A couple of weeks ago Maria, Miranda and I went to Sunday brunch with a friend of ours who was in town visiting. I was in the process of parking my car in the restaurant lot when I saw a SUV loaded with a family pulling out of the parking lot with a plate on the front of the vehicle that said "SUCKIN GAS N' HAULIN ASS." Perhaps you have seen this particular license plate at some point in the past. I've been thinking about it a lot the last couple of weeks, and after giving it some time, I can't say that my current thoughts and feelings are any different from the gut reaction I had when I saw it. What was my initial reaction? I will try to offer an explanation.
It has been said by some that pragmatism is the fundamental American Philosophy. We like to solve problems, get things done and see the tangible results of our work. Though we've helped lead the world in the development of myriad technical and other wonders, I've found myself wondering if we as Americans have ever had any guiding vision that is bigger than simply solving the next problem, overcoming the next obstacle, selling the next product or framing the latest "cause" for the rest of the world. This is a terribly broad generalization, and perhaps it is indicative only of the very recent history of our country. That is probably true. However, I do find myself wondering if the deeper truth is that this bigger picture has just taken a couple of hundred years to unfold itself in history. Perhaps we were destined from the beginning to arrive at our present location?
"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness....." that is perhaps the most succinct summary of the overall vision of our "Founding Fathers." I think that most people would say "individual freedom/liberty" was the guiding vision of America (or some variation of this). In an earlier age the idea of America being a new "Israel" is something that captured the imagination of many. The idea of "Manifest Destiny" was part of this general conceptual constellation. So, we might say that the ideas of personal freedom and self-determination are critical to America's identity. And we might add to this the general idea of "progress." And this framework fits well with our pragmatic outlook, tailored as it is to individual initiative, creativity and potency. It is easy to understand why we've helped lead the way into the "global marketplace" and why the soil of America has helped to nurture the ideas of champions of "self-determination" like Ayn Rand. We're all about people being "set free" to pursue their highest purposes and callings, and even some of the most blatant contradictions of this ideal (like slavery and discrimination) are in time turned into yet another testament to the valor and veracity of our founding vision. We've just seen the latest installment of this in the election of Obama. Perhaps this might happen some day for the Native Americans among us?
Anyone who knows me will know my own deep reservations about America's professed "role" in the world, her intensely conflicted and morally ambiguous history and the way in which these things get constantly spun by the media and politicos to their own ends. But my fundamental question is this: Is pragmatism and our general belief in progress even working at present? This brings me back to where I started: SUCKIN GAS N' HAULIN ASS. This great "free" country of ours (and I do believe that there is a lot about it that is great) is completely dependent upon foreign oil and spends more in a year "helping" to defend our right to it-and the products we buy with it-(the military budget, over $700 billion per year, not including 2 wars-Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimates total long-term costs of wars at around $3 trillion) than all but the top 10 economies in the world produce in a whole year. All this so that we can suck gas and haul ass....or maybe it is something else?
So, why harp on this license plate and get so riled up about it? Is it really that big a deal? Well, yes it is....and no it's not. It is not a big deal because in the grander scheme of things it is just a silly liecense plate (produced most likely in China and shipped here to America, thus being stunningly true to its professed ethos). But it is a big deal, I think, because of what it says about where we are in America at present. Is there any rational reason why someone would want to intentionally waste a finite and limited resource; not to mention the fact that this is a resource whose price has been rapidly rising and will continue to rise as demand increases? Perhaps it is somewhat rational if you believe that you will simply find another solution and that the process of innovation is driven forward by crisis spurred on by profligacy or some other means. This gets us back to pragmatism. But is this really what the highly polarized (n)either/(n)or debate in America is about? I don't think that it is. And even it was primarily about finding a common solution and working together to build a better future, is it working? There are many reasons to doubt this, along with some stubborn rays of hope.
When I first saw that license plate it helped to crystallize for me the reality that public discourse in America has become so divided along media-driven lines of political ideology, class affiliation and social affinity that it no longer has much to do with the facts being discussed or even the solutions being pursued; it is not even about good old fashioned American pragmatism. How could it be? The solution to a problem is not the most important thing in our time. In the best case it is about proving that you are the one who found the solution and demonstrating how the other "party" or "group" didn't. In the worst case it is simply about grabbing or maintaining power, selling your latest book or TV show and extending the media shelf-life of your persona.
So, why do we want to publicly profess (seemingly absurd) things like that inscribed on the aforementioned license plate? Well, as I've said, I think it is because we want people to know for certain that we're not like those "tree-huggers, environmental wackos, communists" or whatever tried and true moniker you want to use. And I think it is safe to say that a lot of the people who express these sentiments are also people who love to hunt, fish, farm or otherwise have some deep appreciation for nature. But because the lines of the debate (if you even could call it that) have become so deeply divided, and our differences and aversions to each other have come to so deeply define us (and the issues that surround us), we have neither real dialogue nor the solutions that might come from it. And, to be fair and forthright, why do we also sport self-contradictory (I think) bumper-stickers like "When Clinton lied no one died (except, it could be argued, the Democratic parties chances of being re-elected-and have you ever thought about how sad this is, falling to the level of highlighting a better or less harmful lie as a "selling" point-that is truly pathetic). Well, again I think it is because we've become so polarized in our viewpoints, so socially isolated from one another and so unable to think about a common future and purpose together that we've just settled on trying to make the best of the present that we still have available. And we've been helped to this end by all of the Rush's, Glenn's, Keith Olbermann's, and Rachel Maddow's of this world who become famous and often make immense fortunes out of "hardening" our differences, to borrow a phrase from Miroslav Volf (from his book "Exclusion and Embrace) and manipulating our prejudices and ignorance. Who has time to really dig in to the issues when you're simply trying to survive financially? We have highly paid professionals who can do this work for us!
My hope is that we can learn to listen to each other and learn to work together to make a better future for our children. If we cannot then they will inevitably pay the cost (social,environmental,economic, spritual) of our either/or left/right thinking and inability to hear and genuinely respect each other and work together. These words of Jesus come to mind as I think about our country, "A kingdom at war with itself will collapse (Mark 3:24)."