Every country has a national character that it taught to children from a young age and then becomes part of everyone's story. In the case of America, "opportunity" is a theme known worldwide and constantly referred to when we talk about what this country means. In the same category are freedom, power, innovation -- and decency. We look upon ourselves as the good guys, and we expect to be seen that way by others.
Analysts warn us that American opportunity is flagging, especially if you are poor and want to rise up the ladder. Innovation is being challenged by the Chinese, and most developed countries are just as free as America. And decency? It took a huge blow with the military adventurism of the Iraq War, a war of choice that destroyed Iraqi society, increased tensions throughout the region, strengthened Iran, and ultimately turned into a Vietnam-style quagmire, as the Afghanistan War is right now.
As a result, large swaths of the world disapprove of America, making it harder for us to cling to our self-regard as generous, charitable, moral, and decent people. Perhaps this was inevitable after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Being the only super power makes us suspect. Other nations project their vulnerability as if the U.S. caused it -- look at the ultra-paranoid North Korea, whose national story consists of armed preparedness for imminent assault by American devils.
It's hard to be the good guys when you are also the world's biggest arms dealer and spend more money on defense than the next 15 nations combined. But I think there's a deeper ambivalence about decency in this country. In a decent society, do the following things happen?
- Politics is rancorous and divisive, with each side demonizing the other.
- In political races, the object is not simply to defeat your opponent but to destroy him?
- Gun violence is rampant, and attempts to counter it can destroy a politician's career.
- The financial sector operates sheerly out of greed and takes no responsibility when its actions lead to economic collapse.
- Corporations abandon health care and pensions for their workers.
- The richest become richer while the poor become poorer.
Each of these bullet points represents a trend, and the trends aren't in the direction of decency. The rest of the world is appalled by things we take for granted, like the existence of 300 million assault-style weapons in private hands. What's more appalling is the lack of morality shown when a gun-happy minority leads the rest of society around by the nose. The most heartbreaking thing about the Iraq war was to see how decent and trusting our soldiers were, how much they cared about helping the Iraqi people, and yet how horrifying the circumstances they landed in were.
Reality exists when illusions are shattered. It's time to reach a state of untainted decency that America can be proud of. The trends I listed are well known. They are causing a deterioration of trust and social justice. No one can reverse these trends except us. Who will speak up for this? Our leaders are tentative and intimidated, a sure sign that decency has lost its hold.