Guest author Albert Borgmann is back by popular demand. Borgmann is a world renowned philosopher of technology and culture. He previously wrote on this blog about how Facebook and Apple bring undisclosed costs to society. Here he talks about a possible way of healing the growing political rifts of our tribal time. He puts his faith in “country,” but he does not use the term in its familiar sense. Borgmann sees country as a vigorous combination of nature and culture, land and people. Having come to the U.S. from Germany, he regrets that Americans do not find more common purpose in the remarkable natural splendors available in the landscapes that surround them.
There has been much lamenting about the polarization of our society. It’s split between the left and the right. But there have been complaints as well that the elite, both liberal and conservative, has lost touch with the people and that the people have responded with resentment and rejection of the established order.
Thoughtful observers have asked themselves: What is missing here? How do we reach the disaffected? Liberals and conservatives have come up with different answers. From the liberal side, you hear calls for a revival and the implementation of the ideals of social justice—good jobs, decent housing, guaranteed healthcare, quality education for all, ending systemic racism. The fight to realize these goals is a noble struggle. But those engaged in these battles are less enthusiastic than dutiful, except when opposition reawakens old enthusiasms and actions.
But normally, fatigue rather than a welling up of energy and confidence is what these soldiers in the good causes feel. My God, I can’t believe that we still have to fight for voting rights. Why can’t we have a single-payer healthcare system the way all industrial democracies do? How can people still be so indifferent to global warming? To be sure, the more overt the forces of oppression, the more the old enthusiasms flare up, but it’s not a fire that is spreading beyond the progressive faithful.
The conservatives have been trying to gain the approval of the disaffected by promising more prosperity for the middle class, the people roughly in the twentieth to the ninetieth percentile rank in the hierarchy of income and wealth. More prosperity—more food, more stuff, more entertainment? There’s too much of this already; look at obesity, the mini-storage places that dot the landscape, and the distractions that are interfering with work and family. There’s evidence from the 2016 Voter Survey that Trump voters were moved more by ideological than economic concerns in the support of their candidate.
Granted, our hunting and gathering genes now and then erupt in buying sprees, but their pleasures quickly evaporate. The promise of prosperity and of the freedom from want and servitude was for a long time the force that shaped this country and drew many millions of immigrants to its shores. But that force appears to be spent. It’s not as though the middle class has never known comfort and prosperity, it’s that their grip on them has become shaky, and they don’t trust the elite, liberal or conservative, to restore certainty.
I’d like to suggest that there’s a yet deeper and wider uncertainty that haunts American society. The disaffected have a feeling that they are troubled by something more profound and substantial than the failures of the liberal and conservative programs. It’s the lack of a vision of what it is to be a vigorous and grounded person and a member of a vigorous and grounded people. But what could be the ground that we as a people should be rooted in? Something we once had and that now has been lost? A common purpose, a sense of belonging? Beyond these nostalgic sentiments and gauzy words, actions turn from disaffection to resentment, from resentment to hostility, and from hostility to hate and exclusion. Thoughtful observers, who agree that the party programs are exhausted and who share the sense that something has in fact been lost, have been more specific in their reactions. They have pleaded for a return to marriage, family, religion, and community. But these institutions too are suffering from erosion, if not as severely as the political institutions.
There is a thing that could ground us all; and to one who spent his youth in Germany, it’s incredible that it is so little appreciated in our cultural and political discussions. It’s the splendor of this country. We sing of it occasionally—“O beautiful for spacious skies,” or “This land is your land, this land is my land.” Compared with a European country, our land has these incredible expanses from ocean to ocean. It’s blessed with great variety from northern rain forests to deserts and bayous. The richness of wildlife is a treasure that’s been lost in almost of all of Europe for many hundreds of years.
The country is two things of course, the land and the people. Living in Hawaii for three years has taught me the striking beauty of people of mixed races, the richness of diverse ethnicities, and the relaxed pleasure of never being surprised at what the next person will look like and what her speech will sound like.
So my hope is that love of country will bring us together. Love of country is not a magical fountain of peace and good will. The land is drenched with the sweat and blood of people who have been suppressed, exploited, and massacred. And the land on its part has been violated and abused. But my hunch is that most everyone in thoughtful moments feels love of this country and would not want to live elsewhere.
Land and people have of course been sources of disagreement and worse. We love the land in different ways and disagree on how it should be treated. We love some kinds of people more than others, and some we continue to treat with contempt or even hostility. But two things give me hope. One is that the obstacles in the way of a more deeply shared love of country are issues that are not marginal, inflated beyond their importance, mere devices to gain an unearned sense of superiority. These are our problems, they deserve our attention and painful efforts. The other thing is that if we look at those divisive issues with enough patience and generosity, we’ll discover our shared love of country and find in it a source of hope and cooperation.