By now, Eliot Spitzer is no longer on the front pages, but America’s recent fascination with the former New York governor and high-end prostitution did reveal a great deal. Above all, the whole sordid business uncovered how little the citizenry care for themselves as persons. In essence, every society is the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption, and here – in these broken United States – we Americans now inhabit a plainly barren land of incessant voyeurism, ceaseless profanity, shallow pleasures, empty dreams, absent healthcare and rampant criminality. Bored by the stunning banality of daily life, and beaten down daily by the dreary struggle just to stay alive in a nation increasingly divided by extreme wealth and grinding poverty, we now gratefully accept any available opportunity for distraction.
Where can we discover an authentic concern for our fellow human beings? Where shall we turn to discover a heroic national vision or noble societal accomplishment? Clearly, for the most part, we the people are no longer shaped by reverential feelings, high ideals or serious thought. Rather, our preoccupation is now with an orchestrated hysteria of indulgence in other people’s joys and suffering. Moreover, all of this contrived frenzy is sustained by a shameless national immersion in marketing, mimicry and absolutely raw commerce.
What does America actually do amid this breathless rhythm of imitation, circus and consumption? More than anything else, we the people have learned to endure a corrupted society that offers neither private growth nor personal fulfillment. True, there is always a measurable opportunity for “advancement” in the interrelated American worlds of merchandizing, sex and money, but there is also precious little hope of any real happiness.
We (literally) dreadful Americans now inhabit the loneliest of lonely crowds. Small wonder, too, that so many millions cling desperately to their cell phones. Filled with a common horror of being alone with themselves, these virtually connected millions are quick to pronounce: “I belong, therefore I am.” But theirs is a particularly sad credo, an unpersuasive cry that social acceptance is key to survival, and that pretended pleasure is the best that we can ever hope to experience.
To an extent, the immense attraction of cell phones derives from our American society’s machine-like existence. A push-button metaphysics reigns supreme. Here, every hint of passion must follow a uniform and often vicarious pathway. We do argue correctly, that human beings are the creators of machines, not their servants. Still, there is today an implicit and grotesque reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially lethal pantomime between users and used.
Expectedly, our adrenalized American society is now making a machine out of Man and Woman. In an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it even seems plausible that we are created in the image of the machine. So, what sort of redemption is this?
For the moment, we Americans remain grinning captives in the very lonely and suffocating crowd. In our fractured country, we live in almost every existential sphere at the lowest common denominator. Our universities are largely inhospitable to anything serious. Apart from the pervasive drunkenness and tasteless entertainments, they are mainly a pretext for filling jobs.
For most of our young people, learning is an inconvenient commodity, nothing more. Everyone knows, at the same time, that commodities exist for only one reason. They are there solely to be bought and sold.
Faced with genuine threats of war and terror, millions of Americans still amuse themselves to death with morbid excitements and the endlessly inane repetition of commercial jingles. America now imposes upon its manifestly exhausted people both the open devaluation of intellect, and the breakneck pace of unrelieved work. What a combination! Small wonder that, “No Vacancy” signs hang securely outside our psychiatric hospitals, our childcare centers and our prisons.
Oddly, we Americans now inhabit the one society that could have been different. Some years ago, we had an opportunity to nudge individual citizens to become more than a crowd. Emerson had once even described us as a people motivated by industry and self-reliance, not by anxiety, fear and trembling.
Soon, even if we should manage to avoid nuclear war and mega-terrorism, the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then we shall be able to make out the phantoms of great ships of state. Once laden with silver and gold, they are now forgotten. This image will have meaning. Only then will we understand that the catastrophic circumstances that could send the works of Homer, Goethe, Milton and Shakespeare to join the works of altogether forgotten poets are no longer unimaginable. They are in the newspaper.
In spite of our arrogant claim to be a nation of “rugged individuals,” it is a leveling mass that best describes present-day America. An irreverent wasteland of hollow men and women now bristles with deflection – with demeaning hucksterism, humiliating allusions, bitter cruelties and endless equivocations. Is this the country that we are now fighting to preserve and protect in Afghanistan and Iraq? Is this really what we mean by “freedom” and “democracy”?
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson coyly asked about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he inquired. This thoughtful president had answered “yes,” but only if we first refused to stoop to corruption, crowd-pleasing and double-talk. Otherwise, Wilson understood, our entire society would soon be left bloodless, a skeleton, and dead also with that rusty death of machinery, more hideous even than the death of any individual person.
Not only sciences, but also souls, are important. There can be a proper American Soul, but not until we first learn to realize that we have insistently scandalized and de-sacralized ourselves. Beside this absolutely primary deformation, the Eliot Spitzer affair was just another made-to-order distraction.
Copyright© The Jewish Press, July 25, 2008. All rights reserved
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.