Where did we go wrong? A mid-mortem on America

There’s plenty of hand-wringing about the future of the United States these days. About two-thirds of us believe the country is on the “wrong track”. Meanwhile, academics observe evidence of a free-fall in our democratic institutions. Others are more somber, likening the current environment to the beginnings of a sort of diffuse, decades-long civil war. I, personally, do not find any of those assessments to be overly alarmist. In other words, I think we are in deep trouble.

When I say “deep trouble”, I’m not talking about our public policies. Indeed, there is cause for deep frustration there: we are doing too little to curb global warming and other forms of environmental catastrophe, our tax code and other economic policies are still heavily slanted towards the very wealthy, healthcare and higher education costs are ballooning, and on and on.

In fact, what’s even more worrying is that the capacity of the American society to assess, discuss, and ultimately solve difficult problems seems to have been destroyed. The degree of political polarization has become so intense that it is already starting to manifesting itself occasionally in the form of violence. As I and countless others have written, a culture of perpetual anger, outrage, and finger-pointing has become endemic. It is no wonder that our elected officials refuse to negotiate and compromise with one another. If they are truly representative of us, then why would they?

Everyone, of course, has their own ideas of what has, and is still going, wrong. Here are mine, in deliberately simplistic terms:

  1. We all have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. This is not unique to the American people, and it is not unique to the year 2020. Call it whatever you will. “Selfishness” is all-encompassing enough. “Narcissism” is not overly harsh. As I’ve argued on this website countless times, we tend to think we (or those in our group) are always right, and we make little effort to question our own thinking, consider the opinions of those we disagree with, or ponder how we might improve ourselves.
  2. Technology has probably made it worse. It used to be the case that we all listened to and read the same news. Those days are over. Social media now makes it such that information that is pleasing to our egos gets pushed in front of our eyeballs, while uncomfortable things are sent to the back, thereby hardening are existing beliefs and prejudices. Meanwhile, the IT revolution has made sensationalism the only way for news outlets to make money. Cable news has become a form of reality TV, and newspapers struggling to stay afloat are reduced to clickbait factories. This is how so many of us eventually come to embrace irrational, myopic, and — in some cases — extreme beliefs.
  3. Elections in America have become extraordinarily expensive. It costs a tremendous amount of money to win higher office in this country now. The election that just passed cost $14bn, more than doubling the election of four years ago, and exceeding the entire annual economic output of 81 countries. A significant contributor to this has been the weakening of constraints on campaign finance, and of requirements to disclose the origins of campaign money. The effect is that political candidates’ tone and messaging are pushed to the extreme in a bid to excite those who are actually inclined to donate, a subset of voters who are less likely to be moderate and more likely to be highly partisan.

There are plenty of people out there who are eager to tell you about points #2 and #3, but few that are ready to acknowledge point #1: We have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. Not surprisingly for anyone already familiar with the Baha’i Faith, I see this as the main issue. It is the actual fire; the other two things are simply its accelerants.

Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the faith whom Baha’is revere as a Messenger of God, essentially asked all human beings to efface their own egos, put aside their prejudices, and embrace a culture of love, unity, and fairmindedness. He asked these things of us not simply for the sake of goodness and virtue, but because without making these changes, human civilization is prone to destroy itself. Likening God’s teachings to the prescriptions of a divine Physician, he wrote: “Witness how the world is being afflicted with a fresh calamity every day… Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy.”

Making these changes is not easy. Rather, it requires the individual to truly humble him or herself and seek the assistance of the Divine, in a similar way that a participant in Alcoholics Anonymous defeats addiction by humbly calling on the assistance of a Higher Power.

Among the things that the Baha’i teachings asks us to change about ourselves which, in my opinion, are directly related to this country’s current predicament are:

Not pointing fingers at others. “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner.” We can stop indulging our own personal fantasy that we are somehow woke, and it is others who are in need of education.

Being fair-minded about what is true and what is not. “[B]e adorers of the sun of reality from whatsoever horizon it may appear.” And: “[S]ee with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others… know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.” No matter how good it feels to see messages on social media that confirm what we already believe, we must actively question ourselves, and seek out and consider the views of others.

Never seeing another human being as an opponent. “See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.” We have got to stop talking about people who disagree with us as somehow on another team, or even worse, as members of some enemy army.

To start to turn around American society does not require all of us to instantaneously become Baha’is, or even for us all to start believing in God. But we must somehow start living and breathing these principles, and thus begin to regenerate our culture. If we do, then the flames that have been fanned by technological and political changes might start to die out. In practical terms, the social media algorithms pulling us towards narrow-mindedness will begin to dull, our neat intellectual echo chambers will start to become more porous, and the inflammatory rhetoric of our politicians will eventually to fall upon deaf ears.

Incidentally, Baha’i scripture itself tells us that this type of awakening is not only possible in American society, but it is in fact inevitable. “May America become the distributing center of spiritual enlightenment,” prayed ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1912, asserting that the nation would one day come to “lead all nations spiritually”. Shoghi Effendi later clarified that America’s lofty spiritual destiny would be attained only after considerable hardship. “Then, and only then,” he wrote, “will the American nation… be able to fulfill the unspeakably glorious destiny ordained for it by the Almighty.”

That last passage was written during the unparalleled darkness of the Second World War. The world’s challenges are different now, of course, but in many ways they are equally daunting. The forces of technology and political division in this era of history are immense, and many people are now coming to recognize the terrifying abyss that those forces threaten to pull us down into. The task before us as Americans is to pull ourselves in the opposite direction, with even greater force, towards things like humility, fair-mindedness, understanding, and togetherness. Let those principles guide us, and perhaps we’ll be worthy of our noble destiny.

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