An authentically individual American is very hard to find. After all, our omnivorous mass society has absolutely no intention of encouraging personal self-actualization. To the contrary, a soulless American herd now marches in largely uncomplaining lockstep toward further fragmentation, growing isolation, and a glaringly stark inequality.
It is possible for us to be lonely in the world, or lonely for the world. Sadly, in America, the literally mindless celebration of mass society has managed to produce both.
What about higher education? Most American universities are now more or less expensive training schools, offering jobs, but not learning. As a university professor for more than 40 years, I have personally witnessed the incremental and vulgar transformation of intellectual life into commodities and raw commerce.
Once upon a time, America's universities still prided themselves on being more than an adjunct to the wider corporate worlds of manipulation, thievery, and contrivance. No more. Today, once capable professors, cowed by a barely literate university administration, struggle mightily against a veneered but unhidden ethos of intellectual surrender. Today, even in our so-called "major universities," the life of the mind is a very scant and undistinguished volume.
Let us be candid. We Americans are generally driven forward not by any identifiable nobility of purpose, but by a great collective agitation. Now, our signposts are found in cycles of inane commercial repetition, and in the synergistic momentum of easily purchasable diplomas, endlessly dehumanizing entertainments, and corrosively bad foods.
In principle, at least, we may wish to slow down a bit, rise courageously above the barest minimums of societal expectation, and declare honestly that "life is good." But, we remain blocked by an incontestable reality. Stubbornly, our country now imposes upon its legions of exhausted people the deadening cadence of ritual conformity, and the breathless rhythms of a non-stop machine.
The end of all this concocted delirium is easy enough to see. It is to prevent us from remembering who we are, who we once were, and who we might once have become.
In 2012, we should finally ask, What does it mean to be an American? We pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but almost no one really cares about these musty old documents. Invoked only for ostentation, the legal and philosophical foundations of the United States are today the provinces of a tiny handful of people. For the most part, we now lack any sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, sports team loyalties, and the peculiarly comforting brotherhoods of senseless and unwinnable war.
Let us be candid. In spite of our claim to "rugged individualism," we Americans are shaped by the mass. Our battered society bristles reassuringly with seductive jingles, shameless hucksterism, crude allusions, and rhyming equivocations. Surely, we think, there must be something more to this country than surviving and fitting-in. "I celebrate myself, and sing myself," once wrote the Transcendentalist poet, Walt Whitman, but today the American self is seemingly content with accepting a progression of personal surrenders, and with securing a deliberately calculated refuge of insignificance and anonymity.
Any inclination to believe that change and improvement must still lie in the coming presidential election is sorely mistaken. No doubt, key campaign issues do need to be addressed, but so too does our willing absorption in the shapeless and unremarkable American mass. Only the few can ever redeem our deeply troubled nation, and this excruciatingly tiny cadre of seeing individuals will never be found among presidential hopefuls.
To be sure, the coming elections are not inherently damaging, or fundamentally misconceived. Rightly, we still believe in democratic ideas, even when they represent a convenient masquerade for plutocracy. What is harmful and wrong for us to believe is that elections somehow represent an independently promising path to citizen growth, prosperity, and fulfillment.