Sunday, April 05, 2009

American Entropy

Americans are taught that we’re guaranteed the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Since World War Two, most Americans benefited from an enduring ethos that the only limitations on success were our abilities. As long as one was willing to work hard the basic essentials of life would never be in doubt and for those with unique ambition, foresight and special gifts, anything was possible. And for those unable to provide for themselves, America was a compassionate country that didn’t turn its back on our most vulnerable.

Yes I know too many Americans were victims of racism, predatory capitalism and a whole range of injustices. I also realize that wages have been on the decline since the 1970s as the middle class was increasingly squeezed. At various times numerous cities, such as my home city here in New York, crime was rampant. All that is true enough. Nonetheless, most post-war Americans enjoyed an inner confidence stemming from a feeling of basic security. There was always a paycheck, shelter, affordable healthcare whenever you needed it and America had the power to project its will and prerogatives upon the globe.

My grandfather to me epitomized the American dream. At the age of 16 he managed to escape Poland just before Hitler invaded with his six brothers. Family legend has it that my great grandfather, a Polish judge, realized long before his neighbors the threat Nazi Germany meant for European Jewry and did what he had to do to get his sons to America. My great grandmother protested all her children leaving but my great grandfather’s wisdom was proven correct in September 1939.

My grandfather proceeded to earn a modest living in the garment industry. He never became an entrepreneur, couldn’t hit a curveball and lived his entire life as a hard working wage earner. Yet that was enough to raise two twin daughters, own a home and even a tiny summer cottage with my grandmother. Those things were possible for people like my grandfather who fit snugly in America’s post World War Two middle class.

Alas, life is now spinning out of control for Americans accustomed to the power of shaping their own destiny. You may have terrific drive, ambition and ability but still be unable to provide for your family. Essentially, our destiny as human beings was ceded to reckless traders, credit default swaps, HMO accountants that have more autonomy than doctors and war mongering imbeciles with delusions of empire. Ironically, much of this was done during a forty-year conservative era that promised more prosperity and freedom but instead resulted in a crumbling empire.

Twenty years ago when the Soviet Union began its descent it produced a young vigorous leader named Michael Gorbachev who presided over the decline of a nuclear empire with tolerance and sense. Alas, Gorbachev was unable to reform Soviet communism and unwilling to completely reject its deficiencies.

Similarly, America has now produced a leader in President Barack Obama that seems uniquely qualified for the moment. On the world stage he presents himself as a figure able to adroitly function in this multi-polar world that doesn’t bend to America’s will. Sadly, Obama seems determined to reform Wall Street capitalism just as Gorbachev tried to fix Soviet communism even as both were and are irredeemable.

After Gorbachev, Russia’s lean years became even leaner. If Obama and his plutocrat Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner maintain their current course, that same fate appears to await America as well. Obama is a decent man and most Americans support him yet the country as a whole can feel the unraveling taking place in its guts.

You learn much about yourself, your friends, your neighbors and family in this environment. Most people are inclined to pull together, sacrifice for the greater good, and extend a helping hand to those in need. Many on the abyss of despair and destitution manage to avoid losing themselves and dig deep for reservoirs of strength, ingenuity to survive and preserve their integrity. We’ve all read about or personally know inspirational people making the best of horrific circumstances and even helping to uplift others.

Yet an unraveling in American society is taking place as the cascade of ruin accelerates. This to me is somewhat illustrated by the three consecutive days of shooting incidents. The motivations for each incident were different and not specifically the result of current events. Even so, when people feel control over their own destinies slipping from their grasp, some will respond with irrational violence.

That doesn’t excuse the crimes. Plenty of citizens have not and will not give in or lose themselves to homicidal behavior regardless of the adversities confronting them whether it’s losing a job to cheap immigrant labor or their wife to another man. Tragically though, these incidents will likely increase in the months and years ahead as they reflect withdrawal symptoms of Americans coming down from the high of our empire drug.

We are living in an era of entropy now. Eventually, American society will adjust and establish a new economic-social paradigm for our times and the sooner the better. In the meantime though, there will be more incidents of desperate people trying to reclaim control of their fate by purchasing a gun and killing their designated scapegoats. Suicides will likely increase too. Such incidents will reinforce the sense of disorder in our daily lives as we cope with the future.

Private enterprise, government and iconic institutions, can no longer be relied upon to facilitate the stability and prosperity we Americans have come to regard as our birthright. It is therefore imperative during these times that we strengthen our ties to family, community and friends. Hyper-individualism is no longer sustainable and a new cultural ethos of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole is the best antidote to this disorienting entropy.

No comments: