Becoming unexceptional June 1, 2013 at 5:35 am

Patrick Smith has a long, lovely post at Salon. He makes the point that few institutions, and certainly not the principal ones of US polity, are self-correcting:

[The system requires] the attention of those living in it. Otherwise it would all come to “disorder.” And this is among the things Americans are now faced with in a different way: Theirs is a system, a set of institutions, that yet less possesses the ability to correct its errors and injustices and malfunctions.

He urges an examination of the nuances of history, a willingness to look beyond the easy rhetoric of the American dream:

There is a richness and diversity to the American past that most of us have never registered… We are thus unaccustomed to a depth and diversity in our past that present us with a privilege, a benefit, and a duty all at once.

He even, doubtless controversially, suggests that Americans firstly accept their defeat, in some senses, and embrace it. This is not a simple matter though:

Defeat obliges a people to re-examine their understanding of themselves and their place in the world. This is precisely the task lying at America’s door, but on the basis of what should Americans take it up? … The answer lies clearly before us, for we live among the remains of a defeat of historical magnitude. We need only think carefully to understand it. We need to think of defeat in broader terms — psychological terms, ideological terms, historical terms. We need to think, quite simply, of who we have been — not just to ourselves but to others.

In other words, America has lost not in the sense that another has triumphed over it, but rather because it is not seen as it would be. The project to remake the world in pursuit of democracy has, at best, had variable success. But even where it was, stutteringly, successful, the helper was not applauded, nor emulated, nor often particularly welcome. America is powerful but, Smith says, it is not strong:

Strength derives from who one is — it is what one has made of oneself by way of vision, desire, and dedication. It has nothing to do with power as we customarily use this term. Paradoxically, it is a form of power greatly more powerful than the possession of power alone. Strength is a way of being, not a possession.

It is also, I would suggest, the capacity to remake yourself and your institutions, to change when needed. This is something that post-Reagan America has had trouble with. Perhaps precisely because it is so powerful, America is weakening. It cannot question itself: it remains polarised and unable to contemplate reform. Smith’s ambition is laudable; his analysis, vigorous. I hope that his prescriptions will be seriously considered, but I fear that they won’t be.

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