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Artist, Heather Oliver             

“…and that Government of the People, by the People, for the People, Shall not Perish from the Earth.”

– Abraham Lincoln, the ending of the Gettysburg address

Note: this article has now been reprinted at the Huffington Post, with the title America, Then and Now.

Three and a half decades ago, I chose to come to this country to attend Harvard, then MIT, a journey made possible by perfect test scores and full scholarships.  Though my father was a top-flight engineer, our income could never have afforded the astronomical (for Greeks) fees.  I was well aware that the US was far from perfect and saw more warts while I lived and traveled here – although, as I tell European friends who ask me how I endure it, I live in Cambridge, not the US.  Yet this nation was still a beacon for those of us who were hopeful romantics, who dreamed of achieving and contributing in an accepting meritocracy.

Apollo-1

When I first came, the prevailing attitude in the US was that of an engineer.  Failure was not an option.  Competence and problem solving were gods.  The infrastructure was superb, along with the civic attitudes and shared goals that go with such a context. The society was generous, curious, friendly, outward-looking.  I encountered other cultures mingling in the not-quite-melting pot, other ways of thinking that I would have never discovered in the homogeneous culture of my birth.

Then came the Republican interregnum, culminating in the eight nightmarish years of the Bush administration.  During those years, this country and its people turned into something sickeningly reminiscent of imperial Rome in its dotage.  Persons and institutions became incurious, willfully ignorant, sanctimonious, petulant, small-minded, small-hearted, irrational, inhumane.  They turned inward, stopped thinking of the future and the world – even as US corporations and armies laid waste to much of it – and concentrated exclusively on narrowly defined individual concerns with an attitude of “I got mine, Jack, and the devil take the rest”.  Efficiency and acountability gave way to ass-covering policies (from religiosity to convenient memory lapses) and “gotcha” economics; exploration yielded to forms in quintuplicate and small print.  Empathy, compassion, finesse, courtesy, eloquence, reasoning, learning became suspect.  Plans for great advances in knowledge and social justice dwindled to the tunnel vision of making enough money to escape to a Tyvek Macmansion with a 50-inch plasma TV in a gated community.

The facts around the Challenger explosion of January 1986 illustrate the beginning of the mindset that led to what we have become now.  The launch didn’t serve science but politics: it was meant to serve as a triumphal exclamation point to Reagan’s state of address; the civilian in the mission was deliberately chosen for mediocrity and in fact failed most of the NASA routine tests (the overriding criterion was that s/he should be a complacent, unquestioning Republican – a criterion later expanded for choices of key people, including the position of president); the administrators and contractors bullied the scientists into a risky launch, reversing the traditional decision policy; after the disaster, every involved party pointed at each other in a circle instead of taking responsibility or proposing useful solutions; and during the investigation, the opinions of qualified scientists were ignored – in fact, denigrated – in favor of an amorphous miasma of fake piety and indignation.  In the thirty years following, the Overton window steadily moved to the right and the bottom, resulting in today’s baboon shrieks from talk show hosts, financiers and politicians who use fear, hatred and ignorance as banners and prodding sticks.

Angry-mob

In short, a nation that once was at least trying to be progressive devolved into a horde of atomized, disenfranchised people who behave like spoiled children and allow their financial and political institutions to treat them like serfs – except that, individually and collectively, this country has an excess of “lawyers, guns and money”.  In a frightening parallel to the Weimar Republic of the thirties, people are encouraged to collude in their own enslavement and to vent unfocused anger on any convenient target – from the non-existent threat in Iraq to people who point out that anthropogenic global warming is with us or that healthcare in today’s US is an abject (though preventable) moral, financial, political and scientific failure.

Now, this nation has been granted another chance – perhaps the last chance to arrest the decline before it becomes irreversible.  Its people elected someone who embodies the signature outstanding qualities of this society: a mixed-race, multicultural, pragmatic meritocrat, a flexible and principled doer who, in political fact, is about as socialist as Eisenhower.  But one swallow doesn’t bring the spring.  And the tendency to put Others belatedly and grudgingly in positions of power during crises is a common ploy of those who want to maintain the status quo without consequences to themselves.  The unprecedented, unreasoning hatred and disrespect towards Obama is emblematic of the country trampling on its own best principles and representatives.

I chose this country as my home – and as a cultural half-breed I’m profoundly aware of its unique makeup and its still great potential.  As an immigrant, a citizen, a cosmopolitan, a scientist, a writer, a human being, I won’t give up the vision that brought me here and made me who I am. And I call upon all who dream and think likewise to join me:

Statue_of_Liberty

Let’s dig her out and rekindle her light!

Images: Top, Apollo 1 ready for launch. Center, a still from The Simpsons. Bottom, the famous closing image from Planet of the Apes (1968).

32 Responses to ““…and that Government of the People, by the People, for the People, Shall not Perish from the Earth.””

  1. Heath says:

    What a terrific, hopeful essay!

  2. Kristi says:

    All of the bickering over healthcare has me distracted in ways I wish I wasn’t. I saw what happened Sat even though I was busy and I just want to shake my head and cry over the lack of knowledge out there. Not only that but the groupthink. I know people don’t agree, I don’t always agree, but SO WHAT?! It perpetuates a bigger discussion so we can all come to an agreement and talk about what it is we want or see. It’s helpful to see things from another person’s perspective. How asinine that people who love their country have so much HATE for their fellow citizens to be covered by health insurance.

    Thank you Athena for the beautifully spoken and rational words said here. It needs to be said more and louder. Unfortunately those of us who agree don’t seem to have loud enough voices to be heard.

  3. Athena says:

    Heath, thank you. As I said at the beginning of this essay, I’m a hopeful romantic! The double vision of the outsider is both a blessing and a curse. Also, living in a dictatorship, as I did, makes you aware of how fragile all these privileges are.

    You’re right, Kristi — one of the things that seemed to disappear over the last few decades was the art and science of civilized, rational discourse. And the ability to pursue the common good.

  4. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    I’ve lived in the US my entire life and even I can see the degradation of the American popular character that you discuss here. All I can say is, what happened to us? Were we so drunk on bread and circuses that we didn’t care as long as our wide screen TVs and cable modems were working? It seems that as our backsides got wider, our minds got smaller until that day we (some of us anyway) woke to the realization that our country, our economy and our very livelihoods had been raped and pillaged as we lazed in our media addled stupor.

    The very capitalism that was supposed to have liberated us has opened the door for the robber barons to “clean house” for us once again as they had at the turn of the last century. Will we never learn? Even capitalism has it’s limits and we have certainly found them. So finally, like a lost child crying for a parent to come and save it, we beg our country’s intellectuals to come back from the marginalized and mocked back benches where we laughingly shoved them and play an open role in fixing us, in locking the door against the wolf of rampant corporations and SOME people filled with terror at the thought.

    The very ones screeching the loudest are some of those who have been impacted the worst. Have they already forgotten that it wasn’t the present administration who created this scenario?

    Sorry for being so vehement on this subject but while those individuals may have acquired a taste for being buggered, I certainly have not! I want my country full of smart people back! And I’d also like to be able to afford to go to the doctor if I need to (which I can’t because the health insurance I pay for every month refuses all claims out of basic habit – nothing is approved until it has been submitted at least five times).

    I could rant a little more, but I won’t. All my hopes are pinned on Obama, poor man.

  5. Caliban says:

    Another thoughtful, insightful essay. I have a lot of jumbled, fretful thoughts on the topic, and am glad to see you express so much so clearly.

  6. Eloise says:

    I will not delve too much in political matters, because I think I can only begin to have the slightest understanding of the situation, but…

    Being half French and half Canadian, I must admit I never understood the health care system of my southern neighbour. I’ve lived in a society where I could enjoy universal dental care until I was 18, and universal health care for my whole life. Granted, there are still some specialised treatments (such as osteopathy) which are not covered, but I am very glad to know that I can break a leg or have a cancer (though God forbid!) and receive the appropriate treatments without needing to reach in my own pocket. As a full-time university student who hasn’t got much revenue and still lives with her parents, it is very appreciated.

    If one knows that one has all their essential healthcare covered, one is likely less stressed out about paying the corresponding bills. If one is less stressed out, one is happier. If one is happier, one is more likely to be more productive at work. Which creates more wealth, wealth that can therefore be redistributed towards taking care of society’s needs.

    Honestly, I do not see where is the fault in that logic. It is true that I do not know which portion of the income tax actually goes to the health care system, but I am most definitely sure that the shared cost makes it less than what would be the cost of a standard individual insurance.

    Just my humble opinion on the matter…

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  7. Walden2 says:

    This essay might be of interest here:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/09/13/joe-wilson-and-race/

    I also recommend seeing the 2006 film Idiocracy.

  8. Carlos says:

    Why must you say such things in the pits of my hopelessness, I am very ready to sit back and watch this country fall into anarchy.

  9. Saint Brian says:

    Fantastic essay. Efharisto, Athena.

    You’ve really hit the nail on the head. You’ve really said it. As a lifelong resident I’ve noticed the very same. I want to be proud of my country, but lately it seems that my country has been doing everything possible to make me ashamed of it. Obama seems a breath of fresh air, but still I’m not sure it’s enough. The entrenched ignorant masses are huddled close to their fires of hatred and division… Its very discouraging.

    Do you (or anyone else here) care to comment on the role that you think religion plays in all of this? To me it seems that they couldn’t do it, couldn’t ‘dumb down’ the masses like they have without it.

    -Saint Brian the Godless

  10. Athena says:

    My friends, we’re all similarly minded. But then again, we’re the intellectuals, artists, engineers and scientists who were shoved away from the decision-making process, deemed irrelevant by our very antipathy to facile soundbites, called unpatriotic — indeed, traitors — whenever we dared to point out that the Emperors had no clothes.

    Some of this we brought on ourselves, by giving up from hopelessness and fatigue, but most came from a shift in the Zeitgeist of the culture. I watched the last years with growing horror. I know in my bones that, had McCain and Palin been elected, witchburnings would have begun in earnest: they were openly proclaiming such a future during those rallies that increasingly resembled those of late-thirties Germany, after the National Socialist party started hypnotizing an entire nation into the vision of glorious destruction, a Liebestod for the entire world. Except that they didn’t yet have nuclear weapons; we do.

    When successive Republican administrations crowed about the final failure of socialism and extolling “free market” as the sole viable social policy (although the US plutocracy is heavily subsidized), they forgot to mention one important fact: the USSR failed primarily because it spent a disproportionate amount of its GNP on armaments. Both sides haemorrhaged severely; the USSR broke first — and the ensuing power monopole/y made the US think that it could forever continue on that path even while the standard of living and thinking of its own citizens was going down the toilet.

    Kathryn, Eloise, I couldn’t agree more about healthcare. I still cannot fathom how this county can send missions to the solar system but cannot solve the problems of healthcare… daycare… primary schools… But then, these are homely, “feminine” concerns of peace. They don’t add glamour, don’t help macho attitudes when measuring relative lengths of belts.

    Larry, I read Coyne’s essay and found it (and the comments following it) interesting. Another relevant book along these lines is is Charles Pierce’s recent book How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.

    Calvin, Carlos, I fret and fear, too. I’m no hero. I wouldn’t last long in a prison and my voice is tiny. But many tiny voices might make a difference if rising together. There’s a time to stand alone, and a time to stand together. Now is the time for the latter.

  11. Athena says:

    Brian, welcome. I’m glad you found that the essay resonated with you.

    There are several positions on religion among the followers of this blog — although it won’t come as a surprise to you that I’m an atheist who detests organized religion but, nevertheless, loves the inspiration and poetry that comes from mythology. I discuss some of the aspects you touch upon in my contribution to Blackford and Schulenk’s upcoming book Voices of Disbelief. I do think that, in this instance, religion was used to whip the frightened and disenfranchised into a frenzy. In my opinion, the fundamentalists of the US and Saudi Arabia have more in common than fundamentalists of any culture/religion and secular humanists.

  12. Caliban says:

    A tool I find helpful for analyzing religion (and one which I’ve stated on this site before, so regular readers forgive me) is the theologian Marcus Borg’s concept of theologies of purity and theologies of compassion. One actually finds both in the Abrahamic faiths, side by side. Unfortunately the expressed criticisms about Obama are frequently couched in the language of impurity: he’s tainted by association of religion, birth, economic philosophy, and so on. Joe Wilson’s outburst during Obama’s speech centered exactly on his objection to showing compassion to the impure (illegal immigrants). Religious, economic, and philosophical fundamentalists are all devout members of purity cults.

  13. Athena says:

    The distinction between purity and compassion is meaningful both concretely and morally. You encounter it in political ideologies, as well — and as early as Sophocles, with Creon and Antigone representing the two stances. The division is also between abstract versus concrete, and between the letter versus the spirit of whatever law is being invoked.

    A story that illustrates this is of a young girl asking the rabbi of her shtetl during a time of famine if a particular food was kosher or treff. “Treff,” said the rabbi. “But I already gave it to my young brothers,” protested the girl, “it was either that or starve.” “In that case, it was kosher,” replied the rabbi.

  14. “the theologian Marcus Borg’s concept of theologies of purity and theologies of compassion”

    Wow – snap – I accidentally re-invented Marcus Borg’s concept yesterday while pondering Karen Armstrong’s repeated insistence that compassion is at the heart of all major religions. My thought was that Armstrong (bafflingly) seems simply blind to the fact that not everyone shares her idea of the good; to some people the good is purity rather than compassion, and that’s how their religion plays out – the result has nothing to do with compassion.

  15. Athena says:

    Interesting point, Ophelia, even though we’re veering increasingly off-topic from the focus of the post.

  16. Caliban says:

    Yes, let’s not derail.

    So let me propose another tool. It’s been demonstrated that many animals, including humans, have an inbuilt sense of “fairness.” For example, if you give a monkey a bit of cucumber as a reward, it’s pretty happy, until it sees another monkey getting a grape. And then, even though it was perfectly happy with cucumber, it will now throw down the cucumber in disgust and want a grape.

    Along with his innate sense of fairness is a desire to cheat or game the system. People are always attempting to design systems that cannot be cheated, but it can’t be done. No matter the system, someone will always game it.

    Now here’s the point: some people are upset when the “haves” cheat and others are more upset when the “have nots” cheat; in fact one group will usually minimize the other. “Greed is good,” cries one; “wealth trickles down;” but woe to the mythical welfare queen whose presence will burn it all down. Conversely others will rail against the bloody hands of the capitalist but turn a blind eye to the fraud among the little people or minimize or justify it.

    I don’t know if there have been any studies to see if there are similar divisions in, say, monkeys; do some monkeys get upset if the dominants cheat, and others if the subordinates cheat? Can the alphas convince the epsilons to watch out for the other epsilons cheating (thus ignoring the alphas). Well, you can see where I stand….

  17. Athena says:

    There have been such studies. Hrdy and de Waals would be good primary and secondary resources for this issue. Both monkeys and apes tolerate mild cheating but distrust and avoid routine cheaters. The winning strategy of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is well understood by our cousins!

  18. Mahesha says:

    I don’t know much about American politics or health care. I live on the other side of the globe. But what I can see as an engineer, America is not the country which I grew up reading about. For me, America was a ray of hope, of discovery, of freedom, of human will to explore and experiment.

  19. Athena says:

    For me, America was a ray of hope, of discovery, of freedom, of human will to explore and experiment.

    Exactly! Those are the attributes that draw future astrogators, not love of riches or fame.

  20. Walden2 says:

    At the risk of sounding terribly cynical, I see overall religion as a way to keep the masses in line with rewards and punishments, just like they do to lab rats with food pellets and shocks from an unseen benefactor/ disciplinarian.

    One of the cleverest gimmicks employed by the faiths derived from Abraham is to tell the poor that even though the rich and powerful are doing just dandy in this life now, in the next one they will be on the short end of the stick while the deprived and suffering people will all get rewarded and be happy forever with 72 virgins, etc. Slick, if nothing else.

    By the way, one of the funniest bits I ever saw on Family Guy was about a Muslim terrorist who is killed in a suicide bombing and goes to Heaven, where he is told his 72 virgins await. He enters a room and discovers that the 72 virgins are male computer nerds!

    I always said if there is a God, he appears to be a nasty practical joker. It would explain so much of this existence.

  21. Athena says:

    Larry, the point you make is important. The promises of a future better life (whether Paradise or Nirvana) have been used to keep the status quo and stop the have-nots from demanding better treatment in the here and now. Many theologians have attempted to justify suffering by either invoking free will or insisting that God has plans greater than what we limited mortals can encompass. Neither explanation is satisfactory.

    On the human side, religiosity is often conflated with morality. Following the rules without thinking often excuses the practitioner from thinking and making hard choices, including acting humanely against ingrained prejudices or groupthink.

    All these issues, of course, translate directly to social and political decisions and showcase why the late Republican vision of the US was (and still is) coming perilously close to that of Saudi Arabia. Along these lines, this sentence from Laura Miller’s review of the latest Dan Brown trashy thriller is relevant:

    From “The Celestine Prophecy” to “The Prayer of Jabez” to “The Secret,” no one has ever gone broke telling Americans that they can have whatever they want if they only think sufficiently happy thoughts.

  22. Caliban says:

    Somewhat more germane, and less snarky, it’s the illusory carrot of a future better life in this life that keeps people voting against their own best interests. Consider, for example, how the inheritance tax has been successfully rebranded as the “death tax” (even our estate planning attorney uses that phrase, gah); it has a very high exemption that most people won’t reach, but people are convinced that, some day, they might be rich, so they vote against the inheritance tax.

    Along the same lines is the idea that illegal immigrants are sucking away all your money. Illegal immigrants are, at most, between 5 and 7% of the population, so they can only be taking up between 5 and 7% of the services. Yet people are utterly convinced that if we got rid of the illegal immigrants, this would suddenly relieve an enormous burden.

    This isn’t even the illusion of a pie in the sky; it’s the illusion of a pie if only we were to embrace trickle-down economics.

    (Trying to nudge…thread…back…on…track….)

  23. Walden2 says:

    The phrase I hate hearing the most, after “I don’t make the rules,” is “We don’t know why God allows/does these things.” Total mind control.

    I recently read both Angels and Demons and The da Vinci Code and I do not understand how Brown’s novels became so popular. They are weak and amateurish at best, and I am not even talking about their so-called scholarship. They barely qualify as summer beach reading.

    Now if someone wants to read a powerful novel abour religion and society, check out Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The 1986 film is pretty darn good too. It will make you wonder how the heck Europe ever got through the Middle Ages alive. :^)

  24. Athena says:

    Larry, I enjoyed the erudition and wit of Eco’s book. That was one work that deserved its bestseller status. The film was also lovely, although it didn’t succeed in conveying all the complexities of the book (how could it?) and Connery, Abraham and Slater were great.

    (Trying to nudge…thread…back…on…track….)

    You and me both, Calvin! *laughs*

    I agree with all your points. The cynical marketing of the illusion that everyone can achieve “the American dream” unassisted by any kind of social safety net, coupled with the unfocused anxiety engendered by the sense of slipping as a nation, has turned poisonous. Illegal immigrants are not only a tiny percentage of the population, they also consists largely of strong young men and women who often hold down multiple jobs. Their impact on healthcare is negligible, though they do all the jobs that Americans have decided are beneath them.

    And is this not a nation whose post-colonization greatness came from immigrants? Weren’t the Poles, the Irish, the Greeks, the Chinese initially greeted as dangerous vermin, even as they were employed in sweatshops, public projects and farms at starvation wages?

  25. Athena says:

    Here’s a diagram that, as usual, speaks more eloquently than a thousand words: The US Worldview

  26. Eloise says:

    Athena, I have to say that the title of this log made me think of a quote by Senator Gracchus in the movie Gladiator, as he drops by the Games in order to acertain Maximus’s influence, and is asked why he doesn’t go to the Colosseum more often:

    “I don’t pretend to be a man of the people. But I do try to be a man for the people.”

    I think that this is precisely this kind of attitude which might be at the source of the criticism levied by some of Obama’s detractors. It is because he doesn’t have that “everyman” quality that most of his recent predecessors in the Office had. And neither does he pretend to be an “everyman”.

    He is learned, bright, athletic, a straight-A student with a stellar curriculum. He’s got a nice wife and cuter children. By any and all accounts, except for the occasional smoke, he doesn’t have any bad habits. In short, he’s as close to perfect as you can get.

    So of course he’s going to ruffle feathers, and especially those of less-than-perfect “everymen” everywhere. They will feel envy rather than respect, and will grasp as whatever excuse there is to knock the subject of envy from his pedestal. They will resort to name-calling, like High School bullies. Instead of contructive actions, they will seek to destroy.

    Makes me wonder why we call ourselves “homo sapiens”. If we were as wise as we think we are, such behaviour would never happen.

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  27. Athena says:

    I think you hit on something important, Eloise. There’s no question that Obama’s stellar achievements arouse envy and resentment, even more so because he did it the American way: from humble beginnings, with hard work. In his case (and I can relate, since it happened to me also in a somewhat equivalent context), the more qualified he is, the more hatred and harassment he attracts.

    One of the things that Americans said they liked about Bush and Palin was that “they could see having a glass of beer with this person”. Of course, the impression for Bush was utterly false, since he comes from a dynasty of oil barons and went to Yale. Palin prided herself on her “folksy” ignorance, as painfully illustrated in both her interview with Couric and her resignation speech — and she felt entitled because of her ignorance, rather than in spite of it, to have her finger on the nuclear button.

    But this is ridiculous “logic”. People don’t choose even their hairdressers and car mechanics by how folksy they are. They choose them on the basis of their competence and honesty. So how could they choose their congresspeople and presidents on such flimsy, irrelevant criteria? The answer is that such choices gave the results the criteria deserve. But what of the rest of the world?

  28. intrigued_scribe says:

    An excellent question, to follow up an excellent essay.

    This is beautifully written (with very apt accompanying images). It eloquently covers so many of the factors that contributed to America’s decline and simply resonates. Indeed, that began some time beforehand, but in the last eight horrifying years, the deterioration that resulted in the issues that so direly need to be overcome simply snowballed. On the heels of that, it definitely seems that after the years it took to create this mess, more than a few expect an instantaneous solution and that with little or no responsibility.

    The point you make regarding Obama’s detractors is spot-on, Eloise, as are those concerning the involvement of the intensive thought control hard-core religion involves and the ludicrous reasoning of those wanting “folksy”–and terribly destructive–individuals in vital roles demanding competence, intelligence and constructiveness.

    Brilliant and incisive, as ever.

  29. Much of the danger comes from tribal instincts. We buy into what adults teach us, join the appropriate crowd (whether it’s the GOP, Atlanta Falcons fans, or a lynch mob). We put our brains on the shelf, and buy into the prevailing tribal opinions. We accept actions from the group that we would not perform ourselves. Bomb Baghdad? Okay. Unfortunately, as parents, we do not really want the best for our kids; we want them to be like us. And attitudes harden. It’s why it is so hard to change the minds of older people. It’s why, as someone said, the world moves forward one funeral ay a time.

  30. Athena says:

    Heather, I’m glad you enjoyed the essay and its images! I chose the flaming torch as the focal paradigm. It’s a powerful instrument, both literally and metaphorically, and can wreak both miracles and havoc.

    The quick-fix desire is emblematic of our times, from bogus weight-loss pills to expecting miracles from Obama alone, unaided, as if he were a wizard with a wand.

    Jack, I agree. The clan centrifugal force is a legacy ancestral settings. It was crucial then, and can still be useful if understood and used correctly. We tend to work best in groups of about 150, which is small enough to allow members to know practically everyone, and large enough to undertake large projects that are more than the sum of their parts. However, group identification comes at the price of treating all Others as subhuman. We have come since our beginnings and need to factor our current cultural and mental settings into the equation.

    Your point about changing attitudes has been used as a major argument against immortality (short of having a semi-infinity of habitable and sparsely inhabited planets). As a related saying goes, All scientific theories start as heresies and end as superstitions.

  31. Walden2 says:

    The Simpsons image reminds me of the episode where an asteroid is heading straight for Springfield but is destroyed by the thick layer of pollution hanging over the city!

    The part that I really remember from it is that a mob then forms to burn down the Springfield Observatory (no, I didn’t know they had one either until then) to make sure they never get hit by an object from space again.

    You KNOW there are people who think just like that out there.

  32. Carlos says:

    Evil-doers Lmao