Summary: People seeking to reform America typically search for a list of policies that will cause Americans to rally around. But what if it’s not our choice in public policies that plaques us, but something in our minds? Perhaps some ill that has infected our national character? If so a “I’m OK – You’re OK” campaign will certainly fail, and a reform movement must strike deeper chords to attract meaningful support. Here is a possible diagnosis (or first step towards a diagnosis).
“I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.”
— attributed to Issac Newton
Typical posts on the FM website provide data-rich examination of small things, seeking clarity through focus. Today’s post take the opposite approach, speculating about the larger picture.
Reading the morning news I have a recurrent, overpowering impression. Not provable, purely subjective, beyond evidence, but one seemingly with great explanatory power. Perhaps America has gone mad as a society. There are historical examples beyond count.
France went mad during the early 18th C (ie, John Law and the Mississippi Company) and again during the mid-revolutionary period (1792-95, mass executions and issuing the Assignats). Britain did during the South Sea bubble (1711-1720).
Different kinds of madness are the witch-burning epidemics in Europe. And, of course, NAZI Germany (mad to the bone).
A form of madness often infects people starting war — or arises during them. The Confederacy went mad after Summer 1863, fighting after defeat was certain. Europe after 1914, fighting after the original reasons were moot. Imperial Japan’s mad ruling class declared war on most of the world’s major powers.
Perhaps we have some form of these kinds of madness. Perhaps even more virulent than most.
Diagnosis and Symptoms
Perhaps sometime after the fall of the USSR — starting in the late 1990s — we slowly slid into madness. A broad madness, affecting much of society and much of what we do. Here are three examples; in the comments you can add your favorites to this list.
- Our mad economic policy took us from rapid growth and a nearly balanced budget in the 1990s to a succession of asset bubbles (#3 now in progress) — and a national debt quadrupled from $3 to $12 trillion (with nothing to show for it but an aging infrastructure). Now we’ve begun the long slow withdrawal. The jubilation over Larry Summers’ withdrawal as a possible Fed Chairman shows the reluctance to begin this process; the widespread eagerness to nominate Janet Yellen shows our inability to learn (her career’s high point was this speech in October 2005 explaining that no action was needed about the emerging housing bubble).
- Our foreign policy has been militarized in a mad fashion, resulting in an ever-growing list of interventions. Persistent failure has not discouraged us — until perhaps the proposed war with Syria began the process of reform (despite increasingly mad claims that Syria’s WMDs pose a threat to the US).
- In 2000 we began the approach to a demographics crisis, ahead of the first Boomer turning 65 in 2011. That decade was the last opportunity to prepare: pay down the Federal debt, force public and private pension plans to fully fund their obligations, etc. Despite decades of warnings, instead we squandered the time like madmen.
A great nation throwing away its wealth, perhaps even its future. Truly mad.
Result: we are easy to manipulate
Our leaders see our madness, and exploit it. Both Left and Right use similar methods, both led by Americans who understand our weakness: fear. Irrational, cowardly, sometimes paranoid. Despite our wealth and power, fear has become our Achille’s Heel.
On the Right they have excited conservatives with fear of culture change (eg, full rights for gays and women), fear of ethnic change (white’s displaced as the ruling caste), and fear of economic stress (as much of the middle class slides into economic insecurity, even decline). They created the Tea Party, which has become an engine of disruption for the GOP as well as the nation.
On the Left they have excited liberals with fears of environmental destruction. Not just fear of the possible climate changes described in the IPCC’s reports, horrific changes in late 21st century if we burn off most of Earth’s deposits of fossil fuels. Rather they fear today’s weather — often falsely described as “extreme” on the basis of short (as weather cycles go) decades- or century-long records. Even in the US, with its low trends in hurricane landfalls, number of wildfires, and tornadoes. Ditto for Global Tropical Cyclone Activity.
The concerns of the people in both extremes are reasonable. But their emotional certainty makes them loyal soldiers. Well-meaning, dedicated, often intelligent and educated — marching to madness. Their certainty of doom impels them to make disturbing, sometimes violent, comments on websites. Reading these suggests the possibility of extreme political action in their future.
Our madness might not have yet finished with us. It might flower into strange forms. What might some Leftists to save the planet? What might some group of well-armed Red State activists do to preserve America from the others threatening it from within? What madness might seize the imagination of the American mass mind — as happened after 9-11 to further bin Laden’s dream of the Long War?
Worst of all, reforming America might remain a dream unless we successfully confront this problem.
The disorientation produced by our madness also affects our artists (canaries in society’s coal mine). For an wonderful example see Russell Brand’s analysis of the GQ awards ceremony: ‘It’s amazing how absurd it seems’. Quite so.
For More Information
About the subjects discussed today:
- Posts about our fear
- Post our paranoia: America’s Most Dangerous Enemy
- Posts about Extreme Climate
- Posts about the Tea Party Movement
Posts about reforming America:
- The project to reform America: a matter for science or a matter of will?, 16 March 2010
- Can we reignite the spirit of America?, 14 September 2010
- The sure route to reforming America, 16 November 2010
- We are alone in the defense of the Republic, 5 July 2012
- A third try: The First Step to reforming America, 28 May 2013
- The bad news about reforming America: time is our enemy,
27 June 2013
- Why the 1% is winning, and we are not, 26 July 2013
This is how I feel sometimes when answering comments