Sunday, November 22, 2015

Affluenza Nervosa

The revelation that one of the participants in the November 2015 Paris attacks may have gained entry to the European Union by posing as a refugee from Syria has lead to growing calls for the United States to suspend any and all plans to bring displaced Syrians into the country, mainly from the political right. Republican lawmakers from all levels of the political hierarchy are calling out the program as a threat to the homeland, despite the fact that it involves extensive vetting or prospective entrants to the country and takes nearly two years to resettle a person. When it was pointed out that it was much easier, and far, far, far faster to simply purchase a visa waiver than to pose as a refugee, Congress decided to go after that program as well.

And while many people, especially those in majority Republican districts, have applauded the bunker mentality that is being engendered, it has started to generate some heartfelt pushback from Americans who feel that our rush to throw loudly proclaimed ideals overboard in the face of a potential, but nebulous, threat challenges our claim to be "The home of the brave." And it's not just citizens who feel that it's an over-reaction.

While the United States does not always rise to the very top in such considerations, it is a wealthy and safe nation, with a high level of productivity and personal income. Yet, it is not difficult to find people who feel that the wolf is always at the door. Part of this is legitimate, depending on one's outlook; I know people who can make a persuasive argument that people in America's "middle class" are objectively poor, based on the relationship of their income to the prices of certain commodities, like housing and medical care. (Yet at the same time, luxury items are cheap enough that even absolutely poor Americans can access a lifestyle that would have seemed utterly fantastic to some of the wealthiest people of ages past.) But part of this is purely a matter of perception - and it is a perception that is endlessly played up by our political classes. To borrow from H. L. Mencken (yes, I know that I just quoted this in my previous post): "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed at its own deprivation (and hence clamorous to be led to prosperity) by menacing it with an endless series of illusory threats to both the individual and the general welfare, each hobgoblin a little different from the last." And as's John Archibald points out, when people understand themselves to be broke, they stop caring about their sense of right and wrong.

The United States is in a phase where it is one of the most affluent nations on the planet (although, as I noted, how you determine this matters) yet enough of the populace feels do deprived of basic necessities that they have lost all sense of the values that they claim the country to be about. (Well, until a criticism is leveled, anyway.) Human beings are not typically brave unto the point of needless destruction - and we live in a media and political environment that is eager to tell us that said destruction is always just around the corner. Rather than say: "Where we are is good, but I have a plan to make it better," the common political message is one of: "We stand at the brink of destruction, and I will do what needs to be done to save us." And that ethos of "doing what needs to be done" often drives us to ignore what we claim to stand for. Because while ideals are all fine and good, the moment they threaten to become a "suicide pact," they must be abandoned. And we are quick to see other people living up to their ideals as a knife poised to slit our own throats.

One thing that I have noticed from all corners of the political spectrum is a lack of faith in the power of creation. Everyone who I have encountered who feels that Americans live at an unacceptable level of deprivation espouses a solution that calls for finding the people who have what we need, and taking it from them - whether it's redistributing the ill-gotten gains of the very wealthy, locking the world's poor out of domestic markets to protect jobs (and extract higher prices from captive customers) or "fighting terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here," we understand that it easier to take wealth, opportunities for employment and even peace from others rather than work to create more of these things for ourselves. We are at a level were we have just enough to realize that we want so much more, and are at a loss to know where to find it.

Freedom requires, to a degree, that one see the best things in life as effectively infinite. Accordingly, we cannot be free in all things - some resources have limits, and pretending that they don't is a recipe for disaster. But living in a world in which we view everything as critically constrained can be just as catastrophic - because we loose sight of not only how to create enough for ourselves, but we lose any willingness we had to share what we have with others. And whether it's Latin Americans risking their lives to cross the border for work, Russia looking to carve up the Ukraine or Islamic radicals resorting to mass murder for a nation of their own many of the problems that we see coming from outside of our own borders are caused by others' sense of their own critical deprivation.

Yes, I understand that I'm asking the United States to be better than others are. Call that bigotry, privilege or whatever you will. But it can also be called walking the walk, since we talk the talk.

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