06 September 2009

America Lost

Digital friend, distinguished professor, and ed blogger Jon Becker likes to quote a Thomas Friedman New York Times column from 4 November 2004. Friedman, describing his post election depression, says, "We don't just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is."

The conversations about Barack Obama's broadcast to American schoolchildren (coming Tuesday) have proven both the truth of this, and the dangers we face.

This is not just laughable. Yes, of course it is "funny" that those who, ten months ago, would have howled in fury about "disrespect for the Commander in Chief in time of war" now insist on "disrespect for the Commander in Chief in time of war" (ah, what a difference a bit of skin color can make). And I suppose it is expected that the party of Mark Sanford and David Vitter objects to students being told about "personal responsibility." And, yes, I'm amused that I, who disagree with every thing the Obama administration has done re: education, who views the President, in educational terms, as "Bush III," has spent a week arguing for his presence in our schools, but... it isn't funny at all.

The United States is a fragile nation. Always has been. It really is more Yugoslavia than France, and has been from the start. In 1787 party-hardy New York, and feudal Georgia had little in common, except language, with dour Calvinist and mercantilist New England. They were joined together out of the need, in a colonialist world, for mutual economic and military protection, and the borders were somewhat random. Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations wasn't really interested for a long time. "Upper Canada" (what we now call "Ontario") probably should have been included. The Great Lakes region? Just a treaty bargaining chip. As I said, more Woodrow Wilson's bizarre ideas of nation-construction than any nation-state of the 18th Century, save perhaps Switzerland.

So, America's first hundred years were spent trying to either split up or stay together. Insurrections (meet John Brown, to whom The Battle Hymn of the Republic is dedicated, or just look at the Whiskey Rebellion), rebellions (Civil War), wars on native populations, internal occupations, attacks on neighboring nations in attempts to build patriotic fever, and huge struggles over minority group rights completely define the US through the third quarter of the 19th Century.

Like Spain after the Civil War or the United Kingdom after the 1707 Act of Union, things "settled down" afterwards, but really only on the surface. The "settlement" was essentially one of "leaving each other alone." So New York and California became socialist republics - free universities and hospitals - while the south re-feudalized (Jim Crow), and both were seen as "quaint" - the way Londoners view the Scots of the Hebrides and vise-versa. But whenever the cultures met - the Scopes Trial, the Civil Rights movement, the resistance to secular law, the response has been every bit as violent as anything the Basque Separatists have done.

And today, after two decades of everything from massive bombings to political assassinations, the US is as polarized about its President as it was in the winter of 1860. Not just because his skin color is seen as a threat by so many who feel "left behind" in this 21st Century, but because that skin color represents an America they do not believe in, and want no part of - urban, diverse, tolerant, with at least a hint of being a meritocracy. If your self-image is entirely tied to the privileges of being white and the notion that "granddaddy worked hard," none of this is good.

That the biggest explosion of the moment should come around the issue of school is no surprise. Our education system was largely designed to combat most of what "Obama" (the image) represents. US schools were supposed to "protestantize" the Catholic and "whiten" the Irish. They were supposed to train children in the culture as it existed. Everything from Catholic Bibles to any foreign or native languages were banned. Behavior patterns developed for Calvinist church services were made law in the classroom. Culture was transmitted through fantasy history.

And now a tall Black male, a big city guy, with an immigrant parent from "the dark continent," who was born in Hawaii (surely that can't be a state, unless we pretend - for purposes of those historical fictions - that it was in 1941), wants to "walk in" to your neighborhood school and talk to your children! If Barack Obama is not dangerous to children, then the America as understood by those "left behind" isn't real, and that is a hard thing for the barely educated (or educated in isolation) to comprehend or accept. So, he must be very dangerous indeed.

The map of the divide is not simple - no matter what liberals (American term) think. But the divide is very real. In today's global economy the US has no more reason to stay together as a nation than Czechoslovakia did. I know that most New Yorkers would rather be part of the European Union and I know that Oklahoma would rather be politically allied with Saudi Arabia (extraction economy, extreme conservative religiousity) - though few in either place could understand why.

Other bloggers have written excellent discussions of the educational issues involved, at Will Richardson, at SpEdTeacher, at Principal's Page. But I'm here simply to suggest that this is one more bit of evidence that the two parts of the United States are preparing their children to be the citizens of separate nations. And that divorce takes a big step forward Tuesday, noon Eastern Time.

- Ira Socol


Michael J said...

We agree, but..the dangerous part are the politicians. So desparate to get re elected any way they think they know how that they are willing to stir up passions that once released are difficult to put back in the bottle.

Populism has always been a part of the American story. Some of it is good, lots of it is bad and has always been bad.

Since the "Southern strategy" invented by Nixon with the help of Kevin Philips, harnessing the energy of one strain of Americans has been the surest way to get "volunteers" read unpaid campaign workers.

On our system so few people vote, that it's been well demonstrated that whoever gets the most enthusiastic volunteers usually wins.

I don't think for a second that most of the pols are as stupid as they sound. They are focused on staying elected. Some have the character and intelligence to find civil ways to get elected. This generation of Republicans have not.

Where is the "responsible" leadership calling this out? Back in the dayl, Barry Goldwater called out the John Birch Society. Today, a bunch of lightweight careerists who are willing to say anything that they think will get thme reelected.

But they miss the fact that words have consequences and that spin can sometimes become reality.

narrator said...


The US political system, a bizarre remnant of "democracy" that was the United Kingdom in the 17th Century, causes much of this. If the US had proportional representation and multi-member constituencies, politicians would have to act in completely different ways to get elected, but First-Past-the-Post elections and gerrymandered constituencies breed extremism.

Also, the US Senate gives veto power over legislation to 20% of the US population, and gives a voter in Wyoming 3 times as many votes for President as a person in California. It creates the same kind of rural control which so limited human rights in Britain during Dickens' time.

Whether the US should survive as a united entity is one thing (see Texas Gov. Rick Perry), whether it can without structural reform is another.

Ira Socol

Michael J said...

The problem is the disruption getting from here to where ever it is that we're going. Don't have much to argue about what is going on here. But, the idea of a complete makeover ain't gonna happen.

What might happen with a little luck and if the creek don't rise, is that the increase in "transparency" (gosh I hate that word, but it describes something useful) will continue to make it much harder for politicans to bullshit. We've already seen how this worked during Obama's campaign. Remember that guy in Virgina.

At any rate, I think the messiness of "America' is exactly it's greatest strength. To paraphrase the Darwin quote, Survival does not go to the smart, it goes to most responsive."

I never underestimate the responsiveness of the American system once we get focused. The clearest example was our response to WWII. The other clear example is that some 40 years after the March on Washington, we have a black president.

I can't imagine that can be repeated in any country on the planet.

HomerTheBrave said...

Michael, I really hate to burst your bubble on the American Exceptionalism front, but South Africa went directly from apartheid to having a black President. And what a leader... Rather than shaming those who perpetrated the institutionalized racism, they formed the Truth And Reconciliation commission. Something basically unthinkable in America.

Regardless, I think you and Ira both miss the point: The 'two Americas' bit is a narrative that has existed for a very long time, but has been given a boost by the lies and treacheries of corporate media. The only behavior being modeled is that of disruption and incivility. Everything boils down to conflict, because conflict is what people will watch on TV, and they'll watch it on TV because they don't have other models for understanding politics.

Essentially, our problem is not that The Other is trying to do something Very Bad. Our problem is that we have no real leadership, only jeers of bullies egging others on to fight.

If this is a teachable moment, the lesson is how not to lose your head, and how to lead people to a better place in themselves. Hopefully someone can teach it to us soon.

Michael J said...

We mostly agree,but . . .
Rather than American exceptionalism, can we both agree on American specificity, the same as we should be able to agree on South African specificity?

Yes, South Africa went from Apartheid to a Black President. But the collateral damage is still very high. Not to say it should have happened slower. Just that it might have happened better. But I don't know enough about specific problems they had to face, so I'll leave there.

America is specific in that we've been extraordinarily lucky. "free" land (free to steal, I agree) but a larger storehouse of land than any developed nation.

Re the "lies and treachery." No doubt there have been lies and treachery, but the top of the pyramid has no corner on the lie and treachery market. Lynch gangs in the South, busing protests in the North are just two examples.

I disagree with the notion of "leadership.' Since I'm a boomer who went through the sixties, I tend to quote Dylan. "Don't follow leaders, watch your parking meters."

Some leaders really suck. Some suck a lot less. But at the end of the day, their job number 1 is to stay in power. Good, bad or indifferent it's always the same.

The best we can hope for is that they don't screw things up as much as they could. With Bush we had very bad luck. My sense is that Obama and his team have it pretty right, so far.

As for the media. I agree that they are for the most part a bunch of people working for a living, with very little special knowledge about what's going on. As you point out, the easiest story to tell is the morality play. The good v the bad. Since it's the easiest story to tell, it's natural that's the one they tell.

The situation is compounded by the virulent anti-communism we had to endure starting in the 50's and only now starting to ebb since the "evil empire" has disintegrated.

Still some politicians can plausibly expect to get reelected appealing to "socialized medicine."

I think we mostly agree. But what I think I'm seeing is that those "leaders" are emerging every day.

There's a pretty interesting video at YouTube to this point. It's from UCTV and the speaker is Angela Davis. You might find it interesting. I would be very interested in any thoughts you might have if you get a chance to check it out. http://ff.im/-7GYF6

South Africa went directly from apartheid to having a black President."

narrator said...

I agree that the "two Americas" is false, but I'm too much of a historian not to note that societies often split along nonsensical fault lines, fault lines created and exploited by bad leaders.

I'm also no "American Exceptionalist" and I'll say that WWII shows a lot of determination, it could not get Americans to let their boys die alongside Black people.

- Ira Socol

Nathan said...


I know you are one smart person - that is why I wonder how much you believe this terribly un-nuanced piece you wrote.

Most of the conservatives on talk radio, for example, say they are excited about the fact that America elected a black president.
Now, you might think they are only bowing to social pressure, fine. I, for one, am a socially conservative male who identifies with the excitement of America electing a black president. It is awesome, and I mean it.

At the same time, his beliefs on a range of issues, and his corresponding policies, really do concern me. For example, check out the following pieces:







Finally, here is a very wise and measured commentary from a highly intelligent socially conservative commentator on this school issue. Please read it (who I also know is thrilled that we live in a nation that would elect a black president):


Anonymous said...

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Michael J said...

Nathan, I looked at the first two or three links, but I confess I don't get your point. If the issue is "rationing" healthcare, is the implication somehow that Obama does not recognize that hard choices have to be made? If it is, we disagree.

While that may be true of many in Congress, that's a different story. As pols they are looking for political cover to do whatever it is has to be done, in my humble opinion.

The last link to a conservative blogger was a very good read. From where I sit I think the real problem is that intelligent conservatives have not taken a strong public position distancing themselves from the silliness, that could turn dangerous, that media and self centered politicians are using for their own purposes.

Back in the day, Barry Goldwater clearly distanced himself from the John Birch Society. No doubt it cost him many unpaid campaign workers.

My question is where are the conservatives in the Republican party who are going to stand up against this stuff?

Nathan said...


You should really read the last few links as well.

It seems to me that there is a lot of unwillingness to talk about unpleasant things - and much dishonesty as well.

And I guess I am a little bit tired of hearing "when will intelligent conservatives stand up against this", when I see a lot of intentional dishonesty from our President and the Democrats as well. I simply don't trust them, and yes, think they are trying to deceive.

Do I think many conservatives are trying to deceive also? I think some are, and that angers me. On the other hand, I think many of them are simply thinking "the Democrats can say that they do not intend to do this or that, but they also must deal with reality, which will always bounce back" - therefore, I think it is good for me to take what they say and simply help people see what will inevitably be the logical conclusion of their actions. Now many may think that "death panels" etc. will not be the logical conclusion of their actions, but here many republicans I don't think are lying, but calling things as they see it. In other words, I do not think that most of them are trying to deceive. Then are they calling the Democrats liars? Some are, and won't trust the Democrats' character. Others aren't, and don't trust the Democrats' judgment.

Rather, they are desperate to try to get their voices heard in venues other than conservative talk radio.


Nathan said...

"Rather, they are desperate to try to get their voices heard in venues other than conservative talk radio."

should be

Finally, I think that many are also desperate to try to get their voices heard in venues other than conservative talk radio.

Sorry - that whole post was pretty poorly written. Proofreading is a good thing. : )

Nathan said...


Here's something intelligent to chew on:


Again - what does it mean that all of this is not widely known in the mainstream media?

Where are there inaccuracies in this report?


Michael J said...

I took a quick read at the link, I'll go back for a longer read but wanted to get this out now, in case I get distracted.

A couple of issues:

1. The issue is not sincerity. No way to tell who is sincere about what when. The issue is a productive discussion or a useless discussion.

2. We agree that the Main Stream Media is totally lame. There are many possible reasons for the problem, but I think we might both agree that the level of public discourse in almost all the media is just plain silly and misinformed.

For me, the notion that they are in someway "left wing" however, doesn't pass the laff test.

It's a much longer discussion that really deserves either some coffee or some beers or lots of blog post. In lieu of that just to put on the table here: the level of reporting on the financial "meltdown", the health care "debate" the wars in either Afghanistan or Iraq, not to say the reporting on Iran is just plain dumb and worse, confusing.

Re the post at the last link: I notice that many of the points have to do with abortion. There we must disagree from the get go. To me it's pretty clear that the only sensible way to think about government policy on abortion is from a medical perspective.

In fact, the original Roe V Wade decision was not made on the basis of the needs of medicine. Nothing else.

I agree that the last link was not hysterical, But I think not correct.

To the question about government "encouraging' euthanisia. The answer could have been "No, but.."
The phrase "government-mandated questions" is loaded. The questions are put together by the best medical people we have. To call them "government mandated" obscures instead of clarifies the discussion.

As for "death panels" The answer in the post is "not exactly..." it would have been more useful to say something like "no. But consider that...."

If the point of public discourse is clarify the words and phrases used are amazingly important. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thought leads to bad policy.

The best example of that actually was William F Buckley. I may disagree with what he said, but because of his honest thinking and skill with the language,it was possible to have an honest disagreement.

This present batch, especially in the Congress? On both sides with a couple of exceptions, give me a break!

Back to you.

Nathan said...


Thanks for your response. Will try to write back within a week.


Nathan said...


Not much I can disagree with re: what you wrote, except I think you certainly can get a good idea about when people are being insincere.

Also, the media is "left wing" on "personal" moral issues, not necessarily economic policy. I read Eric Alterman's book "What Liberal Media?"

"To me it's pretty clear that the only sensible way to think about government policy on abortion is from a medical perspective.

In fact, the original Roe V Wade decision was not made on the basis of the needs of medicine. Nothing else."

Could you unpack this a bit more?