America’s response to the situation in Egypt demonstrates some of the contradictions in American society. America was born in revolution, but since that time its leaders have discouraged revolution of any kind. Since the Revolutionary War Americans have mistrusted anyone claiming superior social standing; on the other hand many people used the Revolution to redefine their own social roles and status. The newly created elite coveted political supremacy; even Thomas Jefferson found it difficult to define the limits of power.
Americans have struggled to balance these social, economic and political realities with the highest ideals of democratic liberty, but in the last decade the political realities seem to have taken the upper hand. ‘We the people’ cheered for Egypt’s struggle for democracy, while our own democracy faced serious threats. American financial experts and regulators have betrayed the people, causing the loss of jobs and homes. Foreclosures happen with little oversight or concern for the victims. The men responsible for the financial collapse are installed in the President’s cabinet, Bloomberg News and CNN flaunt the fact that the wealthy are spending again, and Congress extends their tax breaks.
I read somewhere that these times of extremity are short-lived, whereas the periods when the laws are equitably enforced and the people live in relative harmony tend to be long lasting and self-perpetuating. At the present time however, America’s turmoil may be part of a “cycle of awakening” which began in the 60s. Awakenings are periods of cultural revitalization that begin in a general crisis of beliefs and values. This particular cycle has been unusually long and hasn’t yet found its equilibrium. I guess that is what we are waiting for—equilibrium.
In the meantime economic insecurity and injustice are probably far more costly than we know. Historians agree that the world’s “golden ages” have coincided with the occurrence of crucial factors: peace, sufficient financial resources, and enough leisure to make use of them. The presence of these conditions has often been accompanied by innovation and creativity. By this standard, the shock experienced by families and communities as a result of this recession must have been an immeasurable cultural setback. And this recession is not an isolated incident. If the combined effects of two world wars, several smaller wars, the Great Depression and several smaller recessions occurring within a single century are considered, the costs to society must have been tremendous. Under these conditions, the official calls for innovation are simply rubbing salt in the wound.
Any nation that dreams of building a high culture would have to create laws and customs aimed at ensuring a positive cultural environment. Hopefully it is clear I am not talking about a positive corporate environment. This process would require time and patience, as well as a school of thought capable of continuing its traditions through time, and building on them. None of the world’s great cultures were achieved in a generation, but if America were to work toward such a goal each improvement would be a cause for celebration. Each decade that passes in peace and prosperity would bring cultural depth and beauty, strength and wisdom. The journey would be the thing.
1. Bullock, Steven C. Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the transformation of the American social order. University of North Carolina Press. 1998
2. Bacevich, Andrew. The Limits of Power: the end of American exceptionalism. Metropolitan Books. 2008
3. Baker, Wayne E. America’s Crisis of Values: reality and perception. Princeton University Press. 2006