The USA is weird. Granted, the whole of North America and western Europe is WEIRD (i.e. western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) and hence atypical of humanity in general; but America is really weird.
The westernmost nation of the West has its most prestigious universities, its most advanced industries, its richest rich people and its most expensive democracy. In most things, the US is just like the rest of us, only more so. For instance, while most western democracies have their disruptive populist politicians, America is thus far unique in electing one to the top job.
Unsurprisingly, to have a man like Trump as President has led to a degree of national self-doubt. Google the words ‘America’ and ‘failed state’ you’ll find respectable publications giving serious consideration as to whether the US qualifies.
In a post on Eudaimonia and Co, Umair Haque takes issue with the declinists – arguing that their accounts don’t go nearly far enough:
“…whatever ‘numbers’ we use to represent decline — shrinking real incomes, inequality, and so on—we are in fact grossly underestimating what pundits call the ‘human toll’, but which sensible human beings like you and I should simply think of as the overwhelming despair, rage, and anxiety of living in a collapsing society.”
He doesn’t pull his punches:
“When we take a hard look at US collapse, we see a number of social pathologies on the rise. Not just any kind. Not even troubling, worrying, and dangerous ones. But strange and bizarre ones. Unique ones. Singular and gruesomely weird ones I’ve never really seen before…”
He gives five examples. The first is truly horrifying – even if we have grown used to it:
“America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days. That’s one every other day, more or less. That statistic is alarming enough — but it is just a number. Perspective asks us for comparison. So let me put that another way. America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq…
“Why are American kids killing each other? Why doesn’t their society care enough to intervene?”
His second example is the opioid epidemic, which has a hydra-headed ability to produce monstrous new developments. Again, Haque sees it as “unique to American life”:
“In many countries in the world — most of Asia and Africa — one can buy all the opioids one wants from any local pharmacy, without a prescription… Yet we don’t see opioid epidemics anywhere but America — especially not ones so vicious and widespread they shrink life expectancy.”
With further examples he charts a nation that has lost societal support structures that exist almost everywhere else.
Is Haque overdoing the American exceptionalism?
Perhaps, but in many ways America is exceptional. It is, for instance, the only example of a western nation that functions on a continental scale (most of Canada and Australia being devoid of human habitation). Perhaps that’s why the WEIRDness of American culture is less constrained than anywhere else on the planet.
This makes America the most liberal of liberal democracies. There are many definitions of liberalism; but, ultimately, it’s the idea that the purpose of politics is to maximise individual freedom. If the choice is between social cohesion and personal liberty, then the liberal inclination is towards the latter.
In every western nation, whether it prefers a bigger state or a smaller one, liberalism has eaten away at what Haque calls the “body social”. America is where the process is most advanced – and as result we see the results manifested in forms unfamiliar to other nations.
However, while the rest of us may be in a different place, we’re still on the same path.