Saturday, July 12, 2008

Backing into the Future

Is the United States losing its pioneering spirit and backing into the future, with its eye on its glorious past?

From the 1950s through the 1970s, American society seemed to be leading the world into the future –
  • new social ideas (peace, not war; racial equality; the environmental movement);
  • new technology; the moon landing;
  • an expanding openness to new cultures.
The revolutionary socialist ethic that had given the world’s oppressed such hope had long since been tarnished by Soviet corruption. The Cold War was managed with an impressive degree of professionalism, centering around the concept that the more hostility there was, the more urgently the two sides needed to talk to each other. In the end, talking revealed positive-sum solutions to both the Cold War and domestic racism that seemed to open the door to a new and far more humane age.

Today, American society seems to be -
  • digging in its heels (commuting in SUVs during wartime; refusing to change lifestyles in response to the impending oil shortage);
  • refusing to take responsibility (pretending that terrorism “came out of the blue;” demanding that opponents cave in on the key issues ahead of time as the admission ticket to “negotiations;” rejecting global cooperation from environmental treaties to the abolition of cluster bombs; ignoring breakthrough ideas like a Mideast nuclear-free zone);
  • and insisting on acting as though nothing needs to change even as the whole world is moving in a new direction.
American education, the American industrial base, the American technological lead, the status of the dollar, and America as the symbol of good governance are all increasingly falling short in comparison with the rest of the world.
  • Global environmental leadership—both the moral leadership via a socio-political commitment to change our lifestyles and financial leadership via the construction of a new industry dedicated to profit-making green solutions--have passed to West Europe.
  • The reliability of U.S. government safeguards over the food supply, quality of medicine, air traffic control, and the national park system is declining as decision-makers make short-term budget “savings” and intentionally undermine standards to reward corporate allies.
  • The U.S. was persuasively alleged by some a decade ago to have an advantage in terms of knowledge because of its lead in computers combined with the open debate of its democracy, but others are passing the U.S. already in terms of Internet infrastructure.
  • More fundamentally, American democracy is being undermined by the rising bias and myopia of American media, the tightening strictures of self-defeating political taboos, the refusal of most politicians to discuss controversial new ideas openly, and rightwing attacks on academic freedom.
As the world’s thinkers increasingly focus on complexity theory to understand the interconnections and evolution of the world, U.S. political leaders seem stuck in a 19th century time warp of “realism”—i.e., a foreign policy based on brute force.

A Martian visiting Earth in 1975 to see where the action was would have headed straight for the U.S. Where would such a visitor go today—Singapore? Shanghai? Berlin? New Delhi? Qatar?

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