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America Turning Point

Marianne Williams on debate stage

Years ago, a faculty colleague walked into my office with book in hand. “You need to read this!” he said. ‘This’ was Fritjof Capra’s, The Turning Point.

My colleague was right. I needed to read it, and he knew it, searching as I was for a different frame of reference to undergird my academic work. The world had changed—I had changed—and what had seemed perfectly okay for me as a way of thinking, practicing, and professing wasn’t okay anymore.

What we need,” Capra wrote in the Preface, “is a fundamental change in our thoughts, perceptions, and reality.”

Years later, I invited that colleague to my office. “See those shelves?” I asked, pointing to books located on one side of the room. “It’s my living library.” I then directed him to look at the other side of the room. “See those shelves?” I asked. He nodded. “It’s my ‘dead library,’ what I used to read and use. I keep both sets as a reminder.”

The shelves represented physical evidence of my turning point. And that’s what America needs—a turning point—replete with evidence that it has turned. Otherwise, a breaking point looms.

The here and now isn’t working. What used to seem ‘perfectly fine’ isn’t. It wasn’t ever fine, really. We just thought it was, and kept walking along the same path. Now we’re at a crisis point.

The here and now isn’t working. What used to seem ‘perfectly fine’ isn’t. It wasn’t ever fine, really. We just thought it was, and kept walking along the same path. Now we’re at a crisis point.

Examples abound. Consider the game of football. Over 100 years ago, Teddy Roosevelt talked about ‘this violent game’ (players were dying from injuries), and Roosevelt assembled gridiron leaders to figure out a solution. Today, we know what’s at stake: a game played for entertainment inflicts cognitive harm on those who participate.

While football may be a trivial example, climate change is not. It will inflict irreparable damage unless we admit, first, that there’s a problem and, then, change fundamentally to address it. There’s a Turning Point if we act or a Breaking Point if we don’t.

Yes, more and more people realize that America can’t go on like it is. But the challenge is getting a grip on what ‘it is.’ Democratic presidential Marianne Williamson asserts that “America isn’t having problems with what is happening to our economy, our environment, our educational system and so forth. We have a problem with the psychological fabric of our country…on the level of our internal being.” (italics added)

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I agree. Williamson’s words came to mind the other day as I read a headline in the morning paper: “Friend’s success makes man feel like failure.” The letter, written to an advice columnist by a man in his sixties, began with a description of what appears to be a happy life—a wonderful wife and child, a good job working for a successful company, and lots of enjoyable friends. Then, he wrote, “Something happened.” He received an email from a fraternity brother saying that another college buddy had just sold his company for millions. That millionaire now lives in a mansion, enjoying the life that ‘rich people lead.’ “Maybe I’m jealous, but I can’t help it,” the letter writer admitted, “It’s just that he makes me feel like a failure.”

It’s easy to see why the man feels that way. Society blares a constant message: success is about making more and more money, having a better job with an executive title next to your name, living in a better home and prestigious neighborhood, etc. And if you internalize those messages—as many Americans do—it becomes an example of Williamson’s ‘issue behind the issues.’

And The Miami Herald’sLeonard Pitts believes it happens with insidious impact. It affects us “down in the substrata of self,” he wrote recently. “It is about the assumptions we make without realizing we’ve made them, and the attitudes we hold without realizing we hold them.” We then accept the “way it is” uncritically, interpreting it as ‘normal’ even when it’s not normal and shouldn’t be—even when it crowds out things that should be normal. Pitts realized that personally when, upon evaluating his bookshelf, he discovered that most of his books were authored by men.

Of course, it’s easy to paint a picture using one or two examples as I’ve done here. But if you travel internationally, then you know how people around the world look at America. Whether said bluntly or discretely, nearly everybody asks the same question: What the hell is going on?!They often talk about Trump but, increasingly so, they talk about us. The commentary can cut hard, as Lucy Ellmann’s does in The Irish Times.

“Consumed by consumerism, they (Americans) wallow in their plasma screens, coveting the next dynamite Apple doodad…. They have ruined the Earth, without a qualm, all so that they can drink beer, make Sloppy Joes, watch football, listen to incessant rock music, and wank away on their air guitars…. Daily they (Americans) wrestle with a world of distraction and fake facts…. And yet Americans still blather on about how “great” the place is. They’ll salute it until the whole shebang’s awash in radioactive waste. They’ll be clinging to the roof, barbecuing steaks up there, talking god and cars and rape fantasies until there’s nothing left alive but a few DDT-resistant bugs.”

Ellmann’s view of America, harsh as it is, shines a light on an America full of self-absorbed, pleasure-seeking, it’s-all-about-me wonks. It’s a place where too many people lack compassion, ignoring words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. The situation at the border and Sunday’s raids across America tell us so. How did America become so un-America?

As Gretchen Kelly wrote recently on these pages, it’s because we have become America of two persuasions. We are a nation of contradictions. We are fighters. A nation of liberators and emancipators. But we are also a nation that is soft-bellied and apathetic, practiced at not seeing the things we don’t want to see.”

So, which America we will be? One way to find out is to ask: What does it mean to say the hallowed words, America, My Country ‘Tis of Thee? (Note: ‘Tis’ is an abbreviation of it is, and ‘thee’ is an obsolete form of the second person singular, you. In translation, it means “it is you”: “America, It is You.”)

America, ‘The Exceptional,” would admit ‘you’ is a caricature of what it once was, a shadow of what it needs to be. People come to those conclusions all the time—about themselves—just as I did years ago. Societies can, too.

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It’s time for a Turning Point.

Frank Fear