It was the late 60’s. It was a time of strife, a time of the civil rights and anti-war movements, a time that tore at the fabric of American society, raising conflict between patriotism and moral indignation, racism and rights, older and younger generations; it was a time of turbulence.
In such an environment a bunch of us CCNY college kids embarked on an adventure that in looking back bordered on insanity. One summer we took off in seriously challenged cars, with little resources, on a journey across America. There was no real plan accept a general route to go South, then Northwest, then Southwest, then North again along the Pacific coast, and then East toward home. This caravan of young devil-may-care wanders sometimes split up, often got lost, but always kept the faith that this journey was the right path, the way to better know our country. We were city kids who knew nothing beyond our home, but we had a desire to understand a country that in many ways baffled us.
Some nearly four months and 15,000 miles later we definitely had different perspectives, but perhaps were even more baffled than before. How, we wondered, was this country held together? The diversity, complexity and sometimes contradictions of such a huge place seemed as if we had passed through different countries. However, through it all we also felt a commonality with everyone we met, seldom experiencing hostility of any kind.
Looking at all the polarization, conflict and violence in the country today, I would not now take that journey again. The bridges that would not burn then are now destroyed as the country devolves into one cataclysmic event after another, a dystopia so prevalent that I don’t know if I could find that America of my youth again. The strife for civil rights, a movement so established as non-violent, principled in liberty and equality before the law by people like Martin Luther King Jr., has been replaced with demagogues calling for the violence plaguing many cities and towns across the country, met by various white supremacists just waiting for an excuse to exacerbate the situation in to even more hate and violence.
Maybe it’s the maturation into family and parenthood, but I suspect that even if I was not blessed with any of that, I wouldn’t do it again. It’s not the lack of a sense of adventure as that has thankfully never left me. In recent years past my wife and I would travel to Europe, rent a car and found the best way to get to know another country is to get lost in it.
Rather it’s a sense of loss that the America I knew in my youth is gone, and likely will not be coming back anytime soon. It’s not just that things have changed that disturbs me, but that people seem lost. I hear complaints from my generation that millennials have no sense of purpose, just entitlement. But these are our children who we sent to universities, exploding the higher education population exponentially, but we never bothered to understand that we created institutions that provided the corrosive misconceptions that led to a state of delusion, negativity and hostility. Understanding that helps explain what Mark Twain meant when he said “I was educated once; it took me years to get over it.”
While there are many elements to the devolution of American society, its roots are as old as the nation itself. That the Founders began without living up to the very principles they espoused was evident in the existence of slavery, a delusion that would inevitably cause a bloody Civil War and social conflict to this day. The miseducation that racism is just if in the interest of a greater good it is a means to equality is also a delusion, a denial that evil regardless of intent is still evil.
The belief that economics is a tool and not a natural phenomenon of human society creates the delusion that equality of means can be achieved through coercion, a misconception that capitalism is a cause as opposed to a result. As Milton Friedman once explained “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”
There are other elements in the educational paradigm that have created in much of our society misconceptions of what liberty is, and a rejection of the humanism from which it arises. To believe in liberty is to believe that every individual has the right to pursue their own interests, even if you find those interests to be contrary to your own, or even to someone else’s interests. It is the freedom to even make your own mistakes as long as you accept the consequences.
This is what has changed from the America of my youth. But even more that just these misconceptions perhaps is the attitude that those that disagree with these delusions do not have in fact the right to do so. Gone is the spirit that you can disagree with what someone says, but defend their right to say it. This loss of belief in liberty was recently expressed well in a statement by the American economist Thomas Sowell on a recent tweet:
“Too many people today act as if no one can honestly disagree with them. If you have a difference of opinion with them, you are considered to be not merely in error, but in sin. You are a racists, a homophobe or whatever the villain of the day happens to be.”
Perhaps this is the main cause of our societal ills, the willingness to demonize, dismiss, and cancel someone because you feel threatened by something they represent or say. This polarization of Americans into competing camps of right-think, and the delusion that they have the right to use coercion to establish the dominance of their beliefs, either through violence such as what we see on the streets of our cities, or by political will through what we call democracy in voting politicians to power to legislate for your positons or against those of others, is the essence of anarchy and authoritarianism.
This growth of statism is a symptom of a society in trouble of losing its civility and sense of good will to its citizens, and yet it’s odd that you hear the opposite from those that propose that the state can be the solution. The late Murray Rothbard expressed this best when he said “Irony is a statist calling an anarchist a threat to society.”
What Americans need to do is take a big time out, readily doable in a pandemic, and get to a quiet place of mind and think about a positive approach to life, devoid of fear and its companion hate, to understand that the pursuit of happiness is a right, not a guarantee and never a justification to impose your beliefs on your fellow man. Perhaps then we can find America.