Great societies die, not from murder, but from suicide. It happened to the Greeks, it happened to the Romans, and the United States is not so special that it can’t happen to us. We came close during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was prophetic about this in his speech given at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on 27 January 1838:
Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
Dr. Jared Diamond (born 10 September 1937) is an American scientist and Pulitzer Prize winning author (e.g., Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, The World Until Yesterday, etc.). Originally trained in physiology, he is known for drawing from a variety of fields, including anthropology, ecology, geography and evolutionary biology. As of 2013, he is Professor of Geography at UCLA. In other words, he’s a really smart guy devoted to his craft, which is not politics or economics. In an anthropological study based on lessons from the Norse of Ice Age Greenland, deforested Easter Island, and present-day Montana, Dr. Diamond defined what he called a “blueprint for trouble:”
One blueprint for trouble, making collapse likely, is a conflict of interest between the short-term interests of the decision-making elites and the long-term interests of society as a whole–especially if the elites are able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their action. That is, when what is good in the short-term for the elites is bad in the long-term for society as a whole, there’s a real risk of elites making decisions that will bring the society down in the long-term.
Now I want you to think of the Great Recession, or our current campaign financing practices, or any other political or economic malady currently afflicting us, in the context of Dr. Diamond’s anthropological observation.
I fear that the United States of America is again flirting with a suicidal path. I know that we face external threats that are pathological to our way of life. However, I would argue that the greatest threat to our way of life is the seemingly intractable rifts and schisms that we have allowed to retard our economy and paralyze our body politic. Fate is what happens to you, but your destiny is determined by how you respond to what happens to you. The United States of America is where it is at because of the decisions the United States of America has made–we are where we are because we chose to be here. Fate is throwing a lot of stuff at us, but our responses to those things are based on a blueprint for trouble. We are our own worst enemy. In the words of that great philosopher, Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”
What it means to be an American citizen must be re-calibrated–American citizenship must be something more grand than just increasing the size of one’s piece of the pie.
A powerful response must come from all of us. At the commanding heights of business and government, we need to restore the economics of stakeholder capitalism and shared prosperity. At the pinnacle of wealth, we need a revived ethic of social responsibility. At the grass-roots, we need a renaissance in the politics of citizen action to restore and reclaim the American Dream.