For many of us, 1968 was the most chaotic and divisive year of our civic lives. Assassinations, police brutality, race riots, violent anti-war protests, military assaults on American citizens, ineffectual political leadership, class hatreds, and corporate predation driven by an unnecessary war. All that was needed to make it worse than 2020 was a viral pandemic.
It seems apparent that none of the social, political, or moral conditions that ignited this nation in 1968 have been eliminated. In the meantime, we were otherwise occupied reveling in the greed-is-good ‘80s and ’90s and the jingoism that swelled after 9/11 to initiate lasting institutional change. Half a century later we’re still a nation divided by race, class, ideology, income, access to justice and health, and culture. Our institutions and infrastructure have been crumbling under the weight of indifference and malfeasance for 40 years. There is not a vital area of life that the United States ranks high among the world’s nations save personal wealth, gun ownership, and incarceration.
And yet, still, American voices fancy the opportunity that lies before us to reinvent ourselves. To finally get it right – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – liberty and justice for all. If America is actually exceptional, surely it is in our bullishness.
A short list of the institutions that have been ignored and demand immediate attention are: democracy, capitalism, foreign policy, education, housing, healthcare, journalism, transportation, environment, taxation, criminal justice, and immigration. How do we go about reimagining these institutions when we lack the most essential component to living successfully in a commonwealth – social trust?
No amount of reason, communication skills, or objective evidence seems to be able to bring our divisions into harmony. Where some see protestors, others see looters. Where some value liberty above all and don’t feel responsible for anyone but themselves, others value equality and need to protect everything from the truly vulnerable to the sensitivities of college students who feel unsafe in the presence of certain words and ideas. How can a nation begin to reimagine itself through systemic remedies such as “defund the police” (with its misleading imperative) when 40% of the nation wants to move in the other direction, backwards, to an illusory time of America’s greatness? When there’s no trust, there can be no healing.
To embark on a period of systemic reinvention requires new habits of thinking. Beyond thoughtless, knee-jerk rejections of proposed creative solutions, we must learn to develop the habit of listening first as an ally without immediate judgment born out of mistrust. Further, we must all begin to discover our unconscious biases, beliefs and values which hold our rational minds captive. More than reason, these guide our judgments, choices and actions. Add to this, confirmation bias which is so skillfully exploited by cable news and social media. We are comfortable with the media choices that best confirm the beliefs that we’ve already accepted as truth. We need to get off this hamster wheel.
One positive sign that we may have begun new habits of thinking is the fact that currently the first 8 titles on the New York Times non-fiction best seller list all deal with race, white privilege and white supremacy. This might be an admission among some white Americans that we have been living our lives with a profound lack of self-awareness. There is much to learn about whiteness and privilege and their unconscious effects on our behavior. This can only be a good thing.
How long do great nations remain great? “The American Century” ended 20 years ago and now this spring, fissures once indiscernible to large swathes of Americans have finally become conspicuous to all but the most myopic, partisan, and bigoted. Improbably, the challenge before us is the same one we faced 244 years ago. Are we a people capable of governing ourselves?