Sunday, November 28, 2010

Icarus and America...together at last

By Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, November 27, 2010

I think what is driving people’s pessimism today are two intersecting concerns. The long-term concern is that people intuitively understand that what we need most now is nation-building in America. They understand it by just looking around at our crumbling infrastructure, our sputtering job-creation engines and the latest international education test results that show our peers out-educating us, which means they will eventually out-compete us. Many people understand that we are slipping as a country and what they saw in Barack Obama, or what they projected onto him, was that he had both the vision and capability to pull America together behind a plan for nation-building at home.
But I think they understand something else: that we are facing a really serious moment. We have to get this plan for nation-building right because we are driving without a spare tire or a bumper. The bailouts and stimulus that we have administered to ourselves have left us without much cushion. There may be room, and even necessity, for a little more stimulus. But we have to get this moment right. We don’t get a do-over. If we fail to come together and invest, spend and cut really wisely, we’re heading for a fall — and if America becomes weak, your kids won’t just grow up in a different country, they will grow up in a different world.
We have to manage America’s foreign policy, and plan its rebuilding at home, at a time when our financial resources and our geopolitical power are more limited than ever while our commitments abroad and entitlement promises at home are more extensive than ever.
Icarus used wax to attach his wings and then flew too close to the sun and the wax melted and the wings came off and Icarus plummeted to earth. Perhaps there might be some appropriate inferences drawn from the story of Icarus. Over-reaching befits a new nation, built on the triumph of leaving the old world, crossing the turbulent sea and landing on distant shores and then fighting with the mother country, now abandoned, for a return that was never to be, and then establishing a new kind of country, with a new set of propositions for its birth, and for its governance.
The people were to be in charge, not the king. The people had "inalienable rights" to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The people were the champions of that freedom and their insurance that they would keep that freedom came in the form of rifles, and an emotional courage and readiness to defend those freedoms to the death if necessary. After all, if this new country could be forged out of this wilderness, then what could or would ever stop us from achieving whatever goals and aspirations we might imagine?
And, for that generation of Americans, they carved their family's niche out of the forest, and the planted their crops and they fed their children and then made their own necessities.
And eventually they traded some of those necessities for food, or vice versa, and grew an economy of barter and trade. And the profit motive, in this new land, without the leg-irons of any overseer influence, grew to clearly gigantic proportions. As there had been no limit to what was possible in America, so too, there would be no limit to what was achieveable in profit terms in this new land of wealth and opportunity.
And those on whom ambition and good fortune, coupled with family name and the occasional special talent or skill, smiled grow their fortunes rather splendidly. And the nation itself smiled on those so "blessed" and an annual celebration of Thanksgiving was inaugurated, eventually to turn inward upon itself, when all the people who had very little fortune rush headlong through the doors of those box stores to grab a piece of that "good fortune" to which everyone was entitled, according to the original myth of this new land.
And soon, after the automobile and the airplane and the space rocket and many other scientific discoveries, and after the substantial growth of the universities and colleges, this new land became the most wealthy and the most free on the planet.
And, like Icarus, she wanted to fly even higher. And also like Icarus, she grew some girth around her belly, and some pride in her achievements and some belief that she would always be the most beautiful and the most powerful and the most wealthy land among all the other lands. She won wars and then helped her victims to recover from the devastation. She made treaties, both for protection and for increased trade and the accompanying profit, with various other lands.
And, like Icarus, she lost sight of what it takes to fly, leaving it all to her imagination, as the theatre had now become her new frontier. And she produced the most elegant, and the most dramatic and the most desireable theatre pieces in all the world, until finally she became her own best tragedy.
For you see, she seemed to fully enter into the belief and the cultural consciousness that sustained that belief, that she had all the right answers to all of the problems faced by any land anywhere. She had the biggest planes, and the most of them anywhere; she had the best of all the usual institutions and she had the wonderful plus of a nation of religious believers whose God supported the acquisition of more and more wealth, only the facts on the ground had changed, and other lands were now seeking and acquiring some of the means to the wealth that had for a long time been the private preserve of this one land.
And they too had answers, different from those in the best land, and they grew and prospered, while the best land suffered at their success.
And the best land became both resentful and much less resilient and much less imaginative and much less willing to work with others, even of their own people, to solve their problems, so deep had the roots of rugged individualism grown that they had replaced any sign of co-operation, which had been a landmark of the original settlers in the new land, when they all faced it together for the first time.
And so, individually, these many Icaruses started to fall from the sky, and they blanketed the light of the sun from the eyes of the people still on the ground, foraging for food, because that was all they had left to do.
They were actually fighting for what little food they could find, grow, steal, or borrow. And it was a new and hungry land.
And the freedom that had so enraptured the people had fled from their hands and from their eyes, and from their hopes and the darkness of fear of having to do without, while others became healthy and wealthy in other lands for reasons not understood in this former "new land" and they had to sit together, and actually listen to the tears and the sobs and the pleas for food from their own people, in order to find their way in this new world, only this time, the sea that had to be crossed was of their own design and construction.
They had to cross the sea of selfishness, and hubris and separateness and independence, into a land of compassion, and collaboration and selflessness and humility.
And that story is waiting to be told...so you can go back to sleep now, little boy.

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