Frederic Edwin Church's Twilight in the Wilderness, painted in 1860, a year of profound anxiety about the future of the United States.
I’m feeling apprehensive this Independence Day weekend, and I’m not alone. I’m struck by the anxiety across the political spectrum that the USA is coming to some kind of end. The religious right has no monopoly on apocalyptic anxiety. The left, including the secular left, has its own eschatology and jeremiads. How much of this is real? People have been predicting the imminent end of the USA since before the ink was dry on the Declaration of Independence. I wonder if a big part of this is age. Am I really afraid of the end of the USA? Or am I afraid of the demise of the cultural references that I grew up with? This is an inevitable consequence of a youth-obsessed culture where time still marches on and no one is young forever. And yet, there are things out there that make me wonder.
The USA always struggled with itself over the question of imperialism, at least since the invasion of Mexico in 1846 (opposed by an obscure Congressman named Abraham Lincoln, and by the first Senator from the new state of Texas, Sam Houston). Now, I’m afraid that struggle is about to end, or has already ended, and imperialism won. I’m afraid of the USA becoming just another empire in a long list of those giant ephemeral things that have come and gone. I’m afraid that the republic, or what’s left of it, will vanish when our empire inevitably perishes, as all empires must. We now have a huge security state, much of which is designed to evade the rule of law. The President, and the security bureaucracy that he commands, have sweeping arbitrary powers, the power to declare people outside of the protection of the law and to be disposed of without any due process. It is as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise that someone will eventually use those powers to destroy political opposition. No one will notice or care until that knock on the door by an agent with a list of names. By that time, it’s too late. Our democracy appears to be hollowed out by money and corruption. What appears to me to be a slow motion coup rolls through the state legislatures taking over governments and repealing people’s rights, shrinking the political franchise to their supporters. It looks like we are selling out our birthright for a cheap promise of safety and a lottery ticket.
Even more alarming is the secession talk. I think Governor Rick Perry is a cynical opportunist who doesn’t believe a word of his own schtick, but that he appears to strike such a nerve with so many people is alarming. I should point out that Texas is definitely not the only state right now with a secession movement. There are even secession movements within states (Arizona and California among others). Many far right thinkers, and even some elected officials, are raising again a question that was supposed to have been settled by the Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment. Are we citizens of the United States first, or of our state first? Which takes precedent? That question is answered clearly in the Fourteenth Amendment. We are Americans before we are Texans or Ohioans or Floridians. Now, the ghost of Senator Calhoun of South Carolina is being raised from the dust to champion anew the already lost cause of nullification. This is potentially an existential threat to the USA. Its very nature and existence as a nation state is now again an open question in some very large and influential areas of opinion.
We forget that our Declaration of Independence is a revolutionary document, and was seen by most of the rest of the world as dangerous and incendiary. It was banned in most other countries. In some countries, owning a copy was considered sedition. Some ecclesiastical authorities banned it as sacrilege. Calhoun and other Southern intellectuals thought of the Declaration as a kind of antique, a relic from a now past revolution. Today, very powerful factions want to turn the United States into Europe of a century ago; governments of, by, and for very powerful ruling classes who owned and ran everything. To my mind, this is fundamentally contrary to everything the USA stands for and I hope will re-awaken our old revolutionary spirit.
The idea that all people have the right to determine their own destinies, to make up their own lives as they go along, that all citizens claim freedom and dignity as a birthright, and have a say in the governing of the communities they live in is still very revolutionary, especially now as our once revolutionary state becomes just another empire among so many. Our perpetual struggle with our own imperialism is coming to some kind of an end. What kind of end I don’t know. I hope our republic will still be there when it’s over, but I’m not sure.
I hope Lincoln’s promise “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” shall remain for us and for our posterity.