What happens when reality hits delusion? U.S. mythology and fantasy will remain resilient. Denial, doubling-down, scapegoating, recrimination and more audacious adventures are the instinctive responses, writes Michael Brenner
Americans discount the past. They live in the present and imagine the future. Events are assimilated into a mythologized pageant of progress that leads to an ever fuller realization of a more perfect union — liberty and justice at home, goodwill and good works abroad.
Happenings of an unseemly nature are sanitized so as to conform to the self-image of destiny’s child born in a state of original virtue; or they are encapsulated and repressed.
Deep within us, though, they survive in a state of indeterminant hibernation — along with the passions, impulses and ambitions that generated those misdeeds. They become spores, dormant until a favorable environment appears for their reactivation.
What we are witnessing in the United States today is a recrudescence of baneful elements from earlier times: the rapacious society that ruthlessly decimated the indigenous peoples from sea to shining sea; that warred against Mexico to steal half of its lands; that attacked Spain’s overseas possessions to build the early foundation of empire; that policed the Caribbean basin to its commercial advantage; that jailed those who voiced disagreement with the U.S.’ entry into World War I; that has glorified the frontier’s violence, sharp-dealing and wanton destruction of nature denied its status as an heirloom.
Certainly, those unbecoming episodes from the past resonate with what we observe today: in the United States’ rampage through the Middle East, its resort to systemic torture, its belligerence and bullying, its repressive treatment of critics at home, its crude and corrupt electoral politics.
These deeds are at variance with the country’s principles, its self-image, its external image and, too, a 20th century record that included policies and attitudes that aimed at generating public goods and attentive to the general welfare.
Moreover, our largely capable leaders who possessed an ingrained sense of responsibility for the good of the commonweal contrast sharply with our present crop of inept and feckless leaders with whom the nation is saddled.
We now are experiencing a clash between those latter virtues and the revival of those malign, demonic elements wresting free of their sublimation.
A diagrammatic depiction of the United States today must give central place to four interwoven facets of contemporary American society.
They are: plutocracy; the growing neo-Fascist movement; the erosion of fidelity to core Constitutional values, accompanied by a timidity in taking action to defend them.
This is evident in each of three branches of government, at state and local levels, and even among the galaxy of our famed civic institutions that populate the social landscape; and a pervasive self-centeredness that is at once an effective and reinforced cause of the nihilism that is a hallmark of our times — sapping the lifeblood out of the body politic while encouraging all manner of erratic behavior.
The complexity of the composition thus created is impossible to explicate within reasonable limits of time and space. So, let’s simply illustrate how each in its own right is manifest in the country’s external dealings.
The Financial Sector
One: Washington is unable, and disinclined, to pursue any policy that contravenes the narrow, self-defined interests of the financial and commercial powerhouses who control the political parties through electoral campaign donations and bribes, won a de facto tax holiday, monopolize the major media, underwrite foundations and think tanks so as to shape their product, and hatch schemes to infiltrate and reprogram educational institutions at every level as an invasive species denatures the eco-system.
The financial sector is the most prominent, active and influential of these private economic entities. Since they are institutionalized globally, the entire American outlook on multilateral organizations (the IMF, the World Bank, GATT, SWIFT) and their programs is dictated by the benefits that flow from them: earnings for private interests, clout for the government to cajole, coerce or dictate to other countries The abusive use made of SWIFT and the IMF in the confrontation with Russia is case in point.
When we imagine trade negotiations and accords, we visualize mainly the exchange of manufactured goods and natural resources. That is no longer the case. What counts, above all, are financial arrangements. Intellectual property comes second. Energy and agriculture next. Manufactures are an also-ran.
At present, it is China that dominates that sector of international commerce. Its overall manufacturing capacity is greater than that of the U.S., the EU and Japan combined. Add Russia’s capacity (and raw materials) to that number and you understand both Washington’s dedication to leveraging those economic assets that it retains (backed by military assets) and its mounting sense of vulnerability.
A Rising Tide
Two: The rise of a potent, expanding movement that should be properly labelled “Fascism with American characteristics” to date has had only a relatively slight bearing on the country’s foreign policy. The monsters its militants seek to slay, the enemies they see as poisoning the well of Americanism, are domestic.
The Russia threat, the China threat, the fading Islamo-fascist threat are not what drives its adherents — although they share the unanimous conviction that all of the above are evil-doers hostile to the United States. Still, it is the turmoil at the Mexican border that really gets their blood boiling — the only “foreign” issue that is as emotional, as bile-producing, as liberal elites, atheists and baby-killers.
What the future will bring in the way of adding an international dimension to this stew is unpredictable. As of now, Republicans are mainly focused on denouncing whatever President Joe Biden does rather than promoting any foreign policy agenda of their own.
Three: The degradation of American democracy is perhaps the most profound development in the troubled state of contemporary America. Its deleterious effects are multiple — and likely enduring if not absolutely irreversible.
Most obviously, an American Republic in which “government of the people, for the people, by the people” is a motto that strikes only a faint, nostalgic note is not the country on which a mighty nation was built and which has been the grounding for the individual as well as collective self-esteem that always has distinguished the United States.
What it does do is to sow doubt as to the superiority of the American enterprise, to weaken self-confidence, to undercut American credibility among other peoples and other governments, and to dissolve that veneer of goodwill — a compound of truth and fable — that so effectively has smoothed the path to global dominance.
Moreover, it breeds a cynicism that spills over from the domestic scene to dealings abroad. Autocratic methods, arrogance, the loss of any capacity for empathy, the zero-sum conception of all relationships are liabilities — ones that are unsuited for an America of diminishing prowess and relative strength in a world moving rapidly in the direction of multipolarity and multilateralism.
Finally, it tends to bring to power in Washington persons whose skills have been honed for the rough-and-tumble of domestic wars rather than for statesmanlike vision and diplomacy.
Disengagement From Reality
Four: Nihilism and narcissism are a matching pair. They go together. A fluid socio-cultural environment encourages individuals to “do their own thing” without fear of opprobrium or penalty. Limits are vague, restraints weak, models that convey the unspoken message are plentiful.
The aggregation of persons so uninhibited accentuates the nihilism of society. A disengagement from reality is the outcome. In the first instance, it is a disengagement from norms and conventions. That leads to a disengagement from the objective features of the environment in which you live and act.
Disregard for the concerns of others (ignoring them or, in more extreme cases, not even recognizing that they exist); disregard for history, background, context; disengagement from tangible reality itself — ultimately disengagement from their former selves.
We are close to a condition that approximates what the psychologists call “dissociation.” It is marked by an inability to see and to accept actualities as they are for deep seated emotional reasons.