The Weight of the Past
The past is inescapable. It happened and cannot be denied. It may not serve as a shackle, but is often a restraint. This is true for individuals, also for societies and nations. New directions can be pursued, innovations undertaken while individuals can be “born again,” and change course. Nevertheless, original paths may be obscured, but rarely obliterated, beliefs questioned, but not entirely discarded.
Our intention here is to identify particular core beliefs long held by Americans and to assess their current influence, i.e., their ability to affect the way we now think and act, even as contemporary circumstances change and despite the fact that their persistence may at times be detrimental to our wellbeing and best interests.
Believers – America’s religious foundations and commitments are solid and have endured. We were, we proclaimed, the particular beneficiary of God’s Providence. Denominations proliferated, churches were everywhere, ministers were respected and influential members of the community, and the Bible was revered. We were a “God fearing” people. Today tens of millions remain convinced of the validity of traditional religious truths, but increasingly more and more Americans have abandoned religious belief and reject religious observance. Nonetheless, American leaders continue to pay more than just lip service to religion, and it remains at the core of the value system of American society, and, in recent decades, has, in many instances, increasingly emphasized fundamentalist interpretations of our religious (read Christian) heritage. Many of the cultural battles today are rooted in religious opposition to changing patterns of behavior. Questions of gender classification, single sex marriage, homosexuality, feminism, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and critically, the legality of birth control methods and abortion, are all affected by deeply held religious convictions. Addi-tionally, current debates over creationism, climate change, school prayer, private sectarian schools, religious freedom and tax exemption almost always include religious advocates.. Whatever the future course of the U.S., one cannot imagine a time when for better or for worse religious beliefs will not be a prime consideration, part of the national discourse on crucial policy decisions.
Exceptionalism – Americans from the outset believed they had embarked upon a special unique destiny. Separated from Europe and protected by distance and ocean barriers, they would “escape history,” create a society unlike any other before them while avoiding the limitations that had beset other peoples. They would, as a consequence, have little to learn from them. American self-assurance and superiority was a given. Today the basis for such confidence is not self-evident. Other countries have caught up, organized their societies in ways often more satisfying to their citizens. America’s problems – inequality, gun violence, a shrinking middle class, political dysfunction, a growing carbon imprint, etc. – have become more pronounced and worrisome. Nevertheless, our heritage of exceptionalism has resulted in a certain smugness, unwarranted self-conceit, and complacency. All will be fine because we are Americans, and remain a “chosen people.”
Color Counts – Whites held sway from the beginning. Non-whites, principally Indians and African Americans, never had much of a chance. Exploited and told they were inferior, their subordination continued generation after generation. Today, despite the arrival of millions upon millions of people of color and despite the integration of a large majority of them into America society, “white privilege” remains a fact of life, even if certain voices assert that white people are about to be supplanted by “others.” Such distortions and “white flights” from reality stoke fears, aggravate divisions and conflict and remain a serious obstacle to harmony and progress.
Market Capitalism – Americans may not have “discovered” capitalism and the free market, but they have indisputably elevated it to heights not seen before and turned it into a system of vast productive capacity, impressive innovation, startling wealth accumulation, well-being and rising standards of living. Americans learned how to channel and deploy capital, perfect business organizations and techniques, organize labor, develop complex distribution systems, generate consumer demand and both constrain outside interference while encouraging government investment and “rational,” albeit limited, regulation. America enshrined private property, competitive markets, entrepreneurial freedom and energy, the rule of law and the superior ability of free markets to best respond to the needs of society. Surely capitalist success played a prominent role in elevating the U.S. to the forefront of nations in the 20th Century. The celebration of our capitalist inheritance has, however, become a problem of late because of structural problems that have emerged. Wealth inequality has advanced unchecked, wage gains have been limited, market power has increased for the largest corporate entities, government expenditures are consistently outpacing revenues, and the political influence of the very wealthy has reached disturbing proportion. Still the past successes of capitalism have created formidable obstacles to those who today work to move more forcefully to combat climate threats, introduce substantive tax reforms, provide universal affordable health care, encourage more responsible corporate behavior and modernize the nation’s infrastructure. Defenders of classic capitalism are quick to invoke the importance of “free market” solutions, the sanctity of private property and fears of “socialism”, class warfare and the menace of “Big Government.” Of course the goal is to reap the benefits of free enterprise while curbing its abuses. There is no assurance, we can get there, however, because of our unyielding allegiance to the gospel of capitalism.
Technology – Rarely have Luddites surfaced in the U.S. We have welcomed, celebrated and adapted most every technological advance that came our way. The list is endless and includes the telegraph, railroad, telephone, phonograph, automobile, airplane, electric light, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, motion picture, radio, air conditioner, television, frozen food, microwave oven, VCR, computer, cell phone, electric car, MRI, robotic surgery, drone, etc., etc. Our enthusiastic acceptance of each innovative technology usually came without our giving much thought to possible negative consequences. The desire for new technologies became a form of addiction. Each advance was seen as an unquestioned indicator of continued progress. But recent technologies and methodologies, more than ever before, may prove to be mixed blessings. Unauthorized gene manipulations, computer hacking, errant drones, cyber attacks and bullying, Facebook privacy invasions, and “fake news” incitements on the internet, cell phone interruptions and other misuse by automobile drivers, artificial intelligence threats to our jobs – all these were not foreseen or were minimized because Americans have consistently welcomed, focused on the benefits of technology while downplaying harmful consequences.
Additional topics could be examined here. Such discussions would further illustrate the constraints that our particular historical experience imposes upon us. History is not destiny. Nevertheless, the past burdens the present, introduces barriers and prescribes limits on how much we can alter the way things are.