Barry Weisberg asks "What's going on in the United States?"

August 31, 2010

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As part of Worldview's “Global Cities: Challenges and Choices” series, global cities contributor Barry Weisberg looks at recent trends of dangerous and extreme phobias rising to the surface in the United States.

Repeal of the 1st Amendment to prevent a Muslim cultural center from being constructed near the World Trade Center? Suspension of probable cause to allow a police stop of a person believed to be an illegal immigrant? President Obama a “Muslim”? Are such currents mere hyper-partisanship?

To begin with the United States is not, has not, and will never be a united country. Unity has always been relative, and always a product of existing economic, political, social and cultural currents. It has been this way from the beginning of the country, when Blacks were defined as 3/5's of a human being. Or today, when less than half of all black males graduate from high school. So when President Obama tells us that we are “one country”, he is either derelict in his reading of U.S. history, preaching propaganda, or confusing his success with the reality of the country.

But the claim of one United States is an ideology, designed to conceal the drastic inequality resulting from the failures of basic U.S. institutions. The U.S. ranks 17th in the level of poverty among industrial countries; 38th in the quality of healthcare worldwide and 44th in infant mortality. As this reality becomes evident there is a rise in fear, uncertainty and doubt. This produces moral panic. Insecure and fearful people are trying to attribute blame for the increasing lack of security in their own identity, sexuality, family, employment, political affiliation, or national condition to the moral failings of others who are alleged to threaten the stability and order of the country.

Moral panics have deep roots in the United States, beginning with the Puritans, who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1620-1640). Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, argued that democracy was intertwined with Puritanism.

Today, a Puritan is a person who claims a better, “purer” moral standard than what is common. Such people consider themselves the moral guardians of tradition. It is a form of fundamentalism, which in its religious context is as common to Christianity as to Islam. What appears as “hyper-partisanship” is rooted in the American puritan tradition and woven into the grain of American democracy. The structure of federalism, of checks and balances, is predicated on the fear of excessive power and factions. From the Salem Witch Hunt to McCarthyism and the “War on Terrorism”, the U.S. has always been pregnant with a profound disregard for and distrust of “The Other”, whether Black, Muslim, Jew, Chinese or gay and lesbian.

Moral panics are about the desperation for order out of chaos. But to maintain social order, people must share common goals and be willing to cooperate with each other to reach those goals. Americans share neither. Social order in a world of globalization has been and will continue to be an impossible dream. That is because globalization is delinking people faster than it is linking them together. Even though more people have access to mobile telephones, the computer or television, they are more atomized, more distant from themselves and from human bonds. The economic, social and cultural divide is growing. This will continue as long as the existing global institutions perpetuate inequality and planetary changes that result in shortages of food, water or other resources.

The massive flooding in Pakistan may be but a precursor of global warming. One need only remember the incompetence with which the US Government responded to Katrina and the BP oil spill, to realize that most governmental institutions, from Washington to Karachi, will increasingly be unable to respond to crisis. In the meantime, moral panics will grow…

Barry Weisberg's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.