Warning: if you are in a good mood, skip this post, because I’m finding it very hard not to be depressed by the constant reminders of of American institutional dysfunction.
Everywhere you look, there are people who should know better engaging in self-defeating behaviors and magical thinking, fiddling while America burns. I’ve tried to examine the unease I’ve been feeling–the growing anxiety that I’ve been experiencing. Until yesterday, however, I couldn’t put my finger on it–couldn’t find an analogy that fit.
Yesterday, it came to me: we’re on the self-destruct countdown.
Those of you who are Star Trek fans will understand the reference. Spaceships in science fiction always come equipped with a self-destruct sequence, to be used as a last resort to keep the ship from falling into enemy hands. Typically, the captain and first officer will enter their codes into the computer, signaling their agreement to begin the countdown; the dramatic tension comes as the computer’s disembodied voice counts down the minutes until the ship will explode and kill all the crew and passengers.
On television, of course, the bad guys are thwarted in the nick of time, and the destruct sequence is aborted (usually with mere seconds to spare).
We’re not on television, however, and a real countdown clock is ticking. Unless we do something pretty soon to change our trajectory, we stand a good chance of destroying the America we’ve known–the America with a robust middle class, a functioning government and a belief in its ability to meet daunting challenges like those posed by climate change, technology and globalization.
Yesterday’s post was a pretty graphic demonstration of the way in which wealth is currently distributed in the U.S. There’s ample evidence that disparities of this magnitude are profoundly destabilizing–that left unaddressed, they are inconsistent with a functioning democracy. Too many lawmakers in Washington and state capitols around the country are partisan, inept, or lightly tethered to reality–and the result is government that is so broken that no one trusts it anymore.
This paralysis–this inability of American government to act on behalf of the common good–is our self-destruct countdown.
It’s maddening, because there are so many positive elements of American society. I look at my students, and I’d be proud to turn the country over to them; they are thoughtful, inclusive, determined to contribute to their communities. I look at what science and technology have accomplished, and I marvel at the human ingenuity that has made life better for millions of people. Our arts communities are vibrant. Our universities are adding to the sum of human knowledge.
The thing is, all of those social goods require a functional infrastructure: government. And ours is on self-destruct.