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more semi-related thoughts about conceptions of  'the other shoe'


    ...The two world wars, unstable booms, and the abysmal depression of our time have profoundly shaken national confidence in the future.  During the boom of the twenties it was commonly taken for granted that the happy days could run on into an indefinite future; today there are few who do not assume just as surely the coming of another slump.  If the future seems dark, the past by contrast looks rosier than ever; but it is used far less to locate and guide the present than to give reassurance.  American history, presenting itself as a rich and rewarding spectacle, a succession of well-fulfilled promises, induces a desire to observe and enjoy, not to analyze and act.  The most common vision of national life, in its fondness for  the panoramic backward gaze, has been that of the observation-car platform."...

    ..." Above and beyond temporary and local conflicts there has been a common ground, a unity of cultural and political tradition, upon which American civilization has stood.  That culture has been intensely nationalistic and for the most part isolationist; it has been fiercely individualistic and capitalistic.  In a corporate and consolidated society demanding international responsibility, cohesion, centralization, and planning, the traditional ground is shifting under our feet." ...    -- Richard Hofstadter, writing in the introduction to The American Political Tradition, January, 1948

    "Cracking at the seams" ?

    A broadly-shared idea of some common ideas within a sense of identity among Americans used to produce at least the impression that such an identity, whatever it was, whatever it meant, was real and something people could take for granted.  Since that time, the unifying sense of identity has suffered under the intense strains of bewildering technological change which took no account of it and often undermined it.  Today, a national identity not only seems to have vanished, it has become a challenge just to imagine what it must have been like when it existed.

    Today, Americans are deeply divided in their self-images and their beliefs about who they are (that is, their senses of identity), and who they should be and become; bound up in all that are the deep divisions over practical courses of action in dealing with the various pressing social and political problems of the day.  The markers which once served to provide generations of Americans with a shared idea of their place, their direction and their rate of progress (or regress) have largely disappeared and now little remains of a very generally valid and unifying experience of childhood and the passage from it to adulthood.  Looking around themselves today, Americans have little idea of how much and in what aspect their own experiences are known and understood and shared by their fellow citizens.  In its place has grown up a marked tendency to treat others as having a suspect claim on being real Americans.  It's difficult to say which was the larger influence on a growing and self-reinforcing development of these trends, the political, which fed into social habits, or, conversely, social habits which in turn brought on political trends which in their turn completed a self-reinforcing "loop" of cause-and-effect.  Whatever the case, a parting of the ways seems as well established within the social realm as in the political and these then tend to blur into one, making it difficult to see where social ills end and political ills begin.

    Part of what has seemed to crack under the strain for one side of the divided American identity is the abiding acceptance of what historian Richard Hofstadter described in the citation above, a culture which "has been intensely nationalistic and for the most part isolationist; it has been fiercely individualistic and capitalistic," is now no longer so uniformly so.    What's badly lacking, I believe, is a working sense of identity--supple enough to embrace a people who now are more diverse in origin, experience and self-conception than has been true of the society which lived up through the end of the first World War.  An old fashioned nationalistic identity, fierce and xenophobic in character and held rather defiantly against "the rest of the world" beyond the borders of the U.S. has been reduced to the property of only roughly half ---and the most politically reactionary and conservative half, at that--of the American public.  For the rest, there is deep doubt and unanswered questions about how to define their identity and about how to understand what that identity consists of specifically.  This reigning confusion has brought voids into relief and made room for people who always thought of themselves as thoroughly progressive and staunch defenders of civil liberties to openly hesitate over a former categorical opposition to violations of those rights, as for example, when they begin to think that there may be circumstances in which torture must be considered and perhaps even countenanced.  

    Somehow, some new and practically-useful sense of American identity which would foster and encourage freedom and openness, rather than the growing National Security State, which is a kind of short-hand for its opposite, must be fashioned and made effective.  But our social institutions are ill-equipped for this task and much about them---such as the atomized television and internet culture of mass media---work more against the formation of such a new and unifying identity than in favour of it.  In any case, whatever it is, it must come about "organically" rather than by some "canned" and forced process which resembles a Madison Avenue advertising campaign.  It cannot be imposed, it has to be felt sincerely.   Thus, what's needed has to come about through a truly free and consensual set social processes.  We can describe what we lack and what we need but we can't consciously engineer it in more than an indirect manner which proposes ideas which are found to be seductive in their appeal.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Wed Oct 21st, 2009 at 10:51:31 AM EST

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