… invited an eclectic group of thinkers who have had cause to consider the American idea to describe its future and the greatest challenges to it.
Now this one is real easy — you don’t have to be scientifically literate or read the work of James Hansen, you just have to have seen Al Gore’s movie or maybe read Time magazine (reading the Atlantic itself is, however, no help, as previously noted).
By far the greatest challenge to the American idea (i.e., unlimited abundance, supreme optimism about the future, global moral leadership, and our special place in the world — OK, that one’s a bit tarnished already — is global warming.
In fact, if we don’t adopt something close to Barack Obama’s extraordinary climate plan within the next few years — and I suspect conservatives will block such an ambitious, albeit necessary, approach as too “big-government” — then global warming will destroy the American idea, perhaps for a millennium or more.
Global warming means we move from great abundance to oppressive scarcity, from optimism to pessimism (especially if we cross carbon-cycle tipping points that cause an accelerating greenhouse effect in the second half of this century), and finally, as I wrote in my book:
For decades, the United States has been the moral, economic, and military leader of the free world. What will happen when we end up in Planetary Purgatory, facing 20 or more feet of sea level rise, and the rest of the world blames our inaction and obstructionism, blames the wealthiest nation on Earth for refusing to embrace even cost-effective solutions that could spare the planet from millennia of misery? The indispensable nation will become a global pariah.
The Atlantic assembled a who’s who of the intelligentsia — who in the main, though very thoughtful, just don’t get it:
- Joseph R. Biden Jr.: “The unique idea of America embodied in our Bill of Rights is that people of diverse racial, religious, ethnic, and geographic origins can live together in peace and pursue their own happiness.” [Apparently, with little regard for the happiness of future generations.]
- William F. Buckley Jr.: “By the measure of fragility, surely the doctrine of human equality is most at risk. Yet it is that proposition in American idealism that most sublimely transcends science, asserting as it does a distinction that elevates Homo sapiens beyond the reach of science and evolution.” [Yes, we are very sapiens!]
- Frank Gehry: “The postwar American city grew up as a development free-for-all. Suburbia became possible because of the automobile, and cities like Los Angeles just sprawled. The older American cities had concentrations of infrastructure that allowed for a New York-style density — an essential hub of urbanity that’s been missing from many of our newer cities but that now seems to be the model for the future of all American cities, including Los Angeles. The missing element, in this development free-for-all, has been architecture.” [No, the missing element has been a concern for future generations and sustainability.]
- Arianna Huffington: “The promise of unlimited opportunity has given way to rampant narcissism and misplaced perfectionism (and the disappointed self-loathing that inevitably follows the search for a flawless self).”
- George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson: “Decency in public places may be only a small part of the American idea, but especially for those people living in dangerous, gang-ridden neighborhoods, it is an important one.”
- Ray Kurzweil: “Despite well-publicized obstructions, the American drive to push beyond frontiers is alive and well, and represents the dominant philosophy in the world today, with continued exponential advance on the horizon.”
- Tim LaHaye: “America’s uniqueness is based in the Christian consensus of the Founding Fathers … America’s founding was based more on biblical principles than any other nation’s on Earth — and that’s the main reason this country has been more blessed by God than any other nation in history.
- Bernard Lewis: “I still remember my first two impressions of Americans, derived from my wartime comrades. One was that they were unteachable … And so they went ahead and made mistakes — some repeating ours, some new and original. What was really new and original– and this is my second lasting impression — was the speed with which they recognized these mistakes, and devised and applied the means to correct them. This was beyond anything in our experience. In looking at the world today, and at our present predicament, I vividly recall that first impression, and anxiously await the second.”
- Janet Napolitano (!): “The future of the American idea is the frontier notion that with our talents, our skills, and our brains, we can — and will — surmount any challenge put before us. Rest assured, if you come to Arizona, you’ll find the frontier, and the American idea, alive and well here.” [Let’s just say the jury is still out.]
- Michael Novak: “Thus in its religious roots, the American idea of freedom recognizes the free consciences of all. This distinctive concept of liberty is a great strength. But it is also fragile, for it is rooted in ideas. To break the transmission of those ideas requires only a single generation of inattentiveness, under the constant fire of what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the silent artillery of time.’ ” [I like the term — the “greatest generation” has been replaced by the “inattentive generation.”]
- Joseph Nye: “The greatest threat to the American idea is what we may do to it ourselves. Terrorism is like jujitsu: The small players win if they make the large player use his strength against himself. If we respond to terrorism by becoming less open — economically, socially, and politically — we lose. As George Kennan warned in 1946, at the start of the Cold War, the greatest danger that can befall us ‘is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.'” [Well, let’s call that the second great danger that can befall us.]
- Joyce Carol Oates: “Our unexamined belief in American exceptionalism has allowed us to imagine ourselves above anything so constrictive as international law. American exceptionalism makes our imperialism altruistic, our plundering of the world’s resources a healthy exercise of capitalism and ‘free trade.'”
- Nancy Pelosi (!): “The impatience of youth is what gives me such faith in the future: With the power and passion of young people, our new order will indeed grow stronger and flourish for the ages.” [Unless we hand over to youth a world that has crossed tipping points that can’t be retraversed.]
- Robert Pinsky: “A great surprise of my brief time in Washington was how often members of Congress turned out to be more intelligent than they let themselves seem on television — better read, more reflective, more sensitive. On one side, the anti-intellectual style of populism; on the other, the transforming success of the GI Bill. To our pride, the prose style of Abraham Lincoln; to our shame, the electoral success of politicians who conceal their intelligence.” [So well concealed, I’m afraid I got completely fooled.]
- Richard Pipes: “I may be an incurable optimist, but at the age of 84 — having lived through the Great Depression, Stalin, Hitler, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War–I think today’s world is not in bad shape. The American idea is alive and well, as attested to by the widespread envy it arouses.” [Richard Pipes — ’nuff said.]
- Arnold Schwarzenegger (!): “I began dreaming of coming to America when I was 10 years old, because it has no rival as a Land of Opportunity. For that to remain the case, our politics need to match the generosity and common sense of the American people. Then we really will be that city upon a hill that John Winthrop and our Founders imagined.”
- David Foster Wallace: “Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”
- Steven Weinberg: “If any one idea can justly be called the American idea, it is that a child’s circumstances at birth should not determine the station in life that that child will occupy as an adult. Americans swept away the instruments of English hereditary inequality — entails and titles of nobility — even before we had a constitution.”
- Cornel West: “The future of the American idea — both then and now, here and abroad — depends on the vision, courage, and determination of decent and compassionate people to engage in Socratic questioning of the powers that be, to take the risk of prophetic witness, and to preserve a hope for democratization.”
- George F. Will: “Belief in American exceptionalism is compatible with the idea of American normality: Our nation is exceptionally well-founded and exceptionally faithful to an exceptionally nuanced system of prudential political axioms. But one of those axioms — it is the crux of the Madisonian persuasion — is that no polity is exempt from the passions and failings that make governance problematic, always and everywhere.”
- Alan Wolfe: “We seem unwilling to acknowledge a need for compassion, a need for cooperation with our allies, a need to admit error, a need to learn from experience. We believe that strength is more important than humility, failing to understand that humility is a form of strength … The idea for which we should strive is interdependence, recognizing that we need others just as others need us.” [Not bad, but too abstract. Why not just come out and say it — Global warming!]
- Tom Wolfe: “America remains, as it has been from the very beginning, the freest, most open country in the world, encouraging one and all to compete pell-mell for any great goal that exists and to try every sort of innovation, no matter how far-fetched it may seem, in order to achieve it. It is largely this open invitation to ambition that accounts for America’s military and economic supremacy and absolute dominance in science, medicine, technology, and every other intellectual pursuit that can be measured objectively. And it is absolute.” [And yet we are leading the way to planetary catastrophe? How is that possible when we are so damn intellectually dominant? Uh, maybe we’re not so smart after all?]
None of these people even mention global warming or the environment.
Now, of course, Janet Napolitano, Nancy Pelosi, and Arnold Schwarzenegger do actually get global warming, as previous actions and statements make clear. Still, for me it is kind of disappointing that, when given the opportunity to publish 300 words in major magazine, each chose to focus mostly on platitudes, rather than taking the opportunity to inform an underinformed public.
Interestingly, a few of the thinkers did mention global warming, or at least environmental problems — as I will discuss in Part II.