A Conception of America as a Civilization

Despite outward appearances, this article does not aim to rehash history. It presents my observations on America, and is a case study for my ideas on societies and their functioning. This is intended to complement Notes from Americana.

Millennial America – or to be precise, the United States of America – the term used to refer to Americana of the 20th and 21st centuries refers to the sprawling federalist union and constitutional republic that stretched across much of the North America of that time. Being the most powerful nation-state for much of that time, its ideas and gestalt did influence and inform world policy and discourse, especially because they emerged at time when communications advances meant those ideas were disseminated almost instantly, where the Internet began to subvert traditional methods of dissemination, only expanding the reach of pop cultures and subcultures.

Depending on the viewpoint taken, America’s hegemony either crested in the late 20th century, or lasted well into the 21st century. Some historians argue that that the events of 9/11 dramatically affected the American psyche and that along with the subsequent war spending, signaled the beginning of the transition from being the one superpower to yet another power in a multi-polar world. Others argue that America’s momentum was so great, and so broad, that these events of the first decade of the 21st century were but a blip, a mis-step, and that her great inertia took America well into the 21st century. No matter what is said, undoubtedly, America will be looked back on as one of the great founts of human civilization. A place where money, power, culture, and military might came together to enable progress. Yes, that is not to say America did not have its detractors, and indeed that their points were valid, but that is to miss the picture. That is to miss the grandeur carved into the Earth by the river of human progress. Every great civilization has had its detractors and its critics. They are the baggage that accompanies what must be done to ascend to the peak of societal evolution. The ideas of private property, individualism, private enterprise and capitalism demanded the sacrifice of income inequality, the exercise of military might and hard diplomacy to maintain hegemony. This is not an excuse, it is a reason. It is the way of things. This is a description of what was, not a moral take.

Formation

The Industrial Revolution & America

The fact that stands out about America is that it was the first nation to start from a blank slate after the Industrial Revolution. This holds true especially for California, the state that characterized and immortalized America’s West Coast. The tabula rasa that the dispossession and killing of Native American tribes that lived in North America was, relegated to a side story, an aside. One who knew nothing of America, but simply took it at face value, would intuitively proceed with the assumption that this continent magically arose out of the depths of the oceans to kiss the keel of the Mayflower as it made landing. A land swept free of any sort of pre-existing imprimatur, glistening virgin and unspoilt. Indeed so much so that one felt Providence had taken heed of the Industrial Revolution and decreed there would be a land brand new for the heavy stamp of the Industrial Revolution to fall cleanly on. A land unlimited in expanse, commensurate with the vastness of possibility that the combination of human ingenuity and machine power allowed. Land that became the property of whoever was “brave enough to get there first” [1]. An idea codified in the mysticism of Manifest Destiny. And the great Atlantic Ocean only served to sever America from the constant internecine conflicts in Europe, the physical distance only serving to break the bonds between America and Europe. What allegiance was there to feel for your homeland that was an ocean away? Which little prized individuality and freedom and free enterprise. From where you had emigrated precisely because there was nothing for you there. These unique conditions laid the seed for greatness. They allowed not a country to gestate, but a civilization to gestate, on the wings of the Industrial Revolution, rising on the surge of a New World.

Isolationism as Protectionism

Lest the dry annals of history detract from the sweep of this narrative, we shall devote no more than an aside to note that the constant, internecine European wars, and the obsessive power games Europeans powers played, which afforded America a sort of indifferent protectionism, a sandbox for Americans to experiment, play and grow without worry of foreign invasion, complemented by wise policies of isolationism, all the while being fed by a steady stream of persons hardworking and adventurous that when the World Wars came to bear, America was ready.

The Idea: America as a Civilization

The Claim to the Plane of Civilizational Existence

For the mistake commonly made in conceptions of America is that it was a nation-state. Demarcated by boundaries on the map. America ended on the Pacific and the Atlantic. It ended at Canada and Mexico. The nation state of America ended there because the line on the map said so. There was this pervasive belief that each nation state was sovereign, separate entities that conducted business like transactions through diplomacy. Interference or war between nation states were viewed as aberrations, isolated incidents, not part of some greater chain, of some underlying current, of a certain process that had played out before. People recognized the signs but not the meaning. A line on the map did not mean a country ended at that line. Ideas of sovereignty did not mean your country was sovereign. What were these characteristics common to all great civilizations?

Civilizations extended well beyond their boundaries. Indeed, a civilisation had no ‘boundary’. Every civilisation in history has had vassal states that paid tribute, explicitly in form of wealth, or implicitly in an adoption of the values and culture of civilisation. States that bordered a civilisation could not escape the overbearing pressure to conform and to bow to that civisalition. They were a state. They could not hold sway against a civilization. A civilisation was humanity on another plane of existence. A civilisation begat wealth and security. Wealth and security begat culture and knowledge, progress and superiority, dominance and technological prowess. The surrounding states were effectively subsumed. The differences whittled down, reduced to the superficial. The seeds of the civilization’s culture sown, inexorably spreading in the fecund fields of its vassal states. Infiltrating and consuming their culture. Their memes. Their society. Exerting its inexorable, inescapable magnetism, gripping their imagination.

Such was America’s hold on the rest of the world, whether that world wished to admit it or not. You only had to look at the sheer number of groups, of identities, of movements, of reactionaries that defined themselves in terms of America. That would not exist if there was no America to define them. That drew the warm lifeblood of their identity from America, like mosquitoes to a human body. You only had to look to the Soviet Union, to the Al Qaeda, to Cuba, to the tinged European rejection of American individualism. To the extreme leftist and communist reactionaries for whom America was their standard. You can always judge the worth of a thing by that which it incites. And America incited. “It was said that if you ate pie in any part of the world, you would find an American finger it, which was funny since it was Americans who most loved pie, the implication being even your pie was made in America”. [2]

Her People

What was it about this continent? What endowed it with this magical ability to hold captive the imagination? Why did it succeed? As always, it is about people. It is about the people America drew, and continued to draw right up till and during the time of Millennial America. The civilisation always drew the best and brightest. It dangled the irresistible golden lure, the charm, of a new life. The Old World was the old world. With their monarchs, and aristocrats, and feudal systems. Their Hottentots and Bourbons. Their Kings and Queens. They did not represent man heroic. Homo Deus. They represented our primordial selves. The principles of private property and free enterprise were a world apart for them. And because they were a world apart did they have to find expression in a world apart. America arose at the point where Man was beginning to understand enough of himself to get it right. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson understood the state. They understood human nature. They understood a Nation was a question of design, of balance. That the constructs of government, of the free market and of the public were trusses that leaned on each other, supported each other and held each other in check to form the form of a country, and perchance a civilisation. “The Founding Fathers were precisely what America attracted, Men for whom the Old World held nothing, and the New World held everything”. [3]

George Washington: Exemplar

Mount Rushmore: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

How much the New World held is evident in the character of the men it drew. The act exemplar was George Washington’s astonishingly selfless act of retiring after he served two terms. To see a man give up power is true testament to his character. To voluntarily surrender power, to have power in your hand, and to let it slip. The symbolic magnitude of the act provides us with a glimpse of what George Washington knew was at stake here. He knew that the United States of America was something new. Something mankind had not seen before. He knew how much rode on the USA surviving its birthing pains. And that he had to let go so that what had just been born, a civilisation and a way of life inchoate, could gestate and bring itself to fruition. That intellect had at long last been bestowed upon mankind, and that intellect had at long last let us grasp the tiller firmly, that we may take charge of our own destiny. That society was a question of design and that Design was the Constitution. He says of the Constitution in his farewell speech,” Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government”. Thus the Constitution was the embodiment of mankind’s understanding of itself, designed so that it may spawn a civilisation, and usher in the Next Age, a civilisation fit for the Industrial Revolution and for the progeny of the Enlightenment.

Says Nobel Peace Prize recipient Xinlai Chen,”Relinquishing power that is your goes against the very grain of human nature. And to relinquish power that your peers and your fellow citizen have gladly yielded to you, that, that takes something else. And George Washington did that twice”. Indeed, King George II called him “the greatest character of the age”when he learned Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief.[4]

The Land of the Free

If American had dogma, it was the dogma of freedom. Of notions set in concrete. Private property was sacrosanct. Freedom of speech was sacrosanct. The right to bear arms was sacrosanct. Small government was sacrosanct. The Bill of Rights was sacrosanct. Call it individualism. Call it the Protestant work ethic. Call it simply the zeitgeist of those who made it across the Atlantic. The natural thinking of men and women who would stake their lives on a new world. That translated into freedom. Perhaps it was the brand the Wild West burned into the psyches of those who braved it. Self reliance, independence, a visceral reaction to the imposition of force. A rigid, inflexible approach to the faintest appropriation of, or the monopolization of, violence by any organization, even the state. No one had the right to dictate the terms to your life, except you. Even Noam Chomsky, one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, and more importantly, a political dissident, said, “In many respects, the United States is the freest country in the world. I don’t just mean in terms of limits on state coercion, though that’s true too, but also in terms of individual relations. The United States comes closer to classlessness in terms of interpersonal relations than virtually any society.

This was the central, defining characteristic of American identity. History has come to recognize that American was unlike any other civilization in existence. Its identity was forged not through tribal ties of fraternity, not through shared geographical kinship, not through an intimately shared cultural and social history. American identity was not about where you came from. American identity was about your ideals. Being American did not connote a place of origin physical. It connoted a place of origin mental. It meant you held a certain set of values, and you were bound by those values. And you were secure in the knowledge that your fellow Americans were bound by those values. You held the most faultless dogma if there were one, the dogma of freedom. And perchance, just perchance, from this freedom would be won happiness. Every man has the right to happiness.

America and her Bindings

Grand Narratives

Could a society even be founded on the tenets of individualism? Was it not oxymoronic? How could a society arise out of that individualistic fire. How could a society be forged in individualism? America was forged in individualism because it was also quenched in individualism. A society that rode on the wings of individualism could rise further than a society that rose on the wings of collectivism. If every man and woman exercised their right to perfection, if they exercised their heroism and will to live, then society would be dragged along in the wake of the progress they crafted. “If Money and Power were Gods, if Work were Religion”.[5] As long as they kept in mind the over-riding cause of Americana. As long as they kept in the mind the over-arching obedience to the Constitution. As long as they held fast to what their country stood for, such that even while they exercised individualism, they held fast to a narrative of a kind, to the narrative that they were building something. That they were participants in the American Dream. That they were together in something. It was a curious thing indeed, to see how the grand narratives Americana fashioned for itself interwove themselves with the prized – axiomatic in how prized they were – and inviolable principles of individualism. How a culture sprung up with her own rituals and bindings and rites of passage. How Americana’s grand narratives were curiously tied to possession and not to people. That through things, entities, was the gist of Americana conveyed, and not through people.

The people’s historian, Rana Jha, describes it thus. “Every nation state of that time fashioned for itself a curious identity, formed out of a melange of identities that had been passed down through the centuries, anchored in its religious, cultural and social past. But America had no such history. She had nothing to draw sustenance from. And into that narrative vacuum stepped not the narratives of religion and culture that you would expect, but narratives of the civilisation itself”.[6]

Into that vacuum seeped narrative identities of the Founding Fathers, of the Constitution, of the War of Independence, of the Presidents, of Men & Women in Uniform, of Cowboy, of the Wild West, of New York, of the Statue of Liberty, of the 4th of July, of Route 66, of the American Wilderness, of Gettysburg, of everything America went through, through its birthing pangs, through the pain of the Civil War, through the social rights movements, through the ever-present, ever-hanging nuclear fear of the Cold War through to the tiring sunset of the 21st century. But these narratives existed in Millennial America. Narratives where the Nation State was the subject. And its citizens defined themselves by the nation state, not by a primary linguistic or ethno-geographic identity and then a secondary national identity. It was the nationalistic identity first and foremost, and then, a secondary, fainter, ethno-geographic identity if at all. You could see it in the rituals Americans participated in, in the nature of those rituals, in what they valued, and in what they prized.

The Oval Office.

You could see in the great store they set in learning their country’s history. And the centerpiece of that history, their Presidents. If American history had a linchpin, if it had something to piece it together, it was America’s Presidents. America’s Presidents were one of her foremost narratives. They were larger than life, they represented America is some sort of indescribable sense. The President was personal. They played a role akin to the role of the fairy godmother. It was as if every American had a Presidential Angel on their shoulder. It was often said in retrospect, that you didn’t have a President, you had the Presidential Office. The White House. The Air Force One. The Oval Office. The State of Union Speech. These were not simply shiny accoutrements tacked on to the President. No. The President was part of the Presidential Office, a larger than life narrative that towered over the American public sphere. Administrations were defined by them. Americana was invested in them. Her restless obsession with her Presidents was incorrigible. Every other person in the administration was simply a side-show, but they carried the era with their name. Names like Kennedy, Roosevelt, Carter, Hoover, Jefferson, Nixon, Washington echoed through history like the tolling of a bell, the name reverberating through the annals of history, the grand echo rolling through the scapes of the American zeitgeist, each bell’s toll building upon those that had come before, laying the foundation for those to come after.

You could see it in the deep sense of attachment they felt with their flag, and the pride with which they displayed it. It was a badge of honour to be patriotic, to show you participated in the narrative of American Exceptionalism through such symbolic gestures. That you asserted that exceptionalism by flying the American flag outside your house, or at your business. It was through such symbols that Americans asserted their distinctive sense of identity, whether real or imagined. Schopenhauer spoke of man’s “metaphysical need”. The innate, deep desire we possess as humans to forge a sense of identity, and to bind ourselves to a narrative that transcends us. A narrative that makes us feel complete, that bores into our psyche and envelopes us, filling us with its fervour, binding us to its dogma. The people who braved the unknown and poured into America make that land their narrative. They erected symbols to it. Rituals to it, and ideals to it. Lacking the moorings of history, they forged moorings of their own from the land they believed would give them happiness, and that land became part of them, fulfilling their metaphysical need, and in turn giving rise to a civilization.

Indeed Robert Bellah raised these very points in his “Civil Religion in America” in 1967. There are distinct strains of thought in America that foster integration and cohesiveness. That reinforce the ideas of American-ness and of Exceptionalism.

Ritual Americana

Rituals that fed straight into the narrative. Rituals as the the fireworks of July the 4th, Independence Day. Laura Cohen recounts from her childhood memories of watching the grand, riveting fireworks display at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a display that went on for hours. Of how the ritual of watching that display on the lawns of the Coliseum with thousands of other Americans strangely cemented her connection with that day, even though the rigid bounds of American society meant each individual in the crowd stayed within their social confines, the bright, bold, shining fireworks against the black sky above the hulking bulk of the Coliseum strangely bound the crowd together. Such was the power of ritual. And Americana had its rituals, make no mistake.[7]

Americana and her rituals took strange forms and it is only now that their outlines are coalescing. These were not rituals of religion, not overt displays of solidarity, not things born of culture where people connected – emotion was not vested in the social fabric. Perchance this explains the elusiveness with which these rituals have evaded recognition. Throughout the course of human history, rituals traced their roots back to our ancient tribal culture. Think ritual and you think a shaman and a drum circle around a blazing fire pit. Grotesque masks and tribal symbols. A gathering of people communing. America’s rituals were strangely shifted. They dealt with pleasure and consumption, with the material and with indulgence. You see, Black Friday was a ritual. Disneyland was a ritual. Yosemite was a ritual. Late night talk shows were rituals. Driving was a ritual. Ownership of a car, an expression of the independence, of the ability to conquer land, conquer the miles and miles of freeway, in actuality an assertion of ownership of land that passed you by. In Europe you backpacked. But in America, you made a cross-country road-trip. Cars, freeways and cheap gasoline combined in a strange manner which could only be described as American to yield a sense of freedom, that the very act of driving for miles, the act of expending gasoline, somehow symbolized the mastery of the individual over the environment, and the elevation of the individual. And the individualistic participation in some manner formed the ritual. The ritual lay in the gross subscription of individuals to an idea and society was bound through that idea.

Have you ever visited the abandoned, decrepit but monstrous hulks of Disneyland? Make the journey to the rusting, decaying ruins of the Florida Disneyland. Gaze at it. Imagine the thousands of people who poured into it. Imagine the ritual. Imagine an American family who earned their happiness there. Then imagine a thousand American families doing that simultaneously. Imagine them together as one taking those rides, eating popcorn, eating hot dogs, taking the childlike wonder of Disney’s characters, of the thrills, rides and escapades. Then. And this is the essential part. Take the Concord to Rome. Get off the plane, and go to the Coliseum. Imagine thousands of Romans in that majestic structure, participating in the ritual of the Coliseum. Sitting around the galleries, imagine the prelates and the patricians in their boxes, imagine the crowd baying for a gladiator’s blood. All together. All feeling the same emotions run through them at the same time. For that is the essence of a ritual. Every person must feel the same emotions as every other person and they must know that they are feeling the same emotion. When this happens at the scale of a crowd, at the scale of thousands of people, it is magic. It does something to your thought consciousness. It makes society real, apparent. Not an abstract concept but a thing you can identify with. At a ritual, society and narrative become intertwined and become part of you, thus binding you to them. There is no difference between Disneyland the Coliseum. They are both rituals. And they must be looked at thus.

America and Emotion

Disneyland and the Coliseum. What was the difference there? Disneyland is a company, a construct of market economics. The Coliseum the product of the Roman Emperors, the state in a sense. This strikes to the heart of America and Emotion. Americans looked to companies to fulfill their emotional and psychological drives. How else could it be? They had cut their moorings and cast away their identities. But deep down in the lizard and leopard brains rested the psychological drives of need and safety and pleasure. If heritage and culture were cast aside, the vacuum sucked in the zeitgeist and the zeitgeist rushed to fill it. America’s zeitgeist proffered the free market. The free market is a “wild beast”[8], it saw prey and it feed off that prey. It saw the rich pickings in the American psyche unfulfilled. And it leapt to capture that prize, lest it be torn away too soon. It self-organized and formed. It rose and cemented its hold. It cast a net and monopolized fulfillment. The distinguishing feature of American corporate character was that American corporates did not fulfill material needs, they fulfilled psychological needs. They filled the space formed by the uprootedness of America’s citizens. Citizens searched, and corporates answered. Did not DeBeers create the marketing campaign that said,”A diamond is forever”. A campaign that cemented the role of diamond rings in marriage? And did not the DeBeers chairman say that diamonds were worthless except for “except for the deep psychological need they fill”.

This point underlies the debate that characterized much of the rhetoric surrounding the role of government regulation in America. The American left, aghast at the excesses of capitalism, indignant at the naked indifference with which corporate America exploited the psyche, railed against that perceived evil. A case in point is the Great Recession that rocked Millennial America. Wall Street exploited the American want for property and wealth, precipitating a financial crisis where they were the only winners, leaving an entire class of people impoverished. They used money as weapon, prising open the barriers of government, buying influence and power. Wresting control and setting the rules of the game. The American right, endowed with the formed self-righteousness of American exceptionalism, powered by the ideals of the free market, of a capitalist system that fed progress, reacted to the left’s imposition like a viper struck. Their convulsive reactions moved to uphold notions of small government and keep the capitalistic dynamo humming.

It was in the Great Recession that you could see the bindings of American Society fraying and snapping. Individualism had run – run too far. It had run ahead of the American narrative. Every system will jam eventually. It is a question of time. If there were Millennial Americans who subscribed to Americana it was the stretched middle class. History has judged this to flow from the great divide between the rich and the middle class. A divide so great that the middle class did not see what happened in Capitol Hill, what happened in downtown skyscrapers and what happened at power lunches and golf retreats. Just as human nature has corrupted every system of government, so it permeated capitalism. America became less a cohesive set of principles upheld by bipartisan, devoted congressmen and more a creature pulled in every which direction by special interests too powerful to be opposed in their domains. When the CEO of a country’s largest investment bank becomes the Treasury Secretary, what is government and what is corporate? Corporatocracy? When a system is such that the prison guards union pushes for stronger laws. When the Supreme Court overtly acknowledges that money may play a role unbridled in plays of power. At this point were questions of the health the system raised. It was no longer a question of policy, or of action, it was a question of the framework.

Individualism: Embodying Contradiction

Individualism. The tenet of maximum personal freedom. At its soul, the American conception of individualism reflects a curious case of black and white thinking. Of what an individual should and should not do. The debate often couched in terms of violence. Of coercion at gunpoint. To members of the right, taxes were an attack on personal liberty at gunpoint. It was the government holding a gun to your head with one hand, and stealing your money from your pocket with the other hand. This was undoubtedly true in a sense, and completely false in another sense. Yes, Max Weber did say the state was the entity which monopolized the legitimate use of force. But, after all, did not Hobbes say it was the social contract, wherein individuals ceded rights so that others ceded theirs? It was an exchange. That was what made it fair. But it was a curiosity that the Hobbesian argument often seemed to be too nebulous a thing for the American right to grasp. It simply slipped them by. Their conception framed the argument simply. Physical violence or no physical violence. Hurt, for them, could not be carried out through the operations of business or communication. The machinery of society only conveyed hurt through actual violence. It has been a few decades since Nina Brodokoff agonized over this seeming conundrum, but it has resisted analysis.

The Tea Party’s symbolic moment: Students pepper sprayed at UC-Davis.

For it is to the fundamental contradictions in the ideal of individualism that much is attributed. At its heart, a bare reading of individualism would say,”If you can cheat a person in a transaction, do it. It is to your good”. Plain to see that this is an awful, self-defeating basis for society. But how does an individualistic society work when morals are cast off? Through the formulation and enforcement of rules. Each social transaction must be backed up by the rule of law. The threat of punishment and justice must forever hang in the background, serving to remind individualism that it lies forever subservient to the heavy hand of societal necessity. Thus, individualism has the curious effect of curbing itself, when viewed through the prism of society. The moral cleansing it engenders necessitates the formation and enforcement of rules to ensure social transactions have a framework. Transactions and the role of trust in transaction are an issue in themselves, and will accordingly be dealt with separately. What is of note to history here is that individualism was counterbalanced by the rule of law, and to some effect, by the American narrative. But, finally, the caustic forces of individualism corroded the narrative buttress of American identity. Millennial America moved identity from identification with the nation state to identification with yourself. Individualism became a truism. You anchored yourself. It was this shift in the zeitgeist which laid the seeds of social malaise. The grassroots, self organizing Occupy movement and the Tea Party were genuine examples, polar opposites though they might appear to be, of America defending herself against individualism run amok. Both movements rooted themselves in same indignation, and self-righteousness, a common sharing loathing of an entity that they did not fully understand, except to the effect it used the smokescreen of free marketeering to control their lives.

The Idiosyncrasies of a Society

Social Interaction and Emotional Fulfillment

The emphasis on the rule of law as the foundation for transactions manifested itself in character of everyday American social interaction. It tipped interactions towards a business-like framework of transaction with a tacit protocol and expected social cues. Towards efficiency in getting accomplishing business, short circuiting the social grooming required to establish long term social expectations, concomitantly severing that associated baggage. The gain in efficiency demanded its pound of flesh in draining social interactions of the touch of emotion. Americans naturally learnt to keep relationships at a distance, lest they intrude upon the over-riding concern of conducting business. It is questionable, and has recently been a subject of much analysis if this was significant, and if it played into forcing Americans to fulfill Americans drive through other outlets, notably high profile human and animal rights causes. Did the suppressed emotional drives find expression in the “First World’s Burden”[9]? What, if at all, was the interplay between the rigid strictures and emotional distance of American social interaction and the cornucopia of emotionally driven causes Americans subscribed to?

The Presidency of Barack Obama

Obama symbolized Hope.

Barack Obama was championed as a President who could steer America back. A cerebral figure and gifted orator, and a unifying figure who cut across racial lines, his election promised much, it promised a long awaited deliverance for the American left, the right person at the right time. Instead, it only served to throw him into a divided Congress that stymied his every move. The American system of governance was designed with the idea that its members held American good at their hearts. And it was designed in the 18th century, a time where a constant, screaming, sound-bite driven media circus was outside conception, where the media-on-steroids uncontrollability that the Internet engendered was unfathomable. Politics in Millennial America meant navigating the raging waters of the constant PR arms race, a potent cocktail of rhetoric, shibboleths, oratory, lobbying and media. It was not a policy battle, it was an information battle. The ease of disseminating information meant the biggest winners were those who focused on “spin”, on getting people to believe what they wanted them to believe through information wars and not through action. The constant roiling information surges through partisan channels of communication, surges that played off emotion and fear, potent human push-buttons, reinforced prejudice and suspicion, pigeonholing the other side into narrowly defined stereotypes that never failed to operate along these predefined lines and expected roles. The parochial two party system inherently suppressed alternatives, putting a lid on the froth of democracy, strangely limiting free market-esque operation in a country dedicated to the free market. The paucity of alternatives meant rigid impositions on the democratic process, it meant forcing the two parties into the same tired, banal, self-repeating and exhausting postures. Pro-life and pro-choice. Gay rights versus the sanctity of marriage. Gun rights versus gun abolition. Environmentalism versus corporate freedom. Regulation versus the free market. Each party forced to reprise, rinse and repeat. To sink into old, familiar roles. Competition ensured plurality of opinion, flexibility and balance. Thought it is acknowledged herein that a multiparty system can lead to deadlock, regionalism and a deleterious focus on the narrow, self-serving priorities of each coalition party’s voter base, exemplified by the convoluted coalition governments of Millennial India.

Security and Existential Threat

A common thread that has run through American history has been that of defining policy as a response to existential threat. Every decade drew forth its own construct, whether it be the Red Scare, Cuba, the drug wars, urban crime, terrorism, China… Each construct founded in truth, then engorging itself on a diet of fear of what could be if that construct came to be. Of the imagined consequences of that thing manifesting itself in the American private sphere, intruding on freedom. It flowed from the cardinality of freedom, that the a threat vague and obscure could catapult itself using that cardinality and become larger than life. From this flowed the constructs of the Transportation Security Agency’s security theatre, the overwhelming “shock and awe” military might, the fortified Mexican border, the heavy handed foreign policy, the staged coup d’etats, the “tough on crime” policies politicians found themselves compelled to back. Anything that served to [10] “insulate the private sphere from the spectre of what was ‘out there’ ”. It was not for nothing that Millennial America had the highest incarceration rate in the world. And it was symptomatic of the American bent that crime was fought with policing and not social programmes.

America’s Militaristic Bent

George Bush announces the end of Gulf War II.

Like any civilization, America found that existence was founded on military might. When you boiled it down, that was all anyone cared about. If I poke you in the eye, will you poke me back? Have an overwhelming military presence at your back, and voila! Everyone was instantly pliant. I see your Blackbird SR-71s, your Apache helicopters and your aircraft carriers. I know your nuclear stockpile. Your military alliances and your willingness to exercise military might. America’s militaristic bent asserted itself out of necessity. You could see it in her imbued military traditions, such as those of “no man left behind”. War and death is a delicate subject and no more will be said here of this.

The Trappings of a Civilization

The Land of Opportunity

What made America a civilization? Every country has narratives, rituals and customs. But what are the trappings of a civilization. A civilization does not end at its borders. Its weight is felt far beyond. The impress it leaves, but important to note, an impress which is inescapable. A civilization has a momentum so great that it seeps into the mindspace of those who encounter it, whether of the volition or not. It has a magnetism that gathers people to it, and it foments an irresistible pull on the imagination. It is clear America possessed this. America pulled humans of ambition and ability from every corner of the globe. It spoke its vision of the American Dream loud and clear. The Statue of Liberty said, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. She might as well have said,”Give you your best and brightest and and I shall give them freedom, opportunity and reward”. The whole point of America was to exert this dynamic magnetism and draw the world’s best into a system that gave them the freedom, and left them unencumbered by social constraints. A system flexible and free that these best and brightest would satisfy human want through the fluid flow of capitalism.

Plato said,”One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”. This got to the heart of America’s hold, to the psyche of those she drew to herself. For America knew the best wanted to be governed not. All they needed was a sandbox to play in. They desire to fight free of society’s constraints, of being told what to do by their perceived inferiors. And America recognized that need in them, and fulfilled that need. Think of the nations of the world as competing in a free market, in a jungle, for the best of us. In a market, always find a need and satisfy it. America recognized what the best hungered after, and presented them with it. The Land of Opportunity.

A Motor of World Culture

It is only recently that enough water has flowed under the bridge to give us perspective on American culture. In the global consciousness, Millennial America’s image was of burnished hard-nosed diplomacy and military intervention. The long reach of her pop culture was infinitely subtler. Hollywood leveraged the Anglophone remnants of the British Empire into a global mass market. It used every succeeding technological innovation to engage and entertain every corner of the globe. It was safe to say that American soft power let her conquer nations through creeping encroachment. Just the same manner in which Greece’s Hellenistic influence was felt far and wide, an influence that seeped across the land, over borders and into local consciousnesses. It was as if American foreign policy served as vapid cover for this conquest, an easy focal point of attack, a distraction from the real conquest of ethos. It was as if the American cultural juggernaut self-organized to glorify the American way through popular culture to tacitly embed that way as the only possible manner for countries to evolve. As a country moved through successive stepping stones of progress, the pop culture that emanated from America ensured those stepping stones were the values that embodied America. Look at nations that grew rich after World War II. Japan and South Korea, and more recently China, India, South Africa, and Brazil. Every country’s natural ethos has sloughed off, only for the seeds of Americana to settle into the space. “As American power equilibriated with a multi-polar world in the 21st century, those ascendants grew American themselves. Differences became one of degree, because while power equilibriated, information society meant culture also equilibriated”.[11] This cultural dominance reflected itself in American ignorance of the outside world, but a global awareness of America.

A Lost Generation

Some historians have argued that the generations of the 90s and 2000s, the ones that lived the trauma of 9/11 – who grew up in the Great Recession, who waded through double digit unemployment rates and six figure debt loads, who grew up in an America where inequality had reached never-before proportions, who were frustrated by glass ceilings of money and connections they barely understood – represented a lost generation. This view is dismissed as a canard by the mainstream, with the caveat that there is a ring of truth to it. They point to a rise in mental disorders, to people who simply ‘dropped out’, declared bankruptcy, left a society that promised empty promises, to a decline in life expectancy, to falling household wealth, to a decline in social mobility, to the staggering proportions of student debt load, the education bubble that finally burst. These hard figures that are impossible to ignore, and perhaps only time will let us appreciate what the generation of the Recession bore.

Those same historians argue this was only reinforced by the rising strain of individualism in the zeitgeist, leaving a society that provided little direction and cared less. And by a debt-laden government which only successively cut back on programs of social worth.

Failings

How does one tread the line between accounting for the well flogged failings and worn criticisms of America when those wounds are raw and real. It is socially acceptable to talk of Plato and Aristotle, though they justified slavery, it is socially acceptable to talk of the grandeur of the Roman Coliseum even though humans were made to fight for their lives. Is it socially acceptable to talk of America’s greatness when the all the too real spectres of African slavery, of Native American extermination, of sponsored coups and repeated interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism hang in the backdrop, mouthing silent protest, tugging at our human conscience? It must await the passage of time and the distance of history. Till then, one must acknowledge that American wealth was founded on slavery, on appropriating a continent from its inhabitants, and on forcible diplomacy that protected American interests at all costs, whether it meant precipitating conflict or inflicting a coup d’etat. This essay does not aim to cover this rutted, much trodden ground, because others have done so much more ably, and because it is not the point of this essay. The point is to provide perspective on what makes America a civilization. For a closer examination of America’s failings, a close reading of American life is required, and I direct you to my Notes From Americana.

Conversely, one may argue America has provided millions of dollars in aid, and has shipped millions of tons of food at times of acute need to countries in want. [1][2][3] When morality begins to intrude on history, we descend into a morass of competing opinions and facts are lost in the fog of right and wrong. There is not much point progressing here.

America — Civilization

America is a civilization. It marked an epoch in world history, and informed generations. It will be studied as a case study of human intellect emergent, the first case of a nation by design, not a nation by accident. For inspiring other nations to follow her wake into the glad embrace of free markets and individualism. For forming yet another fount of human heroism, and laying down paths of knowledge that would be inherited by societies to come. For what became of the intersection of nation driven narratives and an idolization of individual freedom. As of this telling, it is the greatest experiment yet in the grand tapestry of human history, and its lessons will reverberate through the bindings of human history, to leave their own residues, and soak into human thought consciousness in their own singular manner. When the pendulum of human thought traced the path of wisdom into the extremity of individualism counterbalanced by an identity forged out of a communal understanding of that extremity. Inevitably, inexorably, individual evolution eroded the foundational rock of societal binding. The fact remains that a great civilization will always shine its beacon into our future, and we shall always look at the beacon in awe and amazement, and wonder how those ancestors of ours built that civilization, and what thoughts coursed through their minds, what grand narratives held its citizens fast and what gestalt, towering organism self emerged out of that proliferating mass of ideal and thought to form a civilization.

Perhaps he put it best when he said,”You know you have achieved greatness when others define themselves in terms of you, when people will talk of you for eons to come, and when humanity will discuss and dissect you for posterity, and if nothing else, America certainly achieved that.”[12]

References

  1. Wirth, Rohn “Settling America” Cambridge University Press (2051).
  2. Anakhi, Seb “America: Reach and Influence” Princeton University Press (2034).
  3. Mmlawbe, Oshownwe “The American Psyche” USC University Press (2012).
  4. Chen, Xinlai Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech 2028.
  5. Gaston, Alamb “A Contemporary Re-Interpretation of America” Routledge (2039).
  6. Khan, Rana “Interpretation through Narrative” Amer. J. of Hist. (May 2022).
  7. Cohen, Laura “An Imagining of History” Penguin (2035)
  8. Berry, Christopher, “The Myth of the Free Market” Sydney Australian (2017).
  9. Wilson, Kayla “First World’s Burden” Random House (2019).
  10. Garcia, Alexander “America: Security & Insecurity” Los Angeles Times 20th May, 2031.
  11. Woodbrige, Emily “An Analysis of Cultural Evolution in the 21st Century” Kaya Press, 2047.
  12. Gill, Karan “A Conception of America as a Civilization” (2012).

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