What Is American in 2009?

In Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward, the principal character is mesmerized and put to sleep for decades. When he awakens, the world has changed; the socialist impulses of Bellamy and his technological predictions (quite accurate, it turns out) are very much on display. Most noteworthy, individual aspirations have been converted into collective designs; wealth has spread and new forms of technology litter the landscape.

While I find myself disagreeing with much of Bellamy’s philosophical disposition, it strikes me the exercise of looking back is a useful one. Suppose for example, I was mesmerized in 1965 and awakened in 2009. How might the nation appear to a pilgrim who has been asleep for more than four decades?

For one thing, I might ask if I live in America. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s was predicated on the idea that race and ethnicity should be neither a handicap nor an asset in public life. In 2009, by contrast, Ms. Sonia Sotomayor, despite a lackluster record as a judge, is likely to be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice because of her Hispanic background and her “empathetic” experience with the poor and downtrodden.

In the 1960s, it was clear despite growing cynicism that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Our founders recognized the nexus between biblical prescriptions and political institutions. By 2009, America has become a nation that has deracinated the Judeo-Christian tradition from public life. In fact, President Obama said, the United States is one of the largest Muslim nations in the world even though roughly 3 million Muslims live in this nation of 320 million people.

In the 1960s, SDS and many anti-Vietnam supporters marched in candle light vigils to protest the war in Vietnam, but despite hardcore radicals, most Americans and certainly most legislators supported their country. By 2009 a substantial number of Americans want to see the U.S. lose a war in Iraq and be forced into an ignominious surrender in the Middle East.

In the 1960s, General Motors was the world’s largest car manufacturer and a company that stood as an example of the nation’s economic strength. In 2009, G.M. is in bankruptcy, more than 60 % of the company is owned by the government, and half of its brands have been removed from the market. Moreover, the nation’s free market — described by Europeans pejoratively as Anglo-Saxon capitalism — has now been replaced by the command economy, with Washington largely in control of the means of production. Eighty percent of American International Group is now owned by the Federal Government; 30 % of Citicorp is in the same position; federal authorities imposed a merger on the Chrysler Corporation; and, if President Obama has his way, health care, representing 17 % of the economy, will be controlled by the federal government as well.  

In 1963, American students reached the apogee on SAT tests and international exams in science and math vis-à-vis foreign competitors. By 2009, the U.S. students scored near the bottom in these international tests, notwithstanding an enormous increase in educational spending in the last four decades.

There are days when I think it would be best if I could remain asleep in 1965. The nation was somewhat innocent, as was I. Socialism was a concept mocked here and abroad, even in the Soviet Union by home-grown intellectuals. The United States was a hegemon on the world stage, often criticized, but also recognized as a world power. It was inconceivable that any president, in the presence of world leaders, would apologize for the transgressions in American foreign policy.

Race was being subordinated as a concept for employment and college admission in the sixties, despite the Jim Crow legacy of the past. God was in his heaven and much was right in the world.

Now I question whether the America of 2009 is American at all. Is this merely an aberrational moment or are we headed down a new and, in my judgment, a dangerous direction, one inconsistent with our traditions and principles?

Perhaps someone will wake me from this disturbing dream and say, "Yes, America is well and still the land of the free." But I’ve come to learn that being mesmerized can be very discomforting.