America Today: Pragmatism Over Principle

I moved to Los Angeles in June 2001 to pursue an unspecified Hollywood dream that somehow involved writing. Little did I or my fellow college graduate friends who also made the trek out west realize that the LA entertainment hierarchy was already on the way out, with its specific and respected division of labor quickly dissolving under the weight of cheap digital cameras, reality TV, incentives to film in other states, and the potential for internet distribution.

So for about two months we pursued the dream in ignorant bliss, then 9/11 came along and America has slowly morphed into the absurd lost soul we see now. Those of us who grew up in the 80s remember watching feel-good blockbusters like “Back to the Future” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” we worshipped larger-than-life-personalities like Hulk Hogan and Michael Jordan. We spent our teenage years in the post-Cold War peace of the 90s with a humming economy and now-quaint shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” Life was good, hope sprang eternal.

But today, after 12 years of war, economic crashes, and a staggering loss of trust in all segments of government, any semblance of experiencing adulthood like our parents’ generation has become an implausible farce. Job stability? Benefits? Trustworthy news reporters? Uplifting TV shows?

The only thing our country manufactures today is a construct of reality. The only boom industries in the past half-decade have been non-profits and porn. Charity planners and on-camera prostitutes, boy are we movin’ on up!

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A funny thing about living in Los Angeles is that you quickly learn it is nothing like the movies and rock videos you grew up watching. The Sunset Strip is really just a small stretch of road amongst hundreds of square miles of urban sprawl. Were it not for hungry and/or lost young dreamers stepping off the bus each week, there really wouldn’t even be many white people at all. LA has millions of residents descended from as well as fresh off the boat from Mexico, Korea, and Armenia.

I come from a fairly conservative family. Couple that with the supposed dire threat from Al Qaeda following 9/11, and I could never understand why George W. Bush’s administration did not seal off our southern border with Mexico. Republicans certainly made enough speeches about illegal immigration as well as “the terrorists” to make it sound like an essential step to take.

This is something that has taken me many years to reconcile, but in light of several other recent national developments, I—once so earnest and sheltered, now somewhat chagrined after collating the facts—I have come to understand that the principled heroes of our past like George Washington and Robert E. Lee have given way to pure pragmatism as decision makers across the nation claw desperately to keep our system afloat.

How else to explain decades of drug laws being reconsidered as states bankrupted by pension plan obligations seek to generate more revenue through taxing marijuana?

How else to explain Christian churches that once condemned homosexuality now accepting gay members, with some even celebrating gay marriage? Now wait a minute! Are you an institution based on certain ideas and principles or are you just like any other business trying to get customers in the door?

This pragmatism also explains the long steady flow of poor Central American migrants into California, who not so much “snuck in” but have been deliberately enabled to enter to fill a void left by affluent white America which has grown not just soft but apparently lost its belief in existence. Not only are we not willing to work the menial jobs, but the tens of millions of abortions since the 1970s surely must attest to some terminal nihilism in our culture. We chose not to produce the children who would have held the very jobs that we scream at the illegal aliens for now “stealing.” It’s psychotic!

Further, with every American already up to his neck in cars and gadgets, these poor Third Worlders who probably never had machines to wash their dishes and clothes provide a big boost to retail spending. And as I saw firsthand over ten years in LA, the power of our consumerist pop culture is so strong that within one generation all ties to their Catholic and rural homeland give way to the tantalizing allure of flashy cars, rap music, and designer jeans—and now you have a fully Americanized young generation that wants to go to baseball games and play Xbox who are just one or two shades darker than they “should” be.

Ben Franklin back in his day railed against Swedes and Germans. The influx of Irish and Jewish immigrants during the 19th century caused a lot of animosity, as did the migration of Italians here last century. But apparently in the end this stuff all works itself out.

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Marx, Lenin, and Stalin have all at times been credited with a famous line that essentially says capitalism’s fatal flaw is that it is amoral, thus “the last capitalist will sell us the rope with which we will hang him.” I think what we are seeing now is a sort of last gasp as the momentum of our post-WWII boom peters out and we find ourselves in a nationwide yard sale selling off the last dusty totems of that feverishly optimistic time.

The worldview of America as on the rise and dominant is hard to sustain with cities like Detroit crumbling and the main growth franchises being in fitness and sandwich shops. I’m sorry but dreaming of managing a thousand square-foot “personalized gym experience” is not on par with the vision and cojones it took to build the Brooklyn Bridge! I was in NYC a couple years ago and didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or barf when I saw the two hundred permits posted at a construction site. I hear that Freedom Tower is finally just about done—and so are we.

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Now, I understand that people are tied into mortgages, they want to provide for their children’s educations, and that they sure as hell want to keep the hot water running in the shower. Most don’t really have the eagle’s view of what is happening to the country let alone the world economic system, such as China maybe using America as a large monopoly board as it buys us up with each container load of iPhones and Hobbit toys it ships over.

And I don’t have the hubris to claim to have the answers on how to stop our seemingly inevitable descent into the quicksand. But what I do propose is that we need some new ideas to deal with America’s waning strength. The physical atrophy you see today was preceded by moral and spiritual erosion, and so before we become just the latest has-been empire we’d better find a way to reinvent ourselves to stay relevant and vital.

It’s going to take unshackling our young from the “everybody must go to college” mindset that now leads not to careers but into debt slavery, an indentured servitude with the comforts of modernity but no room for the entrepreneurial risk taking whose sparks of genius raise the tide for us all.

It’s going to take uprooting yourself from what might be a comfortable path with the government—where you can never get fired but are not incentivized to innovate and still use fax machines—or the military, where hiding behind patriotism and fears of the bearded brown boogie man help you dissociate from the moral consequences of the bombs your drones drop.

It’s also going to take sacrifices which in the big scheme of things are minor, like not signing up for health insurance to help subvert and destroy Obamacare before it completely impoverishes the young. Did any of our soldiers in the Revolutionary War have damn insurance? Nope! And many of them died young not in battle but from nasty afflictions like smallpox and dysentery. We still celebrate their sacrifice today.

Maybe something bad will happen to you when you’re not insured, maybe it will cost a lot of money or even kill you. But think about this: up until the last couple hundred years people didn’t live very long anyway. Diseases, floods, and random invasions meant that you were liable to die at any time and at any age. No rhyme or reason, off you go. That’s probably why Buddhists and Indians thought it took hundreds if not thousands of incarnations for your soul to achieve enlightenment.

But we have it so good, we’ve always had plumbing and electronics and airplanes, so no wonder we’ll do anything to hang on to this quality of life, maybe even justifying to ourselves that if people have had it so bad forever why not enjoy it. The thing is that empires rise and fall, many disappearing into dust if they don’t put up some big stone temples, and right now our own way of life is jeopardy.

Is that not motivation enough to stop the Call of Duty bloodbath and take a real risk? Is the possibility of helping to save that which you cherish so much not worth pausing the DVD on some movie about the “Greatest Generation” and actually doing something great yourself?

Face the facts, we’re broke. The Treasury, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, the pensions, the unions, the cities and states—they’re all broke, it’s all gone, and you’re not getting any. Unemployment is running out, workman’s comp is running out. Hell, you can’t even get a good cash settlement anymore for suing some tobacco company or homeowner whose sidewalk you tripped on.

Do you get it yet? The time is now to get off your ass, stop gaming the system, stop putting faith in some smiling politician—Obama finally cured you of that, right?—and do something! You may not get a trophy or a statue but in 50,000 years no one’s going to remember George Washington either. The thing is, he lived a life of principle and that’s what it’s all about. Honor, sacrifice, courage—these are not slogans for a cheesy military bumper sticker, they’re the stripes you take with you into the next go-round if you do this thing right.

Who’s with me?

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