Friday, February 17, 2012

Linning, Sometimes Sinning, but Still Winning

They're at it again, the hounds braying about how America is about to fall. This time it's an elegant sort of certainty, expressed by the pen of an Eric X. Li, allegedly a Chinese entrepreneur writing in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. But the sulphurous whiff of chickens being counted before they're hatched reminds me of what it must have been like at other times in history, say the elegant chambers of Vienna or Berlin in the 1930s when Adolph was telling the assembled barons of Teutonic industry the Americans were much too decadent to withstand a Nazi assault on civilization.
But let's go back even further, to that day some 230 years ago, after the army of hard-scrabble American colonists had overthrown the mightiest military in the contemporary world in the name of a faith they held in their own ideals and their own destiny. The world's cognoscenti, certain that the experiment must fail, indeed lusting after such a failure, were already predicting that it would all soon fall apart. Because America's success, the success of democracy, flies in the face of the most cherished belief of most elites in most places throughout human history, that the common people could never be graced with the wisdom to seek a better way.
It is messy, being an experiment, a changeable, malleable system of government constantly in the throes of self-invention. Li is correct in pointing out some of the glaring flaws that anyone can see in our government today: paralysis, demagoguery, the undue influence of money. But he shows a lack of understanding of our history to think that we have arrived at some unique nadir in time. There have been similar moments of corruption and paralysis. No, there is no guarantee that we will be able to reform ourselves in time to avert total disaster, but there is no reason for undue pessimism either. Indeed there are many analysts who believe that America, because of its traditions of individualism and innovation, stands poised to reap the greatest rewards of any country in the increasing globalization of the world's economy.
Li  points out that democracy is based on a faith, as yet unproven, in individual conscience and human rights. This is true -- nurtured by our faith traditions and our long collective memories of struggles for national and individual emancipation, Americans have been able to overcome deep differences in our past, think Civil War, and still be reconciled to living together in relative harmony guaranteed by the rule of law and the rights in the U.S. Constitution. But what is Li's faith based on, the benevolence of closeted apparatchiks who know what is best at all times? Or perhaps his own connections to the reins of power. Whatever it is, I'll take my faith over his. The faith in democracy has legs that grow stronger throughout the world. It is not a uniquely American or Western European phenomenon. George W. Bush was right when he said that democracy is a universal aspiration. It is not, as Li states,  that Westerners see our brand of parliamentary or representative democracy as the pinnacle of human achievement, it is that democracy, or the rule of a government by consent of the governed, is a system of government uniquely suited to bringing about ever greater levels of human freedom and prosperity. It is not an idea that is hard to sell, witness the fall of the Communist world, (except China), and the rise of the Arab Spring. Millions of people around the world share this faith.
There are contradictions written into the very fabric of our common life. These contradictions are the heart of the engine that makes the system work. Indeed we are living at a time when many are chafing at our liberty and longing for a turn to a more authoritarian United States that would legislate morality, tell women for instance, that they have no rights to choose contraception. Ironically it is often deeply religious people that seem to lose faith in our democratic system, based as it is on a faith in the freedom of choice and the collective wisdom of the people -- the Spirit that moves among us. Which brings me to Jeremy Lin. This Asian-American basketball star who has taken the country by storm with his poise and flair is symptomatic of the kind of dark horse underdog that Americans love because it revives our faith in ourselves and our story. He is also a symbol of how intertwined the world has become. An Asian American basketball star. What next? Democracy in China?  I would give it better odds than American decline.
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