Has political polarity reached an apex this Independence Day? Or has America weathered storms like this before?
The framers of the U.S. Constitution were many things: Visionary leaders, statesmen, soldiers, orators, inventors, philosophers, even sages.
George Washington, improbably victorious general of the U.S. Revolutionary War, became that rarest of rare conquerers in this or any age when he passed up a kingship.
Maybe one in ten million could have done it; maybe one in 100 million.
Maybe you’re thinking you could have done it. Who wants to be a king? Ah, but what parent would pass up an opportunity to make his son a prince, his line a royal one? Think of the advantages.
After everything American revolutionaries like Washington sacrificed for the cause, who wouldn’t feel entitled to inherit the bounty of kingship?
Washington and his fellow soldiers weren’t just fighting under a death sentence with the odds against their “hopeless” cause of American independence. Had they failed and been taken alive, enemy combatants to the Crown like General George Washington would have faced a martyr’s gruesome death.
Slow torture, drawing, quartering; afterward, Washington’s head, and those of his fellow compatriots, would have seen a tour of England as grisly trophies of war, desecrated and displayed for all and sundry.
It’s an old American adage that God looks after babies, idiots, and the United States of America. In spite of the heavy odds against such an undertaking, the fledgling nation, born out of improbability and grandiose dreams, won.
President George Washington willingly ceded power to the next steward of the fledgling country he helped found. According to his preserved personal papers and journals, a peaceful transfer of power was more important than maintaining his own.
Of course, as most of us know, many of America’s founding fathers were participants in that most heinous institution of enslaving human beings.
Reconciling America’s great sin isn’t even the hardest part.
It isn’t “sin”: It is sins.
Besides slavery, to preserve which one half of this nation went to war against the other, there are other dark chapters in American history, plenty of them.
There was the genocide against Native American and First Nation tribes. Westward Expansion, which covered the nation with rail lines, came at the cost of the lives of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of immigrants who built those train tracks. American history contains the shame of Wounded Knee, Vietnam, and others.
Donald Trump frequently is selected by various media publications as the worst president of all time. We are perhaps forgetting American President Harry S. Truman remains the first and only person to deploy a nuclear weapon against civilians.
We very much hope Truman remains the first and only, but looking around at the nuclear arms race the Manhattan Project kicked off in earnest, that pleasant dream is looking less likely by the day.
There are new American sins, too; major ones.
The world’s largest tech dump in the world is rotting away in Ghana, leaking toxic chemicals and frequently catching on fire; that’s our junk.
China and Malaysia only recently stopped taking plastic recyclables from the U.S., but single-use plastics will still be littering Chinese and Malaysian rivers and waterways for decades to come, if not forever.
That’s our plastic.
Globalization, free trade; it all sounded so good 30 years ago. It sounded good 20 years ago. It still sounded pretty good a decade ago.
Now, post-pandemic, we realize globalization gave us a 20,000 mile, petroleum-driven supply chain vulnerable to disruptions and market fluctuations. Globalization cost the U.S. its manufacturing sector, gutted rural areas across the nation, and didn’t exactly do workers in foreign nations any favors either.
Instead, wealthy corporations got even wealthier by moving their manufacturing centers to places with fewer expensive environmental restrictions and labor laws. On the far side of globalization, global inequality is just as bad as it ever was and the wealth gap is wider and even more abysmal than ever.
That’s our mess.
And it isn’t our only one.
The vast surveillance state of the Chinese Communist Party was proudly Made in the U.S.A.
Instead of trade with America and exposure to democracy and capitalism making the Chinese people more free, the exact opposite has happened. The strong modern arm of CCP power is Silicon Valley’s great and perhaps eternal shame.
How can a nation responsible for such inequity possibly have given the world so much?
Electricity is nice, it must be admitted. More than nice, electricity has saved millions of lives since it was invented, probably billions. Lest we forget in our cosseted modern state: Heat and cold can and do still kill human beings.
The automobile, air travel, the pentium processor, the personal computer; the telephone; the cell phone: The U.S. is the Prime Innovator.
Almost nothing is ever all good or all bad, of course, including all of the above. It could be argued mankind and the planet would be better off had those things not been invented.
Of course, those making that argument are frequently making it on the internet, from their personal computer, while talking on their cell phone in a climate-controlled place they have driven to in their cars. They probably wouldn’t have much liked staying within 10 miles of the place they were born, either.
“Do I contradict myself?” asked the great American poet laureate everyman Walt Whitman: “I contain multitudes.”
And that’s who we are today, perhaps who we always were: The Multitudinous States of America- the disparate, divided, bitterly partisan States of America, where the battle lines of the Great Culture War have already cleaved families in twain, torn friendships asunder.
It’s all led to a sort of malaise, a growing unease about the state of the nation and the nation of the state.
It has led many on the left, and many on the right in recent years, to believe the American Experiment is failing, badly; that the American Dream is dead, if it existed at all.
It is hard to pinpoint one reason for this; it’s often hard to pinpoint just one reason for anything.
The cause and effect relationship isn’t a straightforward as we might wish. Effects have myriad causes, some of them very complex and interwoven, impossible to isolate. Life isn’t a laboratory experiment, either; variables can’t be controlled in society. Results can’t be reproduced or peer reviewed.
Our Great American Malaise this Independence Day probably has quite a few causes: COVID19 fatigue, the media, economic woes, the media, social stressors, and the media have all played a part.
“If it bleeds, it leads,” has always been a news editors bylaw, only now, in our age of click-bait, everything has become tabloid journalism. We aren’t being edified by news companies; we are being manipulated to generate ad-clicks.
As a wise woman once said, media companies don’t exist to tell the public the truth; “they exist to sell themselves, silly.”
Social media hasn’t helped either. The same flawed unpinning, the same mysterious algorithms keep flooding our timelines with all that’s negative, shocking, abhorrent, gut-wrenching, or preferably all of the above.
It may be producing something of a jaundiced society. If this were a laboratory, we could test this theory, remove a control group from the population and isolate them from media doomsaying and social media.
Of course, there would be so many volunteers for such a group, scientists would have to select participants via national lottery, just to keep everyone else from rioting.
“I thought once people were able to freely exchange their thoughts and ideas, the world would automatically become a better place,” opined one deeply misguided founder of Twitter. “I was wrong about that.”
What would the founding fathers make of our current, divided plight? It might be worth noting how they felt about America after the glow of their victory faded and the business of nation-building became that of maintenance.
It might surprise us to learn that, “America’s revolutionary experiment is dead,” was the general consensus among U.S. founding fathers at the close of 18th century.
“A frail and worthless fabric,” is how Alexander Hamilton described the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson declared the sacrifices of American revolutionaries, “useless,” and doomed to be, “thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons.”
“My only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it,” lamented Jefferson hopelessly.
In his book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, author Dennis Rasmussen described the near-universal sense of impending doom which settled over America’s founding fathers after the Revolutionary War ended.
“Virtually all of the founders who lived into the 19th century became disillusioned for one reason or another,” Rasmussen told interviewers last year. Nevertheless, America has persisted.
However pessimistic we may feel this Fourth of July, we really have no idea whatsoever how it all might- yet- turn out.
Hindsight is 20/20: All other vision is flawed, even the vision of visionaries. Consider the immortal dying words of Leonardo DaVinci for perspective: “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
It’s too late for the founders to feel some hope in America’s bright future, and too late for DaVinci to cut himself some slack; but it isn’t too late for us.
Happy Independence Day, everyone.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)