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On a Course of Auto-Destruction

Warning: if you are in a good mood, skip this post, because I’m finding it very hard not to be depressed by the constant reminders of American institutional dysfunction, and this will not be a cheerful meditation.

Everywhere you look, there are people who should know better engaging in self-defeating behaviors and magical thinking, fiddling while America burns. The self-interest (not to mention superior resources) of energy companies—abetted by the scientific illiteracy of the general population–routinely trumps concerns over climate change. Theocratic impulses joined with devotion to old traditions outweigh efforts to extend civil liberties and equal rights to women and LGBT citizens. Privileged classes dismiss concerns about the growing gap between the rich and everyone else, and justify policies that exacerbate the problem with rhetoric about “makers” and “takers.” Despite the growing tally of death and destruction, policymakers seem unable to pass even the most reasonable and modest gun reforms laws.

The list goes on and on.

I’ve tried to examine the unease I’ve been feeling–the growing anxiety that I’ve been experiencing. Until yesterday, however, I couldn’t put my finger on it–couldn’t find an analogy that fit.

Yesterday, it came to me: we’re on the auto-destruct countdown.

Those of you who are Star Trek fans will understand the reference. Spaceships in science fiction always come equipped with a self-destruct sequence, to be used as a last resort to keep the ship from falling into enemy hands. Typically, the captain and first officer will enter their codes into the computer, signaling their agreement to begin the countdown; the dramatic tension comes as the computer’s disembodied voice counts down the minutes until the ship will explode and kill all the crew and passengers.

On television, of course, the bad guys (who, conveniently, are easily identifiable) are thwarted in the nick of time, and the destruct sequence is aborted (usually with mere seconds to spare).

We’re not on television, however, and a real countdown clock is ticking. Unless we do something pretty soon to change our current policy trajectory, we stand a good chance of destroying the America we’ve known–the America with a robust middle class, a functioning government and a belief in the ability of its citizens to meet daunting challenges like those posed by climate change, technology and globalization.

A recent post from Mashable.com that “went viral” provided a pretty graphic demonstration of the way in which wealth is currently distributed in the U.S. There’s ample evidence that disparities of this magnitude are profoundly destabilizing–that left unaddressed, they are inconsistent with a functioning democracy.

These pressing problems require attention and redress, but we are woefully short of leadership capable of meeting the challenges. Too many lawmakers in Washington and state capitols around the country are excessively partisan, inept, or—how do I put this politely?—“lightly tethered to reality.” The result is a government so broken that no one trusts it anymore.

This paralysis–this inability of American government to act on behalf of the common good–is our self-destruct countdown. Either we defeat the enemy that is preventing us from acting in our own self-interest before time runs out, or the ship of state blows up.

Who is that enemy? Permit me to quote the immortal words of Pogo: “I have met the enemy and it is us.”

It’s maddening, because there are so many positive elements of American society. I look at my students, and I’d be proud to turn the country over to them; they are thoughtful, inclusive, determined to contribute to their communities. I look at what science and technology have accomplished, and I marvel at the human ingenuity that has made life better for millions of people. Nonprofit organizations with public-spirited missions are proliferating. Our arts communities are vibrant. Our universities are adding to the sum of human knowledge.

The thing is, all of those social goods require a functional infrastructure: government. And ours is on self-destruct.


Author: Sheila Suess Kennedy is a Professor of Law and Public Policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.

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