Seventy-five percent of Americans say the country is moving in the wrong direction. But that isn’t the problem they actually perceive. It isn’t that they think we should go East when we’re heading West. It’s that, like an unprogrammed GPS, we have no idea where we want to go.
Americans love their GPS. They love it not because it can tell heading North from South; any compass can do that. They love it because when you put in a particular location, it will, mostly, direct you there. But that presupposes that you have a particular destination in mind.
America was least lost in the years following World War 2. There had been two very specific objectives, both of which had been achieved. We wanted to restore a failed economy and introduce renewed prosperity. Done. We wanted to defeat the most evil threat the world had ever known. Done.
We proceeded on autopilot for decades, though there were bumps on the road. It was about prosperity and freedom. When there were obstacles to either, we eliminated or overcame them. There were recessions here and there, but they passed. There was global Communism, which we fought wherever we found it, and found it sometimes where it wasn’t.
Then some things happened. A new generation was born, which had no native knowledge of any of that. A new economic generation was born, with money machines on a scale that dwarfed anything in history. A new technological generation was born, transforming the nature of human experience. A new threat to freedom and security emerged, though it didn’t much look like the Communism we had come to know, hate, and fight. Whereas only two countries had world-destroying weapons after WW2, the list was now long and growing.
And then, on top of all that, the prosperity we had depended on for more than sixty years was put into question. It wasn’t that it was taking a break. Maybe it would never come back again, ever, at least not the way it had been.
Which brings us back to the ‘wrong direction” question. If we say that 20th century-style prosperity and that freedom and security are what America is living for, is our personal and national direction, there is nothing wrong with that. But what if that is something we can’t program into our national GPS because it is not a destination we can reach, at least not fully and unconditionally?
We can keep saying we are moving in the wrong direction. Politicians and leaders are more than happy to exploit this, telling us who to blame and how they can fix it. But maybe we are lost, and should admit it, and should spend our energy figuring out, very specifically, without vague ideas of “prosperity” and “freedom”, where exactly we want to go, and then how we might get there.