Every four years America looks to a new president as a source of real hope. And every four years the code word of each yelling aspirant is “change.” In fact, however, the election results are never quite what we expect. Meaningful change never quite happens. From the standpoint of actually fixing an increasingly broken society, these results are pretty much beside the point.
Here is the reason. We Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly false that even our melancholy has been made to appear pleasant. Wallowing in the dim twilight of imitation and conformance, we shamelessly define our very existence in terms of banalities and lies. It is a potently sordid mixture. For us, the lonely American crowd has become sacred truth, and every act of mimicry sanctification. Small wonder that real learning is now effrontery and real thinking a liability.
Every society is essentially the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption. Present-day America is no exception. Urged to believe that we stand for something much more noble than frenetic marketing and visceral repetition, “we the people” slavishly endure in a very cold crowd. For us, true happiness remains distant and elusive. However hard we may try to find joy in the world, we can’t really shake loose a sense of persistent futility and inner insubstantiality. Somehow, let us get right to the point, “We can’t get no satisfaction.”
In today’s America, the presumed requirements of national prosperity have plainly supplanted individual dignity. With a population now above 300 million, the core edifice of American well-being is based upon an entirely addictive consumption. Ground down by the incessant babble of pitchmen and politicians (significantly, there is no serious difference between them), “we the people” are generally motivated not by any balanced life-search for meaning and harmony, but by the distinctly hallowed numbers on retail sales.
Still struggling to find self-worth in cellular phones or other toys, we have forgotten the vital difference between genuineness and gloss. No wonder, the “Black Friday” after Thanksgiving, when our buying is measured most precisely, is this country’s holiest day. No wonder, too, that Wall Street is in a shambles. Leaving aside the rarified economic insights of the hyper-voluble TV “experts,” the American economy is now built upon sand.
We can no longer pretend not to see. An authentically individual American is little more than a quaint artifact. Our mass society has absolutely no intention of encouraging self-actualization. To the contrary, the soulless American herd now marches lockstep toward alienation and isolation. It is possible for us to be lonely in the world or lonely for the world, and – unhappily – the ritualized American celebration of mass society has now produced both.
Every sham may have a patina. We need to be practical. What can be done to escape the pendulum of our own mad clockwork?
Consider that we now live conspicuously at the lowest common denominator. Most American universities are more or less expensive training schools, offering jobs, but not an education. Marketing themselves in the proven fashion of soft drinks and underarm deodorant, these institutions of “higher education” instruct each obedient student that learning is just another commodity. The result is a society that positively loathes serious thought.
Today, when we are faced with many external threats, we Americans are carried forth not by any commendable nobility of purpose, but by a great collective agitation, by inane repetition and by the demeaning momentum of embarrassing entertainments. In principle, we may wish to slow down a bit and smell the roses, but our America now imposes upon all of its exhausted people the breathless rhythm of a vast machine. The end of all this concocted delirium is easy enough to identify. It is to prevent us from remembering who we are, and what we might still become. And it is to keep us from remembering G-d.
What does it truly mean to be an American? We may pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution, but almost no one really cares about these musty old documents. Invoked only for adornment, the legal and philosophical foundations of the United States are today, the provinces of a tiny handful of people. For the most part, we Americans now lack any sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, local sports team loyalties and the peculiarly comforting brotherhoods of endless war.
Speaking of war, Operation Iraqi Freedom is now being fought more and more by those young Americans who need the wages and “job security.” Middle-class and affluent kids still go off to law school, or (even sillier) to acquire an MBA, but almost never to Baghdad. However one might feel about the war’s lawfulness or strategic correctness, it has now, therefore, become a manifestly undemocratic enterprise. Like Vietnam in an earlier time, but without even the structurally equalizing rules of a military draft, this war’s burdens fall much more heavily upon the poor and working classes of America. As for our senators and congressional representatives, their children and grandchildren have all run for cover. Like the daughters of our president or the prince of England, they are nowhere to be seen.
Sadly, we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once we had a unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than a crowd. Emerson, after all, had described us as a people animated by industry and self-reliance, not anxiety, fear and trembling.
Emerson goes unrecognized. These United States continue to languish in stupor, content that our rank passions are drawn from an infantile mass culture. Before this can change, American inventiveness will have to assume new directions.
Shortly, even if we can somehow avoid nuclear war or mega-terrorism, the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, even through the opaque depths of history, we will be able to make out the phantoms of great “ships of state.” Once laden with silver and gold, they are now entirely forgotten. Only then will we learn that the circumstances that could send the works of Homer, Goethe, Milton and Shakespeare to join the works of utterly forgotten poets are no longer unimaginable. They are in the daily newspapers.
In spite of our stubborn claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are shaped largely by the mass. Our battered society bristles with annoying jingles, endless hucksterism, humiliating allusions and endless equivocations. Surely, we think, there must be something more to this country. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” said the poet Walt Whitman, but today, the American self is now under final assault by stupefying music, ritualized tastelessness, and literally, an epidemic of gluttony.
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson asked plaintively about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he inquired. This oft-maligned president answered “yes,” but only if we first refuse to stoop to prevailing corruption, venality and double-talk. Otherwise, as Wilson understood, our entire society will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more grotesque even than the death of an individual person.
Credulity is one of America’s worst enemies. Our suffocating inclination to believe that redemption lies in the presidential election is a potentially fatal disorder. No doubt, the key campaign issues do need to be addressed, but so too does our ever-willful surrender to an omnivorous mass. Only the few can actually redeem America, and they can never be found among the crowd.
Copyright ©The Jewish Press, May 2, 2008. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.