A Bucket List for America

“America” is not an expression I use much.  It has “Fatherland” or “Mother Russia” connotations that make me uncomfortable.  When Republican presidents end their speeches, they say “God bless America;” when Democratic presidents end their speeches, they say, “God bless the United States of America.”  Ever notice that?[1]  When I say “America,” I mean the kind of thing Alexis de Tocqueville meant when he titled his reflections, Democracy in America.  He was interested in how the Americans were managing their lives here in the United States.

But today, I want to say “America,” not the USA.  I want to think of “America” as something that emanates from or that is contained in the United States.  It is an emergent property, not reducible to the pieces that make it up.  I want the word to include the promises we have attached ourselves to as well as the policies the United States has pursued and that we, the people, have embraced.  Not just the “idealized America,” but actual political entity which has served not only as the vehicle for those ideals but as one of the principal violators.  It is that complicated combination of realities that I want to refer to when I choose the word “America.”

bucket list 1Now to “bucket list.”  As everyone knows who has seen Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson do their magic in the movie of that name, a bucket list is a list of things you want to be sure to do before you “kick the bucket.”  This essay imagines that “America” is going to kick the bucket.  “Kick the bucket” is a way to say that a person—or, if you are so inclined, “a person’s body”—has died and begun to decay.  But nations are not persons.[2]  What would it mean to say that a nation had kicked the bucket?

The United States is declining as a world power.  I think that is beyond dispute.  We are still the predominant power in the world, all things considered, but we will not be “the leader of the free world” for much longer, even in our own image of ourselves, and we were never the “leader” of any other part of the world in the sense that the rest of the world looked to us for guidance.  That means that, properly speaking, it is the international dominance of the United States that will be kicking the bucket, not the United States itself (ourselves).  And if it is true, as I am arguing, that the United States cannot be simply reduced to “America,” it is also true that the United States is still the vehicle by which “America” has been delivered to the world.

bucket list 2I don’t want to say we’ve done a bad job.  I just want to say that looking ahead to the decline of our dominant position, we might want to put a few things on a bucket list—these would be things we would want to do before we kick the bucket; before we are no longer in a position to do those things.  It might be easier to imagine it as a cell phone that has enough battery left for just a few messages before it, the battery, kicks the bucket.  What would we want to say in those messages?

Frankly, I have just given you the idea I am confident about.  Our time is running out and there are a few things we should do before the buzzer.  But now the logic of the essay moves to the question of what those things ought to be.  What should be on the list?  And, to tell you the truth, I don’t know.  I can make up a list—I’m about to do that—but there is no reason to think it will be better than your list.  Let’s start with just a few samples.

1.         Maintain freedom of religion among a population that cares about religion.

We’ve done some good work on religion.  The old idea that the king’s religion IS the citizens’ religion never worked here.  Only a few states ever had state churches.  We have protected the right of many school children not to be subsumed in the religion of the district’s majority.  We have protected religious speech in many settings where what was being said was unpopular.  But most of the gains we have made in what we call “religious tolerance” have been made by not really caring all that much and I think we make a mistake when we call this apathy, “tolerance.”

To use an old maxim about ethnic diversity, America as a melting pot does not and was not intended to “tolerate” other cultures.  It was meant to tame them; to “socialize” them; to make them so much like the pre-existing culture that disputes lost their zest.  But a new phase of cultural identification has come about and we hear about “the rise of the unmeltable ethnics.”[3]  The picture I have is a rise of the unmeltably religious.  These are religions people care about intensely.  In the picture I am constructing, their willingness to grant the rights of citizenship to people in other religious groups would come not from their apathy about religious belief and practice, but from their passionate affirmation of the value of all this honest diversity.

When America “dies,” i.e., when our dominance has sunk to the level that deprives us of our access to the world podium, I would like to be able to point back to that achievement and say, “There.  I told you that could be done.”

2.         Find a way to distribute income that is not based solely on profit-making employment.

This is harder, I’m sure you will agree.  It is the same problem Karl Marx saw coming down the road.  It made him look away from what he already knew about how people are and to defer his hopes to how people might be willing to be.  I do sympathize.

Our current economic system and any imaginable future economic system will require thatbucket list 4 people spend money on the goods they want to buy.  There is a level of consumer demand, in other words, that is absolutely essential.  By tying income to employment, we have been kicking the can down the road and now the road is starting to peter out.  There is not enough employment to continue to distribute income that way and we are extremely wary of other ways.

There is, of course, some work that needs to be done.  Bridges need to be built and maintained, for instance, and hair needs to be cut, and gutters freed of the winter’s load of leaves and needles.  Our commitment has been to the idea that people will not do the work that needs to be done unless the consequences to them are predictable and dire.  But there is no longer enough work that requires human beings to do it, let alone human beings who live in the United States.  So that game is over and we need to find some way to replace it.

There are two kinds of “work” I am imagining.  For the first, I would like to see people do the work that needs to be done because it needs to be done.  Somebody needs to clean the roofs and count the ballots and create the statues and parse the language and maintain a credible currency.  Those are essentially “maintenance jobs” and they are predictable.[4]  For the second, I would like people to imagine what could be done and try to do it.  The whole creative edge of the society doesn’t need to be paid to do things; they just need to be supported while they dream new dreams and try to write programs for them.

This brings us to the crux.  Will people really do things like that if they don’t have to?  Yes, they will, if they are properly socialized.  People will “give back” if there is a “back” to give to.  If the basis of self-respect includes carrying your share of the load, then most people will carry their share of the load.  I am willing to state that as an axiom.

That brings us to the question of how we get from where we are to that kind of society.  I have no idea.  Probably we won’t.  But a bucket list that didn’t include it would be an inadequate bucket list and I’m just not willing to leave it off.

You may have noticed that my “list” is only two items long.  I do have half a dozen more items (or so) but time—I have to go now—and space (there is a limit to what people are willing to read) have run out.

[1] Except for President Obama, who once said, in a State of the Union address, no less, “God bless these United States.”  I have not yet found another president who has used that expression in a State of the Union address, but I’m still looking.
[2] Corporations are, according to the current Supreme Court majority, but no one has maintained that nations are.
[3] See, for instance, Michael Novak’s book by that title.
[4] Hyper-state novels like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward have all that work done by young people.  Hypo-state novels like Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed have it done by everyone, using an “every ten day” rotation.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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