Monday, November 03, 2008

E Pluribus Unum

From many, one is America's motto, as well as a compact summary of how it has gone about shrinking a multitude of different cultural perspectives and outlooks into one - its own; the self-styled force for global development and freedom - while it effectively closes itself off to any contending mythologies from outside.

A remark by Simon Schama in The American Future caught my attention: he noted that the first settlers had made the Atlantic crossing in order to escape the stifling parochialism of the old world. He did not however go on to make the seemingly obvious further observation that the society that they helped to create has itself become one of the most stiflingly parochial in the modern world.

Of the changes that an Obama Presidency might bring, an end to American self-absorption would be one of the most welcome. On the face of it the Democrats, with their protectionist inclinations, don't much look like party to deliver it, but this is in part because they have tended to occupy a middle position between the two poles presumptously straddled by the Republicans since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

There's no better example of this unholy alliance between smart liberal economics and moronic social conservatism - America at its most enterprising, fluid and global and America at its most doggedly self-contained and rednecky - than the Faux News channel.

Obama may represent a chance to reverse the trend towards staggering inequality within the US, but what of the rest of the world? Will Americans continue to consume most of the world's resources as if they belonged to them alone?

"Only in America could a man declare that history is bunk", declared William Fowler. Yet while 'Joe the Gringo' is often justly censured for his sub-prime grasp of history, it is perhaps his persistent wrongheadedness about the future that sets him apart from the rest of us. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century Americans have sold themselves an over-optimistic view of the human future and their likely role in it. One might even say that those who have bought into this, have acted as if it were their solemn duty to free themselves from the mental constraints of time and geography that apply to every other nation on earth.

Moments of economic crisis such as this throw this aspect of the gringo outlook into even sharper relief; after all, financial bubbles - such as those provoked by railways and the Internet - are most often the consequence of a misapprehension of chronological scale: in a word, overanticipation.

In 1929 it was said that markets had been "discounting not only the future, but the hearafter", and they've been chewing up everyone's future again over the past couple of decades.

Right now citizens of the USA are reportedly more downbeat about what once looked like an ever-improving American future than they been have for many decades. And yet, as this election enters its final hours and an Obama victory seems assured, it's thought-provoking that many are finding shreds of optimism in the sensation that their lives are passing through a definingly positive moment of 'history'. Let's hope they're right....

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