Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Failure of Mimesis

Though I disagree with him as often as not, James Howard Kunstler is one of my favorite authors in the peak oil field today. For all the intemperance of his style – and it’s hard not to admire somebody who can turn the spit-slinging vitriolic diatribe into an art form – he’s one of the few thinkers in circulation these days who has found his way to the elusive middle ground between those current incarnations of Pollyanna and Chicken Little, the believers in perpetual progress and the believers in imminent apocalypse. Reading his book The Long Emergency, more than anything else, convinced me that it was worth trying to get my own distinctly unpopular views on the future of industrial society into circulation, and his blog is one of the few I read regularly.

Thus I took it as a bit of synchronicity a few weeks back when he posted an essay titled “Thuggo and Sluggo” on his blog Clusterfuck Nation, waxing irate about the way the younger generation has embraced the urban gang esthetic. Now of course jeremiads about the younger generation have likely been in fashion since Cro-Magnon times; there’s a great passage in one of the classical Roman moralists (unfortunately I’ve misplaced the reference) about how kids these days don’t listen to their parents, stay out all night drinking, drive their chariots too fast, think about nothing but sports and sex, and so on. But there’s a subtle difference between this timeless plaint of parents everywhere and the phenomenon Kunstler discussed, and the difference ties into the theme of last week’s post – the theme of culture death.

Ironically, some of the best insights into the phenomenon Kunstler denounces can be found in the urbane academic prose of Arnold Toynbee’s ten-volume A Study of History. As a young man, Toynbee watched Europe tear itself to shreds in the fratricidal frenzy of the First World War, and the experience left him with a passionate desire to understand why civilizations rise and fall. Economic explanations of the sort central to my theory of catabolic collapse held little appeal for him, and he had even less interest in environmental issues; his focus was on the social transformations that move societies along the trajectory of growth and decline.

His argument, insofar as it’s possible to sum up hundreds of pages of subtle reasoning in a paragraph or so, is that civilizations emerge when a creative minority inspires the rest of their society with a vision of human possibility powerful and appealing enough to break through what he calls the “cake of custom,” the rigid body of tradition that shapes the behavior of traditional cultures. The key to their success is the universal human habit of mimesis – our incurable habit of trying to imitate what impresses us. When you were five years old and played at being a superhero – look, I’m Spiderman! – you were practicing mimesis; today, whenever you think about what you want to become, or what you want society to become, you still are. In traditional societies, the models for mimesis are tribal elders and tribal traditions, which accounts for the immense stability of tribal custom. Civilizations rise when a creative minority with an openness to new visions becomes the focus of mimesis instead.

The downside arrives when the creative minority loses the ability to inspire, and settles for the power to coerce. As its role as a source of inspiration dwindles, so does its role as the focus of mimesis. People stop wanting to become like the members of the dominant minority, and start aiming their hopes and dreams elsewhere. This splits their society into two unequal halves, a dominant minority clinging to power by ever more coercive means, and an internal proletariat that goes through the motions of participation but no longer shares its society’s values and goals. Finally the internal proletariat makes common cause with the external proletariat – the people of surrounding societies who are exploited by the civilization, and never had any stake in its survival to begin with – and everything comes crashing down.

It’s an intriguing analysis, and Toynbee was by no means averse to applying its lessons to his own society. In his view the formerly creative minority of Western civilization was well on its way to becoming a dominant minority, maintaining its position solely by economic and political force, and the rest of Western society was equally far along the road to becoming an internal proletariat with no stake in the civilization of its rulers. He argued that the fault for this “schism in the body politic” lay squarely with the elite classes, who were increasingly unfit to lead, unable to follow, and unwilling to get out of the way.

This criticism is all the more interesting because Toynbee was himself a member of the elite he excoriated. For most of his life he was the leading intellectual light of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), the British equivalent and ally of the much-denounced Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. It doesn’t speak well of the current crop of conspiracy theorists that so few of them have noticed Toynbee’s role as the source of the ideas that guide these two organizations, but then the fact that the CFR also publishes a quarterly journal of foreign affairs to which anyone can subscribe has escaped most of them, too.

Set Toynbee’s theory next to Kunstler’s diatribe and it’s clear at once that the two of them are talking about the same thing. Kunstler’s “Thuggo and Sluggo,” his white suburban teens borrowing their dress, speech, music, and manners from inner city nonwhite gang members, are poster children for the failure of mimesis in contemporary America. It’s easy to denouce Thuggo for his taste in clothes and his fondness for rap music, but there’s something very important and deeply troubling underlying these things.

What, after all, does our society offer this young person we’re calling Thuggo? Suppose he plays the game; what prizes can he expect to win? Downward mobility has become one of the most pervasive and least discussed facts of life in America today, and nowhere so much as in the options we offer young people from the lower middle class on down. It’s still popular to invoke the ghost of David Ricardo and insist that globalization is a rising tide that lifts all boats, but the hard reality is that the last thirty years have seen America’s once proud and prosperous working class thrown to the wolves, so corporations could keep boosting their quarterly profits and the middle class could maintain a filmy illusion of wealth through access to cheap consumer goods. Every $25 an hour factory job offshored to the Third World and replaced with an $8 an hour job flipping burgers is one less reason for the children of working class families to embrace the values that the middle class thinks they ought to have.

This situation bears on the end of the industrial age in many ways, but I’ll focus on only one of them here. One thing you’ll hear if you read any amount of peak oil literature is the complaint that so few people are willing to do anything about the approaching end of the age of cheap abundant energy. Even within the peak oil community, a surprisingly small number of people have taken the sort of simple practical steps that will make their own lives much easier as energy starts becoming scarce and expensive – growing a vegetable garden, learning to get by on less energy, and so on. Outside the peak oil community, almost nobody is listening at all.

From Toynbee’s useful perspective, this is simply another failure of mimesis. Those of us who write and speak publicly about peak oil and other aspects of the predicament of the industrial world are trying to break through a “cake of custom” every bit as firmly entrenched as the traditions of any tribal society could be, but we’ve arguably been trying to do it with the wrong tools and in the wrong way. Denunciation won’t do the job, and neither will carefully reasoned proofs backed with an infinity of footnotes; both those, entertaining as they are, fairly quickly become exercises in preaching to the choir. It might be worth suggesting that a change in approach is in order. If the peak oil movement can present a vision of the future that inspires and energizes people outside the peak oil scene – including those rap-listening, wide-wearing kids whose energy has gone unharnessed by any other movement for change for so long – the possibilities for constructive change may be greater than many people now suspect. We’ll be talking about this more in later posts.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Culture Death

A few weeks ago, one of the readers of The Archdruid Report posted a comment asking whether I thought the white race would survive the decline and fall of industrial civilization. At the time I more or less brushed the question aside; since “the white race” doesn’t exist in the first place, after all, speculating on its long-term survival makes about as much sense as wondering whether unicorns will make the endangered species list. In retrospect, though, my reader’s question deserved a more thoughtful answer. It remains true that “the white race” is a cultural construction rather than a biological entity, and one that has been used to justify far too many crimes to pass unchallenged. Still, labels such as this one point toward critical issues of collective identity that need to be taken into account in any attempt to sense the shape of the future ahead of us.

The concept of race as a source of collective identity was itself the product of an earlier age of crisis, and really can’t be understood apart from the rise and fall of the nation-state, arguably the most distinctive social innovation of modern times. From the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the wave of national revolutions that swept over Europe exactly two centuries later in 1848, the great questions of European cultural politics centered on the struggle of nation-states to define themselves against local loyalties rooted in the old feudal system, on the one hand, and participation in the transnational community of Christendom on the other. People who grew up, as their grandparents’ grandparents did, thinking of themselves as Cornish or Poitevin or Westphalian, on the one hand, and members of the universal Body of Christ on the other, struggled to cope with a new social reality that demanded that they think of themselves as English or French or German.

This was anything but a fast process, and it succeeded only where certain specific circumstances fostered it. The nation-state as a source of identity depends on a deliberate blurring of categories in which a population, a culture, a language, and a system of government fuse in the imagination into a single national entity. One of the consequences of this category-blending is that very often, distinct populations, cultures, and languages become gaming pieces in the struggles of local and regional power centers to define and defend themselves against national governments. Watch debates over the Welsh language in Great Britain, for example, and you have a ringside seat for the struggle between centralizing and decentralizing forces in British political life. The notion of race had similar origins as members of multiethnic societies tried to define their nations in ways that excluded their economic or political rivals.

These issues have special relevance today, because the relative success of the nation-state in seizing control of the imagination of identity in the Western world has drawn most of its strength from the increasing economic and political integration of Western nations over the last three centuries, and this in turn has been inseparable from the rise of an industrial economy powered by fossil fuels. It’s not accidental that Britain, the first nation-state to make the breakthrough to industrialism, was also one of the first to form a coherent national identity. The transportation networks that made industrialism work in economic terms – first canals, then railroads, then highways – also made it possible for national governments to extend their reach throughout their territories in ways few previous societies ever managed.

The history of regional power in North America provides a good example of this process at work. In 1861 it was still possible for many people in the mostly agrarian South to think of themselves primarily as Virginians or Georgians or Texans, and only secondarily as citizens of the United States. Sixty years later, even the Ku Klux Klan had to define its repellent goals as “100% Americanism” in order to find an audience. In 1861, the North American railroad network was still in its infancy, mostly concentrated in portions of the Northeast and Midwest. By 1921 it blanketed the continent with one of the most successful transportation systems in history, and was already being supplemented with highways and airlanes. As transport expanded, so did the reach of the federal government, and so did the focus of most Americans’ sense of identity.

It’s been common enough for believers in the mythology of progress to argue on this basis that national governments will soon go the way of the feudal provinces and half-independent states that were swallowed up by the growth of the nation-state. They would be right, too, if we could count on an ever-increasing supply of the cheap abundant energy that makes modern transportation networks function...but we can’t. The peaking of world fossil fuel production promises exactly the opposite: a future in which energy is neither cheap nor abundant, and economic arrangements that require goods to be shipped halfway around the planet as a matter of course become too costly to survive. Those who dream of a unified world government and those who dread the prospect will both have to find new targets for their respective hopes and fears, because the sheer diseconomies of scale in a world of declining energy availability make attempts at global government an exercise in futility.

Rather, as energy becomes scarcer and more expensive, transportation networks that depend on vast amounts of inexpensive fuel will begin to unravel, starting with the most extravagant and going from there. Air travel will probably be the first to go, followed by the personal automobile, while bus and truck traffic on the deteriorating highways will likely continue long after cars have become one of the prerogatives of the very rich. Those countries that still have viable railroad systems will likely be able to maintain those long after the highways are silent, and the networks of last resort, the canal systems that made 18th century industrialism work, remain viable in some European countries and may just put a floor under the process of decline if their value is recognized in time.

The United States, by contrast, scrapped most of a world-class rail system in the third quarter of the 20th century, and only a few vestiges of its early 19th century canal system still survive today. Once the private car has become an anachronism and the energy costs of long-distance trucking make local production of most goods a better bargain, the economic glue that holds together a sprawling highway network and the many industries necessary to maintain it faces rapid dissolution. That same glue is most of what holds the United States together as a nation-state, and its breakdown will likely see the unraveling of the United States as a primary focus of our collective identity. Just as the rapid growth of transportation links turned the grandchildren of Virginians and Californians into Americans, the disintegration of those same transportation links may well turn the grandchildren of Americans into something else.

It’s unlikely to turn them back into Virginians and Californians, though, because the triumph of the nation-state in the 19th century was followed, in the United States more than anywhere else in the world, by the triumph of the market economy over culture. A faux culture designed by marketing experts, produced in factories, and sold over the newly invented mass media, elbowed aside the new and still fragile national culture of the United States and then set to work on the regional and local cultures this latter had only just begun to supplant. By the second half of the 20th century, nearly all of the functions filled by noneconomic culture in other societies were being filled by the market in America, and increasingly in other Western countries as well. The tunes people whistled, the recipes they cooked, the activities that filled their leisure hours and the self-images that shaped their thoughts and behavior no longer came out of such normal channels of cultural transmission as family and community; they came out of the market economy, with a price tag attached that was not denominated in dollars alone.

The second half of the 20th century, in fact, saw the death of anything that could reasonably be called American culture. Most examples of what anthropologists call “culture death” have seen people beaten and starved into relinquishing their traditional cultures; what the modern American experience shows is that people can also be bribed by prosperity and cajoled by advertising into doing the same thing. Granted, in a society awash in cheap abundant energy, it’s easier and cheaper to buy one’s culture ready-made from a store than to make the investments of time and energy into family and community needed to maintain a living culture in the true meaning of the word. Equally, in a society where “fashion” driven by media campaigns takes the place of any less mercenary guiding force, making traditional American cultures look as bad as possible was just another bit of marketing. Think of the movie Deliverance, with its likeably cosmopolitan heroes struggling to survive against the brutal malevolence of backwoods villains, and the banjo riff that provided the movie’s leitmotif defining traditional American culture itself as a hostile Other: that same message has flooded the American media for much of a century.

Culture death is a traumatic experience, and I suspect that a great deal of the shrill anger and maudlin self-pity that fills American society these days has its roots in our unwillingness to face up to a trauma that, in the final analysis, we have brought on ourselves. As the age of cheap energy comes to an end, though, I suspect there are worse traumas in store. A nation that has sold its own culture for a shiny plastic counterfeit risks a double loss if that counterfeit pops like a soap bubble in its collective hands. Equally, a people that has come to see its role as that of passive consumer of culture, rather than active maker and transmitter of culture, may have very few options left when the supply of manufactured culture to consume runs out.

The impact of these dilemmas on our collective imagination of identity is likely to be drastic as the manufactured culture of the present comes apart. We are already seeing people in contemporary American society turn to almost any resource you care to imagine in the search for some anchor of group identity less transient than the whims of marketers; religion has often filled its time-honored role in this regard, but so have racial fantasies, sexual habits, apocalyptic social theories, and much more. Nor is it hard to find Americans who are trying to redefine themselves as members of some other culture, past, present, or imaginary – speakers of Klingon or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish languages, for example, outnumber speakers of quite a few real languages. This is still a fringe phenomenon, though much less so than it was twenty years ago; twenty years from now, as the deindustrial age opens around us, they may impact the social mainstream in ways impossible to predict in detail today.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Adam's Story: Banners in the Wind

This narrative is the third part of an exploration of the five themes from my Archdruid Report post “Glimpsing the Deindustrial Future” using the tools of narrative fiction. As with the first two portions of “Adam’s Story,” the setting is the rural Pacific Northwest during the second half of this century.


Adam and Haruko spent most of the next three weeks walking south along the coast highway, with the sea never far away to their right and a half-empty land to their left. Here and there, where rivers laid down pockets of good soil, there were farms and the occasional village, and people willing to trade an afternoon’s work for a meal and a dry place to sleep. Elsewhere, empty towns huddled against the gray turbulence of the sea – fishing ports abandoned when the seas were stripped of fish, tourist towns long empty of tourists – and those offered shelter, if nothing more.

Twice they’d found places to stay more than a night. One of those was a religious commune, a dozen or so adults and half that many children living all together in a big barn of a place just off the highway. They’d left the city fifteen years back to follow their own revelation, though Adam never did quite manage to figure out what made theirs different from anyone else’s. Still, they had goats for milk and meat, and the two travelers happened to arrive right as the nannies were giving birth, which meant extra hands were more than welcome.

They stayed there more than a week in all, and Adam guessed they might have stayed there for good if they’d had any interest in the commune’s religion. No chance of that, though; Haruko was Buddhist, devout enough to pray the nembutsu every night; Adam wasn’t sure what he believed, but that one little group of people were God’s chosen and everyone else was going to fry eternally for the sin of disagreeing with them wasn’t it. When the last of the kids had dropped, he and Haruko said their goodbyes and started south again.

The second place was harder to leave in some ways, easier in others. Pells Falls was an old tourist town a week south of the commune, still hanging onto life with a fingernail grip; a few old people still had their homes there, eking out a living from backyard gardens. They had plenty of work for travelers, and made it clear that if those travelers were minded to stay, there were houses in good condition they could have for the asking. He and Haruko talked it over late one night and decided against it; the thought of keeping watch over another dying town was more than Adam could face, and Haruko surprised him by saying she was sure there was something better waiting further down the road. The two of them stayed three nights in Pells Falls and then headed on.

It was definitely “the two of them” by then. Throw any two people together in a situation where cooperation was their one shot at survival, Adam thought as they walked south one morning, and you could be pretty certain they’d end up either good friends or blood enemies. Despite cultural differences he wasn’t yet sure he could measure, much less bridge, he and Haruko had managed the first option. Friends, maybe more: he couldn’t be sure of that, hadn’t found a way to ask the question while the future ahead of them was still a blank.

That was much on his mind the morning they left Pells Falls, but by day’s end he had something else to worry about. Before noon, a distant rumbling in the sky sent Haruko bolting off the road. She was frightened enough that it took her several tries to remember the English for “airplane.” From the limited safety of a dense clump of vine maples, they caught glimpses of an angular shape high in the air. During the war with China, Haruko told him in a whisper, planes followed the Japanese highways and shot at anything that moved. She would not leave the maples until long after the sky was silent again.

The same plane, or another just like it, appeared in the sky ahead of them twice more that afternoon. Then, toward evening, while they were looking for a place to camp for the night, they rounded a curve in the road and found themselves facing a line of uniformed men with guns. By the time he was finished being surprised, Adam had sized up the distance; no point in trying to run. The flat expressionless look on Haruko’s face told him she’d already worked out the same harsh mathematics. Lacking any other option, they walked up to the line.

“So what’s all this?” Adam asked, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt.

The nearest soldier sized him up, decided he wasn’t a threat. “Cascade Republic Army,” he said. “We’re securing the coast.” Then, when Adam looked puzzled: “You get any news out here?”

“Not for years.”

The man let out a whistle. “You’ve missed a few things,” he said. “Washington fell last winter, so no more United States. Governor Mendoza’s declared a republic here.” He gestured back behind the line; two trucks stood there, each with an unfamiliar flag – white, blue, green in horizontal stripes – painted on the doors. “You’re headed south?”

“If we can.”

The soldier turned, called out, “Lieutenant Corson, sir!” The lieutenant left a clutch of men around a radio next to one of the trucks, and came over. “Couple of travelers, sir,” the man said, saluting. “Let ‘em through?”

The lieutenant gave Adam a much less cursory look than the soldier had. “Name and residence?”

“Adam Keely. I used to live at Learyville, up the coast.”

“How’s Learyville these days?”

“Pretty quiet. Nobody lives there now.”

The lieutenant nodded. “And her?”

That was the question that mattered, Adam knew. If they’d been sent to secure the coast, it would be nanmin they were securing it against. Doubtless he could shrug, tell the truth, and send Haruko to whatever fate they had in mind for the refugees from Japan. In the instant he had to consider the matter, he knew it would be easier to gouge out his own eyes. “My wife Haruko,” he told the lieutenant. On cue, she gave the man a bright smile.

The lieutenant’s gaze moved to her, back to Adam. “I don’t see a wedding ring.”

Before he’d finished speaking Adam thought of Sybil’s ring. “In the bottom of my pack. Didn’t want to draw thieves.”

“Show me,” the lieutenant said.

Adam took off his pack, fished in it until he found the little pouch with Sybil’s ring in it, held the ring up for the lieutenant to see, and then for good measure turned and put it on Haruko’s finger, guessing it would fit. It did. “Satisfied?”

He could almost see the thoughts moving behind the lieutenant’s eyes, suspicions pulling one way, doubts the other, and time and too much work to do casting the deciding vote. “Go on,” the lieutenant said, with a motion of his head back past the trucks. Adam thanked him, nodded to the soldier, and then he and Haruko were past the line. The soldiers around the radio gave them incurious glances as they passed. The sound of voices and the crackle of the radio faded into silence behind them as they tried not to hurry too obviously down the road.

Neither of them said anything until the soldiers were well out of sight. Finally Adam let out a long ragged breath. “Well,” he said. “I’m glad that worked.”

Hand on his arm, the pressure so slight he could scarcely feel it: “Thank you.” Then she looked away. “Should I give you back the ring?”

He’d learned enough of the elaborately indirect way she spoke about important things to guess at the question behind the one she asked. “I think it looks fine where it is,” he said.

“So do I.” Her smile, shy and fragile, woke responses in him that left him dizzied.

Later, as the sun was drowning itself in the sea to their right, they found an abandoned motel with a room still fit to stay in, and made a meal from food the folks at Pells Falls had given them. Later still, they slept, or Haruko did. Adam lay awake for a long time, feeling her warmth against him, the rhythm of her noiseless breathing. For all that, his thoughts were far away.

Washington fell last winter, so no more United States. The soldier’s words turned in his mind, impossible to ignore, impossible to accept.

Until then he had never quite realized how far down the roots of the old secular faith reached into him, how much of the deep places of himself still believed that the troubles would turn out to be temporary after all. Fourth of July parades from his childhood, official speeches watched over the last fitful web connection in his teen years, scraps of a patriotic song Marge Dotson used to sing in her reedy voice, all blurred together into a shape that seemed as permanent as anything human could be. To hear that it was not just eclipsed for a time but gone for good was like looking up one morning and finding that the sky wasn’t there any more.

He thought of the flag that used to fly over the Learyville post office, back when Learyville had a post office, and then of the new flag on the sides of the military trucks, and wondered how many more new banners were spreading in the wind that night. The old patriotic ideals rang in his head, wrapped up in Marge’s voice: O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears... The words brought him up short. When did America’s cities, those riotous patchworks in which alabaster was only one color of many, ever had a shortage of tears? How much of the dream was ever real?

As he moved into the borderlands of sleep, he thought he could see something vast and poignant called America, something made of dreams, stars, songs, marching feet and alabaster cities all jumbled together, tearing loose from its moorings in reality and rising into the abstract night. Maybe – the thought burned at him, but he could not turn away from it – maybe that was where it belonged all along.

Haruko shifted, bringing him back to the moment. He nestled against her as sleep finally took him.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Imaginary Countries

You might not expect it from a college town where public nudity is legal and the Republican Party hasn’t had a significant presence in thirty years, but the Fourth of July is a big deal in the small Northwest town where I live. This year’s parade was grand as always, with enough marching bands and colorful floats to satisfy anyone’s taste for pageantry, and a couple of jet fighters from the local Air National Guard base added an unexpected note of realism to this celebration of a revolutionary war by carrying out mock strafing runs over the crowd. As I type these words, barbecue smoke is rising from backyards all over town, and a few blocks east of my home the technicians are putting finishing touches on the evening’s fireworks display.

There’s a certain comforting solidity in a festival that’s been celebrated in the same way since well before I was born. If this year’s celebration is shot through with worries about the future and a bitter ambivalence about martial symbolism during an unpopular war, the same things were true of the Julys of my childhood, when the undeclared war du jour was in Vietnam rather than Iraq and a different generation of demagogues mouthed the same slogans that fill the talk shows today. Still, with the ten volumes of Toynbee’s A Study of History weighing down the shelf above me like the headstones of dead civilizations, it’s hard not to remember that the apparent solidity of old customs in a changing world can turn out to be as deceptively fragile as lake ice in the springtime.

In last week’s Archdruid Report post I suggested that from the point of view of history, nations are fluid and fragile things, and plans for the future that take their stability for granted are likely to end up in history’s recycling bin sooner than most. In many parts of the world this observation would not even have to be made, since borders have changed and nations have appeared and disappeared within living memory. Here in America, by contrast, it hasn’t even begun to find its way into the national conversation about the future.

The closest thing you’ll find to it is the suggestion, kept alive by the memory of our nation’s only civil war so far, and trotted out now and again for shock value, that the United States might someday split up into two or more still recognizably American nations. The possibility that the current borders of the United States might be the high water mark of an American continental empire, one whose tide is already turning from flow to ebb, remains all but unnoticed. The possibility that a century from now the United States might be a much smaller nation with no bigger role in international affairs than, say, Italy, is practically unthinkable. History shows that this sort of change happens all the time, but it seems very hard for Americans to apply a historical perspective of this kind to their own national community.

There’s a complex history behind this notion of American exceptionalism. Before the Mayflower brought the first shipload of Puritan refugees across the Atlantic, the idea that European settlement in the New World might be exempt from the sordid details of the Old World’s history was already in the air. The first Rosicrucian manifesto, which ignited a continent-wide furore on its publication in 1614, promised cryptically that “there shall be a door opened to Europe” and that “Europe is with child and will bring forth a strong child;” the German Rosicrucian sects who settled in Pennsylvania in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were far from the only people to apply these prophecies to the newly discovered lands across the ocean.

These habits of thought were sealed into place when the revolutionaries of 1776 chose to define their struggle for self-determination against English colonialism in the radical language of the Declaration of Independence. The ideals enshrined in the document whose signing we celebrate today had already been put into circulation during the English revolution more than a century before, and went nowhere; the restoration of Charles II to the British throne in 1660 drew a line beneath Britain’s brief experiment with Republican government. When those same ideals became the foundation of a lasting political settlement on American soil, the idea that America might go its own way, unburdened by the Old World’s troubles, became an article of faith for many Americans.

The problem with this comforting faith, of course, was that history failed to play along with it. It’s one thing to talk of westward expansion and manifest destiny, and quite another to come to terms with the wars of conquest and extermination that cleared the continent for America’s growth. Equally, it’s one thing to discuss the Monroe Doctrine as a matter of guaranteeing the freedom of the New World against the Old, and another to notice that in practice, too often, this amounted to a guarantee that the United States and not some other power would force its will on the nations of Latin America. Like every other country on earth, the United States faced its share of conflicts between its own ideals, on the one hand, and the demands of power, prosperity, and survival in the brutal world of international politics, and like every other country on earth, the United States made its share of wretchedly bad decisions in response.

When a gap opens up between ideals and reality, the result is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, and America has a very bad case of it. A great deal of American political debate over the last half century or so has accordingly focused on trying to relieve the cognitive dissonance of America’s inevitable failure to live up to the high ideals on which it was founded. On the one hand, mostly but not exclusively on the political and social right, you can find loud claims that America’s moral failures either didn’t happen or don’t count, and that the ideals ought to be taken as an description of the way the United States actually behaves in the world. On the other hand, mostly but not exclusively on the political and social left, you can find equally loud claims that America’s moral failures not only cancel out anything worthwhile our nation has done, but prove that the ideals themselves are a sham.

These two claims, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of American political rhetoric, have become so pervasive these days that very few people seem to notice either the bankrupt logic that drives them both, or the disastrous disconnection from reality that they both foster. The reasoning they share in common is the logic of Utopia, the claim that the right political, economic, or social system can make people behave like angels, and that anything less is therefore unacceptable. Conservatives who want to say that the American system works well thus end up arguing that it’s perfect, and radicals who want to point out that it has problems thus end up denouncing it as evil incarnate. Once the logic of Utopia enters the picture, the possibility of middle ground vanishes, and with it goes the potential for the compromise and cooperation that the founders of the American political system, pragmatists that they were, saw as essential.

This is disastrous enough, but to my way of thinking, the second consequence of the flight from cognitive dissonance may prove to be much worse as America stumbles into an age in which cheap fossil fuels become a thing of the past. To insist that America is by definition the world’s best society, inevitably destined to triumph in its disinterested pursuit of democracy around the globe, is to give up citizenship in the real world and move to a country as imaginary as Oz. To insist on the precise opposite of these claims is to do exactly the same thing. Neither set of beliefs would provide anything in the way of useful guidance even if America and the world could count on relative stability over the next century or so. In a world facing a long and difficult transition to sustainability on the far side of Hubbert’s peak, trying to impose the geography of imaginary countries on the real world will most likely prove suicidal.

It probably needs to be said that worshiping America as Utopia is not the same thing as patriotism. It’s not even a useful substitute. Apply the same logic to marriage – which is, after all, simply another form of social organization – and the fallacy becomes plain. Insist that your own marriage is already the best possible marriage, that its problems either don’t exist or don’t matter, and that for that reason there’s no need to discuss making changes, and drastic marital problems are pretty much a given. Respond to social troubles in the same way and you make an explosion inevitable. Equally, though, if you insist that your own marriage is so uniquely bad that marrying anybody else at all would be an improvement, your chances at marital bliss are no better, and the same is just as true in the world of politics; those who insist that American empire is the worst of all worlds might want to consider what would have happened if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War.

What makes all this pursuit of imaginary countries embarrassing from the historical point of view is that of all the revolutionary ideologies of the last few centuries, the one that shaped America’s institutions is one of the least congenial to extreme claims. You’ll find few political documents in all of history as riddled with caution, compromise, and wiggle room for necessary change as the American constitution, precisely because the unlikely radicals in Philadelphia whose act we celebrate today were profoundly aware of the power of political passions and the fallibility of institutions. That very fact makes their handiwork all the more relevant in a future when caution, compromise, and wiggle room will be desperately needed. The fact that the system they designed was also crafted to fit the measured pace of transport and communications in an age before fossil fuels points to another reason why the old pragmatic rules of the founding fathers may just turn out to be more relevant to the real world of tomorrow than to the imaginary worlds of today’s political rhetoric.