Why I'm Pessimistic About America

Barack Obama's essay in the latest issue of Smithsonian Magazine on why he's optimistic about America helped me articulate why I'm pessimistic about the US: because there is no logical reason to be optimistic and the President seems determined to continue acting like there is. Because the Free World is a contradiction, and because power has a well-known conservative bias. And so this essay by the most powerful man in the world begins by rooting itself in American liberalism and ends by making a cloaked argument for conservatism. What that also proves is that the most powerful man in the world is not that powerful at all. He's just a stand-in, or perhaps a stooge, for what he's bought into and what has brought him in to office: the power of money. So the President of the US is just one of many voices in Smithsonian Magazine's 40 anniversary issue, under the banner of the theme: What You Need To Know About the Next 40 Years.

Ha, some free world. Where there's always more you need to know and always cheap gadgets you've just got to buy and endless free content you're free to consume in your spare time (never mind that you're still working for the system every time you allow advertising into your lives, because it's still a good deal). Where a 40-year old art magazine, to predict the future of the human race, asks experts to predict the evolution of their fields of knowledge, within (but without engaging with) the economic systems within which they work, thus obscuring those systems themselves, so that these expert predictions carry the weight not of knowledge so much as inevitability. So that economic progress seems as unavoidable as the future itself and as natural and obvious as evolution. A world that is at the mercy of its own ideological and capital investments and is neither free enough to change nor supple enough to adapt. Because what you need to know, clearly, is that we'll be going down this same path of believing in the genius of Americans to solve all problems and in money as the answer to those problems.In spite of any and all evidence to the contrary.

And free from what? If it's not free from inequality, how is it free? If it's not part of one world -- everybody's world -- what planet is it built on? Oh, right, the Free World is a euphemism for free market, not a world made up of actual individuals who all deserve to be equally free. No, freedom is for those who are born lucky and wealthy in the US of A and for those who are smart enough to make the money to buy their freedoms in the forms of entertainment, lawyers and lobbyists -- now available on credit! The dangling carrot of freedom. The individual pursuit of personal freedom in service to the freedom of systemic power to exercise itself, that is, to continue existing and to become more powerful.

I think this whole project of prediction, in its final form, testifies to nothing but the burgeoning power of systems -- while also making a meek and self-effacing argument for the power of art. (Obama's article both mirrors and obscures this.) Human future? Clearly, the future of humanity is thoroughly entangled in the future of technology and government -- to the point where we can't even see the human anymore and feel no compunction to address except in the form of platitudes. These predictions are themselves built on the assumption that more is not only better but inevitable, and only work as advertising at best, and regulation at worst. Coming from the President, it is both.

So more knowledge is always progress, and progress is always good and always possible. That's how we define the word, so of course the statement is true! But should it be believed? Should it be invested in? Do we have the basic human freedom to not believe it, or to even question it, let alone choose a different path? Or are we in the church of economic progress now, where mentioning contradiction is blasphemy, even when the contradiction appears on the same page: depleting resources and uncontrolled consumption?

All these specialized, necessarily narrow experts are chasing their own fields down without much engagement with other sophisticated knowledges, and with seemingly simplistic ideas about power. So you can know the world about a subject but you may not criticize the systems which govern it or the world in general, because criticism undermines the legitimacy of the systems you yourself, as the expert, are invested in. In any case, as an expert of specific informations and a consumer of everything else, we certainly don't need you to connect the dots between dying dolphins and infant brain scans. All these predictions presented as expert and logical seem to me just proof of our social investment in very specific projects, which point to history and extant freedoms only as arguments for unmitigated growth into ever narrower sectors, obscuring the underlying assumption that pleasure and truth are both private and endless. So that more is always possible and never enough. Obscuring the fact that more and more of that growth (except art and culture) will be out of our hands and getting more and more sophisticated; ignore that most of it will be stuff that will happen to us, as a people and as individuals, and of which we will be a tiny and rather powerless part, mostly scrambling to earn the money to afford the latest technology and the best health care. But isn't that the whole premise on which the real estate bubble was created?

So he begins by saying:

There is, of course, no way of knowing what new challenges and new possibilities will emerge over the next 40 years. There is no way of knowing how life will be different in 2050. But if we do what’s required in our own time, I am confident the future will be brighter for our people, and our country.

Nice. Just two facts -- time is always moving forward and causes have effects, and an assumption that we can cause things. Ooh, science and ability -- both central to modern liberalism. Belief in facts and in humanity.

Then he moves on to history -- another thing we love, I think, and communally explore to gain knowledge. And not even a history of events but a history of thoughts. Putting the more recent past in the context of the more distant past
Colonists in the 1750s couldn’t have imagined that 40 years later, they would be living in a nation, independent of empire. Farmers in the first decades of the 19th century couldn’t have imagined that 40 years later, their continent would be crisscrossed by a railroad linking Eastern ports to Western markets.

so that it not only points out how far we've come but also makes another hidden argument for progress. And at the cusp of now and the future he places himself, saying that his parents would have been thoroughly amazed by "a world transformed by the Internet".

Yeah, sure, but I think their biggest amazement would be saved for something else: his election. This we all know and are proud of.

But I think mentioning the Internet as a stand-in for himself he does touch on something true, too. The power of the internet. Which, now that his government is in power, he would probably like us to use in a certain way. Which is to say, a way to express ourselves in a vast and mostly meaningless place. Where we all branch off and get entertained, for the most part. I mean, as much as he praises the Internet as a means of communication, no one knows better than Obama that without the media being as privatized and sophisticated as it is now, he would most likely not be the POTUS. So this thing has power, but the powerful would so much rather we use it for private purposes only. Luckily for them, we mostly do. Happily for us, the powerful are wise enough to package everything for us and make sure we receive it easily and for free, including Barack Obama the candidate. After TV, we're programmed to put up with a lot of advertising for unpaid content and we're so happy to finally have our own clickers! Such freedom. No more having to share and watch what you don't want to see! No more forced shared experiences. (Except for the big, bad ones like inflation and flood.)

In the essay, now that we're already lulled by his familiar logic (yes we can, because we have, in the past) and fortified by his facility with language, he starts shifting his ground. Have you seen those old cartoons where a character hides behind a bush, and then, when no one's watching, picks up the bush and, still hiding behind it, gets to a more strategic position? So, in this reading the character is Barack Obama (himself a stand-in, you'll recall), and the bush is individual liberty. We've come so far, he says, and then says -- we've come so far because we, well, we're awesome. We just need to be more awesome to outsmart reality, and I believe we can! Look at how far we've come, after all.

And this is what this progress looks like, and predictably will continue to look like until it eats its own head:
That is why we’ve taken steps to increase Pell Grants and ensure they keep pace with inflation, making college—and advanced training—more affordable for countless students. That’s why we ended a status quo that handed out billions of dollars to banks to act as unnecessary middlemen in administering student loans, and made the repayment of loans more manageable for students so they don’t graduate with crushing debts. And that’s why we’re undertaking a Race to the Top in America’s schools, challenging states to compete for tax dollars to help them deliver better results in the classroom.

Increasing money supply to keep up with inflation? Education on loan and made affordable by loan management? Is this how we grow - by competing? I am certain that this is not the only conclusion of liberal thought on the subject of collective betterment. I am sure competition among schools, to say nothing of the students, is not the best way to educate our children. Unless, of course, the only point of that education is so that we can all fight among ourselves for better jobs and more money on an earth without coral reefs. But hey, the government can promise a fair fight -- among Americans, that is! After all, we deserve it. We're geniuses.

So that's it? America's Got Talent - that's all he's selling? This is not an argument for anything except for more privatization and more government -- or rather, the continuing commercialization of government. Because in our liberal utopia, everybody's rich, not conscientious or discerning. Such are the fruits of our knowledge that most of us can afford to be as stupid as we desire, as long as we're in dumb, continued service to the ideology of prevalent power. As long as we believe what we're told to believe, we'll be safer than if we don't, okay? Power is saying so.

Then the parts about energy challenge too: more, more, more! No slowing down, people! We will satisfy all demands! Human desire is not a bubble, so how can reality be?

In the 19th century, we built land-grant institutions to prepare an agricultural nation for an industrializing world. In the 20th century, we sent a generation of veterans to college on the G.I. Bill, laying the groundwork for our great middle class and decades of prosperity. Today, a similar commitment is required, not only to prepare our kids to outcompete workers around the world, but to prepare America to outcompete nations around the world.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but how many of the things he's mentioned happened for competitive reasons? Didn't they happen, or at least aren't they historically meaningful, because they were for the betterment of the American people as a whole? Capitalism might have made the pursuit of knowledge competitive, but is that how knowledge -- and social transformation -- actually work? I see in his words a continued justification for war and nothing else. In a global economy, everything is a challenge and everyone's your enemy. So come together to elect a person and then back off and put up with having your rights and freedoms dependent on your individual income. Work hard together, go fight wars together, but compete! Among each other and against our common enemies.

If we hope to continue leading the global economy, America must place first in that race. That’s why we’re making the most significant investment in clean energy in history, offering grants to companies that produce wind turbines and solar panels, helping us double renewable energy production in the coming years. That’s why we’ve helped forge one historic agreement—and are on track to produce a second—to dramatically increase the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks. And that’s why I’ll keep fighting for comprehensive energy and climate legislation—to unleash the potential of clean energy for our economy, our security and our environment.

So yeah, it ends even worse than expected. You want energy to continue affording the freedom of technology? Better work hard, then! You want better schools? Don't worry, we'll make sure they work hard too! No one's getting a free ride, see how fair the system is?

Not a word about the reasons for which he was actually elected -- to restore some sense into the dysfunctional systems of power in America, and to redress the dysfunctional power the US itself has become. No, everything we do will be to compete, because USA is, and deserves to be, number 1. And of course we won't pull out of Afghanistan or enforce a carbon tax. But you have plenty of avenues to express your outrage (hey, look, the Internet!). It's like that scene from Arrested Development where Lindsay and her fellow crusaders are put into a cage (the free speech section I think they called it). Except we've advanced far beyond material cages.

I can't believe that real progress in the world has come from war and conflict. I can't believe that true, meaningful social change -- the actual betterment of the human condition and the more effective safeguarding of human freedoms -- has come from such motives. You can argue for rational self-interest, but you're still required to be rational. Not in denial. Not busy acting as a tout for what you are invested in -- the US government and big business -- at the expense of those you've actually been empowered to represent.

My point is that he starts by exalting the progress of freedom, or how far thinking creatively and changing with reality has gotten us, and then sets up the future as a very specific kind of progress -- one which is invested (a word he uses more than once) so heavily in progress that it no longer has the liberty to even consider slowing down, let alone explore noncapitalist avenues of development, which includes scientific and social ones. This is not true innovation. This is not about creativity. This is not about human freedoms. This is service. This is only about safeguarding the systems of power while working ourselves into the ground for basic freedoms and extravagant luxuries, which are becoming harder and harder to tell apart in the culture of unchecked private consumption. And going into the future, this is a recipe for less freedom, not more.

Stephen Colbert famously criticized Bush for the consistency of his beliefs... something about how Bush believes the same thing on Monday that he does on Wednesday, no matter what happens on Tuesday. As for Barack Obama, here is what he believes:
For me, [patent models from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History: Samuel Morse’s 1849 design for a telegraph register; Henry Williams’ 1877 design for a steamboat wheel; and John A. Peer’s 1874 design for a gear-cutting machine] are a reminder of what has always defined America’s people: our spirit; a restless searching for the right solution to any problem; an inclination to dream big dreams, and an insistence on making those dreams come true; an enduring faith, even in the darkest hours, that brighter days lie ahead. That is the genius of America. And that’s why, even though I can’t predict what will happen over the next 40 years, I am—and always will be—full of hope about what the future holds.

President Obama then, also, is ignoring Tuesday. That no matter what has happened or will happen, this, whatever it is, is what I believe and always will. This is conservatism in a nutshell, regardless of whether the belief is in the genius of the military or the market or the American people. Conservatism is the argument for being in denial of the evidence of reality - change and co-existence- the fact of which Obama began the essay with.

Part of me, the nutty part, wonders if the US election of Barack Obama was in any part a communal cleaning of past sins, or just a true naivete about the systems of power Americans are subject to. Because the only rational reasons to elect him was that he was not Bush. The rest was mostly empty promise; a promise of intent, made of words. So wouldn't it be a great time for the media to play up this opportunity -- a slick black candidate come along at the perfect time, a time so terrible that he might actually have a shot -- for more debate, not just about policy but about race and a whole host of partisan issues? Especially since it's been so long since a terrorist attack...

I find in some American liberals such a strong self-discipline of thought, to the point that they can censor some emotions out of possibility or at least out of conversation -- even among themselves (maybe even to themselves). Would it be wrong to say that certain people who in a racist system have been endowed with power are growing older somewhat guilty? I mean he's just a dude.What exactly were people connecting on when they were connected -- all across the world -- about him, before, but especially when he won? And were those reasons actually logical?

I mean Obama's election was such a thoroughly media-created affair. And there was such a sophistication to it all throughout. (McCain in contrast looked and sounded obsolete.) I'm not at all saying that the beliefs and hope that drove a lot of people was not real. I'm just wondering about the intentions of the media, and how much it actually controls us. Because control doesn't look anymore like what it might have a 100 years ago. Now it's all images and bytes. And too many of them so narrow and isolated as to be contradictory. In a society where everything is problematic, everything remains to be solved and there's always a better, more capitalistic solution. Dream big and solve problems? That just sounds like both a chastisement and a rejection of our limitations. To say nothing of the limitations of our resources.

When we can't know the future, as he started out by saying, any prediction of human society is itself an investment in a specific path. Ultimately Obama predicts nothing, just promises a future where to be safe and happy you'll need to work harder and buy more -- and in doing so he indicates how the next seven years might look. He's logically inconsistent to the point where it doesn't matter whether he's lying or not. He's just not making sense, offering only platitudes as reasons to believe in America and rationalizations for more of the same old, good old American way. He's peddling a promise whose very likelihood is thoroughly questionable, to say nothing of the integrity or efficacy of the path he's offering to take us there on.

That's no reason to be optimistic.