- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Every society is essentially the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption, and here — in these United States — we now inhabit an imperiled country of largely empty promises and dreary violence. Urged to believe that we Americans stand for something far nobler than frenetic buying and selling, “we the people” know that we are endangered not only by war and terrorism, but also by a deepening pain of collective loneliness. For us, happiness — like national security — is strangely elusive. No matter how hard we may try to find joy in the world, we simply cannot shake loose a sense of persistent futility and inner insubstantiality.

Stock prices have been rising. The economy is “improving.” Yet, the core edifice of American prosperity, driven by evident personal apprehensions, is still based upon endless consumption. Ground down by the incessant babble of politicians, we the people are motivated not by any balanced life search for dignity and harmony, but by the vaunted numbers on retail sales.

What can be done to escape the pendulum of our own mad clockwork? Consider that we now live shamelessly at the lowest common denominator. Our universities are quickly becoming expensive training schools, promising jobs, but certainly not an education. Marketing themselves identically to soft drinks and underarm deodorant, our institutions of higher education consciously instruct each student that learning is a mere commodity and that commodities are there to be bought and sold.

Today, faced with possibly existential threats from Iran and North Korea, we amuse ourselves internally with inane repetitions of commercial jingles and by the immense momentum of mass society. America now cheerfully imposes upon its breathless people the grotesque rhythm of a vast machine. The obvious end of all this delirium is the absence of memory.

Yet, we must not forget that Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once we had a unique opportunity to nudge individuals to become more than a crowd. Emerson, after all, had described us as a people motivated by industry and self-reliance, not by anxiety, fear and trembling.

Despite the very real threats of war and terror, the United States continues to languish in ritualized conformance. Before this can change, American inventiveness will have to take new forms. Acknowledging the craven sameness of our social world, we could then begin to move energetically toward more promising meanings of Americanism.

Soon, even if we can avoid nuclear war or terrorism from North Korea and Iran, the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, we will be able to make out the phantoms of great ships of state. Once laden with silver and gold, they are now entirely forgotten. Only then will we learn that the circumstances that could send the works of Homer, Goethe, Milton and Shakespeare to join the works of utterly forgotten poets are no longer unimaginable.

In spite of our insistent claims to be a nation of “rugged individuals,” it is a leveling crowd that now shapes us as Americans. This crowd positively bristles with demeaning hucksterism, humiliating allusions and endless equivocations. Surely, we think, there simply must be more to our country than this ubiquitous conformity. Living in a world of ready-made ideas and manufactured slogans, we are commanded to protect ourselves from substantial outside enemies while we endure at home in a banal landscape of stupefying music, widespread tastelessness and near-epidemic gluttony.

In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson asked about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he inquired. This future president answered “yes,” but only if we first refuse to stoop to prevailing corruption, venality and double-talk. Otherwise, Mr. Wilson understood, our entire society will be left bloodless — a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, even more hideous than the death of an individual person.

War and terror endanger us today, but so too does our willful abandonment of individual dignity and inner meaning.

Louis Rene Beres is author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law.

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