The Failed State of America

At some point here I would like to write about something besides the corrosive storm, rotting away the entire notion of a functioning United States of America.

But, what else would I write about.* This is a big thing, even if it’s ongoing. Meanwhile I’m not, e.g., traveling much beyond my daily hikes around western Lakewood.

On the other hand, it seems like there is little genuinely new to say about the corrosion and dysfunction of America, and even less which answers this fundamental summation: “Sometimes there is no tactical approach that will address the immediate problem—all you can do is focus on strategy and hope to survive long enough for your long-term strategic actions to bear fruit.”

I recognize, and indeed have acknowledged explicitly, that “just sort it out with the election in November” is not good enough. But I just don’t know what else exists or can be brought into existence before then.

Many people, smart people, continue to believe in a key which will unlock the doors of this living nightmare. Some fact, some message, some missing piece. The tax returns are the key. Or Epstein. Or Dems screwed up by impeaching Trump over Ukraine instead of Russia. Or we just need better ads pointing out known facts.

With due respect, every object of this search seems less likely to be a key than a tree, within a forest being missed by the searchers.

America is a fucking failed state at this point.

This Medium post, for what it’s worth, does a fine job expressing this point, but the real point is that this is already a goddamn reality.

The props which supposedly were holding up support for Trump are all collapsed. Unemployment is shocking. A pandemic is out of control. Corruption is as proven as it’s ever likely to get. I suppose that stocks are still fairly frothy, but the notion that this is propping up remarkably broad support for obviously unfit authority is not a notion incompatible with the suspicion that no message exists right now which can implode that support. More likely, I think, it’s just part and parcel of the larger reality, that functioning rational-esque systems of debate and collective judgment just aren’t here.

I have been through this type of meta criticism with people, before, and it’s a near impossible sell. So I suppose that, as with all of this, I note mostly for the record the model of the Koch Snowflake, and the reality that at a certain point, more detail doesn’t even noticeably change the shape of it even if a potentially infinite amount of detail is added.**

Again, trees, forest; Trump has been president for three and a half years and has delivered abuses and destruction which were hard even to imagine, beforehand, and his approval is still enough that mainstream opinion measurement (for whatever that’s worth) still indicate a genuine possibility that he and his party can weather a general election.

Yes, malapportionment is a huge part of that calculation, but we’ve had malapportionment this entire time.

Again, and again: “Sometimes there is no tactical approach that will address the immediate problem.” Within this context, I don’t believe that a new message, or grassroots organizing, are at all satisfactory; I do believe that they’re what we have, that I’m stumped for any superior alternative available fast, and that of these imperfect tools I think grassroots organizing is more likely to be productive than continued searching for a “big reveal.”

Yes, I value the truth, sure. But for me, that includes respecting the truth that my idea of valuing-the-truth does not seem to prevail at all reliably under our cultural and institutional systems, or among human society’s inherent qualities (to the extent that this is even a thing).

I’m tempted to think that part of our fundamental problem goes beyond systems which don’t work—I don’t know that we have ever had those in a sense of systems which didn’t have disastrous vulnerabilities or other failings the entire time—and has to do with too many people experiencing that the systems don’t work as had been believed.

With Trump, most obviously, the notion of a key piece of information which would drive away support is hardest to believe in because we have already been there and done that. The Access Hollywood tape was that big reveal. Senior Republicans wrote Trump off—including even spineless and amoral Senator Rob Portman—and even Trump and his campaign wrote Trump off. That really happened, and nothing since has come close to it.

Every protest that can be made, here, ultimately ignores the reality: we have already gone through a more damaging “big reveal” than any since or any that is credibly likely to surface; it didn’t stop Trump; in the big picture none of the exceptional reasons why it didn’t are really exceptional.

Functioning, even rational-esque, systems of debate and collective judgment just aren’t here.

To return to my point about people experiencing this, I’m reminded of Gibbon’s exploration of how it is that Christianity was able to displace so completely the prevailing religious beliefs of the classical world; if I recall correctly, one of his suggestions was that by the first century, people had stopped really believing in the old beliefs. In a similar way, I suspect that over the past few decades, Republicans in particular have gradually stopped believing in a strong connection between abuse of power and electoral consequences, a phenomenon feeding into and fed by their efforts to further weaken their vulnerability to what connection might still exist.

It’s just a theory, and probably incidental to the larger problem that as a nation, America doesn’t now have functioning, even rational-esque, systems of debate and collective judgment, a problem which means America is a failed state and which defies any easy fix.

(For goodness’ sake, the problem is apparently so bad that even Joe Biden, the man who would never give up on the system because the system had never failed him, talks more and more about big structural change lately.)

So, yeah. I try to contribute to immediate tactical approaches which seem likeliest to have any chance of helping with the most urgent symptoms, and I try to probe for strategic long-term solutions (and to survive long enough to get further with them).

But, at the same time, fellow traveler in these dismal lands Eric Sandy expressed it very very well last month: “…whattaya supposed to do about any of that? The train has left the station! We’re several decades into collapse…” Yeah.

More and more, the feeling of familiarity I got from The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August becomes stronger. I don’t know exactly what’s certain to happen, and neither did Harry August, even though he had lived through the 20th century a dozen times and more. But the big forces are discernible—and, as COVID-19 is reminding us in real time, many more immediate outcomes can be predicted also, by experts who share it all very willingly—and it just seems not to make that much of a difference. It’s like any thinking person is Harry August, or Cassandra, living through events which mostly just take their course like plate tectonics.

Meanwhile I suppose that I do take some satisfaction in this even if that might make some people mad:

Typo: I marched in Washington in April 2017

* I have thought about writing of Marvel’s 1990s Nomad series, which now meets the test of old/obscure comics, but what really needs to be said beyond the facts that it was a half-baked attempt to install the Lone Wolf & Cub storytelling engine in the Marvel Universe, not remarkably executed, and its most notable feature is the concluding weirdness which was probably just weirdness, rather than any concealed depth.

** Credit this concept to Alan Moore in the footnotes to From Hell.

2 Thoughts on “The Failed State of America

  1. I’ve been mulling this over for a couple days now, and it seems like I should have a response here. Except I don’t beyond acknowledging that more and more people seem to be recognizing the state of decline, and are starting to notice that cliff we’ve been racing towards for years.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on what you think the final collapse itself will look like.

    • Hmmm, hard to say.

      One, because I think the concept of “final collapse” is complicated, here. The United States collapsing into nonexistence like classical Mayan civilization seems very unlikely. A breakdown along the lines of East Germany or the USSR seems more conceivable. But many a failed state has spent many generations in “terminal decline,” e.g. the Ottoman Empire (and for that matter the Byzantine before it).

      Two, because it feels foolish to rule out possibilities, firmly, at this point.

      “The Economist” asked more than a decade ago whether or not America is “ungovernable,” and I’m more convinced than ever that it is, in the sense that we have political systems which are decreasingly effective at much besides (upward redistribution of wealth and) thwarting the possibility of their own reform.

      I’m not sure how much really came of the regional compacts formed by various states, a few months ago, but it caught my eye at the time and I still wonder if it may be a signpost of the future. Breakdown of effective central government traditionally means a vacuum into which step local and regional power. This happened repeatedly over the course of ancient Egyptian history, e.g., although the concept of a unified central authority proved impossible to uncreate.

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