We may be the world’s oldest operating democracy, but in comparison to many other countries, we’re definitely on the younger side — smack dab in the middle of our adolescence, maybe.
Certainly, that’s how we’re acting, body hair, hormones, cracking vocal cords and wet dreams notwithstanding. We’re rebellious, self-centered, impulsive, and heedless of our elders.
Yeah, a teenage country, no doubt. Trouble is, it’s a dangerous age to be during such a dangerous age. The Age of Absurdity at the age of absurdity? Not good.
It’s like when America was packing to move into the new millennium, it seemed to have only included, as any teenager might, its brand new-to-society cellphone, maybe a toothbrush and a bag of Doritos. It spent the five previous decades, ever since its glorious victory in World War II, busting societal norms and shattering long-held values but without replacing them.
Why bother? Like a rich, arrogant scion high on the designer drugs of technology and capitalism, America was way too busy practicing excess to worry about, as the song says, Domani.
There were no parental restraints, of course. Having been born from the unholy coupling of semi-enlightened white privilege with the basest example of human depravity, slavery, “restraint” was not held in high regard.
The “privilege” part having discovered, thanks to John Locke, the most revolutionary concept in human development, that all [humans] are created equal — unfortunately, applied that transformative idea to itself alone and built a nation on the backs of slaves to perpetuate it.
The seeds of madness were sown. However misapplied, that extraordinary notion of “equality for all” was so powerful that it would fuel the hearts and minds of countless humans “yearning to be free” so they and, it seemed the Creator itself, conferred on this young nation (like the good fairies gifting the infant princess in Sleeping Beauty) all manner of blessings: power, beauty, riches, resources, respect, talents, honor and of course, the storied reputation of being “exceptional.”
So, where was I? Oh, right. A callow teen-aged nation ready to cross over into the uncharted territory of the 21st Century. It’s not surprising that we were so ill-prepared. I realize I’m being annoyingly allegorical here, but if you can allow for the notion of an adolescent America, then you might further consider why we were so unprepared. It has partly to do with the adolescent brain — individual or collective, maybe — and development of the prefrontal cortex.
According to a 2009 article in the NIH National Library of Medicine Journal, “Adolescent Maturity and the Brain,” by Sara B. Johnson, Ph.D., Robert W. Blum, M.D. and Jay N. Giedd, M.D.:
“The prefrontal cortex coordinates higher-order cognitive processes and executive functioning … cognitive skills needed for goal-directed behavior, including planning, response inhibition, working memory, and attention … These skills allow an individual to pause long enough to take stock of a situation, assess his or her options, plan a course of action, and execute it. Poor executive functioning leads to difficulty with planning, attention, using feedback, and mental inflexibility, all of which could undermine judgment and decision making.”
Sounds like teenage America, all right. Reckless, arrogant, and entitled, rushing headlong into 2000, seeking the next techo-fix and whatever else money could buy. Even when we crashed into the tragic speed bump of 9/11, we didn’t learn much. We certainly didn’t slow down.
Like a trust-fund baby squandering its inheritance, we are still taking for granted the “pearl beyond price” that made us exceptional in the first place: Equality.
America has issued from such an irreconcilable coupling, that, like many a dysfunctional family, it’s no surprise that an elephant seems permanently installed in the national living room (though why has such an intelligent, empathetic animal come to symbolize unacknowledged family dysfunction?). Sadly, in America’s case there seems to be two pachyderms in attendance: Inequality and Hypocrisy. They’ve been in residence a long time.
Clearly, the wages of inattention paid them have manifested, whether it’s red-sky pollution from Canadian wildfires, the loss of bodily autonomy, voter suppression, the banning of literature, some schools being ordered to bleach out the stain of slavery from American history or, for the past three years, the “Big Lie” ravaging it, our precious problem child, America, so full of both promise and pain, is faced with a dire existential identity crisis. No person, family, community, or nation can live a lie indefinitely. America has got to choose what it wants to be if it grows up, and it’s got to grow up fast.
Like drops of water are microcosms of the whole ocean, we, each one of us, young and old, is America, and it’s our living room, our elephants, our identity crisis, our choice.
When you look in your mirror, what America do you see?