Who Is IOZ? has a small reading audience, but an audience nonetheless, and if I may generalize, the most common complaint I get is that the writing here is insufficiently prescriptive: that I identify problems but don't offer much of a "way forward," as the popular political slogan goes. I am overly puristic; I am unwilling to make or abide here-and-now compromises, particularly with the Democratic Party; I am guilty of "heightening the contradictions," in the campus-Marxist locution. And so on. It would be helpful in any event if I laid out some of the basic premises underlying my writing here, and in particular I hope it will be an instructive response to these sorts of criticism.
The foundational idea of almost everything I write here is that the United States was a noble experiment that has already failed. Not "is failing" nor "will fail." Has failed. It failed because Homo sapiens isn't a particularly noble species, because the imperatives of comfort, security, superstition, fear, religion, tribalism, racism, atavism, violence, hubris, and the many other basic afflictions of the human animal are no more or less present in the population of America than they have been in any other people at any other time in any other place in the rather short and bloody history of our civilization--as we rather glowingly term it--here on this little planet.
America may have been founded by greedy merchants and crass commercialists; it may have been founded by slaveholders; but it was nevertheless founded as an excercise in limits. The language of the Declaration of Independence flowers, but the language of the Constitution has a peculiar austerity. Europe has a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Constitution has only an enumerated Bill of Rights, and the titular difference is telling. Most of our attention, besides, focuses on the first eight amendments, but the better guide to the founding spirit of the Republic is in the last two:
Amendment IX"We will get out of your way." There's an old joke in my family, probably from my great-grandfather originally, first told to my by my grandmother, as an explanation of the family's irreligiosity to anyone on the outside: "We don't ask God for anything, and in exchange he leaves us the hell alone." The best blessing is to be neither blessed nor damned. The best government governs least. There are plenty of arguments about the specific duties of small government, about Rawlsian obligations to fairness and justice (which encompass likewise debate about equality), and there's plenty of room to fight over the ways and means that a government relic of the Enlightenment can accommodate modernity, whatever that is. But at the root of the American experiment is the idea that the res publica could be a guarantor of order, a settler of disputes, and a national voice in matters of commerce or defense when a common voice is necessary.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
Well, no one really wanted the "Republic, if you can keep it." By 1803 Jefferson made the likely extraconstitutional purchase of the Louisian Territory. By 1812 we were invading Canada as a rather dubious response to British interference in the sea lanes, and Injun-killer Andrew Jackson's heroehood soon percolated out of the southern swamps. We began a national policy of genocide toward the various Indian nations. We fought a Civil War in which slaves were freed, but at the price of Lincoln enshrining a concept of national unity and a central executive very much at odds with the republican spirit or the already withered republican ideal. We invaded Mexico and stole the West at gunpoint. Got hungry for an empire. Got hopped up on Freddy Jackson Turner. Killed a lot of Phillipinos. Got needlessly embroiled in World War I, and with Wilson's crazy messianism did our damndest part to foment World War II. In short, we took the common path toward empire--relative freedom engendered moral vanity; moral vanity became Manifest Destiny; Manifest Destiny became worldwide landholdings, 700 foreign military bases, an almost entirely expeditionary military, "commands" for every part of the world, a doomsday nuclear arsenal . . .
The point of all this breezy history--and yes, it is knowingly breezy for anyone with quibbles about the non-existent details--is to say: I think we're basically done. We're neither the first nor the last to be done, so I don't worry about it so much. I expect a recognizable America to last beyond my lifetime. Some standards will decline, some will increase. There will be more and more opportunities to accumulate exceptional wealth, but there will be greater and greater poverty and iniquity between those who do and those who don't. We're certainly not yet at the height of our cultural decadence, for which I'm very greatful. I look forward to much better nightclubs and ever-better restaurants. And great cabaret theater. Assuming we don't plunge the world into nuclear conflagration (that's Arthur's game, and I'm stayin' out of it!), I expect the next century or so to witness first the withering of American power and preeminence, then the gradual dismantling of the empire. If and when we emerge as a smaller, more chastened, more modest country--less violent, less arrogant, more local, more small-town commercial--then maybe a few of the things I write here and a few of the ideas I boost will rattle into place.