by Jon Lebkowsky
What holds a people together as a nation? Three elements: geography, community, and common governance; these define nations. The geographical definition is most visible, easiest to pin down, but lacking community the nation has no glue, no common belief or sense of purpose, so it disintegrates unless government authority straps the package together.
As we all learned in third grade, the U.S. is supposed to be a 'melting pot' or congeal salad that brings diverse cultures (read: diverse communities) together as a single pastiche with a common national and distributed local governments. The center's held surprisingly well so far, because a common belief system's been distributed and reinforced through the educational system and centralized media. Oh, yeah: and three world wars, if you count the cold war. Wars real or imagined reinforce the belief in a need for unity.
The sense of community, of common belief, required to sustain this huge diverse nation is eroding, replaced by still-growing post-watergate cynicism and the postmodern neutralization of spiritiual/political convergences. We still seem to agree about governance, but that social contract's battered every day by challenges from the fringes. We still seem to accept the authority of the electronic icon, television, but it's become a broadcast tower of babel as networks, channels, and world-views proliferate.
Less and less do we know who we are. No identity,
no community: that's the way the nation/cookie crumbles.
The United States was drawn into the two World Wars this century and, if only because of cognitive dissonance, we were forced to consider what we were about, to develop a common political vision for the U.S. through which we were differentiated from our "opponents." We evolved with religious fervor a belief in principles of truth, justice, and freedom however inconsistent those beliefs might have been with the reality of life in the U.S., where in practice the goodies were reserved for the privileged, though the emergence of a broad middle class spread the privilege and the goodies around. The wartime jingoism faded during the Vietnam era; as the human costs of war were compared to the supposed benefits for the U.S.
Why did Vietnam screw us up so badly? The arrogance of power had something to do with it, to be sure. For the various administrations involved in the war, and for Robert McNamara, whose policies sustained and escalated the war, it was an abstract exercise in conflict management, but for draft-age males, their friends and families, it was an exercise in death and deprivation. We had resisted involvement in the two world wars, and once reluctantly committed, fought only to protect U.S. soil from imminent invasion. As we learned more about the war in Vietnam we understood that there was no immediate threat to the U.S. The spectre of world communism didn't mean shit to Americans who were experiencing the grand flourish of U.S. capitalism's finest hour (though it wasn't always clear how the war was fueling the engines of the U.S. economy).
The Vietnam experience eroded confidence in U.S. leadership/vision, and exposure of Nixon's Watergate-related machinations trashed what little confidence remained, engendering a cynical view of U.S. government, a festering sore that's never healed despite phases of apparent Reagan-era resurgence of faith in the machine that I would argue was not that at all, but a curious blend of desperate need and denial. We weren't happy, we were nuts and the word on the street is that many of our best and brightest were surfing a wave of confidence artificially induced by endless lines of coke.
Are we a nation? Last political campaign was a circus; the candidates somehow in denial of the world we experience each day they seem distant, uninformed, uncaring. How d'you hallucinate a mandate when so few bothered to vote. This was the year of the militant nonvoter who would tell you in certain terms how fucked it all is, how wasteful it is to vote. Clinton won because the economy's okay, and I submit that the bottom line is the only real issue of a campaign. Ideology's a game but bread on the table's real, right?
I've been working the activist beat, and I've learned how tough it is to pull numbers together over a some political issue. People do serious politics when the bottom line is threatened; outside that, it's just a game.
Whups! That cynicism's infectious stuff.
Are we a nation?
We are Devo.
Jon Lebkowsky is a freelance writer and activist based in Austin, Texas. He hosts a weekly activists' forum at HotWired's www. talk.com and the Austin conference at Electric Minds, and is currently working on a book for MIT Press.