Growing up American feels like the old metaphor of a fish being removed from the river. The fish has no concept of water itself because the liquid home is all it has ever known. Once it is yanked from the stream, its worldview is shattered. A new world has been discovered and the fish returns to the stream knowing the water is not the only plane of existence in the world. We can never interview the fish to understand how its perspective evolves in the time to come (if fish have a concept of a worldview at all), but the scenario feels appropriate for describing my American coming of age.
Citizens of the United States are surrounded by luxury relative to the rest of the planet and we have little direct contact with outside environments and societies in our youth. Skirmishes over food, potable water, and territory may exist in the United States, but they are not negotiated at the tip of an AK-47. The most modern technology dominates our everyday life and allows us to view the cruel side of humanity from a safe distance. We can watch videos of so-called “primitive” chiefdoms in rural Africa or Australia and express wonder at how humanity can still exist in such a state in the new millennium. It is a sheltered existence, ideal for raising a child but not for grasping the realities of billions of people on this earth.
With this naiveite, Americans craft an elite outlook of their own society. Whether through human ingenuity or blessings from the gods above, the United States of America is bestowed with certain unalienable rights not afforded to our counterparts across the ponds. Our successes can be attributed to ingrained superiority while our failures are the result of isolated poor decisions or external events beyond our leaders’ control. This is one form of the infamous American Exceptionalism, another being our mandate to commit unforgivable crimes in the interests of our own unique ventures.
When does this façade crumble? Some pull back the curtain during their university years when they meet people from all over the globe and hear of experiences they never could comprehend at home. Many more never buy the hype in the first place being the children of oppressed groups or having immigrated from their own havens that aren’t as much of a shithole as dear old Donny Tinyhands would like to believe. But this illusion is never dashed for many Americans. The United States is the forever undefeated boxer who built a career on starching tomato cans on its own terms, and this contingent of society that lives in denial will never take a closer look at the padded record.
Could this paradigm be changing in the 21st century? The U.S. empire declines despite its desperate attempts to retain control of its territories through the outdated use of military force while emerging nations like China and India continue to develop new tactics of expansion through economic negotiation and the establishment of unprecedented multi-lateral trade agreements. 2018 is predicted to be the first year when Chinese retail sales surpass those of the U.S., creating widespread potential for new markets in China and subsequent investment from gigantic multi-national corporations. Capitalism is in the process of travelling back along the old Silk Road to spur the rise of the Asian nations while its victims are left flailing in the West, confused and angered by their stagnant wages and deteriorating living conditions while lacking any sensible discussion of a replacement system. I grew up learning about America as the end of history, the pinnacle of human achievement, and the envy of even our comparable neighbors in North America and Europe. It seems the history book has a few blank pages we missed because they were stuck together with jizz from all the shotgun barrel masturbation on confederate flag shoestrings.
Understanding this shift and its potential to damage the American psyche involves examining two major factors: the rise of China specifically among the surging middle-class economies, and the importance of American Exceptionalism in masking the country’s long slow descent into third world status.
Travel back to the 1950s for a moment, when McDonalds could be found on a single street corner and preppies and greasers stood and banged every weekend. China was an international laughingstock. This gigantic nation got its ass handed to it by the neighboring Japanese in humiliating fashion and was now trying this new bright red Communist economic plan. Its people were starving, its leaders were delusional bums who knew nothing of golden Western democracy, and its place as a veto power on the United Nations Security Council was extended out of pure sympathy for its hopeless populace. This was China through the cat eye sunglasses of the U.S.’s booming decade. The image stuck around long after rockabilly and doo-wop fell out of the mainstream. After all, reasoned the typical American worker, China sends all its students to our universities; it purchases American products; it has no military might to speak of and wouldn’t last two seconds in an international rumble. These things may have been true, but old John Smith only scratched the surface. These perceived inadequacies in China’s global standing turned out to be long-term investments into the country’s future, a future now being shaped by innovative economic approaches and strategic enhancement of domestic infrastructure.
2018 may be an unprecedented year for Chinese consumer activity, but it is not the first year that China will beat out the United States in particular markets. A record-breaking 18.4 million motor vehicles were sold in the United States in 2016. It’s a cute number compared to China’s more than 28 million motor vehicle sales that same year. Construction of China’s first foreign military base began in 2016, prompting a major shift of U.S. forces to Africa with the creation of AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command). The Chinese economy is so convoluted and unpredictable that economists have coined a new term to describe its structure: socio-capitalism. Yet this complicated model has exceeded many expectations in the financial sphere and has laid the groundwork for future economic planning for many nations around the world such as the up-and-coming India. Discussions to change the global reserve currency from the U.S. dollar to the Chinese yuan have floated around international financial spheres for years, and the case to make such a shift grows with each passing financial quarter.
What does this mean to the average American whose identity hinges on breathing their first air on this patch of soil? Not much to a large chunk of the country, as they are probably not interested in such developments. For those nationalists paying attention, however, such developments represent encroachment on what has always been the U.S.’s game. Foreign expansion of armed forces?Economic innovation? Booming consumer culture? That’s our thing goddamnit! Ain’t no backwards slanty-eyed Chinaman taking our world champion belt from us! Worse than that realization is the next revelation that the U.S. is powerless to halt this growth. Chinese capital is the largest collective owner of property in the United States, and U.S. debt to Chinese firms exceeded one trillion dollars in the last financial quarter of 2017. The U.S.’s leverage around the world hinges entirely on brute military strength, a game China has no interest in playing. We can wave our chrome around and scream wide-eyed with crank pulsing through our veins that It’s On Motherfucker all we want, but this isn’t the first time China has looked down the barrel of a .45, and it means jack shit when they could call in that one trillion and blow the kneecaps off the U.S. economy overnight. Donny Tinyhands seems not to understand this, as his proposed trade war with China is a suicide mission according to all reliable financial reporting. The relationship between the two countries may not be that straight-forward or one-sided, but the best the U.S. can hope for is a stalemate, and that does nothing to restore the economic dominance the U.S. dollar once enjoyed in the global economy.
Back to Johnny American, who’s been taught since he no longer shit himself that he is something to behold simply for living in the U.S. His existence is validated primarily through the arbitrary “American” label afforded to him through a history removed from his influence. This affords him validity not just as a civic patriot, but as a human, and thus his entire sense of self-worth hinges on factors divorced from individual achievement. American empire, the U.S. dollar as the world reserve currency, the titanic might of the American armed forces; old Johnny has never done anything to influence these things, yet he lives his life obsessed with these products of history and attaches his worth to them on an unconscious level. As history shows, however, such courses can change for arbitrary and unpredictable reasons as quickly as a Muay Thai elbow colliding with a glass jaw shuts the lights off in the brain. When the American empire folds, the U.S. military is no longer looked to with honor and respect abroad, Chinese markets become better at what the U.S. does best, and Johnny’s worth begins to deteriorate because he believes his merit as a human being to be attached to the overall state and health of the country. If being an American carries no honor or prestige, his existence holds no meaning. He is dead as a respectable member of the world (I use the male pronoun because so much of his anger can also be attached to patriarchal conditioning that creates a lifetime of toxic outlook on what the loss of masculinity means, but it does not mean that people of other genders cannot experience these feelings to the same degree. More than half of white women who participated in the 2016 presidential election voted for Donald Trump after all).
Without a mindful reassessment of what worth means to a human being, the frustrations surrounding this loss of identity and worth manifest in all sorts of toxic ways. It becomes proletarian rage over stagnant wages and the misfortune of unemployment. Men who are taught from the playground on up that they must surpass women in income and career achievement feel a loss of worth in their gender identity and harbor a lethal combination of deep hatred and aggrieved entitlement. In its worst form, this hatred manifests as outright violence. White males top the charts in mass shootings committed in the United States, and intimate partner violence ending with a corpse involve a disproportionate number of male perpetrators regardless of the victim’s gender. There are more factors influencing motivations behind these attacks of course, but American society does little to allow for nonviolent expressions of masculinity beyond achievements in the workplace or the sports arena. Remove the potential for those achievements and the absurd validation of national pride and most men see no other way to validate their existence. At the ballot box, this loss of national identity and attached self-worth becomes support for antiestablishment candidates like Trump that reinvigorate that primal sense of pride through punching down at outgroups, a classic tactic of schoolyard bullies suffering from feelings of inadequacy. It is a way to punish society at large for their own misfortune and loss of humanity. Fascistic religious movements such as dominionism also prey on these insecurities, and their influence manifests in hatred of homosexuals, restrictions of women’s rights, and censorship of media.
It is no surprise that these manifestations of the loss of American dominance in the world have become more frequent as other countries arise to top the U.S. at its own game. To be fair, observant world news consumers could point out similar trends in Europe with the surge of right-wing nationalist movements in Greece, Hungary, Poland, France, Italy and other countries. True enough, such trends are not relegated to the amber waves of grain. However, I can’t help but wonder how Europe’s longer history and past experience with losing its various empires mitigates the domestic impacts of such rises. Another aspect of growing up American is the constant shock of remembering how young the country is relative to world history. Take any of the major European economic powers with a history of empire, and they’ve seen it all. Innovations in technology that shaped the world to come, intense rivalry with neighbors of similar standing, colonialism and the construction of a global sphere of influence, the fall of that influence, and the years to heal from the loss of pride and return as stronger economic forces in a new world of countries instead of vassals. The United States has lived through most of that list, but the last two components, arguably the most difficult phases, have yet to hit home. If the U.K., the Netherlands, France, and the rest of the former empire states are experienced boxers who know how to dig deep after emptying the gas tank because they’ve been in 12-round wars many times, America is the boxer getting lit up with his hands on his hips in the championship bout after going ham in the first round and failing to score that highlight reel knockout that earned him the title shot. My mother keeps a book of the entire history of the royal leadership of England and I once saw it perched on the living room coffee table next to a book of the entire history of U.S. presidents. The difference in thickness said it all, and it is the clearest model of America’s relative youth and inexperience in the ways of the world I have ever seen.
My Ungagged colleagues across the pond can speak to this better than I can, but I have always perceived a maturity among European residents not found among American nationalists when broaching the subject of national identity. Many people in the U.S. still use the American Revolution defeat of the British as an example of American superiority over Britain and a reason why British citizens have no place to criticize American society. Aside from the 1690 crowd in the second Trainspotting film, I have yet to hear anyone in the U.K. assign their self-worth to a result of warfare or diplomacy that was decided hundreds of years ago. Such people must exist across the pond, but comparing their numbers to the aforementioned revolutionary war enthusiasts or Confederate apologists could reveal some shocking disparities.
Where do we go from here? What is the United States to do in the face of a changing world that may not value its presence in the way Johnny American has always wanted to believe. The author Cormac McCarthy wrote that this world is hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, and it ain’t all waiting on you, and that seems to be the U.S.’s current course. We would do well to shed our blinding nationalism and hubris in favor of greater integration into world innovations. Rather than starting hopeless trade wars with China that could destroy our own economy, negotiate fair trade agreements with China that set precedence for balanced international commerce. Instead of looking at the achievements of Europe with a smug sense of superiority and treating our closest allies like children, we could learn from these nations and improve our domestic strength through innovative competition and shared learning. How many opportunities for growth and development have we as a country cost ourselves in our refusal to admit when we are wrong? Such admissions and concessions may seem uncomfortable at first, but the best lessons in life are often the hardest ones to learn.
On the domestic front, we as ordinary citizens can begin to change the culture of hubris and toxicity that plagues the proletariat. Encouraging nonviolent expressions of masculinity is a tremendous start. Support your male peers in expressing their emotions and redefine masculinity as something that can be achieved outside the workplace and football field. Engage in dialogue with what you perceive to be the most reprehensible racists among us. As white people especially, we possess access to a unique window of opportunity to be taken seriously by such groups. Work to remove the influence of big money from politics at the state level through organizations like Wolf-PAC, which have already succeeded in persuading a growing number of states to call for a constitutional amendment to prohibit such bribes. This will restore our constitutional republic and ensure our representatives answer to nobody but their constituents again, ending the trend of honest working class folks fighting the rich man’s battle for profits they will never see.
One of our own, Abraham Lincoln, once said that it is the measure of a person to admit when they are wrong. Let us apply these principles to our country and mature through our ability to humble ourselves before the rest of the world. There are genuine reasons to be proud of what the United States purports to stand for, and with hard work and a dash of modesty, we can again become a country that leads by example, not by force.