The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

American Intervention: Why The United States Needs A 12 Step Program

Let’s start with George Carlin. For a guy who repeatedly said he couldn’t understand America, he sure got an awful lot right. Like the phrase: Proud To Be An American. “What the f#@% does that mean?” Carlin asked. “That’s like being proud to be 5’7”, or proud to have a pre-disposition to colon cancer…Pride should be reserved for something you achieved or attained on your own, not something that happened by accident of birth…if you’re happy with it, that’s fine. Put that on your car: Happy To Be An American.”


But there’s a reason why you never see that slogan on the bumper sticker of an automobile. Americans are not happy. Maybe that’s why we feel the need to be proud; it’s as if our American pride masks something dark, bizarre, and unfaceable. If 2008 was the Year of Hope, then 2012 is the Year of Fear. Barack Obama will destroy your business. Mitt Romney will take away your reproductive rights. Quick! Fact check that lie and get it out on Facebook before all the people who probably agree with you anyway start to believe in something that simply just isn’t true. And don’t forget the Supreme Court! And the Deficit! And the Unemployment Rate! And Iran! And Benghazi! And I stood upon the sand…and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.

With all this surplus of information and opinion, you have to wonder if there is a single national problem that Americans are failing to discuss. The truth is, there are many. Like characters in the world of Harold Pinter, our major presidential candidates distinguish themselves primarily by what they aren’t saying. Perhaps it’s because we just won’t let them. “Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary,” writes Scott Shane in The New York Times. “It is impermissible to dwell on chronic, painful problems, or on statistics that challenge the notion that the United States leads the world…” Shane goes on to demonstrate how far behind we are:

  • In regards to childhood poverty: “…of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania.”
  • Shane asserts that, “…contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.”
  • Our infant mortality is high; 48 countries have lower rates than ours, among them Singapore, Guam, South Korea, Croatia, and Serbia.

The candidate planning to bring any of those facts up in the next debate might as well book a lunch date with Michael Dukakis. No. America must be Number 1. (And we actually are number one when it comes to incarceration, obesity, and energy consumption.) Our national optimism must be massaged, our egos protected. We need our president to be the kid’s soccer coach who cries, “Nice try!” every time the ball slips past the grasp of the goalie.  C’mon Mr. President! Be charming! Be funny! Be tough! And presidential! But don’t make us get all introspective and shit. That’d be un-patriotic.

In short, we are not electing a president. We’re electing an enabler. A co-dependent who might occasionally nag us to “cut down” on those things that will surely kill us, but in the end reassures Americans just how special we really, truly are. That it’ll be ok. That we are better than our actions might suggest. And this, above all else: that genuine change is possible without the sweat and blood of true political sacrifice.

In the global human family, America is the raging addict, the abusive head of household. Charming we are: the rest of the world loves us so much, that 20.56% of our population is comprised of immigrants.  Influential? Absolutely. With a defense budget of $700 billion (more than the 14 other highest other spending countries combined), how could we not be? Culturally relevant? You betcha. Quantifying the world’s biggest pop staris no easy task, but all evidence would suggest that music’s reigning monarch is most certainly an American.

During the course of my life, I’ve known plenty of addicts. They’re a pretty charming bunch. In fact, they’re irresistible. I’ve never met an addict who didn’t fill the room with a magnetically dominating personality. Shane didn’t title his article “The Opiate of Exceptionalism” for nothing. On our planet of humanoid dysfunction, America is addiction personified. And don’t try to contradict me; you’ll just be displaying the classic signs of denial. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume over 20% of its resources. In spite of overwhelming evidence that carbon emissions are destroying our planet, America’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions grew 7% between 1990 and 2009. Is it any accident that the U.S. is the only country in the world that “debates” the human cause of climate change? What part of America’s Falstaffian reveling isn’t the mark of an overbearing, overweening, overfed addict?

Yeah, but….I bike to work. And I’m voting for Obama! (Even though he, like Mitt Romney and every other Republican, criminally employs the oxymoron “clean coal” when discussing our energy options.) C’mon, gimme a break, already! I’m doing my best! I try to be good! America’s not that bad, is it?

Robin Williams once approached an audience member at a comedy club who, like many other patrons, was smoking a cigarette. “Oh! Filtered cigarette!” Williams quipped. “Kind of like this!” The comedian then proceeded to take a napkin from the smoker’s table and place it on his head. Williams then pretended, through the fabric of the protective napkin, to blow his own brains out.

Denial. It’s the addict’s number one tool to keep the party going. That’s why Step 1 of every recovery program begins: “We were powerless over [take your pick: alcohol, drugs, oil, colonialism], that our lives had become unmanageable.” It’s that admission – the only antidote to denial – that paves the way towards ending the horrific cycle of addiction, and moving towards the responsible mindset of taking responsibility for one’s own actions. To be fair, of the two major presidential candidates, Barack Obama comes the closest to being the adult in the room. But if he wants another gig as our babysitter, he ‘d darn well better play the dysfunctional family’s rules. That means that there are certain things that he just can’t say. Like the word “poverty” – to do so would be an open admission of national failure. (In Liberalism’s Shrinking Agenda, conservative blogger Michael Gerson notes that Mitt Romney actually used the word “poverty” five times in the second presidential debate; Barack Obama never used it at all.) Failure isn’t American! We’re a can do nation! Our presidents must always project unflagging confidence and buoyancy.  One of the reasons President Obama was criticized for his first debate performance was that he “looked tired” – a sad indicator of our desperate need to be constantly reassured that everything is okey-dokey and a-okay. Especially us.

“Woe to the nation that breeds heroes,” says Galileo’s former pupil in Bertolt Brecht’s play Leben des Galilei. “No,” replies the astronomer, “woe to the nation that needs one.” Leave it to a communist like Brecht to shoot down American optimism. Good god, isn’t there someone who can save us? Put on the Superman cape and fly it on in? How about an intervention for America? Won’t someone show us the error of our ways, and push us along the road to recovery?

Someday China might be happy to oblige. They are, after all, the largest foreign owner of U.S. debt (more than $4.5 trillion). Romney might actually bring that one up in the next debate, even as he continues to press for policies that will drive the deficit higher. One of the hallmarks of addiction is blame; count on both candidates to employ it right until the final ballot is cast on November 6th.

But not every addict is saved by an outsider. In fact, many interventions end in failure. No, an addict pretty much has two options laid out before him: death or recovery. And that’s where we stand today. And I mean “we” as in We the People. The United States of America may not be a pure democracy, but we have lots of democratic tools that could stand to be dusted off. And I’m not just talking about voting. For starters, we could stop driving cars. Period. We could also cease to support agribusinesses that overproduce meat, sell genetically modified crops, and exponentially enlarge our carbon footprint. How about closing tax loopholes on corporations, and making multinationals like General Electric pay their fair share? Or legislation (in the form of a constitutional amendment, if necessary) to overturn Citizens United? And while we’re at it, let’s open up the presidential “debates” to more candidates so we can end these interminable personality contests that masquerade as elections.

These ideas are hardly unheard of, but they are well outside of the American political mainstream. To put them forward in a focused, responsible manner might take more than a little bit of courage. But contrary to popular opinion, politicians do respond to consistent, disciplined pressure from the electorate. Mitt Romney may or may not be pro-life. Or pro-choice. Or pro-anything. The change in his stance on abortion was based not upon principle, but political calculus. Barack Obama’s “evolution” in supporting gay marriage did not come purely out of the goodness of his heart. The president is a smart man; he did the math: conservatives were never going to vote for him, no matter what. And the pressure from the left to support gay marriage was too intense to ignore.  We can only wonder what would have happened had Obama’s apologists – the so called “liberals” who never pressed for single payer healthcare or the closing of Guantanamo Bay – held him to the same standards that the Republican far right now holds his shallow opponent.

No matter. One of the essential ingredients of recovery is looking at the past, learning from it, and then simply letting it go. This is where we are. Every American citizen is free, at any time, to abandon his imperial prerogatives, or cling to them for dear life (or death). Which brings us back to George Carlin. More than twenty years before his rant on American pride, Carlin took on a bigger subject: humanity’s place on the planet. It’s a great bit, one in which he excoriated lefties like me who try to preserve the environment. Said Carlin:

We’re so self-important. So arrogant. Everybody’s going to save something now. Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails. And the supreme arrogance? Save the planet. What?…Save the planet? We don’t know how to take care of ourselves, yet. We haven’t learned how to help one another. We’re gonna save the f#@%ing planet? . . . And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with the planet…it’s the people are f#@%ed! …the planet is doing great. It’s been here over four billion years . . . The planet isn’t going anywhere, folks. WE ARE! We’re going away! We’re going away…

Pretty tough stuff, isn’t it? I’ve included the entire bit here, and I can guarantee you that, regardless of your political persuasion, that at least some of it will make you very, very, very upset. That’s the job of the brave comic, and George Carlin was most certainly that. But I find a perverse hope in his words, which I’ll quote in full here:

I think that we’re part of a greater wisdom than we’ll ever understand. A higher order, call it what you want. You know what I call it? “The Big Electron.” It doesn’t punish. It doesn’t reward. It doesn’t even judge. It just is. And so are we. For a little while. Thanks for being here with me for a little while tonight. Thank you. Thank you.

And that’s all there is. The Empire will Autumn, and then it will die. The same is true for you, for me, and all of humanity. So does any of it really matter? Sure it does. Every last part of it. As any twelve step or self help guru will tell you: all we really have is now. So now is the time to get busy. Jean Paul Sartre once famously asked in his play No Exit:”What are you, if not your life?” Future generations (assuming there are any) may find tremendous fascination with our delusional and magical thinking – but we’ll finally be evaluated on our actions, not our fantasies. True national pride comes only with actions that match our mythology. Then, and only then, will we shed our imperial hubris. That’s when each of us can truly be Happy To Be An American.

David Berkson

October 21, 2012

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Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.


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