This article was originally published on my personal blog at the height of the financial crisis in September 2008. I have updated it slightly to reflect the current crisis.
I used to think that the United States was basically indestructible, that our Constitution, the uncommon common sense of our people, a bountiful land, and a respect for our history and traditions could see us through any crisis.
Does that still hold true?
I believe these truths are immutable. But there is one very important additional truth that, when removed from the equation, causes the entire edifice to come crashing down in rack and ruin, a testament to the folly and failure of our politics and politicians.
I am talking about faith: Faith in government, faith in our leaders, faith in our institutions, and, most of all, faith in ourselves and our talent for self-government — the ability for us to decide what is best for our country and our families.
It is the faith of our fathers, and their fathers before them, and their fathers and grandfathers who bequeathed us a nation based on this simple, uncomplicated faith. Without it, there is no trust. And faith, like trust, once lost is a hard commodity to regain
I recall that on 9/11, there was a time that it was unclear the extent of the attack, especially after the Pentagon was hit. I am not overdramatizing when I say that I believe everyone in America wondered who was next. What else could happen? The absolute worst scenarios went through my mind, as I’m sure they did for most of you. And I remember thinking for just a second or two, “Is this the end of America?” But I immediately dismissed such a preposterous notion. America was a rock, a force of nature. You couldn’t destroy it. Knock a few buildings down, sure. But the almost childlike belief in our ability to overcome anything and emerge triumphant was a powerful tonic that worked its magic on the American psyche and gave us the will to pull together for the good of all.
In that crisis, we had faith to spare. Forgotten was the recent election and its gut-rending divisiveness as we came together as one people in the face of tragedy and crisis. It was inspiring. It was elevating.
It was an illusion.
In truth, our unity after 9/11 was a mirage, a temporary respite from the culture wars, the political wars, the ideological wars — the war for the soul of America. The natural equilibrium of political combat to the death reasserted itself within a matter of weeks and any sense of togetherness we felt was extinguished in a flood of partisan poison. And you can draw a straight line from the post-9/11 falling-out to our current crisis where what ails us as a nation has only been exacerbated by war and bitter acrimony.
I blame Bush. And the Democrats. And the liberals. And the conservatives. And I blame us for enabling the catastrophe, where it becomes easy to lose faith, trust, and even hope — hope that there was a way through this morass of hate and distrust so that we could emerge on a far distant shore, free of the infection that has sickened the body politic of America to the point that now, we teeter on the edge of a precipice, looking down into the blackness of an unknowable, unknowing future.
The internet is at fault. So is talk radio. So is the liberal/conservative/lazy media. So is the consolidation of information sources. So am I.
Am I taking the easy out? A typical Moran “a pox on both your houses” screed? Examine your consciences and you tell me where it’s all Bush’s fault or all the Democrats’ fault. Or where conservatives or liberals are blameless. Or even where one party or another is “more” at fault — as if you can place catastrophe on a scale and weigh it out, carefully loading one side or the other with rancor, bitterness, lies, exaggerations, political gamesmanship, and cynicism, thus hoping to determine the “real” culprit of our current predicament.
That kind of stupidity is silly and self defeating. And it only reveals that those who try it are part of the problem, not the solution.
We are not in an economic crisis, or a political crisis. We are in a crisis of faith. We have lost what has been handed down to us, generation after generation going all the way back to the founding, passing on the secret of America’s uniqueness, its “exceptionalism,” as if it were a holy relic of the Catholic Church lovingly preserved and cared for by parishioners for all time.
We — all of us — have failed to do the things necessary to maintain this faith. We have been careless and stupid in choosing our leaders. We have been lax in holding them accountable. We have not paid attention to what they were doing — here or abroad — and we have failed to demand that the government lift the veil of secrecy on too many enterprises. We have failed to hold ourselves accountable for our actions. We have failed to take responsibility for our own mistakes. We have abandoned self reliance, family and community values, respect for our political opponents, and the American idea that neighbor helping neighbor is far preferable to asking government to do it for us.
High ideals and standards to live up to, yes. And our forefathers were not always successful themselves in adhering to principle and acting for the greater good. But the difference between them and us is that they had faith that the wisdom and basic common decency of the American people would emerge and carry us through times of crisis relatively unscathed and still one nation. They counted on a rough unity of the people — that we all had basically the same idea of what America was and where it should be going. How to get there was the basis of our political battles — and believe me, they were as rough and tumble as any of the political donnybrooks we have had in recent memory.
It is not our politics that divides us. Nor does ideology tear us apart. These are but symptoms of the disease that afflicts us. Our problem is that we have lost faith in the idea that we can dream common dreams — American dreams — and give ourselves a common point of reference where we all agree what, at bottom, America is and where it should be going.
With this loss of faith has come an overpowering fear that prevents us from trusting others and ourselves. With no trust in one another — in our intentions or good will — we lose faith in our ability to solve our problems together and we get what we saw yesterday on Capitol Hill: a complete and utter failure of our leadership to deal with the crisis at hand, preferring to score cheap political points at the expense of the other rather than work together to avoid a possible calamity.
There was a point in the Cuban Missile Crisis (as dramatized in the movie Thirteen Days, based on Robert Kennedy’s book of the same name) where the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, General Curtis LeMay, looks at President Kennedy and says, “You’re in a helluva fix, Mr. President.” Kennedy turned to the World War II hero and said, “In case you haven’t noticed, you’re in it with me.”
Each side is pointing at the other and, in effect, telling them they are in one helluva fix and then explaining why one side or the other is the real culprit at fault in this mess and it is up to them to deal with the crisis. Obama “owns the shutdown,” Republicans have a “gun to the head” of the American people, Democrats refuse to negotiate. And looming in the near future is a vote on whether to raise the debt ceiling with a similar partisan scenario shaping up, but with possible consequences far more dire than the potential economy-wrecking shutdown we’re experiencing now.
None of it is true. The real issue is trust and the impossibility of achieving it because we have all lost faith in each other and ourselves. And the scary part is, no one in America knows how to fix what’s broken and bring us back to sanity.