Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Fizzle of Barely Imagined Communities

In his often-cited book Imagined Communities (which I confess I have never actually read) Benedict Anderson apparently asserts that nations are essentially "imagined" communities--constructed by our minds rather than imposed upon us by any transcendent ("primordial") logic of geography or genetics. We are Australian or French or Brazilian because we see ourselves as such, because we associate ourselves (albeit to varying degrees) with a set of values and a way of thinking that carry that label and to which other like-minded people adhere. This is not necessarily a "choice" we make (though it can be); usually, though, we begin to think of ourselves as members of this community at the very moment that we begin to think, shortly after our birth at a given time and place. Initially, and perhaps even throughout our entire lives, we reflexively and unselfconsciously embrace this identity, barely even questioning the matter.

However, as I look at today's world map, it appears to me that an "imagined community" is not necessarily a group of "brethren" who hold warm, fraternal feelings toward their fellow citizens or whose thinking on everyday subjects is homogeneously aligned. Such communities of benign, cooperative, similarly focused citizens may indeed exist (in Northern Europe, say, or in New Zealand or in Japan). But other imagined communities comprise a citizenry whose like-mindedness is relatively limited--sometimes to little more than a mutual agreement to compete and attempt to prevail by following a brief and undemanding set of "ground rules"--a skeletal social contract like the Constitution of the United States. The members of such a barely imagined, heterogeneous community may not, in fact, share an especially large number of cultural traits or values (they may, for example, espouse profoundly divergent views about personal morality, religious practice, economic systems, educational policy). In such nations, the communal feelings depend almost entirely on a common allegiance to the aforementioned ground rules (i.e., constitution) and manifest themselves most frequently in a) disputes over what the broadly stated rules "actually mean" and b) disputes with members of other imagined communities (in wars, financial affairs, or sporting events). Otherwise, there is little internal fraternity or "communion"(Anderson's term) and little consensus about what goals the commonwealth as a whole should pursue.

It is this lack of consensus or agreed-upon focus that disturbs me most about barely imagined communities--of which the United States is surely a prime example. I simply see scant evidence that such societies, held together as they are by little more than a skeleton of legal precepts (as opposed to a homogeneous society where nearly everyone shares the solid flesh of linguistic, economic, ethical, religious and culinary values) can genuinely function effectively as democracies. It seems to me that effective democracy requires the existence of a genuine demos, a kind of collective ego, a shared vision of Where We Want to Go. Unfortunately, alas, in our barely imagined framework, instead of such a collective vision, we encounter only multitudinous individual visions--an Alice-in-Wonderland intersection of roads to choose from--all of which constitutionally, at least, have equal validity and no single one of which is therefore likely to command the commitment of a majority of our barely imagined community. Like Alice: we do not know where we want to go, and worse, we don't even have a Cheshire Cat to offer hints about what lies ahead. Instead, we simply dissipate all our energy dithering, quarreling about virtually everything, paralyzed by the sheer quantity of possibilities and by our democratic equality. In short, by the operation of our so-called democratic processes, we cannot decide which, among all these roads, is worth taking--so we spin collectively about and take none at all.

What is lacking here, and what is not lacking in more completely imagined communities, is guidance, either a guiding principle or guiding person (more helpful than the Cheshire Cat)--something or someone to provide the direction that our focus-less equivocation requires. In Norway, such guidance probably comes from the citizenry's shared internalized beliefs about the common good--and in such a context, traditional consensus-based democracy can undoubtedly be successful. But in big, raucous, heterogeneous societies--where internalized common focus is notoriously lacking--democracy seems to merely aggravate indecisiveness. Interestingly, our much revered Founding Fathers--all basically planter/merchant philosophes--never in their wildest dreams "imagined" a community structured as a true "one-man-one-vote" democracy. Isn't it amusing, then, that modern-day Americans "imagine" that the Founders did indeed "imagine" a democratic community? Oddly, it would seem, our "barely imagined" community is also an "imaginary imagined community."

Well, OK. So what's my point? In a  nutshell, this: in the absence of shared internalized values to direct us, our barely imagined community requires not democracy, but some form of (let us be frank) absolutism. To the extent that our democratic indecisiveness renders us powerless to escape what the Cheshire Cat labels madness, we are precisely to that extent in need of a strong hand and a strong mind to lead us out of the bewildering roundabout. This is not a comfortable thought, I admit. Autocracy, despotism, dictatorship--all are terms that have acquired negative connotations--precisely because, throughout history, individuals entrusted with such concentrated power have, all too often, severely and disastrously subverted their assigned duty as overseer of a nation's well-being.

And yet, despite the abominations (Caligula, Savonarola, Attila, Ivan IV, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot), so many of humankind's most admirable moments have crystallized around the leadership of an autocrat: Pericles, Alexander, Augustus, Lorenzo de Medici, Akbar, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, the Tokugawa shoguns, Peter I, Napoleon, Bismarck, Churchill, De Gaulle. (OK, all of these people did harm as well as good, but, grosso modo and in the long view, more of the latter than the former.)

In American history, though, I can think of only two such moments of widely-recognized greatness--and in both instances, an overwhelming national crisis actually obliged our people to disregard the fractiousness encouraged by the Constitution and grant (reluctantly, but in direst necessity) autocratic powers to a president: the Civil War gave us Lincoln; the Great Depression and World War II gave us Franklin Roosevelt.

Alas, with the subsidence of those crises and their aftermaths, we have reverted once again to our lazy default position of barely imagining any common goals and of doing basically nothing. Must we await, then, another life-or-death crisis before we rouse ourselves once again to entrust out common destiny to the vision of an autocrat? If so, such a moment is probably not for tomorrow. But it will undoubtedly come one day--and there's a good chance that it will be bestowed upon us by the actions of more easily accepted autocrats in other more logically imagined communities--China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, a yet-to-be-born Islamic Caliphate.

This is a very discouraging line of thought, isn't it? In fact, I wish I had never begun it. It seems to offer so little chance for my barely imagined country--in its futile attempt to nonetheless function as a democracy--to achieve any enduring greatness. All civilizations die eventually. But some move the human trajectory forward--whereas others just pop, fizzle a while, and then trickle forgettably away. I think I hear a lot of fizzling.

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