You went out last night for “a couple of drinks,” but you knew you were going to get drunk. You paid attention to someone who was not attractive or interesting, but you wanted to have sex. You and your newfound partner got in a car that neither one of you should have been driving, managed to avoid the police or an accident, and made it somewhere where you could copulate. That wasn’t what it is made out to be—it never is when you’re drunk—and the pleasure you managed to extract, if you were able to function at all, was minimal and forgettable.
Except circumstances won’t let you forget. After you pass out into a few hours of something that is not sleep, you wake up and there next to you is the hideous thing, name unremembered, with which you coupled. You stumble into the bathroom, drink copious amounts of water, take multiple Advils, and stare at yourself in the mirror. Suddenly, up it comes, that noxious combination of alcohol and bar food; you toss your all in the porcelain pit. And you realize it isn’t the residual beer and whiskey in your system, it’s absolute self-contempt, self-loathing, and self-abasement: your body and your barely functioning mind rendering their verdict on what you did.
Having much for which to loathe itself, America needs a painful but purgative puke, one that prompts a wholesale reexamination. Some people when they reach bottom realize that they have not only screwed up their own life, they have grievously harmed others, especially family and friends, if there are any left. Look at the mess the US has made of what it claims as its remit: the entire world. Considering itself exceptional and indispensable, it tells both friends and foes what they can and cannot do, and throws its weight around to get its way. Wars have been fought, governments subverted and deposed, bribes proffered, tyrannies succored, as a small coterie, drunk on power, tries to order the world as they see fit.
The arrogant always see themselves as exceptions to the rules they insist everyone else follow. To paraphrase Napoleon, the graveyards of history are filled with indispensable nations. A string of bloody, costly, and counterproductive wars, the parlous state of the Middle East, the spread of the terrorism against which the US has supposedly fought, millions of refugees overwhelming Europe, and the determination of a group spearheaded by Russia, China, and Iran (not insignificant adversaries), to push back against US domination should be enough to occasion some soul searching and self-recrimination, but so far it has not. Nothing is as obnoxious as the wobbling drunk approaching your group’s table, blasting you with 90 proof breath, then telling everyone how they should live their lives. Only the drunk is surprised—if he notices—that nobody wants anything to do with him. The US still hasn’t noticed
If no change is forthcoming, the US will self-destruct. Along that path it is far advanced. What once made the US exceptional was its commitment, never wholly realized, to a government subordinate to the protection of individual rights. The US government has become just another unexceptional and immoral enterprise dedicated to expanding its power.
Repression goes with empire. An America that looks itself in the mirror no longer sees the shining words of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights; it sees loathsome images of the national security state: the Patriot Act, gigantic complexes where unfathomable amounts of information on American citizens are stored, and a long line of politicians assuring us that the protection of privacy and freedom requires the destruction of privacy and freedom.
Spiraling downward, drunks become increasingly pathological. A substantial portion of the population has been deemed, like children, unable to survive without their parent, the government. One doesn’t have to be an unreconstructed cynic to observe that those treated as children act like children. Another group grabs for the money and power going to the government. It’s a sign of pervasive perversity that even today’s pejoratives—rent seeking and crony capitalism—don’t capture what’s going on: plunder and theft. Drunks are white liars and euphemism enthusiasts extraordinaire.
The pride of the next generation attend institutions of higher learning not to have their assumptions challenged, or to struggle for hard-won truths, or to hone their analytical and reasoning powers, or to develop their ability to advocate for what they believe is right. No, they’re seeking safe spaces that keep them free from all that. The kind of intellectual ferment—and hard work, delayed gratification, savings, investment, risk-taking, innovation, integrity, and ingenuity—that once made America both exceptional and great are no longer considered worthy of academic consideration, or even topics of polite conversation. The colleges and universities go along with it because higher education has become another government-funded racket.
Long suppressed, America’s from-the-depths-of-its-stomach revulsion is coming. No one will, or should be spared. For too long too many have shrugged and said, “What are you going to do?” If everyone does nothing, nothing gets done. The party establishments, expecting the usual reflexive support this election, have been hit with a gag reflex instead. The wonder is not that it’s happening, but that it has been so long in coming. How can any sane individual listen to Republicans promising more of the same in the Middle East, or anything Hillary Clinton says—her only qualification the pronoun before only qualification—without feeling the nauseous stab that prompts a mad dash to the bathroom?
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the bed spins: something’s very wrong. However, America is still a long way from blearily looking at itself in the mirror and saying: change or die. The first step to correcting one’s problem, so the cliché goes, is admitting one has a problem. This year’s insurgencies constitute recognition, the furious counter reactions denial. Sooner or later the US’s string of besotted one-night stands and other idiocies will come to an end. If we’re lucky, we’ll hit bottom and begin a long, slow recovery. That outcome is not assured. Sometimes the bottom is the morgue.
RECOVERY BEGINS WITH REDISCOVERING THE PAST