The man looked into the mirror and saw staring back at him a handsome, youthful gentleman with flowing black hair, flawless skin, broad shoulders, and washboard abs. This was notable, especially in light of the fact that the man was way past his prime, graying and balding, with liver spots, toothpick arms and legs and a belly that almost reached his knees. Still, his image of himself continued to favorably embellish what his eyes saw in the mirror, and he smiled to himself, satisfied.
Is this scene a metaphor for the United States? It would seem so. True, there are individual moments of courage, confidence, or insight. There are even times when communities temporarily behave as though the stated ideals of the country were, indeed, how we conduct our lives. Everyone can name an example or two of people or small groups personifying our lofty ideals (or even our less lofty goals of relative fairness or equitable treatment of others.) These represent our image of ourselves—the way we prefer to see ourselves in the mirror—handsome, youthful, capable, caring, and wise. Yet is that how we really are? Is that how we appear to others?
From what I've been able to see, just how "handsome" the nation appears depends quite a bit on how well, how long, and in how many places you look. Some of us are in serious and complete denial. Others know how we really look, but get furious if anyone dares to speak the truth to us. Still others recognize that we are not what we once hoped to aspire to, but prefer to see our "potential," and focus on what we "could be," rather than what we are. Understandable? Sure. Helpful? Probably not.
Collectively we're acting as though we are "past our prime," "arthritic," fearful of the future, and more interested in "reliving past glories" than looking bravely into the future with purpose. While some are trying to forge a strong future in a changing global environment, other are trying their hardest to drag the nation back to the 1940's or before. We all know (or should) that democracy is usually a messy, rather inefficient process. We have long ago accepted that characteristic of our form of government. Lately, however, we have seemed paralyzed, whether with fear or indecision, it matters not. Like an old man suddenly deprived of his walker, we teeter on unsure legs, fearful on walking into the future, but mostly unwilling to sit back down and give up.
The world is not waiting. Time is not waiting. With the US taking the role of the sleeping hare, the rest of the world, even encumbered by a tortoise shell, plods steadily past us. China and Germany surge ahead with green technology and research. We fall further and further behind in educational prowess. In the Midwest, where I write this, people still think of Africa as a backward continent with backward people and backward technology, yet many young Africans are increasingly urban and in some places most every child either has a computer themselves or has ready access to one. Many young Africans could "mop the floor" with the vast majority of students in the United States scholastically, yet the image of the United States educational superiority persists. That dang mirror again.
In 2008, I thought we could get past our myopia and senseless narcissism and clearly assess our position in the world while outlining a path to secure our future. Now I'm not so sure. While we argue and fight over minutia, or try to undermine our bill of rights for fear of one group or another "losing power," the rest of the world steps boldly into the future. While the "Arab Spring" reaffirms human rights and democracy in their own region, we curtail and squash democratically elected officials in Michigan, take away collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio, racially profile in Arizona and Alabama, and re-establish new versions of poll taxes and literacy tests that increase voter registrations and voting restrictions.
Indeed, I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Star Trek. Seven of Nine, a Borg/Human hybrid, is talking to Commander Chakotay about human wavering and indecision after reaching an agreement with Captain Janeway (Chakotay's C.O.) which the Commander now wants to abandon.
She says, "When your captain first approached us we suspected that an agreement with humans would prove impossible to maintain. You are erratic, conflicted, disorganized. Every decision is debated, every action questioned. Every individual entitled to their own small opinion. You lack harmony, cohesion, greatness. It will be your undoing."
It is also one of our strengths, but that doesn't mean the Seven of Nine was (or will be) wrong. We do need to debate and question, but we also need to act, and act together if we are to compete with the other nations of the world, or indeed, to prosper.