America in decline: nothing personal

When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978…

In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.

— Peter Turchin, “1977-2017: A Retrospective

Our moment is the first in any living person’s lifetime (or in America’s lifetime, most probably) of convergence between structural-demographic “disintegration” and imperial decline. How does this manifest in today’s politics? “Make America Great Again” as an all-purpose banner for fear of emasculation and obsolescence.

Not being the sole (or even primary) geopolitical superpower isn’t a tragedy. Just ask the happy, prosperous folks in Denmark, or the happy, piss-poor folks in Bhutan. But for people who lived the unipolar moment of the fabled 90s, disorientation is to be expected.

To what degree is international status anxiety contributing to America’s internal “disintegrative” trend by making people feel like dispensable losers? It’d be hard to gauge. To be sure, it’s not the main driver of our spike in partisan rancor, mass shootings, fatal overdoses, and endemic complacency.

But the degree to which Americans cling to exceptionalism can’t be psychologically healthy (Hell, I voted for Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders, and the thought of America not being #1 even stings me a bit!). And when this clinging plays out at the ballot box, tectonic plates shift—and never in our favor.

How can we convince people that changes in the global order needn’t be experienced as personal tragedy?

Dealing with violence, laying down our mood affiliations

Las Vegas: no words. I don’t know why he did it, and I don’t know what the solution is. More importantly, I have no dog in the fight. I just don’t want to see more people killed.

Rather than trying to frame a narrative around the who and why, to the end of arguing that x kind of violence is preventable and y kind isn’t, or that z kind of discourse about kind of violence only serves z people, let’s lay down our tribal histrionics and agree on this: America has a violence problem.

Before we get caught up in secondary issues—the religious and racial background of the assailant, the motive (stated or unstated), or the degree to which policy can prevent such attacks—let us also agree: we must try our best to combat violence, whatever form it takes.

It turns out that this neutral formulation is too much to ask. Because people don’t see “violence” (I would bet that mothers do a better job at this than others)—they see “gun nut violence”, “jihadi violence”, “black inner city violence”, “white nationalist violence”, “police violence”, and “misogynistic domestic violence”, and exercise selective concern.

I would forgive this if people were selectively concerned out of self-interest—but that doesn’t seem to be the case. We’re not designed to weigh contemporary probabilities of harm with much accuracy.

Instead, selective concern about violence seems to be a matter of tribal mood affiliation: e.g. “I am a conservative; we conservatives see mass shootings by white men as the price of freedom” or “I am a liberal; we liberals see talk about black-on-black violence as a racist smokescreen”.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about mass shootings. I don’t know if stricter gun laws will help thwart them, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without lurching into authoritarianism.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about police brutality. I don’t know if post-Ferguson reforms will make a difference, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without depriving police of the ability to do their job.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. I don’t know if global war on terror measures or naming and shaming of Islamic fundamentalists, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without running roughshod over civil liberties.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about the violence in inner cities that disproportionately claims the lives of young black men. I don’t know if stricter gun laws and smarter policing will help mitigate it, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without encouraging racist policing.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about white nationalist terrorism. I don’t know if stricter monitoring, naming and shaming, or stricter gun control will make a difference, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without policing nonviolent speech.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about misogynistic violence at home and on the street. I don’t know if arming women, disarming men, or stricter policing of domestic violence complaints will change the game, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without eliminating the burden of proof.

It is hard, even unnatural, to conceive of all forms of violence as “one thing”. But it’s our best hope. When we pick and choose which forms of violence to freak out about and which to bury, we open the door to others doing the exact opposite. And then nothing gets solved.