MODERNITY AND MALFUNCTION
Clearly, America's wealth bifurcated between mass and elite:
the top one per cent became ever richer
and therefore more powerful;
the poor multiplied and, mainly, though exasperated,
appeared to be powerless and leaderless.
A second stress begins now. In the last generation of the nineteenth
century, and accelerating throughout the twentieth century, a
divergence of scientific and intellectual elements from the populace
and rich became more sharply evident. Something so obvious at the
end of the twentieth century - the great chasm between the workings
of the hi-tech, scientoid mind and the mass mind of the mass media,
between those who despatched space vehicles and the millions who
watched them - if no football game was on TV -
had to have points of origin.
We are speaking of a grouping of no more than one in two hundred
Americans, less than half of one per cent, an elite of elites. What were
they? Where were they? How did the new class go about
ensuring its survival and move so rapidly into every field of human
awareness? Was not this the greatest change that ever happened to
the United States, more so than any war or revolution?
Or any migration?
What permitted a poorly educated people and an insensate political
and business class to live arrogantly alongside the cerebral class that
was making marvels of space technology, electronics,
communications, publishing, credit cards, air travel, dietary
innovations, and hospital and higher education organizations of
How did this tiny elite recruit itself, live, gain resources for its work,
defend itself amidst the free-for-all of American society and
government, and its associated graveyard of the bright and imaginative
and innovative? Here was a profound mystery, a bifurcation and then a
second bifurcation of American society that
developed, and enlarged. Somehow, coordination and
Skipping from elite to the deprived, we find that, as the twentieth
century ended, sixty to seventy million Americans - men, women, and
children - suffered ordinarily from a poverty deep enough to deprive
them of most chances in regard to all values. They were poor
all along the line.
To these must be added another twenty million persons who moved in
and out of the regularly deprived group.
Over and above these, and excluding them, were twenty million people
who were unschooled or functionally illiterate.
Another ten million besides the above lacked any
usable or sellable skill.
Aside from all of these, we need to add twenty million Americans who
were feeble, disabled, incapacitated, or mentally disturbed.
And, finally we may estimate that a further thirty-three million
Americans, native and immigrant, including minor children not in the
other categories, were harassed and discriminated against as they tried
to go about living their lives normally, and yet could not resort to due
process of law in any real sense.
There may have somehow come about, therefore, in the America that
was turning into the twenty-first century, a population of two hundred
and sixty million persons of whom one hundred and seventy were
deprived of a minimal envisioned share of the goods of life - these
being a decent subsistence, health care, wealth,
knowledge and skill, independence or power, and the
respect and affection of others.
Some will declaim that my figures must be spurious.
I believe that the people who did the most solid research on poverty
in America would not have dismissed my estimates: Morgan, David,
Harrington, Lampman, Macdonald, Kolko and the others. Many
Americans will say, confessing their own lives, that
they would not fall into any such accounting;
yet, they should be included. They rightly
complain that the minima I speak of are not enough for an
American, and therefore they, too, have
reason to feel deprived.
What lies should be forbidden, and what lies should be told,
have been heavy questions since Plato attempted
to set forth golden lies for rulers to use
on behalf of good government.
Society needs to be known for what it is, and
yet believed to be becoming what its people longs for.
It is practically impossible for a whole people to
fully understand how a society really works, and at
the same time to give to the society their full support.
A historian wearing the robes of a political scientist
must tell of the society as it behaved, and
simultaneously must describe the society
as it had been imagined to be.
Meanwhile, in another guise, as ideologue or priest,
at least some historians must craft public lies,
speaking to the children and most other persons
who are unprepared for receiving adult truths.
They should sound like William James when that
pragmatic philosopher and psychologist proposed to
let people keep their harness of specious religious beliefs,
if this helped them bear the burdens of life.
What I am speaking about goes farther than James, however.
I am saying that the nearly unique and highest function
of the historian is to annul the dysfunctional myths of the past and
present, and to promote those that are pragmatically beneficial, and
finally to invent myths, preferably in the form that
most Americans have always liked,
We have already familiarized ourselves with numerous myths of
American history, which contain enough truth to assure their
perpetuation, but whose usefulness is and has been over periods of
time limited or even nil - such as the image of stability
in a country where (in 1990-91)
17% of the people moved their residence and a
great many more, perhaps another 70%,
worked far from their residences and, still,
a great many more shuttled between the
two residences of disarticulated families.
Or the myth of rurality -- bucolism -- when cheap land, over whose control
Indian tribes were annihilated, is still available, but
almost no one, not even a western movie fan,
is prepared to leave the cities
in order to go farm it.
Or the myth of the American family, wherein daddy and mommy
are married and have a couple of kids,
living for a generation together,
in a nation where most households have a single head and
soon most children will live in a transient
Or the myth of Americans as the greatest creators and inventors.
For, it was not until the nineteen-twenties that the
USA could be said to run a "favorable balance of trade"
with Western Europe (including Britain) as a whole.
By then it was twice as populous as these nations.
Nor do we count in comparison the high-level performance of
arts and sciences inherited from the past,
but rather current, new products. Thus,
Italy fell behind the USA in creativity
probably sometime in the mid-Nineteenth Century,
maintained a "favorable balance of trade"
in high culture until World War I.
The British balanced with America probably around 1910,
the French about 1920,
the German in the 1930's,
at which point Nazi Germany was killing its creative people,
or exporting them, at a fast rate, to the USA.
The result in these cases, and with regard to the rest of the world,
displayed the USA arriving at and maintaining a "favorable balance" of
creative exchange with all individual nations in the
1940's and holding its lead until the millennial year 2000.
The myths of the frontier,
of the active citizen,
of the homogeneous ethnic or racial character of the nation,
of the cowboy as a hero,
of the boundlessness of the country,
of the National Destiny,
of unconfined liberties,
of rugged individualism,
of equality of opportunity,
of international isolation,
of majority rule,
of peaceful foreign relations,
of America as benefactor of many foreign peoples,
of the rule of law,
of power-sharing, of superior technical prowess,
of educational superiority,
of public health,
of decent housing,
of a rich and healthy diet,
and so on - all are partial truths or less.
Some have values deserving preservation;
some need vigorous infusions of both value and substance.
Are there other practical myths, more reliable, morally superior?
Let us not despair; help is on its way.
By the time of the second millennium,
we may have discovered more principles of American history,
even new ones, and a way of choosing among good and bad,
so that the future may be better governed,
including crucially the methods of choosing
politicians of the future.