2016: The Year America Had A Nervous Breakdown. From Sea To Shining Sea.
No matter what, there are bound to be big problems in a nation of 320 million people, more guns than people, an unraveling social order and a yawning gap between the rich and everyone else. But the epidemic of deaths of minorities during routine police traffic stops, the carnage being inflicted on innocents by assault weapon-wielding crazies, the accelerating dialectic of violence and retaliation, and the emergence of a racist demagogue as the standard bearer of the Republican Party are less reminders of the frailty of a democracy that has been historically short on delivering what its leaders promise than a full-blown nervous breakdown. From sea to shining sea.
Let’s be clear that government has not necessarily failed America, but our politicians have. As custodians of a democracy that has effectively limited political choice to two parties, one only slightly less unsavory than the other, politicians with only the rarest of exceptions have used the powers of their office to enrich themselves and enable the special interests who bankroll them while they perpetually campaign for reelection. It is no coincidence that in this year of our nervous breakdown, we have been gifted a Herr Donald and a She Who Wears Pants Suits, the former a consequence of a political party that has long pandered to hate mongers and the latter a reminder that the long overdue election of the first woman president may be overshadowed by her Nixonian failings.
To say the center is not holding is an understatement. Yet 2016 is not 1968 all over again, an unfortunate comparison being bandied about with tone-deaf abandon by the punditocracy in the wake of the Orlando and Dallas massacres, as well as deaths at the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, to name only the two most recent outrages.
Yes, there were waves of violence in 1968 as exemplified by the MLK and RFK assassinations, but it also was the year Americans understood the Vietnam War for its awfulness, turned out a morally bankrupt president and were to do the same with his similarly inclined successor a few years later. The civil rights and women’s movements entered the mainstream, and Republicans and Democrats actually got along. When you consider that all those things were positive consequences of a more or less functioning democracy, 1968 actually was a pretty damned good year compared to our present dysfunction.
There is a lot that is right about America in 2016. This includes a two-term African-American president who has been the right leader for the times despite obdurate Republicans and the stench of racism, which had been lurking in its hidey-hole and never really went away, a fairly robust economy, a revival of the vibrant big city, significant strides toward equality for gays, and a timely reminder that despite the stop-and-frisk carnage most cops are good people doing a tough job. But none of that really counterbalances, mitigates or nullifies the awfulness.
In 2016, America is first among so-called developed nations by some measures, but all of them are negative. These include infant mortality, incarceration rates, health-care costs, obesity and child poverty. And it is last among those nations in commitment to infrastructure development, broadband access and arts funding, while millions of people struggle with crushing student loan debt as a result of outrageously expensive but mediocre college educations that did little to prepare them for the real world, only a life of gobbling anxiety-disorder medications to make it through each day.
Despite natterings to the contrary, our nervous breakdown cannot be blamed on ISIS, Brexit, Vladimir Putin, Twitter, energy drinks, rising sea levels or the war in Afghanistan, which at 15 years and counting is far and away the U.S.’s longest overseas military adventure.
No, our breakdown is entirely self-inflicted. And how did Congress respond to the dreadful events of last week? It recessed and went on vacation.
As Jamelle Bouie noted in Slate, a week “that began with Americans celebrating their best qualities ended with the country staring into the eyes of its worst self,” although for some people those dreadful events were less a case of the republic falling apart than waking up.
Sorry, but I’m unable to go anywhere near there. What is happening to America is a kind of entropy, a gradual decline into disorder. Our selective outrage — pretending that one person’s pain is greater than another’s — makes things worse. If you happen to be white like me, the chances of your ever being the victim of police brutality is minuscule, okay? (By the same token, any time the Black Lives Matter folks want to dial back on their over-the-top rhetoric and recall the lessons of their civil rights forebears would be welcome.)
What then is a nation to do? How to break the vicious cycle of violence and retaliation? Before the gun smoke had even cleared in Dallas, I wrote that:
Prayer helps. Dialogue is always welcome, but talk is cheap. Nor would a white Martin Luther King whom at least some racists and gun huggers might heed begin to turn the tide. God is going to let us work this out on our own. That is if we don’t kill each other first. No, the short-term answer is tough, even draconian gun laws, including a ban on all assault-style weapons and severe restrictions on all other weapons.
This, of course, is something that will never happen in a land . . . where the all-powerful National Rifle Association could care less what the motivation or skin color of the person pulling the trigger is, only that there are an ever growing number of triggers to pull.
It should be noted that the victims of the police traffic stops in Baton Rouge and St. Paul had guns, and the more people who are carrying — yes, even legally — the more deadly racialized poicing will become.
There also is little guarantee that legally enforced gun sanity will matter when you have people like Dr. Ben Carson helpfully noting in the wake of Orlando and then Dallas that Americans don’t have assault weapons to hunt deer, but to defend themselves against their government. And while we’re talking about disturbed black people, of which Carson certainly is one, let’s understand that blacks who target whites like the Dallas sniper are little different from white people who target blacks, while for every Micah Johnson there are many clones of Dylann Roof, the Charleston church gunman, whose goal in life was to start a race war.
I continue to believe that we are so much better than ourselves. That we can stop hating even if we can’t necessarily start loving. But Millennials, who have recently overtaken Baby Boomers like myself as America’s largest group, show no indication that they’re any wiser, and recovering from our national nervous breakdown, as opposed to muddling through it, seems unlikely.
PHOTOGRAPH BY REUTERS