Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bridging the Gap: American Exceptionalism vs Social Responsibility

Today in reading a review of Andrew J. Bacevich’s “Limits to Power: The End of American Exceptionalism” on the Daily Kos, The End of American Exceptionalism (What no President will Acknowledge), I was confronted again with my own personal conflict in bridging the gap between my desire for individual freedom and my need for being a responsible family or group member. Allowing the personal introspection to guide me in the political discovery process I’ve been pursuing (Finding my own Voice), I came to a more enlightened understanding of the purpose behind the system of checks and balances our founders built into the Constitution.

It's very basic: Individual freedom is a desired state of being which 'should' only be limited by social responsibility. Social responsibility necessarily limits the expression of individual freedom under certain conditions, the primary condition being the need for preserving the social good--the "common good” or “commonwealth".

All the ills being discussed in the book and in the review about America as a Power, and Presidents/Chief Executives, as Powers, originate in this one conflict.

Power can and will be misused in human systems. Individual, executive, imperial power will/can be used to dominate and control others for private advantage. At the same time, concerns for the good of the whole can suppress and smother individual freedom and excellence by giving undue focus to the need for preserving the social order, which results in bringing the full range of individual differences down to the lowest common denominator.

Both these purviews of power, are necessary for our survival--human survival--the survival of life on earth. Yes, Life.on.Earth! We need both individual excellence, the freedom to engage in self-actualization, and a self-discipline that engages us in remaining socially responsible in our endeavors. These two traits can be seen at play in the practices of competition and cooperation, of opportunism and altruism. Humans are the only species on earth who have the power of discernment and choice in carrying out the achievement of goals and the maintenance of resources--and who have the ability to misuse that power in such a way as to upset the balance of life on our planet.

When individual excellence/achievement/ambition, or imperial exceptionalism/dominance/avarice get out of hand, the social order, the living system of nature is put at risk of collapse.

On the other hand, when a repressive social order, such as that of Lenin and Stalin is over-built and forced onto the people--when all individual freedom and opportunity are squelched in lieu of the so-called good of the state (whole), then the 'living system' is also out of balance and at risk for stagnation.

It is the first imbalance mentioned here, (that of individual/national exceptionalism vs the survival of the whole/the planet), that plagues us today and is the premise of this discussion.

Systems growing out of balance become dysfunctional at greater degrees until they push past the "tipping point" and collapse into chaos and disorder. It's up for grabs then who or what controls the next form of order and rule--and the results of the collapse limit the conditions under which that new order is established.

We are presently seeing as a result of our American exceptionalism, the tipping point of global climate change and the limits of our global energy resources. We are seeing the limits of our debt-based economy, an economy that depends on an ever-expanding growth with an ever-increasing diminishment of our limited natural resources.

Take the "middle way", was the advice of Daedalus to his son, Icarus, upon gifting him with the wings he'd fashioned for him. Held together with wax, their efficacy would not be sustainable soaring at great heights (too near the heat of the Sun). Father cautioned son not to fly too high, but to go the "middle way" across the tumultuous waters or be at risk of falling into their grasp to be tossed and torn apart.

We all know Icarus, in his hubris, in his greedy desire for exceptionalism, did fly too high and so fell to his fate.

Aristotle, too, cautioned us that "the secret of happiness is in the moderation of all things." I'm thinking he meant a functioning system has checks and balances that allow it to run homeostatically. Alas, systems do wear out and lose energy--they fall into collapse and restructure themselves according to a new and more efficient and effective order, or else they come to the end of their niche in the whole. Unpredictable variables come into play during such a first order change as that.

We are in grave circumstances. We are presently embarking upon such a first order change—a major systems change. It may be that few of our established powers and principles will guide us through it. We are challenged to resolve this current dilemma and yet, so far, we founder in uncertainty. Perhaps this process will take us to the edge of our known reality, and require in our next step, an evolution in our knowledge and ability to govern ourselves sustainably. Talk about “one giant leap for mankind”!

Only a wise and benevolent leadership, and an awakened and educated citizenry can take the rudder and guide our ship of state, our planet earth through this maelstrom and into a sustainable future if, in fact, it is within our purview of power at all. At least now, in the environment of change we have installed in the recent electoral process, I have hope.

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