So with Trump, what’s wrong with us? How did we get to this point? What can we do about it? These are the great questions historically associated with the outdated “existentialism” of an angst-dominated post-World War II world when the (highly overrated) danger of Soviet subversion and the threat of a nuclear war disturbed the sleep of millions on almost a nightly basis.
We used to ask such questions about ourselves as individuals, as well as more collectively as a nation. Herbert Marcuse (remember him?) made his career addressing such anxieties from a theoretical-existentialist perspective. The stress associated with it helped give rise to the “what me worry?” and “do it! 100 years from now, no one will know the difference” era of the 1960s so-called hippie “drugs, sex and rock and roll” counterculture, at least among younger people.
There was the bomb. Some of us remember the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the planet came perilously close to an unloading of “mutual and assured destruction.” This writer as a lad had routine nightmares of mushroom clouds appearing on the horizon in those days and an associated horrid sensation of raw fear.
Movies like “Dr.Stangelove” and “On the Beach” didn’t help to relieve the stress. Then there were the assassinations, of JFK, of Malcolm X, of Martin Luther King and of Bobby Kennedy. Then came the inner city riots. Then came the Vietnam War and with it, the universal draft. It was the last American war involving a draft, because the powers that be recognized that it was the singularly-greatest cause of the national domestic revolt against that war. My brother amazingly survived two tours of duty up the Mekong Delta on swift boats and I had two close friends, old high school baseball buddies, who died there, one by stepping on a mine the first day he was there.
Then there was the pervasive atmosphere of angry discrimination that saturated the culture, snarling at radical social disruptions like interracial marriage and, God forbid, pride in being LGBT. In the 1970s, cults exploded as remnants of the rudderless young people were lured by authoritative charlatans with answers. They were of the flower child variety on one end of the spectrum, and then of the “human potential” movement variety on the other, the nastier form of sensory deprivation and ego-stripping behavior modification techniques that became all the rage. Corporate America bought into it big time, ordering their employees to “drink that Kool-Aid,” so to speak, with the aim of improving productivity and justifying low wages by brainwashing their minions into repudiating any moral responsibility for anything beyond their own selfish self-interests.
This dovetailed with the selfish philosophies of the followers of Ayn Rand and the rise of so-called “postmodern” realism that set about ridiculing and discrediting any notions of love and romance. “Postmodernism” respects only pleasure and power and its philosophical constructs pervaded American university campuses and the arts, alike. Michel Foucault, theories of the “selfish genes” being like invisible hands governing all behavior, human “sapien” humorless advances toward immortality and the proliferation of remarkably dystopian scenarios of the future dominated.
On the flip side, religion became “fundamentalist” to a degree never so pervasive before, and blindly political.
Our great national sin has become selfish self-entitlement. Without excuse, people now demand to do it “their way,” with commitments to social bonds, reasonable compromises and covenants of mutual interests seen as the enemy.
“I Want It, And I Want It Now!” This is now the national mantra, more relevant and valid than “E Pluribus Unum.”
This drove the national economy into the ditch in the Great Recession, and there are signs that another one is on the way. It has led to the opioid epidemic, a nation hooked on drugs far more potent than heroin.
It has given rise to the Roman Empire-like “bread and circuses,” the common national religion being the rituals associated with wildly popular socially-sanctioned manslaughter in the form of football. Destroying brains is now our national pastime, in the face of the overwhelming scientific and medical evidence of how serious it is.
So, what’s wrong with America? Try its people.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].