Friday, December 09, 2005

Who Will Build the Roads: Passing the Buck in Culture and Politics

Everyone needs at least one mindlessly fun activity to serve as a release from the pressures we face in our lives.
One of mine is a computer simulation game known as Nation States.
The game is simple: you create a nation, then choose one of a variety of exaggerated responses to the issues you are presented with each day.
This can lead to some outright silly governments, or no government at all.
I remember discussing the game with a dear friend this summer, and mentioning that a few of my nations had virtually no governments, with no income tax.
"That game is completely unrealistic," she opined. "After all, who would build the roads?"
Who would build the roads?
That question bothered me all the next day as my mom, another close friend and I drove into Canada, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why.
Somewhere after Guelf, while I was nursing a Tim Horton's ice cappucino, it hit me.
If, God forbid, our government were to vanish tomorrow, who would build the roads?
I realized that I didn't have a ready answer.
Furthermore, I realized that most people in the United States (let alone the even more secularized nations of Western Europe) didn't either.
Thus, it was with great interest that I read a recent article by this site's own Jesse Masai (though it appeared in a different publication) on America's lack of knowledge about the rest of the world.
While I fundamentally agree with Jesse, I believe that the problem goes beyond our ignorance regarding other people, cultures and the forms of government by which they are ruled.
Americans have not just become complacent about the world, but America as well. How can we understand the rest of the world without a basic understanding of our own people, culture and government?
There was a time when Americans knew full well who would build the roads, for they did so themselves.
Say what you like about the pioneers who settled the interior of America (and the men who founded her for that matter), their personal resolve and self-reliance are beyond question.
I do not seek to romanticize our history, for Americans have certainly made our share of mistakes.
Yet, for all their faults, the men and women who built this country did not sit around wondering who would take care of things for them.
What a difference such an attitude is from the America in which I live today.
It is an America in which the people have become mere empty vessels, ready to be filled with whatever the political and cultural elites pour into them.
We are apathetic to our own politics, to the point where the majority of the population (including at least one candidate running in the recent recall election in California), cannot name the Secretary of State or the Vice-President.
To site another example, most Americans probably believe that Separation of Church and State is explicitly stated in the constitution, rather than in the context of a private letter from Thomas Jefferson to a baptist church in Danbury Connecticut.
Observers from other countries may see Americans as arrogant, self-centered and overly proud of their country, and they are right on the first two points.
But what outside observers mistake for jingoistic national pride is in reality a debauched laziness which takes the existence and position of America for granted. This culture of apathy is due largely to the ever-expanding role of our own federal government, and the widespread belief that it is eternal and will take care of all our problems.
These mistaken hypotheses lead to an attitude which takes the government for granted, so long as it keeps the free bread coming.
Another sign of national apathy is the way in which grass-roots political activism, town hall meetings and widespread popular mobilization regarding the great moral issues of our time has been replaced by lawsuits filed with the U. S. Supreme Court, the least accountable branch of the government at any level.
Do not get me wrong, you will find political minds in the States who get informed, stay informed and (to engage in just a touch of that jingoistic national pride I mentioned, if the reader will humor me), can mix it up with the best in the world.
However, even an outside observer could not help but notice the overly litigious nature of our society.
People in my country (regrettably in my opinion), seem willing to file legal action at the drop of a hat.
This trend only feeds the apathy, as voters feel there is nothing worth voting about, particularly in state and local races.
Voter apathy in turn leads to a less and less accountable government, which will gradually cease to serve the people who no longer vote it into office, seeking instead to expand its own power at any cost.
Such an expansion of power without the checks and balances provided by a functioning representative system makes corruption almost a certainty.
As happened in Rome, the Republic could all too easily fade into empire.
And as happened in Rome, our culture has lost its way.
But, you might ask, is not American culture dominant throughout the world?
A fair question.
But in my mind, and the minds of many Americans, true American culture is being replaced by pop culture.
There is quite a difference between baseball and apple pie, and Temptation Island and Joe Millionaire.
As our society slides into cheap decadence, we look for someone else to blame, or merely accept such immorality as "the way things should be".
At the heart of both of these reactions, the same monster is found lurking, a lack of personal responsibility.
We seem to believe that we can do whatever we want, and someone else (usually the government), will clean up for our mistakes.
This lack of responsibility leads us to place more and more faith in a government which will inevitably grow more and more unaccountable as a result of our apathy.
It leads us to accept things like unrestricted abortion and rampant divorce as a proper state of affairs, since they are "personal choices" and "make people happy".
After all, we want the easy out to be open for ourselves, should we ever need it.
Who will build the roads if and when the United States collapses?
I'd like to say that the American people would, but at this point, I'm not really sure.
So, why am I publishing this piece on this site, whose readership is not primarily composed of fellow Americans, and who therefore, by my own rules, are not responsible for fixing America's problems?
My reason is simple.
I hope that America may serve as a warning.
I believe, and hope, that my country may reform itself.
Indeed, I shall do all that is in my power to bring this about.
Yet, I hope that the state of affairs I have described here may help other nations escape our mistakes.
No community, let alone nation, may long stay free without a citizenry willing to take responsibility for itself and guard its freedoms jealously.
Centralized schemes will, in the end, only result in tyranny.
The people must ceaselessly, tirelessly and vigilantly hold their government accountable, and be certain that it truly represents them.
And, perhaps even more important, a nation's culture must never promote or even allow the pandemic of personal irresponsibility.
It is this disease which leads to a dependent, apathetic society, which cannot help but degenerate into bondage.


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