In my essays about American collapse, there’s a single, simple, underlying point. Americans — just average ones, not Jeff Bezos, teachers, truck drivers, accountants — should live richer, happier, healthier, saner lives than they do. By a long, long ways. They shouldn’t be living at the perpetual edge of ruin — which, inevitably, is turning many of them, enraged, against democracy itself.
Yet, by now, whenever I make this point, a chorus arises here and there to tell me how much I must “hate America” (and therefore, what a terrible person I am). It’s funny, because it’s perfectly understandable. Nobody wants to entertain the idea their society is failing. And yet.
LOL — my friends, if suggesting Americans should have better lives is what it means to hate America, then perhaps you are the ones who are confused, not me. Don’t you think that’s backwards? I do. Shouldn’t we all want that? (It’s in these kinds of precise ways I mean that America is becoming a backwards place — things have come to mean their polar opposites now, but I digress.) So let’s begin with one of the most funny and strange myths of all.
If you criticize America, that means you hate America — and Americans!! Does it? I think my essays present many of you with a strange paradox. I’m someone who wants better lives for Americans — but is also quite critical, sometimes unsparingly so, of America. But how could it ever be any other way? You see how badly American thinking has failed, in just that one sentence. If we are to ever suggest Americans should be doing better, then we must be critical of America too, and examine why it hasn’t flourished and developed. And that means, as I often do, suggesting that various forms of folly, woven deep into the fabric of everyday life, are the reason that things have not worked out for Americans. And this myth — that the moment we are critical of America, then we must hate Americans, and therefore, people who are critical of America are not to be trusted — is the most foolish of all, because it makes progress more or less impossible. Then we go on believing people who aren’t critical of America, and imagine only those kinds of people want the best for us — but both those things can’t ever be true.
So let me outline six more myths I keep hearing, here and elsewhere — things that can’t be true. Either these strange and foolish myths can be true, or America can be where it is — but you can’t have both.
Americans are the most virtuous people of all!! (Because they give the most to charity, go to church the most, and so on.) This myth is the strangest one of all — it’s exceptionalism, in moral form. But is it true? Wait — wasn’t America segregated until 1971? So how could this myth ever have been true? But let’s ignore that. America does have a high rate of charitable giving — but that is because contributions are tax deductible, and the ultra-rich use them as a way to shield themselves from taxes. America’s charity rate is a reflection — and a cause — of inequality, not proof of virtue. How could it be? The average American is broke — living paycheck to paycheck — and so while he might eke out a few dollars for charity, he can hardly afford it at any socially transformative level.
But the principle is what I want you to see: to say people who are so rich they simply don’t exist in other societies give outsized charity to avoid taxes therefore we are all virtuous is not a good way to think about society. It only allows us to reinforce the central American problem — people do not want to support each other via a genuine social contract, public goods, and the “taxes” — the social investments — they necessarily entail. (Also, being religious is not a very good proxy for being nice people. Have you looked at, say, the Spanish Inquisition? Iran and Saudi Arabia are pious societies, too. Does that mean it makes them more humane ones? Hardly.)
So let’s use better observations. If Americans are especially virtuous people…why do they let each other die without insulin and make their kids do “active shooter drills”? Why don’t they invest in mothers having childcare and elderly people retiring in peace and students being educated without life-crushing debt? I’m not saying Americans can’t be virtuous people, or that they’re especially bad people. What I am saying is that the idea that Americans are historically special, especially and triumphantly noble people, better than the rest, all the other nations, is just that, a myth. It is a form of hubris which blinds us to the fact that a refusal to act in, or even believe that there is a public good, a common wealth, has impoverished America of all the forms of it. Virtue is a thing which results in the public good — and yet America has no public goods, from healthcare to retirement to childcare to elderly care. So how can it be made of noble, virtuous, fraternal, equals? Do you see my point? “Virtue” and “the public good” are not just abstractions for philosophers to debate, my friends — they are razor-sharp sociopolitical realities, which in America, are missing.
Virtue leads to the public good. Therefore, the deficit of the public good, of public goods, tell us in no unsparing terms that Americans are not especially virtuous, in any way we might wish to think about it: compassionate, humble, kind, true, couragous, loyal, honest and so on. I’m sorry to say it. Instead, probably, I think, they are traumatized, shattered, and paralyzed, by the unsparing horror of living in a failed capitalist state. Americans are constantly being relentlessly exploited by capitalism — and it’s hard to be especially virtuous when you are busy being traumatized. Now, you can “hate” me for pointing that out — or you can think: “wait, why don’t more people discuss this point?” Not wanting to understand the above doesn’t make it an iota less true, and therefore I don’t say it to “insult” you, but to illuminate it. If you want to improve society (instead of just hate), then, well, this failure of the public good to ever really emerge, which points to a deficit in virtue, too, is a deep, profound, corrosive moral, social, and cultural conundrum which must be resolved.
Americans aren’t self-interested egomaniacs, self-interest has made them excel. Really? What does America excel at? Germans make the best cars, Britain the best media, France the best food, Italy the best design, and so on. America doesn’t make the best stuff — it doesn’t make stuff anymore at all, really. But that’s just on the level of material consumption, of capitalism. It’s Europe that’s investing the most in tomorrow’s great scientific research — from clean energy to life extension to quantum physics. In America, these things are mostly left to billionaires to fund, and so Americans have Tesla and weird startups that let people buy teenagers’ blood — but Europeans have cleaner energy grids and advanced public healthcare. You can try to name a single thing America really excels at now, but you will fail — why else would America be in so much debt, turning back to isolationism, seeking a sense of “greatness” by demonizing and vilifying little Mexican children?
“Excellence”, really, is a moral proposition: to excel is to do something that genuinely benefits others, better than others. That is what virtue meant to the Greeks, who invented it in the Western sense. But it’s self-evident this kind of virtue doesn’t exist much in America anymore, because nobody’s life is getting better, it’s only getting worse. If Americans “excelled”, then people’s lives wouldn’t be falling apart. Instead, they’ve been taught that being the sharpest-toothed predator, like the hedge fund manager, or the private equity baron, is what is right — but that is not what excellence is at all, in the classical sense of moral virtue. Yet such are the wages of capitalism. America, sadly, replaced excellence — which is about transcending one’s self-interest — with winning a predatory capitalist competition, which is what self-interest leads to. Being a better, hungrier, cleverer predator, my friends, is not what excellence is, but it’s negation, absence, and opposite.
America is full of people trying to do the right thing!! Maybe it is. Hasn’t it always been? And yet, over and over again, those people seem to lose, against the opposite kind. Why is that? In my last essay, I discussed a scene of street surgery that happened just down the block from me here in Europe. Someone said, angrily: “America has paramedics too!!” Sure it does — so does Pakistan. So what? Neither one has the systems and institutions do something like street surgery — a great innovation, a complex dance of public goods working together. Let me make the point clearer. There are many Americans who try do the right thing. But it’s at the point of genuine systemic and institutional change that they all too often stop. And yet without change at that scale, people never have the freedom, power, or resources to actually do the right thing — as a matter of incentives, of duty, of obligation — they only go on trying to want to do it. Hence, America stays in this vicious spiral of people who want to do the right thing, but are prevented from just that by its institutions, laws, codes, rules, and norms. Until Americans challenge things at that level, little is likely to change. Trying to do the right thing is not a substitute for wanting and building and investing in a society in which the right thing to do is also the normal, correct, everyday, not to mention, rewarded thing. One is romantic individualism, the other is social transformation.
America isn’t collapsing!!! It’s not the Walking Dead out there!! What does collapse mean to you, exactly? The Purge? The Rapture? American culture has always been curiously full of apocalyptism, and that tendency has only grown as America declined, and then collapsed. Why? Because imagining that “things could be worse!” makes us feel better. Phew! Sweet relief. But the facts speak for themselves. Life expectancy is falling, the vast majority of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, they can’t raise $1000 for an emergency, mass shootings are a regular event of daily life, people have to crowdfund basic medicine, suicides are skyrocketing. I could go on. If your bar for collapse is Mad Max meets the Strain, then, sure, America hasn’t collapsed yet…to that point. But it has collapsed in three key ways, which are the real, genuine and true kinds — not the stuff of science fiction endtimes. As a rich society — most Americans don’t live in one anymore. As a democracy — it doesn’t really represent people accurately anymore. And as a society — Americans have no social contract, really, that unites them, as we’ve discussed — because virtue has not culminated in the public good . In those three ways, collapse is as real and lethal as climate change. You can disagree with me, sure — but reality doesn’t care about what I think, or you think. It laughs at we “think”, and goes on being what it is.
Americans love freedom!! You just don’t get us!! Do they? Let me give you an example. In London, people can go to the NHS — or a private doctor. They can watch the BBC’s many channels — or Fox News and the Discovery Channel. Wouldn’t you say that they’re freer? Even according to the American definition of freedom — choice — it’s true to say people in social democracies are vastly freer, because they can choose between capitalist and socialist institutions, goods, services, and that’s better for everyone — not because I say so, but because they live objectively better lives, in nearly every way. American don’t love freedom — they love capitalism. They equate the two, but the two are not equivalent. That is why they restrict their choices to capitalism, over and over again. Yet capitalism will never really give you much freedom — that is what America’s sad story tells us: it will give you subsistence wages, with which to buy things who price rises, and quality falls, every year, usually, so your life gets harder. Freedom is a much more sophisticated thing than Americans have been told — and until they think about what it really is, they will remain prisoners of an impoverished notion of it.
(We can’t compare America to any other country! Especially not strange, dangerous like Scandinavia or France! We can’t? Why not? How else do you suppose that nations make progress — if not by learning from one another? Americans have been told that other place are “homogeneous”, so America can’t be compared to them — but “homogeneity” is not the reason they are successful societies. There are many more “homogeneous” societies which are failures than successes, just look at Asia and Africa — so homogeneity can’t be why some societies succeed, self-evidently. This myth is exceptionalism, only in a negative form — no comparison is possible. But it is comparative analysis which teaches us the most, when it comes to political economy. Have you ever wondered why you don’t know (probably) how exactly the French retirement system works? How the British healthcare system works? How the Swiss government works? Americans still haven’t learned this stuff because no one teaches it to them — and no one teaches it to them because the myth of exceptionalism says there’s no reason to learn it. But there is: if we can’t understand what makes societies successful, how are we ever to be one?)
Just go away!! We don’t need to listen to people who are critical of America! They’ll never help us!! Listen. I don’t write about American collapse to persuade or convince you of anything. That is a job for pundits and talking heads. I am just an observer, and I share what I see. I am totally powerless to change anything about America whatsoever, so you don’t have to be threatened by me in any way.
Now, I’m not an impartial observer, that’s true. My observations are colored by having lived all over the world, in poor countries, in failed states, in social democracies — and studying economics, politics, and psychology outside America, too. That matters, because when you only study the American versions of these things, you end up in a one-dimensional place. Haven’t you ever wondered why American economists will never say: “hey, maybe we should have public healthcare?” It’s a narrow, small place, like a little closet. In which nothing, really, is possible. You end up believing the age-old myths, all over again, in the way that American economics is just the study of capitalism, or American psychology is basically behaviourism. Outside America, though, life, people, and especially thinking, are much bigger than this. Many things are possible. Life, ideas, thoughts, aren’t as constricted and narrow —”we can only ever be what we’ve always been! Capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy forever!! “— and that sense, that zone, of freedom is what I try to impart.
So I think that in a sense, you are fortunate to have me as an observer — even the partial one that I surely am, even as horrible and clumsy and foolish as my words often are. Not because I am especially smart or nice or intelligent and so on, LOL — I’m not. I’m just another guy. Because America doesn’t have enough people who have different perspectives to begin with — not just “different beliefs”, but genuinely differing experiences, that possibility itself, what societies, people, ideas can be is very, very different in places that aren’t America. There are not many people in America who observe it in that way, which is the way that I do — because not many have a lens that isn’t just made of the same old American myths. Mostly, American commentary is made by people who’ve only ever lived, studied, worked, played in America. I haven’t — and so you are right that my perspective is going to be very different than, say, Tucker Carlson’s or Jake Tapper’s. I’m not that guy. I’m someone who couldn’t be more different. But do you think either of them really understands much about the world outside America’s borders? Or wants to?
One of the truest things I’ve learned, I think, watching some societies succeed, and others fail, is that that a society in trouble, like a person, is best served by listening to its critics — not to its sycophants, flatterers, and enablers. That was true for a collapsing Soviet Union, a Weimar Germany, a fascist Argentina — and it’s just as true today for a collapsing America. That principle — that it’s especially when things begin to crumble around us, we must understand that the house of prosperity didn’t rise, but how and why fissures in it turned into cracks (which is the idea of the word “criticism”, which originally meant “to judge”) — is always true. And it’s hard. I don’t blame many of you for getting angry at me. It’s precisely at the moment things are collapsing that we have a tendency to grasp and cling desperately onto the whatever shreds of the past that we can. And yet that is precisely when we must let them go, if we don’t wish to tumble into the abyss with them.
You can’t really unpick myths very well from the inside. When you’re in the labyrinth, you must slay the Minotaur. When you have stepped outside it, only then do you understand the meaning of the myth. And that is all I am trying to share with you, really.
The slides are drawn from the 4,637 specimens amassed by the prolific wood collector Archie F. Wilson (1903–1960) — the largest private collection of arboreal specimens from around the world, donated to the museum’s already formidable wood collection a year after Wilson’s death.
Wilson, who served as a research associate at the Chicago Museum of Natural History and went on to preside over the International Wood Collectors Society, cut his samples into meticulously sanded 7×3-inch blocks. Each slide presents a thin slice from one of the blocks, stained to reveal specific microscopic features of its structure.
Beyond their aesthetic rapture, these specimens have taken on a wonderfully hope-giving new role in advancing science and the law. Half a century after Wilson’s death, they have become part of a vast database documenting the chemical fingerprints of wood, known as the Forensic Spectra of Trees — or, because scientists do delight in acronymic puns, ForeST. Much like artist Ryota Kajita’s stunning photomicroscopy of Alaskan ice formation are being used to understand climate change, scientists are using Wilson’s samples for vital wood identification, not only in advancing botany, but in combatting the worldwide epidemic of illegal logging and timber trafficking, which has swelled to about a third of the world’s wood trade — ecologically exploitive contraband estimated to be costing the global economy up to $152 billion per year, with unfathomed environmental costs as entire ecosystems are being decimated. (Trees, lest we forget, are the relational infrastructure of the living world.)
In Brazil, nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been savaged by illegal logging in the decades since Wilson’s death — the loss of woodland approximately equivalent to the size of California. In China, rosewood has become the blood diamond of the wood trade — a species protected under the multilateral endangered species treaty CITES, yet ruthlessly logged for the manufacture of expensive Ming and Qing dynasty furniture reproductions. A quarter of Russia’s timber exports come from illegal logging and a devastating 61% of Indonesian wood production is traded illegally.
Accompanying the ForeST database is an advanced spectrometry instrument that showers the wood sample with heated helium atoms to instantly reveal its chemical profile, enabling customs agents and the various custodians of environmental policy to perform simple, cheap, noninvasive wood analysis that identifies illegally traded species and helps prevent these losses of tree life that take generations to recover.
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Vox has updated their video on how US politicians talked about climate change over the past 12 years. Until recently, climate change was more or less a bipartisan issue. Democrats and Republicans alike publicly acknowledged that climate change was happening, that humans were at least partially responsible, and that we needed to do something about it. Perhaps Republicans were a little less sincere in their desire for action and all politicians were not as urgent in their response as the situation required, but at a minimum, they all believed what scientists were saying.
Then, as this video shows, after the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the Republican victories in the 2010 midterms, things shifted. Republicans increasingly came out saying, well, the science isn’t settled on this, we don’t know what is causing climate change, so we’re not going to do anything about it. They did this in part because their big political donors wanted them to.
Those divisions did not happen by themselves. Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries (which can process 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day) as well as a subsidiary that owns or operates 4,000 miles of pipelines that move crude oil.
Government rules intended to slow climate change are “making people’s lives worse rather than better,” Charles Koch explained in a rare interview last year with Fortune, arguing that despite the costs, these efforts would make “very little difference in the future on what the temperature or the weather will be.”
I posted about the first installment of this video last year and watching it again hit me about as hard as it did the first time around. The amount of cynicism and lack of integrity & sense of duty here is staggering. What tiny tiny minds. [Insert a lot of swearing about Republicans here that I will get email about so I’ll just save us all some time and skip it. But seriously, fuck these assholes.]