establish stable, secure nations in their respective long terms.

The people of every nation tend to believe their wars have been moral ones, and with the advent of democracy conflicts are invariably argued in such terms. Even wars where demonstrable untruths formed the casus belli – such as, obviously, in Iraq – they nonetheless were couched in arguments which appealed to the sense of decency of the populace: Saddam was a mass murderer who killed his own people, generated regional instability and hosted or sponsored terrorists, and he was gearing up fictional development of WoMD programmes which could target the allies of western nations, if not those nations themselves, legally and morally generating a proportionate response. And yet, in modern warfare, as in historical warfare, the decision to go to war and the capacity to pursue it effectively involves numerous key individuals throughout the structure of government, in advisory positions, in the media, in the intelligence community, in powerful lobbyist and industrial positions, and so forth, and all of these will have perhaps even contradictory interests in whether a conflict goes forward. In the US, historically, one could say that wars have been pursued out of a belief of manifest destiny – as in the march west across North America and the various horrors inflicted against the aboriginal peoples encountered, although the truth also involves numerous key private financial, racial, power and economic issues embedded within in addition to overt government policy. Or imperialist land grabbing, as in the acquisition of various islands during the wars with Spain. Or a belief in democracy, loyalty to one's allies and opposition to communism, as in Vietnam and Korea; although, again, the truth also involves dueling spheres of influence, clashes in the name of both personal and national credibility, intra-government deception, confusion and misunderstandings ranging from the fictional cold war missile gap to the cock up and subsequent cover up of the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, and they rather condescendingly tried to persuade you that they were installing a brutal dictator in Vietnam in the name of democracy. While all wars in a relatively open nation are ostensibly conducted out of contemporary moral concerns, lest one's power be stripped through the voting booth or some other check on government power, I am unsure how we are supposed to parse which period is supposedly morally superior when it comes to extra-legally killing other people; very few are not awash in self interest or amusing evil or lies or mistakes. Even the greatest generation only garnered the resolve to enter a war against an obviously immoral warmongering foe after being attacked by its allies at Pearl Harbor. This is a long winded way of suggesting that war is a bit shit. I suspect that suggesting there was ever a period where they were consistently moral is to be a bit absurd and naive.

And we, and even they, for all of their complaints about socialism, are freer now than at any point in history. Those central rights that most of us consider quintessentially American, that are so thoroughly ingrained in her culture that it is unthinkable to even talk about reversing them, that are valued so dearly and so deservedly by Americans, did not even exist through much of the past two hundred years. Like Britain, and many other western nations, America could not meaningfully be held to be a democracy until the 20th century.

For Americans throughout much of the past two hundred years, the restrictions of the bill of rights did not apply to the State governments unless their own constitutions specifically protected those rights, and many did not. Individual States could and did have established churches. At its time of writing the first amendment specifically only protected political speech, and until incorporation and a series of court battles that only ended about 40 years ago, only prevented Congress from limiting it. Plays, books, films and other forms of expression were censored, outright banned by states and cities because of sexual content, bad language, because they glorified or even depicted gambling and drinking and other vices. All of these forms of expression are now protected from such censorship by an incorporated first amendment. A suspicion that one was sympathetic to communists or communism was, for generations, grounds for persecution, a loss of livelihood, for being shunned, having one's privacy invaded by the FBI or others, or to face prosecution or vexatious litigation.

Up until about a century and a half ago people were owned by other people in America, were kidnapped from their homes and transported to toil for the profit of others, were flogged and frequently unprotected by the law; indeed, the law and founding constitution of America protected the property rights of the men and women who did this to their fellow people, and designedly so. Up until the past half a century, black people have been prevented from sharing equally in the public life, the education, the healthcare, the public transportation and facilities of white people; until the 50s, many states prohibited a black person from marrying a white person.

In various periods of America's history, the last ending about 40 years ago, America mass-conscripted its able bodied men and forced them to go to war irrespective of their individual will or desire to fight, their willingness to join the army or their personal beliefs about the morality of the military action.

Throughout most of America's history, and indeed all of these limitations have only been legally nationally reversed over the course of the past two centuries, almost none of her citizenry could vote. States would prevent people from voting unless they held real estate, states would prevent people from voting if they were not men, states would prevent people from voting because they were black or had been slaves, states would prevent people from voting because they were illiterate (although this usually is merely a restatement of prohibiting blacks from voting). The vast majority of people in America through her history had no voice in politics, had no right to vote, surely the most basic civil and political right of all. With the vast bulk of her population lacking the right to vote for most of her history, how could any reasonable person suggest her system of governance was in any way a representative republic? These rights were hard fought for and required a series of constitutional amendments; one evidently necessitated an immense civil war, ending in hundreds of thousands of American dead.

Also, native Americans.

Which is not to say that there are no attacks on civil rights or that the gradual development of civil rights throughout this period is all meaningless. It is to say that those attacks on civil rights pale in comparison to most of the world's, including America's, dark and terrible history. We need to contextualise and understand decisions which contrast e.g. security and civil rights honestly, appropriately, and openly so the debate on how to move forward and its results can be the best that they can be. It turns out some of the decisions we've made – and Americans have made - in the past two hundred years have actually pushed us all in a very good direction indeed. While I am not suggesting that there are no problems in the world in general or the US in particular or that the drive to fix them isn't why the modern world is so brilliant, I am pointing out that the modern world is brilliant, irrespective of our recent financial woes, which have been seen as such a massive problem only because we've had it so damn good for so damn long. One's sense of perspective needs to not be exactly wrong when we look at what needs fixing. Whereas our history is an elegant guide to how awful we can be and our capacity for error and ignorance, we currently inhabit a world with numerous different solutions to different problems, some of them clearly better than others. To cast a glance at the excellence of the Scandinavian financial sector, Canadian banking, Australia's venomous fauna or French healthcare, and then, after pausing for dramatic effect, ramble about how great the US used to be back when mass unemployment was a fact of life, depressions occurred every generation and people died from gangrene because they were too poor to afford a guy with a saw is to rather miss the point of reality.

Otherwise, the video is pretty bang on.

-The Rev. Schmitt., FCD.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Great post, would read again. A++++++