In a dramatic headline, Yahoo News expresses its surprise if not dismay that a “staggering 62 percent of Americans no longer see America as Ronald Reagan‘s ‘shining city on a hill.’” Yahoo and YouGov published their poll to give an idea of the mood of the nation on this year’s Fourth of July weekend.
The poll reveals how Americans feel about their own history has evolved over the past four decades. When asked whether Reagan’s characterization of the United States in 1989 — the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall — as “a shining city on a hill,” a majority (52%) today agrees that the metaphor made sense when it was uttered at the end of his presidency. Only 21% disagree.
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To the question “would it be accurate to describe America as a “shining city on a hill” today?” the response was even more disproportionate: 62% replied “no” and only 17% answered “yes.”
To prove that the patented optimism of Americans has not completely faded despite all the bad news, the article cites one of the average Americans interviewed for the poll, Jeff Blankenship, a disabled former traffic engineer. Blankenship agrees that things have taken a dire turn, but he asserts that he will “stand up proud for the United States of America. … This [coronavirus] got everything screwed up, but after this I hope the economy will bounce back.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Return to a preceding state thanks to an object’s elasticity, a result that is impossible to achieve by objects that have lost their elasticity, such as an economy that only rewards monopoly
The idea of bouncing back makes sense on two conditions. The operational models that drive a system must be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to changing conditions and the decision-making processes the system employs must have the capacity to recognize and respond to unexpected occurrences that upset established routines. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown itself to be such an unexpected occurrence. It has allowed our societies to test their elasticity. Although the process is still underway and outcomes remain unpredictable, the performance of our social and political systems has proved less than reassuring.
When faced with a major challenge that resists the usual, planned and budgeted strategies of defense, a social system must first demonstrate its capacity to recognize the nature of the threat and then its ability to organize its response. Finally, it must demonstrate its capacity to mobilize the resources — both material and immaterial — required to counter the force of the challenge. The capacity to recognize reflects a cultural rather than a purely technical competency, which means technocracies may find themselves at a disadvantage. The capacity to respond requires three complementary elements: political competency (leadership), organizational flexibility (coherent management) and access to the necessary resources.
When the depth of the crisis for the economy became clear, various economic experts — especially those associated with Donald Trump’s White House — began formulating a political discourse that appears to have convinced people like Blankenship that the economy would soon be bouncing back. They famously called it the “V-shaped recovery.” It’s like the passage of a hurricane. When the storm passes, you begin rebuilding and end up with something that will be more modern and presumably more resilient.
This optimistic reading of events demonstrated a signal failure to recognize the nature of the threat. But this is not a unique occurrence. That failure has become a recurrent feature of the political system in the US as it has evolved over the past half-century. When a crisis of unknown dimensions and proportions occurs, the supposedly rational analysis of experts, based on their knowledge of patterns in the past, can never provide a sufficient basis for recognizing the nature of the novel challenge.
Experts, especially in our technocratic world, have been trained to understand stable, controllable problems with limited variables. The variables they do understand rarely reach beyond their area of expertise. In the case of COVID-19, to take a simple but obvious example, epidemiologists do not possess the tools to understand how an economic crisis evolves and the strategies for managing it.
Economists rarely have even a foggy notion of how the systemic logic of a pandemic due to an uncharted disease plays out. At best, they have learned to apply reasoning that might be appropriate for an epidemic. The difference between the two is important. The prefix “epi-” applies to something that is local (on, near). The prefix “pan-” literally means everywhere. It’s the difference between surface and depth. As the epidemiologist Dr. Tom Jefferson has observed, “everywhere” paradoxically means “here” for everybody. COVID-19 has crossed a frontier from the purely physical to the metaphysical.
The materialistic culture of the US appears helpless in the face of a metaphysical challenge.
Over the past century, the United States has achieved a level of dominance that has allowed it to dictate the rules of the global game of economics that determines how people on all continents produce and consume. It began with the deployment of a military presence that spread across the face of the earth in the wake of World War II. The process was facilitated by the contraction and ultimate dismantlement of European colonial networks. With its infrastructure in place, the Pax Americana then conquered the global economy by obliging the near totality of international trade to be conducted in dollars.
That simple fact meant that to be able to trade internationally, every country had to accumulate reserves in dollars. What better way to force every nation in the world to invest in the US economy, often at the cost of disinvesting in their own?
It also incited American financial institutions and multinational companies to develop a culture that allowed them to function like international government-backed monopolies. It afforded them the opportunity to dominate markets wherever they saw an interest for themselves or their government. But there was an unintended consequence. This eventually led to diluting the purely American character of these monopolies, who began serving interests that were not always identical with the needs of their home nation’s domestic economy.
Such a system had already begun developing deep contradictions between its political and cultural interests on one hand, and the rules and habits of its economic system on the other. This meant that the US-based global system would be particularly ill-prepared for any crisis that cannot be met by traditional nationally-focused military and economic means.
Facing the prolonged COVID-19 crisis, the US has not only failed to subdue the enemy but demonstrated its endemic incapacity to do so. This fact, rooted in history, has never been more apparent than today. In recent weeks, contrary to the politicians’ and economists’ expectations, it is the virus and not the economy that has “bounced back,” and in aggravated form.
This experience has offered observers a direct insight into the inevitable confusion that thrives at the core of a political, economic and cultural system built around the idea of control through the expansion and accumulation of private resources. It is built on the mistaken belief that individual and private initiative is the key to flexibility.
President Donald Trump made a public demonstration of the principle in March, at his first press event when he proudly announced the government’s response to the health crisis. Instead of plotting out the contours of a coherent strategy to counter a pandemic, he introduced a dozen CEOs of industries who he claimed would get the job done (while, of course, making a profit out of it at the same time). The message was clear: As “the greatest economy in history,” we know we have the resources, but they don’t belong to the society threatened by the coronavirus. They belong to private individuals and groups of interested parties.
Much of the rest of the world, especially in Europe, has proved capable of a more flexible response to the pandemic. Now, with only 17% of Americans believing that the US can pretend to be a shining city on the hill, it may be time to reevaluate, redesign and rebuild the lighting system that once made it shine.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.