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« Teaching Company | Main | Politics, Philosophy and Parents »

January 13, 2005

Biggest Fear

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I found myself wondering just now what my biggest fear for America is.

I think I've concluded that my biggest fear for America is that we've so over-devoted ourselves to the religion of multiculturalism that we'll never again be able to publically take on perfectly-necessary questions about what "we as a nation" want. After all, what with multiculturalism, there no longer is a "we as a nation." We're just a big, open welfare state, the more multicolored the better (that's the left's version). Or else we're just a big open marketplace where everyone's welcome so long as he/she can get in (that's the right's version). In the midst of that, what's become of America? If she doesn't exist as a nation, how can she have any preferences about her future?

Sigh: I've always, with reservations, been fond of America, as goofy as she is. I find it rather sad to see her dissolving into nothingness, or morphing into a big carcass for interest groups to scrap over, or whatever it is she's turning into.

I think -- at least today, late in the afternoon, I find myself thinking -- that the "America isn't a nation, it's an idea" baloney is probably the most pernicious thing around. My response: "You mean, unlike all other countries, we don't have laws, taxes, boundaries, and a history?"

I suspect that my ultra-basic meta-gripe might be even more cosmic -- something about how people are forever trying to deduce their way from first principles to humane policies, when I think that 90% of making a humane society is a question of practical matters, and is probably better arrived-at from the bottom up. But that's such an abstract hunch that I can't imagine anyone reacting to it at all ...

I keep wondering what'll emerge once the Vietnam/civil-rights/Great-Society generation lets go, let alone the Boomers. Did you read that Brian Anderson article in City Journal that I linked to earlier? Anderson finds many kids on campus who are outright hostile to their teachers' leftie-boomer p-o-v. It's hard to tell what they do care about, though, let alone stand for. Anyway, I wouldn't mind being given a special ticket to revisit the country in about 100 years, to check out how things are playing out. I wonder if anything like the "America" we've known will still be around.

If you were to narrow your basket of political gripes down to one fundamental gripe (or worry), what might it be?



posted by Michael at January 13, 2005


"Laws, taxes, and boundaries" are also all ideas. History is more than an idea, but is so meticulously mangled by rhetorical overlay in this day'n'age as to be nearly worthless.

Posted by: Toby on January 13, 2005 8:14 PM

My biggest worry is that extremism is taking over. Maybe "extremism" isn't exactly the right word. I don't know what to call it. It seems like there's no compromise on individual issues anymore. Both sides try to "win" on as many issues as they can. Religious fundamentalism is gaining ground in many areas but, at the same time, Political Correctness still rules in other areas. So, we challenge the teaching of evolution in schools and limit stem cell research but, on the other hand, airport security can't concentrate their efforts on those airline passengers who are most likely to be terrorists.

Nobody is speaking up for or representing the Middle - the vast silent majority who may lean a little to the Left or a little to the Right but mostly just want to be left alone to live their lives with as little interference as possible.

After giving it some thought, I guess my biggest gripe would have to be too many laws. Every time someone complains about anything, notices an injustice or a potential danger, the next thing you know a special interest group is up in arms demanding that Congress make another law. Why can't these groups be satisfied to just make us aware of injustices and dangers and let us make up our own mind how to deal with them.

Posted by: Lynn S on January 13, 2005 8:33 PM

might i recommend "Is 'Americanism' a religion?" as an antidote or poultice :D

re: your "ultra-basic meta-gripe" on deductive reasoning

i recall following along on your discussion of "policy or divine law" here and seeing this den beste link, which he followed up with here. seems to me that the "traffic-rules comparison" is valid :D

as for not being able to imagine what america will be like in 100 years time, i suspect that's been a perennial concern across generations (which must have a german word for it?) afterall, disatisfaction with the way things are (or heading!) wrt the way things used to be (i.e. better!) is nothing new, esp among conservatives :D

all i can say is, america has had its ups and downs, and while we're only 229 years into this experiment, it seems to be working by and large :D and altho i'm not sure the nation-state as a unit of political organization will even survive the next 229, take heart and do not despair! that children of a future age will shake the blossoms of your hoary hair :D

so what do i worry about? fear itself? the closing of the american mind? it's all been said before (ecclesiastes) that i guess even ecclesiastes is cliche, or several pop songs by now. so i dunno! certainty?

certainly :D

Posted by: glory on January 13, 2005 8:36 PM

My goodness---what a melancholy posting. Perhaps you are more sad than you know about Kirstie Alley's weight gain!

One thing we've never really been before, that we are now, is a big fat mature country, with mature country issues. How many rooms should the house have? How are we gonna save for retirement? How do we pay for the kids' college? The neighborhood's changing. We used to just worry if there would be enough space for our big adolescent selves to spread out. And could we go to the city alone to see the rock concert.

One thing I will give to to 'W' is the guy is throwing these issues on the table and not letting us be prolonged adolescents who want to duck the taking-out-of-the-garbage part. Social security, taxes, terrorism. Not a small or immature plateful. What we decide to do about them is another thing. But I still have some faith in us. When people began to get that Viet Nam was throwing good lives after, well, already lost good lives, the country demanded an end. When we recognized aerosol spray cans might actually be bad for the environment, we bought spritzers. The truth is, most of America thought the Black Panthers were terrorist idiots, not saviors. Nobody was going to vote for Reagan instead of Carter--as sick as they were of Carter--until they were really sure the guy wasn't going to hit the button like a lunatic. Twenty years ago, who recycled? Men really don't tell such dirty jokes in front of their female colleagues at work as much anymore---unless they're Bill O'Reilly. There really aren't separate washrooms for whites and blacks anymore. Shoot, if you think about it, the change has been enormous--and largely right down the middle. Bill Clinton was, in many ways, a very middle-of-the-road choice. And, for all the blather about values, I think it is because Americans began to get the right impression of Mr. Kerry---that he is a ditherer, and we can't afford that---that the Dems lost the White House, not gay marriage. I mean, I was for him, but he didn't even really defend his own military record, he asked others to do it. America is a middle-of-the-road kind of place, but we do want people to do a little standing up for themselves.

My biggest gripe is that the professional politicians seem to BE the extremists for the most part (The crazy militia guys notwithstanding). The political class is showing far less restraint than the populace. They are making it harder, not easier, and total shame on them.

Posted by: annette on January 13, 2005 9:01 PM

My #1 biggest fear is that the U.S. economy (and therefore the world economy) might tank, royally, within my lifetime. I'm twenty-two now, and I'm hoping that the crazy system we have now will actually work out in the long run, for my kids' and grandkids' sake.

My second biggest fear is a related one: it's that the middle class in North America and Western Europe will be weakened and numerically diminished, and a large, vibrant middle class won't emerge in the rest of the world. We'll see a society of absolute Winners (the very elite among the elite symbol-manipulators) and absolute Losers (the rest of us). That would mean a concomitant rollback, or at least slow erosion, of our liberal political institutions and mores.

It's weird: my formative years were in the do-it-all, be-it-all nineties, but these two fears seem to recapitulate a lot of tropes I've absorbed watching dystopian sci-fi B movies from the Eighties.

Reading Gibbon as a senior in high school didn't help much either.

Posted by: tim on January 13, 2005 9:20 PM

PS---my other biggest fear for America is that "The Bachelor" gets good ratings. And, of course, Britney. And, of course, the fact that Amber Frey got a book deal and anybody cares what she has to say. I think these things may end us long before immigration or Bin Laden. Of course, Jon Stewart may save us all.

Posted by: annette on January 13, 2005 10:56 PM

Toby -- In some sense, "work" and "money" are also ideas. Yet I put a lot of time and money into the first and take care of living expenses with the second. So they're mighty real too.

Lynn, Annette -- Extremists, that's an excellent one, thanks: the way the dueling heads have kind of split off from the sensible middle. What's the middle to do? Blog, maybe.

Glory -- What's your bet: that "America" will exist as a nation in 100 years? Life'll go on, of course. But I have to admit I'm kind of attached to America as a nation, and would be sorry to see her go.

Tim -- If you enjoy pressing your own alarmist buttons (I obviously enjoy pressing my own sometimes), it can be fun to visit James Kunstler's website. He argues that the oil economy will grind to a halt shortly and when it does, there'll be big adjustments to make. Here's hoping he's wrong, both for you guys starting out and for us duffers too. I'm getting to an age where my big hope for the economy is that my retirement money doesn't cave in under me before I check out entirely.

Annette -- Amber got a book contract? Then Western Civ really is crumbling.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 14, 2005 12:04 AM

"people are forever trying to deduce their way from first principles to humane policies, when I think that 90% of making a humane society is a question of practical matters, and is probably better arrived-at from the bottom up"

I hope it isn't that bad. Many people (including myself) see America as still embodying the "practical matters" approach rather than the "first principles" approach. But for us foreigners looking at the US from afar, perhaps we only get the idealised version, via films and books. I remember reading Louis Menand on the topic - how pragmatism developed from the wreckage of the Civil War as a serious approach to getting things done, and it struck a resounding chord.

Perhaps blogs will save the world? They haven't the space nor time to discuss first principles at great length, and deal with the practical above all, yet they're beginning to influence policy in the US. If only they could do the same thing in Europe.


Posted by: DaveVH on January 14, 2005 2:40 AM

Two comments: 1) My main fear is that, in the future, the US gradually loses its dynamism as an overwhelming and vampiric government gradually extends its tentacles over all matters. This process seems to be continuing even with the Republicans currently dominating the political scene. On the other hand, the overall situation is much better than it was 30, 50, 70, 100 years ago, so maybe there is hope.

2) Other comment: This blog is great. I get to work and there are 3 new excellent posts up - which are keeping me from my work :) My thanks to the Blowhards and also those posting comments, many of which are very interesting.

Posted by: JT on January 14, 2005 10:07 AM

"Or else we're just a big open marketplace where everyone's welcome so long as he/she can get in (that's the right's version). In the midst of that, what's become of America? If she doesn't exist as a nation, how can she have any preferences about her future? "

Well, the big open marketplace is precisely how we got the America we know and love. By throwing open the welcome mat to those who want to earn a better life, but not pandering to those who want to be handed a better life, we attracted the best that the human race has to offer, and now we're priviliged to be and live among their descendants and some of their modern-day counterparts.

Of course, we've screwed the formula up royally - we've got the nutty idea that we've got an obligation to give welfare benefits to immigrants, and we're (not surprisingly) attracting more immigrants who are after welfare benefits. And now, immigration is a problem, where it was an asset back in the day. I say throw the doors wide open but turn the welfare spigot off, and we can go back to welcoming the best that the human race has to offer and turning that to our enormous advantage.

My biggest fear is that our repudiation of economic and personal liberty that began in the "progressive" era will become terminal, and we'll end up with complete rather than partial stagnation, follwed by decline. As in, our grandkids will still be driving groundcars, and their kids will start using horses when the oil runs out. If we still had the attitude of our benighted forebears, we'd already be using nuclear-powered skycars and we'd have more stars on our flag from extraterrestrial colonies becoming states...

Posted by: Ken on January 14, 2005 1:05 PM

I can't say I have any true fears that derive from America internally. Our biggest contribution to philosophy has been John Dewey style pragmatism, and I think that still expresses the heart of most people. It'll keep our internal excesses from spinning too far out of control. Compare that to the German philosophical heritage -- romanticism, existentialism, surrealism -- much more to work with if you're an artist but much more potentially destablizing.

A nuclear attack on a Western city and all of the reprecussions of that, is by far my greatest fear. Perhaps especially the reprecussions. Now, there's reason to believe we can be successful at preventing such an apocolypse if you look at the future in terms of the next few decades. Especially after 9/11. 9/11 might turn out to be the weakened virus innoculation that made us boost our immune system to far worse offensives.

But how about over the next century? As a Science Fiction fan, I know that the scientific marvels of 1945 become commonplace techonologies as time progresses. And I just can't think of anything that would have as dire an impact on my grandkids civil liberities and overall future prospects as a nuclear attack and our societies response to it.


Posted by: Robert on January 14, 2005 1:57 PM

"What's your bet: that 'America' will exist as a nation in 100 years?"
-MB, 'Biggest Fear'

"Nations are as equal as so many madmen or drunkards, and I'll drink dead drunk the man who disputes me. Hear reason: nations are not so puny as to shrivel and vanish at the first tampering with their past, no, nor with the tenth. Nations are monsters, boy, with guts of iron and nerves of brass. Waste not your pity on them." -Fritz Leiber, The Big Time

i dunno! i guess i find the quotes, saying it all; your 'idea(l)' of america :D

i'm partial to the benedict anderson school of nationalism, that of imagined communities and historical materialism (sort of a patriotic atheism or sumpthin'; i'm agnostic :), so i don't quite share the teleological dread that accompanies civilizational decline (what's the german word for that!?)

a couple of interesting threads on this recently at reason magazine's 'hit & run' message board and on plastic that i'd recommend.

(that last link btw points to a comment in thread that i find plausible, and the CIA seems to agree! to wit: "'Traditional geographic groupings will increasingly lose salience in international relations' ... that in an information economy physical proximity matters less than cultural proximity. Hence his promotion of the 'Anglosphere'"*

also i don't understand your compunction with multiculturalism. you seem to like southern culture and delta blues culture. is it just that they have a uniquely american history? i caught the end of gangs of new york last night and i guess the nativest character daniel day lewis plays is quintessentially american, but that doesn't mean progress isn't either per se. or is it like a 'progress vs. progressivism' and 'multicultural vs. multiculturalism' thing? the attitude and not the act(ivism, ists - who assume agency :)?

might i submit that it is not 'america as an idea' you bemoan or 'america as an institution' that you lament, but rather 'america as a narrative'? that you do not like where the story is going, specifically the personification of america on the world stage?

that said, i'm pulling for a constitutional amendment to let schwarzenegger run for prez, per demolition man :D


*anderson is pretty prescient in this regard!

Posted by: glory on January 15, 2005 1:15 PM

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