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That would be the United States. The good-ol’ USA. The young nation born to offer (so says its Great Seal) a new order of the ages. The country where everyone can re-invent himself (and sometimes herself too), and where the techno-wiz in the garage or barn or basement workroom will come up with the gadget to solve whatever problem you care to name. The land where no one’s beholden to the past, and no one ever says die. The land of New and Can-Do. The land where, Ronald Reagan famously intoned, now a long generation ago, that it was morning again—“morning in America.”
Of course, when Reagan uttered that phrase he happened to be the oldest person ever to occupy the Oval Office, and by several accounts his last years therein were marked by incipient senility—not in the metaphorical sense of the term. That paradox points to the irony attending this slogan: “America as new” is one of the oldest, most tradition-worn ways to view the United States. What happens if we see America instead as old? It might help us understand the reality right in front of our face. Sensible, modest gun control in the face of the Newtown massacre? No can do. Reaching for more than the lowest-hanging fruit of fiscal reform? No can do. Avoiding another month of playing chicken over the debt ceiling? No can do. Recognizing the reality of global warming and taking bold measures now to diminish dangers ahead? No can do. Even if those steps helped generate new good-paying jobs at home? Don’t even wanna talk about it. Let the Mighty Mississippi drop and the Great Lakes shrink and the Midwest parch and the Great West burn and the average mean temperature hit repeated annual highs across the nation. Can’t do nuthin’ but drill more wells, frack more gas, and build up more fleet in the Persian Gulf. Always done it that way.
Reduced strength, reduced mobility, reduced flexibility, reduced resources, the constraints of the past and the iron cage of habit: when we hear these symptoms described of a person, we readily conclude that he or she is aging, and not so gracefully. Apply it to the nation and the United States comes off like one of those ageing couples trying to carry on in the old house where they raised the kids. The title to this property (the Constitution) is 225 years old, and the building, or infrastructure, last renovated sixty years ago, is showing alarming signs of deterioration. Yet the residents are worried about their fixed income and so refuse to undertake the significant short-term borrowing that would yield long-term benefits. This particular couple, as part of the Greatest Generation, profited immensely, along with their own, now middle-aged children, from massive public investments made after World War II; but somewhere in their own middle age they became convinced by Ronald Reagan, himself an abject beneficiary of public largesse, that, in their current situation, “government is not the solution, government is the problem.”
On the other hand, our couple will spend without stint on anything labeled “security.” However much their elected representatives pick over any discretionary social spending, they will pass an annual defense budget of over $700 billion with virtually no discussion or objection. Our retirees will also open their wallets for perceived neighborhood safety, particularly to lock up young men of color for non-violent offenses. Thus the American house still stands tall in the global village on certain indices: it controls nearly half of the world’s military expenditures and three-quarters of the international weapons trade, and imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than does any other nation in the world. Never mind that military spending has a lower multiplier effect for economic growth than does infrastructure investment. Never mind that a year in jail costs almost as much as a year at Yale. To update the indignant cry over the XYZ Affair: “Zillions for the military, sir, but not one cent for welfare!”
Hyper-sensitive though they are about their limited means, as is not unknown among ageing people our American household is still susceptible to scams and risky speculation. Most recently this was a massive real estate bubble whose explosion sent a shock through the entire world economy and has the home-front still struggling for revival. Consequently the neighbors have been saving against an evil day rather than spending and restarting the economy. Unemployment after three years of “recovery” is still about 8 percent; underemployment more than double that. Figures for traditionally vulnerable sectors like young males of color are far worse, but the prospects for white males lacking advanced education are moving in the same direction with no end in sight. The social dysfunctions that our retired couple has long associated with the black inner-city are—and have been—rising without evident curtailment among rural, working-class, and even middle-class whites.
When, in face of this dire prospect, our elderly couple—unable to spend any more on prisons, and reluctant to invest in schools—turns to its political class for leadership, they see an advanced case of arteriosclerosis indeed. A filibustering forty-one senators can block or at least dilute any approach toward the bold changes needed for recovery or sound investment going forward. The strong Right majority in the House is dragged extreme Right by its ideologues worried about Even Further Right rivals at home. The president who stands for reform names yet another Wall Street crony as Secretary of the Treasury.
But what is most striking in the present circumstance is our couple’s constricted imagination —a constriction predictable at their later stage of life but foreign to their younger years. A trillion dollars of their money went to a war of choice in Iraq on the insistence of old men from the Nixon administration who, among other motives, were determined to exorcise once and for all the memory of defeat in Vietnam. On television, our couple can listen to ranters declare that the entire record of progressive legislation going back to and including Theodore Roosevelt needs to be wiped off the map. That is, Gilded Age policies for the not so golden years at hand. And why not? Income stratification in the American apartment complex is nearing that of the Gilded Age, and bankers and entrepreneurs of new industries are once again triggering panics and collapses. Railroads then, hi-tech now; Jay Cooke then, Lehman Brothers now; and J. P. Morgan all the time.
If neither the return to Vietnam nor to the Gilded Age goes back far enough, there is the solution posited by Tea Party devotees and some Supreme Court justices: a return to the plain and simple meaning of the original Constitution, as if two centuries had not happened in the meantime. The most popular icon (using the word in its religious sense) of this mentality is the firearm, and the individual’s right to bear the same is taken to be the most sacred and inviolable of rights. Miranda rights, the right to a jury trial, citizenship and life itself may be stripped from an accused terrorist by state fiat, but not that same person’s right to own an assault weapon. The American populist today is fixated upon the eighteenth-century frontiersman and his musket.
Bold, new, innovative thinkers and can-do confidence? Look not to America, frozen in fear, nostalgia, and bills overdue. Donald Rumsfeld sneered about “old Europe.” Wrong continent, pal.
This post is adapted from my article “America the Old?” published in the European Journal of American Studies, March 2010. Available at http://ejas.revues.org/8479.