America is dead
Before you ask: Yes, I’ve read a history book or two. I’m well aware that the United State of America has been through hard times — harder times than we’re going through now, even. Like most straight white guys my age, yes, I “had a thing” for the Civil War, and yes, I used to root for the underdog before I eventually wised up and realized it’s a good thing, actually, that agrarian slave states were and remain underdogs to (comparatively) free, industrialized people. Oh, and yes, I also watched Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War and read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, so, even though my parents were still in elementary school during 1968, I’m well aware things got a little heated back then (not just in the United States, either — The Lost World of Communism’s episode on Czechoslovakia includes several touching stories about the Prague Spring and its fallout).
When I say America is dead, I don’t mean the Taliban’s defeat of our multigenerational occupation of Afghanistan or a guy parking a $75,000 truck in front of the Library of Congress will lead to the imminent collapse of the United States of America (and yes, let’s talk about the economic anxiety a man must feel when he has enough disposable cash to buy a couple hundred dollars of explosives, a wad of cash to throw at people, and the 25 gallons of gas needed to drive a Chevrolet Silverado 2,500 miles from North Carolina to Washington D.C.). This isn’t the Soviet Union, where its constituent republics each had thousands of years of pre-Soviet history to rebuild identities upon and revert to. As for the British, who invented the whole “graveyard of empires” narrative in the first place, they first invaded Kabul in 1840 — I’m going to go out on a limb and assume fighting two world wars and the British Empire’s economically crippling naval spending in the early 20th century had a bit more to do with instigating the eventual partition of India and the subsequent collapse of the remainder of the empire.
No, I mean it the way Frederich Nietzsche meant God is “dead” — not that the United States of America is somehow destroyed, but that the concept of “America,” like the concept of “God” in Nietzsche’s time, no longer provides mutual understanding nor the basis of a shared identity and set of values.
By Nietzsche’s time, it was clearly impossible to derive some sort of common sense of right and wrong based on mutual understandings of religious teachings. It was much easier for being “God-fearing” to lead to specific moral behaviors and understandings when most Western Europeans at least pretended to care about what the pope thought. After the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, however, all bets were off — it became much harder, for example, to debate about whether states and rulers enjoy “divine sanction” once people refused to reliably believe in the divine. Even among contemporary proponents of Christianity, unpacking the notion of “divine sanction” required common understandings of the divine and heavenly authority which ceased to exist well before Nietzsche started writing oft-misunderstood philosophy in the mid-19th century.
As for the concept of “America,” it’s admittedly always been a little dicey.
Ku Stevens, for example, recently went on a long run to retrace the footsteps of his great-grandfather, who escaped the Stewart Indian School in Carson City three times as a young boy and kept trying to return to the family and home the United States government originally kidnapped him from. Then there’s the checkered history of Utah, the Mormon pioneers who settled out there (and here, both in Genoa and Las Vegas), and their relations with both the Native Americans and other pioneers they shared space with — Nevada’s first congressional delegate, John Cradlebaugh, had sharp words for our neighbors to the east following his investigation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Oh, and let’s not forget the time the International Workers of the World tried to turn Goldfield into a syndicalist-socialist state — an effort which led to the dispatch of federal troops and the eventual creation of the Nevada State Police (the forerunner to the Highway Patrol). Or the “hordes” of Chinese in Tuscarora (the town’s historical marker was eventually replaced), the razing of Reno’s Chinatown, or the replacement of Carson City’s Chinatown with a state employee parking lot.
It’s undeniably true that, even if we focus solely on the history of the seventh-largest state of America, the concepts of “America” and “being American” weren’t always unifying — just ask former Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran, who never met a Jew he liked, an anti-immigration measure he wouldn’t vote for, and provided the political capital necessary for a junior senator from Wisconsin to turn McCarthyism into a national phenomenon. For all of our nation’s sins, however, including those committed by the past and present citizens of this very state, we at least tried to tell ourselves (and each other) that we were all in this together, that being an American carried with it a fuzzily defined set of mutual values and obligations which we periodically remembered to hold each other to.
Nowadays, we live in a country where Elko — Elko! — school board members are resigning en masse (only two of the district’s seven trustees remain) and are lawyering up to better manage the amount of harassment and hate directed at them and their families. This followed the resignation of two of Washoe County School District’s trustees a few months ago — the same school district, by the way, where a COVID-19 positive parent made national news by intentionally sending a COVID-19 positive child to school — including one now-former trustee who was nearly driven to suicide from the vitriol he experienced while he was serving on the board.
We live in a country where Orlando will run out of fresh water before Las Vegas does — not because Florida has suddenly turned into the Sahara, but because Florida has enough liquid oxygen to purify their water supply or enough to treat COVID-19 victims, but not both.
We live in a country where the likely Republican nominee for Senate for the seventh-largest state in the country will be a man who just recently acknowledged Joe Biden is our president but is still unsure if Joe Biden won Nevada (Republicans haven’t won Nevada’s electoral votes in 17 years), a man whose first campaign video of the season claims every institution in this country will violently prevent his family from watching all nine Star Wars movies a third time unless he’s elected, a man whose profile in courage as an attorney general was his attempt to vote “present” during the pardoning of Fred Steese — unless the Republicans nominate someone even nuttier than Adam Laxalt.
We live in a country where the people who won’t receive an “experimental” vaccine are the same ones who will exhaust their neighborhood feed store’s inventory of ivermectin, a livestock dewormer, poisoning themselves in the process, because, gosh darn it, those snarky, know-it-all liberals at the FDA are just too insufferable or something.
We live in a country where right-wing news sources try to demonstrate their superior fealty to Donald Trump, the Avignon-on-Boca Raton anti-president, by letting the camera roll while his fans describe him as the 19th president (he was, past tense, the 45th president).
We live in a country where rural county commissioners claim our state’s First Lady, a native of Ely (unlike her husband, our governor, who was born in Wisconsin), is profiting from mask and medical equipment sales because, well, she’s “Chinese”. What proof was there of this allegation, you might ask? Well, Commissioner Donna Cox had a picture of the governor and his wife and… just look at the picture. What more needs to be said?
This would all be less serious if more mainstream conservative news outlets weren’t telling their readers that the Taliban won in Afghanistan because their beliefs align more closely with the American white middle class, if they weren’t telling their viewers the Taliban’s successes personified the Afghan rejection of neoliberal gender studies classes, and if Donald Trump’s former political adviser wasn’t claiming the fall of Afghanistan and the subsequent acceptance of Afghan refugees was the next step towards white replacement. It would be less serious if an election official in Colorado didn’t steal voter data and deliver it to a so-called “Cyber Symposium” hosted by an electronic pillow salesman.
I’m an atheist, but I’m not a nihilist. When I see our society’s institutions torn apart because diametrically opposed populations no longer share a common reality and can’t agree on whether empathy is a normal, desirable part of the human condition or a sin, can’t agree on who the President of the United States is, and can’t even agree on how many presidents the United States has had — I see nihilism. I see despair.
Maybe vaccine mandates work. Maybe they don’t. Maybe mask mandates work. Maybe they don’t. Data and democracy can eventually settle those policy debates, given enough time to weigh the benefits of each policy and the costs incurred by adopting them.
No voluntary form of governance, however, can exist in a world where some people share one vision of reality and other people share another. If I think I’m driving on the right side of the road but you think your right is on the left, we will collide and likely die. If I think vaccines work (and I do) but you think vaccines are giant vials full of fetal cells marinated in autism-causing mercury, sooner or later, you’re going to inject me with saline instead of my vaccine, then use my illness or death from a preventable disease to “prove” vaccines “don’t work.”
Democracy won’t make you drive on the correct side of the road. Data won’t prevent you from sabotaging my personal health. The idea that Americans share common beliefs won’t prevent us both from assuming each of us wants the other dead — because each of our realities are a direct physical threat to the other.
The one saving grace in all of this — the only saving grace in all of this, perhaps — is there is one institution left, one source of truth left, one authority left which we all still respect: The dollar. Maybe QAnon and Caesars disagree about politics, maybe they disagree about fundamental notions of reality, but if they didn’t both agree that dollars are worth exchanging goods and services for, there’d be one less convention in Las Vegas this year.
Say what you will about the tenets of money-centered materialism, but at least it’s an ethos.
David Colborne was active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he blogged intermittently on his personal blog, ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate, and served on the Executive Committee for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered non-partisan voter, and the father of two sons. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].