Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Or, Why American Collapse Was an Inevitable Choice
These days, as I watch America collapse, I’m struck by mixed feelings. On the one hand, I feel a kind of remorse — how easily this strange, funny, gruesome downfall into authoritarianism, fascism, and kleptocracy could have been prevented. But on the other hand, I feel a kind of grief — because in another, maybe a truer way, it was also as inevitable as Icarus falling from the blue sky. Why do I say that? Do I mean a kind of smug “America rose too high”? Not at all. I think that if we look carefully at America, we’ll also see a society whose contradictions created a kind of trajectory which could only really end in one place: here.
What are some of those contradictions?
America’s thought of itself as a great and noble democracy. And yet it never did enough — or even much — to rid itself of supremacy. I can recite you an endless litany of statistics — black people being no better off now than in the 1970s, everyone but white men with a certain pedigree being underrepresented in every kind of good job left, probably the rich world’s great gender gaps, and so forth. But beyond the statistics lies a daily reality we know all too well. America never successfully challenged the cozy old boys’ clubs which still dominate every aspect of life, which today we call “elites” — but the values of those old boys’ clubs are domination, cruelty, greed, and indifference. Hence, a society whose fabric is carefully controlled systemic unfairness, whether it’s bigotry, misogyny, racism, classism, ageism, and so on. But those are not democratic values (nor are old boys’ clubs democratic structures).
You can’t have both — democracy and supremacy. You must choose. But America, I think, never really made the choice between them. It thought it didn’t have to, for a very long time. Supremacy festered and grew, malignant, until it consumed a whole society, and won — because unless you really clench your teeth and fight for democracy, it’s probably going to lose.
Yet American supremacy has always gone hand in hand with capitalism. American economic might wasn’t built on “innovation” alone, as the myth goes — but on slavery, and then segregation, which gave it a huge economic edge, creating a vast pool of free labour to exploit. Europe had its colonies — but no one had the economic advantage slavery gave America. And capitalism presented America with another choice that it never really made — between riches, and between freedom.
There’s another great American myth which says riches are freedom — but it’s self-evidently false. Every society has to choose: riches for the few, or freedom for the many? Every person has to choose, too: do I chase money, or do I pursue some higher calling, some nobler ideal? But to hope you can have both, and never really have to choose — that’s where the trouble begins.
Wanting both freedom and riches is another contradiction in American life. America thinks of itself as the land of the free, of course — but in reality, it’s the least free nation in the rich world. It isn’t really “freedom” to have to crowdfund healthcare, to have to work 100 hours a week, to worry if your kids will be mowed down at school, or to see fascists interviewed like great thinkers on the nightly news. In fact, all that is the precise opposite of freedom. “Freedom” as it came to be defined in America ended up being a perverse thing — “economic freedom”, as the libertarians say, which means the freedom for corporations to raid people’s pensions, but not the freedom for people to retire in peace. The freedom for hedge funds to trade stocks at lightspeed — but not the freedom to be paid a decent wage by precisely those corporations. And so on. “Economic freedom” outweighed political, social, cultural freedom — more simply, human rights.
“Economic freedom” was, as the phrase itself suggest, like so many other American ideas, a half-baked, weird, poorly thought out compromise. A way not to make the choice between expanding freedom for the many, or increasing riches for the few. America’s been making these terrible compromises from the very beginning, making blacks 3/5th people — and so in the decision between riches and freedom, just like in the one between democracy and supremacy, soon enough, riches won, because riches get richer, but a lack of freedom doesn’t get any freer.
Hence, capitalism became the sole principle life was ordered by. The rich became the super rich became the mega rich. The middle class vanished. Poverty exploded. Life began to fall apart. But why did nobody say much about it? Why did things have to come to the point of collapse before Americans opened their eyes, even a little, to the ruinous state they’d made of their society?
That brings me to my third myth — maybe the subtlest of all. America thinks it’s the home of the brave. But what exactly is brave about it today? Is it brave to make kids do “active shooter drills”? Is it brave to let people die without healthcare? Is it brave to let priggish boors ride roughshod over basic principles of democracy? You see, bravery in America became a perverse thing, too, just like “freedom” and “democracy”. It became “brave” to suffer in silence — not to stand up for those who were.
Nobody much said anything until things reached the point of collapse because the American definition of bravery is backwards. Suffering is good and noble. Purifying and cleansing. If you are weak. If you are strong, inflicting suffering is good and noble, purifying and cleansing. What can such a society become but something like a dystopia?
But how did “bravery”, just like “freedom” and “democracy”, get turned on its head? Because America wanted it both ways, again. Just as it wanted supremacy and democracy, just as it wanted freedom for the many and riches for the few — but could never have them — so too it also wanted everyone to be strong, and no one to be weak. Weakness is a burden, a liability, an injustice to everyone else.
And so the principle which life revolved around became this: the strong should overwhelm the weak, and the weak will that way become stronger. Bravery, on both sides of this fatal equation, meant something like this: if you are strong, you must be brave enough to subjugate and oppress and cheat and bully the weak, and prove how strong you are, if you are weak, you must be brave enough to take it, and that way, maybe, one day, you will become strong.
But that is not how a civilized society can be built, because it isn’t how a human being flourishes — and the single great purpose of a civilized society is just to allow each life to flourish as much as it can. If I abuse, torment, bully, cheat, hoodwink, torment, and subjugate you, will you grow strong? Of course not. You’ll only grow weaker. You’ll be traumatized, unable to cope, haunted, scared, maybe shattered. To really grow strong, your weaknesses must be held and supported and nurtured, until they become strengths, and in that way, holding human fragility gently is the fundamental art of civilization.
Hence, we say “civilized” places have systems of healthcare, education, finance, retirement, safety nets, childcare, elderly care, and so on. They are carefully holding human possibility, because it is so fragile. Do you see the link? When we see human weakness as beautiful and delicate, then we grow. True empathy grows from our own pain. It’s not a fake smile. Humility comes from our own shame. Courage — the real thing — comes from our own guilt.
But this a paradoxical thing, a great secret, in a way, that only “civilized” places really understand: true strength is lifting up human weakness, not stamping it down. True weakness is never developing that strength. So weakness isn’t a liability, but a gift, and strength isn’t the absence of weakness — it is the presence of it. When strength is true, it’s the ability to hold another person’s weakness, gently, as though it were the most priceless thing in all the worlds which will ever be, just as you do to a newborn child. Do you see how this works?
But America was never interested in understanding this great paradox. Wiser nations had spent centuries understanding it. Why protecting, nurturing, holding human fragility is the spark of progress and prosperity. America, ever afraid of weakness, punished people for it. As little weakness as possible! We are strong people! Every day, we must all be growing stronger! So Americans spend their lives at the gym, working ten hours a day, driving huge cars, being generally mean to everyone, shrugging while their kids are shot in schools, and so on. Suffer in silence. Then you are stronger. Strength through the conquest of weakness — because the weakness of one is a burden to all.
The weakness of one is a burden to all. Everyone must be stronger every day. Put a smile on that face! But wait — no one can lift anyone else up. Do you see the contradiction? So how could anyone then develop true strength? If everyone was busy fiddling with their very own bootstraps, who was going to look up and see the storm descending? If everyone was faking a smile, who could develop the moral fibre to lead anyone anywhere? If everyone was beating the hell out of everyone else, who was going to have the strength left to fight the bad guys? In the end, no one was left strong at all. The pursuit of dominance and superiority had left them cruel, false, and indifferent, not empathic, wise, whole, and true. Hence, today, we see visibly that Americans lack as a society the characteristics we’d associate with truly strong people — empathy, courage, humility, wisdom, kindness, tolerance, respect, self-control.
These three contradictions define much of America for me today. A nation that glorified itself as a democracy, but never did enough to rid itself of supremacy. A nation which told itself it was the land of the free, but wanted to be rich more than to be emancipated. And a nation which wanted desperately to be strong, so began punishing weakness, instead of nurturing it, never understanding that true strength isn’t cultivated through the elimination, but in the appreciation, of weakness. These contradictions left America where it is today. Not really a democracy. Not really free. And not nearly brave, strong, or wise enough to know what to do about it.
In case you’re wondering what the answer to that question is, mine, at any rate, begins at the end. When Americans can appreciate themselves as genuine equals, truly one and the same in their fragility, the briefness of their lives, the possibility each one holds, no matter where their ancestors came from, then they might come back to their senses. Because people who know that they are genuinely equal, in ways that can never be taken away from them — and only people who know why — will chose democracy over supremacy, and freedom over riches.