Trigger warning: everything
Born in the 1980s and mostly a child of the 1990s, I remember a distinct vibe echoed in a line from Steve Carell’s character Michael Scott: “The US is number one. England is number two. China should be, like, eight.” While never something explicit that I encountered, American exceptionalism was everywhere in life. I lived in the greatest country in the world, and everyone knew it. People could be proud patriots of their home country, but even they knew the United States was the peak. Those who didn’t believe that were just jealous.
England (not the United Kingdom – England) was the number two, followed by a series of other European countries. Russia was the big bad but undergoing a radical transformation, Japan had not taken over the country as many worried in the 80s, and China was getting a little big for its britches but was still years away from becoming the 80s Japan-esque boogeyman they are today.
Again, no one ever sat down and explained this was the case. Things just sort of implied it. Television, movies…public school history lessons. In fact, real quick, let’s run down the grade school version of “world” history:
Cavemen and then a bunch of early civilizations that figured things out in a Neanderthal sort of way. The Egyptians launched things forward a bit, the Greeks smoothed out the edges, and then the Romans mastered it. They ran the show for years despite pesky attempts by groups to invade and ruin everything, and they would eventually collapse and give way to the rise of European kingdoms.
We covered the details of European history (by which I mean mostly England and France, with a dash of Spain, Portugal, and the Dutch) up to the point that Henry tells the Roman papacy to piss off. That’s an important thing in American history because it gives rise to a Western European take on Christianity that is not Catholicism. Those groups schism and split and fight until one group becomes so spiritually anal that the English force them out of the country (to paraphrase the great Robin Williams).
American history tends to pick up at the point where white people show up in North America despite the presence of non-Europeans. We discuss the Native Americans, but primarily within the context of the Europeans. What they did before colonialists arrived does not matter as much. We invite them to a nice turkey dinner where we definitely don’t give them smallpox and try to make nice. Try as we might, the Native Americans and the bloody French colonials up closer to Canada keep poking at us until we have to fight a war with them.
That done, attention starts to turn to what dickheads the English across the Pond are being. We have lots of space and opportunity in the colonies, but the Crown is up in everyone’s business and ruining the vibe. Through sheer grit and Rocky Balboa determination, farmers with muskets defeat the greatest army since the Romans without even a little help from the French and definitely not the French navy.
The part of American history I do like, as both an American and amateur philosopher, is the Revolutionary period though. Thomas Jefferson and other key leaders (plus, for those not versed in this type of political though, Rousseau and Locke in France and England, respectively) put forth a tremendous idea in democracy. No sarcasm at this point – what they propose is truly incredible in the history of politics. People choose a leader from among the people, and they begin all of these wonderful safeguards designed to limit government authority. Society needs governance, but that government should never tyrannise its people. They develop a whole system aimed at striking that balance.
Now, we start off with slavery, women not voting, and discrimination against everybody who isn’t originally from between St. James Park and the Thames. The Civil War is especially contentious, because the version of that story changes depending on where you grew up in the United States. For places with better rated schools and higher quality of life metrics in every imaginable category, the version is that Southern states really wanted to own other human beings and when we told them no, they threw a fit and formed their own country. The version in the other states is, “We just felt that the states should have more authority than the feds.”
It’s important to note that this version is wrong for many reasons. They explicitly say the reason is slavery in many primary source documents, they promote federal authority for things they do want (like the return of runaway slaves from free states), and the post-Civil War period sees them go after black people pretty hard regardless of state or federal opinion.
Then women want to vote but people won’t let them anyway, until the suffragettes finally break through and secure the right. Some people thank the men who passed the law as though the suffragettes didn’t do 99% of the labour and were not allowed to occupy the positions or vote for the people who were able to pass the law, but whatever, I guess. Women get the right to vote and gender discrimination ends in America forever.
A war breaks out among most of the European nations and America responds, “Not my problem” until we’re convinced that the Mexicans might get in on it. Like Joe Frazier walking into the final round of the Ali-Liston fight fresh and delivering the knockout punch, the United States saves England (who are totally our besties now) and France (the ingrates who never did anything for us) from tyranny. The US takes a prominent seat at the post-war table and really sticks it to the Germans in particular for causing the whole mess.
Back home, the country spends its new money like that d-bag from Final Destination 2 that won the lottery until everything breaks. It breaks all over the place, including in Germany where things were already bad because we left them with the tab for all the fighting. This is where a former German soldier named Adolf Hitler starts to become a big deal, blaming Jews for all of Germany’s problems and starting a new round of problems.
The United States, seeing Hitler’s tyranny, joins the Allies, kicks Hitler’s ass, saves the Jews, and restores order. By all of that I mean, we decide again that it’s not out problem and decide to sit out this ordeal until Japan forces our hand. And while some Americans see Hitler’s tyranny, others are attending a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden and tell the MS St. Louis to take its Jewish refugees back to Europe in June 1939. “Liberating” the concentration camps was less a mission objective and more something that just sort of happened as forces advanced from both sides, with England, the Soviet Union, and resistance forces providing a massive lift against increasing Nazi incompetence.
But the short version remains that the United States definitely isn’t anti-Semitic and rescued European Jews while beating a tyrannical fascist. Oh, and the whole Japanese internment camp thing on the other front.
Then we have the Civil Rights movement about thirty years after Jim Crow. More brave, mostly not white men, people fight tirelessly for the fact that the people who aren’t white are also people. Reluctantly the country eases up a bit and we solve racism forever, too. Everyone can use the same water fountains and sit at the pharmacy counter, so any inequity existing up to that point gets erased. End of racism.
Now the Soviet Union, the socialist assholes who helped us defeat the fascist assholes, are trying to spread Communism all over the place, and a threat to freedom anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere. The US begins fighting a Cold War with the Soviets that include several proxy wars where we both go absolutely destroy a sovereign country and then just leave. Meanwhile, the United States begins to fuck up Central and South America the way the Europeans wrecked Africa (and we’re well on our way to making a bigger mess out of the Middle East).
The United States prevails with a record of about 10-0-1 in international conflicts (according to us) and assumes its place as the top country in the world with England at our side. The Soviets, now Russia again, begin to open McDonald’s franchises throughout the country and even the James Bond movies are like, “Russia? Really?” And someone has to go, “Separatists” or some shit to explain why Russia is still the villain. They try once to make North Korea the villain and it fails so hard that Pierce Brosnan has to stop playing the character because of a surfing scene.
That pretty much takes us through history up to my life as an American boy in the 1990s when things were good. I had a genuinely enjoyable childhood. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up it was either a professional ice hockey player or a soldier, representing the United States around the world and stopping tyranny.
I am in my high school locker room changing for gym class and one of the “stoner” kids says, “A skyscraper in New York fell over like a domino.” Whatever. A few minutes later I am sitting in an alphabetical row waiting for the teacher. My classmate (who I will simply call G – wonderful girl on whom I had a major crush, and the only reason I was sitting next to her was sheer luck the Phoenicians put the letters in the order they did) is crying hysterically. When I try to offer comfort and ask what has her so upset, she replies, “What if someone flies a plane into our school?”
I remember not knowing what to do with that. It was a smaller high school no one would care about and also…what?
My next class was French and when I arrived there it was all over the television. One tower was already on fire, and I cannot remember if I saw the second one hit live or if it was one of the relentless replays. The attacks in New York and the crash in Pennsylvania were upsetting, but what struck me was the attack at the Pentagon. The questions were who would attack civilian targets with passenger aircraft, and how could they hit the military nerve centre of the most powerful military in the world?
The “I want to be a soldier if I can’t be a hockey player” instinct kicked in and I resolved to join the Air Force to do something in intelligence, but over the coming months something more sinister started happening. We learned fast that it was al-Qaeda and the Taliban. We knew the hijackers themselves – a bunch of Saudis, an Egyptian, a Lebanese guy, and two Emiratis.
A lot of Americans were furious with Muslims though. I honestly didn’t know a ton about Islam back then, other than that domestic terrorism was an issue in many of those countries. Maybe that’s why it struck me as odd so quickly. No group is a monolith, but certainly not this group that everyone knows for having an extremist element. The talk was supposed to be about al-Qaeda and the Taliban who were reportedly sheltering and training in Afghanistan. Soon it seemed to be more about Afghanistan. Then Iraq became a topic.
Not Saudi Arabia, where most of the hijackers originated. Not even Egypt, Lebanon, or the United Arab Emirates. Certainly not Iran, although some of the more prominent war hawks floated that idea. Iraq. Some of the United States remained rabid about it, but more of the nation seemed to pull away. Domestically, hate crimes continued to rise not just against Muslims and not just against Arabs, but against most non-white communities even though we had solved racism years earlier.
The terror attacks changed things throughout the world, but it also created a new context for things that happened prior. In addition to the global changes, I also set off for college where I had more control over my education. College professors (and a great high school teacher) willing to talk about history beyond the lesson plan started providing more information. That was when I began to learn more of the detail surrounding events, like the ubiquitous anti-Semitism in the United States up to, during, and after World War II.
Some people would call it revisionism, but a more accurate word would be completionism. This more dedicated study, that included primary source documents and official records rather than someone’s prose, included details that grade school lessons glossed over or omitted completely. This was where I began to learn about the United States role in Central and South America. I was able to study the histories of other countries through non-American eyes.
As I became somewhat disillusioned and confused about what “being an American” meant (beyond being born here), I developed a keen interest in my Irish heritage. I began to examine my specific family roots and the general history of Ireland, finding a story of English imperialism. I knew the broad strokes of England and Ireland not getting along, but now I was learning the detail. “Och, but I really wanted to find out what that Cromwell fella got up to next. I really enjoy him,” as Derry Girls’ Orla said.
My historical context was that the Americans and English, numbers one and two, came from a history of advancing the cause of democracy. They went to other countries when it was necessary to save those places from tyranny. Other than us having to kick the English to the curb that time, they’d never done wrong by us. What we did as a pair through the generations in the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and South America was help.
I am in position to judge the intent of people and policies behind those events, but I do believe unequivocally that they did extreme amounts of lasting damage. Intent is only part of the equation. The aftermath of imperialism is undeniable. The prospect of American exceptionalism was dead in my eyes.
The new awareness caused me to re-examine a lot of things, like the climate. People had been saying stuff about the climate my entire life. Recycle, don’t pollute, greenhouse gases, a hole in the ozone layer. We had classes and assemblies about it, did projects about it.
Now, in this America where the joy-joy take on Thanksgiving where we sat down peacefully with the Native Americans had been replaced with the awareness of the extent to which colonialism had damaged their way of life, I wondered if the picture I had of other things was a little too rosy. Maybe there was more to the climate issue than Pocahontas, the Circle of Life, and cartoons of smiling Earths.
Al Gore, having successfully ran for President and then dismissed by the Supreme Court, became a loud spokesperson for climate issues. Along with an accidental course in physical geography (I thought it was a political geography course, which I knew well), I learned quite a bit about the climate. The message was still, “We have to take action to prevent climate catastrophe,” but I was putting it together with other lessons. The breakdowns of various ecosystems had clear ramifications, and the breakdowns themselves were clear. The ice and permafrost were already melting and the impact on things like the Gulf Stream becoming clear. It was not a hypothetical thing that might happen in two hundred years. The Gulf Stream was visibly weakening.
Ten years earlier, I don’t know what that awareness would have meant to me. After studying physical geography, I was terrified. The Gulf Stream carried warm waters north. Those temperature variances contribute to fronts that bring specific temperatures and precipitation to specific places at specific times. All of that was changing. (It’s also why, for climate sceptics who like to say things like, “Then why is it colder?” that some places get colder.)
I’m not an expert in the field, but I understood enough to understand what the experts were saying. That made it all the more infuriating when people who were also not experts in the field came make decisions to ignore the experts and just keep doing yay capitalism bullshit that made the problem worse. Even if they agreed that a solution was good, the cost of that solution was not because we would not want the economy to suffer.
That was probably around 2008 when the economy felt ready to collapse because those same yay capitalism assholes were so greedy and stupid that they almost “forgot-to-carry-the-one” flatlined the global economy. Predatory practices, withholding information, gambling, and other fraud stacked up to extraordinary heights.
And when it was discovered and things settled, no one went to prison. In fact, we all gave them money to get out of the problem because if they failed the precious economy would almost certainly fail. They’re right back to doing the same things now. Hell, we just found out Ernst & Young had people cheating on their ethics exams.
I knew my Governor, Senators, and some other key government officials, and I had seen enough Schoolhouse Rock to know the important things. As John Mulaney joked, “I thought the last guy was pretty smart, and he seemed good at his job, and I’m lazy by nature. I’m lazy by nature, too. So, I don’t check up on people when they seem okay at their job.” After 9/11 and the ridiculous Bush years, I started to pay closer attention.
What I saw there also terrified me. Stuff like the unitary executive theory and the idea that the Vice President, being technically a member of both the executive and legislative branches, was also technically not a member of either branch. Lots of questionable, bullshit sounding “arguments” that Conservatives had been cooking up in think tanks over the years to make people vote against self-interest. I went back further and further until I found Barry Goldwater, who, in my amateur opinion, is where things started to go wrong. Not that he personally was a bad actor, but he jump-started this particular brand of American conservatism.
The culmination, in 2016, was populist asshole Donald Trump running for President, presumably as a publicity stunt. All of the other Republican candidates spoke about what a pile of human garbage he was, along with several prominent Republicans not running for President. The polling all agreed that it was a stunt.
My father was the first one to point out a trend in the numbers to me. As the Republican primaries circled the country, different candidates peaked and valleyed across states. Trump carried about the same number everywhere. He recalled watching Ross Perot when I was a kid and having the distinct impression that fear of actually winning the election was all that stopped him. His ideas seemed a little wild, but he would rally a devout base until some sort of self-sabotage would end his campaign (like Stockdale).
The Republican party had spent decades eroding democratic features and stacking the courts. Districts gerrymandered, features for voting “security” appeared to obstruct voting. The Electoral College effectively switched the voting process so that land meant more than people in national elections. Whataboutism was a regular fixture in their discourse, along with re-framing discussions based on what their think tanks learned (like framing estate tax as the “death tax”).
As bad as the Bush years felt, the Trump years were infinitely worse. He was a narcissist ready to do or say whatever made people like him, loyalty counting more than anything. He emboldened the most extreme Conservative voices in the country, and the intolerance began screaming. Racism had never left the United States, but I was watching things that felt straight out of history books unfold with little repercussion.
Meanwhile, President “Drain the Swamp” introduced his cabinet. A Secretary of the Treasury from a commercial bank. An Energy Secretary who seemed to love fossil fuels. A guy who couldn’t open a flip phone to oversee technology. A guy who rejects climate science and who seems to hate the environment to run the EPA. A neurosurgeon to oversee Housing and Urban Development. An Education Secretary who couldn’t spell “education” or “secretary.” Every move seemed intent to undermine the function it served.
Meanwhile, a rabid base felt more emboldened. They had the traditional Republican views of “the economy matters most and let’s spend a fortune on defence” paired with “we don’t need any funding for social programs. Cut them.” On social issues things were even worse. Whereas traditional Republican views were, “small government and re-regulation,” this was a rise in absolute individual freedom. It often appeared in the guise of “Constitutional Originalism” where they would interpret the Constitution based on how they think it was meant in 1789 as an argument for why the federal government needed to back off altogether. If they couldn’t de-regulate or remove it, they could at least move it to the state level and let gerrymandered elections and stacked courts handle it.
And even that wasn’t enough. This does not address the evangelical Christianity element. The “there’s a war on Christmas” crowd. The “Christians are oppressed” crowd. The crowd who wants prayer in schools but no one to even address that homosexuality exists.
Much like the Civil War arguments I had heard about states’ rights, every topic became hotly politicised, and the conclusion was, “The government needs to stay out of it altogether in the name of individual liberty” if it was something they wanted or “The government needs to ban this completely” if it was something they disliked. Can a coach pressure his players to pray at midfield? He sure can – the government can’t obstruct his First Amendment right. Could a coach try the same thing with a Jewish or Islamic prayer? I doubt it.
The body is sacred. The government cannot “mandate” vaccine use during a global pandemic (mandate here means that a person can opt not to receive the vaccine, but they will be prohibited from certain places where their unvaccinated status might jeopardise others’ health). The Constitution does not mention abortion or privacy though, and the federal government cannot stop states from making decisions about abortion. Now those “individual liberty” states can fight to make all abortion illegal, even though it’s a critical medical procedure according to every major medical body on the planet and ought even to be protected as a religious practice for some religions.
We can require all sorts of things for voting, even the enfranchisement is perhaps the most sacred right in a democratic society. We cannot impose any sort of obstruction to the purchase of a firearm, even if that firearm is capable of dispersing hundreds of rounds per minute. We can’t even collect data related to firearms because that’s too obstructive of individual liberty.
“My opinion matters as much as your fact.” People can disregard experts in the field because “we can’t just discount other perspectives.” Their perspective. They mean theirs, because it does not jive with what the experts found when they did actual research on the topic. When you combine that with a not insignificant segment of the population who thinks their individual liberty matters more than any idea of a collective good, brew in some old fashioned Christofascism, add in all of the fear-based bigotry that “it’s someone’s fault things aren’t going according to what I want, and that someone doesn’t look like me,” sprinkle generations of shrewd Republican tactics, and give them a populist narcissist as a leader, horrendous things happen.
And happen and happen – and I still haven’t seen anyone held accountable for anything. Sure, Maxwell got 20 years for helping to traffic children, but she was trafficking them to a whole client list. Where are any of those people? Corporations are fucking things up regularly while they tell us to recycle and bring reusable bags (which are good ideas, but in the overall scope of who is contributing to the problem?).
There’s a brand of “feminist” out there attacking the trans community because of the patriarchy. Transwomen. Cis men are committing violence against women in untold numbers and women, all women, continue to face systemic challenges in a man-oriented world, and they spend their time campaigning against transwomen. Not transmen. I don’t think I’ve ever heard them say a word about transmen. Transwomen.
Two people credibly accused of rape have lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court while lower courts continue to let convicted rapists off sentences so as not to “ruin the rest of their lives.” Women are now at risk of facing criminal charges in certain states over miscarriages in a world where the leading cause of death for pregnant women is murder perpetrated by the father.
In a meeting one time I told a colleague that I felt their proposed solution to a problem was no good.
“Well, what is the solution then?” he reasonably asked.
“I don’t know. But I don’t have to know the capital of Canada is Ottawa to know that it’s not Bangkok.”
That is how I feel constantly. I am not an expert in any of these areas. We have experts in those areas, but a large portion of my fellow citizens are absolutely belligerent and resolved not to listen to them. I do not have to be an expert or know the solution to see that things are off the rails. Life has been wild at other times, too. What feels different today is having so many people, especially those in a rigged system with significant positions, working against any solution.
I go back and forth in my mind constantly. Are they ignorant to the point of stupidity? Is it deliberate malice? Is it just contrarianism to get back at Democratic points they’ve hated? “Owning the libs” seems like reason enough for plenty of people. The fact that people are quick to fall back on, “It’s comedy” or “Just doing it to troll” makes distinguishing the line even harder. “So, you don’t believe it and you’re just being an asshole?” I wonder.
Then with the extreme Christian element involved, I wondered, as Marc Maron did in his stand-up special, are they deliberately after some sort of end-times prophecy? The number of people who are both pro-Israel and anti-Semitic alarms me. They always want to do stuff involving Israel, but are so quick to launch into anti-Semitic tirades.
The environment can suffer, but the economy cannot. Meanwhile the economy seems like an absolute mess. What really burns me here is seeing the “we need jobs,” “immigrants are stealing our jobs,” “end the lockdown, open the economy,” “Biden is why milk costs so much,” “get a job” people never, never seem to view capitalism as the reason why bad economic stuff happens. Like how it’s the Democrats’ fault that coal jobs disappear from West Virginia. Not the fact that machines remove coal faster than people now, not that people are trying to shift to alternate fuels because the coal supply is finite – no, none of the natural machinations of capitalism. It’s Democrats deliberately fucking with them.
We have some of the worst health outcomes in the developed world despite paying more for healthcare than any of those other countries by a wide margin. Obamacare. It has nothing to do with capitalism. Nothing to do with insurance companies, nothing to do with for-profit medical providers.
We have astronomical student debt. We have some of the worst educational outcomes in the developed world. Other countries out-perform us in testing on a regular basis even though we just piss money away into higher education. Grade school teachers are buying basic supplies on incomes that don’t support living in their school district while pledging allegiance and leading children in Christian prayer while pretending homosexuals don’t exist. Also, they should teach more Christian perspective in school. Not the other religions, because we have no room for that in public education – but Christian perspectives like Creationism. It’s good for kids to have something other than evidence-based education.
Pick an area of society, and any investigation into the subject reveals that we are deeply fucked in that area. Irretrievably? No, things are not all doom, but they do require action. They won’t sort out themselves. We can’t fix them though, because red cap, “I want to do whatever I want to do, and no one can do any of the things I don’t like” is in the way with an entire political party saying, “We’ll trade you that for a vote.”
Then people jump in and blame the other party for not doing anything about it. They can 1000% do more than they have, and I personally hate how they handle most things. Obama’s first two years killed me – yes, he inherited a mountain of crap from the Bush years, but they also had a majority to do things. They tried to cooperate instead. For his second two years the legislative branch flipped and that was that. It’s honestly remarkable he accomplished what he did in eight years despite that.
And every time the Democrats fail to fix all of the bullshit immediately, a huge portion of the population goes, “They don’t do anything. I guess I’ll vote Republican. At least they do things” and other people go, “What’s the point of voting?” and just don’t. All of this in a country where Republicans gerrymander and work to suppress votes they expect will go for Democrats.
Then I look across the Pond at our English friends who seem perhaps even more screwed up somehow than we are, a France that continues to slip towards the same crap, and a number of far-right assholes running other countries. The women running the Scandinavian countries and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand are the only political bright spots I see.
The first key, in my mind, is we absolutely have to revolt in a democratic way. We watch nothing happen again and again. But we vote, usually every year for something and at least every two years. The message has to be that if they do not do their job, they are done. Not done in the sense that, “I guess I will vote for the Republican or keep the Democrat as the lesser of two evils” – done in the “Another Democrat needs to run sense.” We need to demand the party, at whatever level it is, runs a responsible candidate.
It extends to companies as well. Liberals, I feel, have a decent track record with organising to put an economic hurt on companies to pressure their policies. Where we fall short is that we apply the pressure for a specific change, receive some acknowledgment from the company, and then back off. The boycott needs a more sustained push and more follow up to ensure the company did not just undo whatever goodwill they put in place to end the boycott.
We have to do something though, because this is an absolute waking nightmare. It’s least severe for me – that speaks to the privilege part of things. The extent to which things have to deteriorate for me to suffer from it is extreme. I feel it in the expressions and voices of the people around me. I can understand if you don’t personally think things are all that bad; that’s kind of my situation. “Things cost more than they should and my salary should be higher looking at historical trends,” but otherwise my daily life, personally, is not much different. You need to build that sense of community. If you don’t feel it personally, the pain is bleeding out of millions of other people and society is nothing if we just step over them. That is what pisses me off about this extreme libertarianism. They don’t want that; they want an autocracy oriented around “I can do whatever I want, and others cannot do anything that displeases me.” That’s not a society. That’s a bunch of individuals clubbing one another for survival.