The wrangling, yet again, over the debt ceiling — will America default on paying its bills; will it sacrifice “full faith and credit” in the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency; will it actually, by its own hand, destroy its good name in the world; why does it create all this unnecessary drama? — raises, yet again, the question: When will America mature?
Put more idiomatically: When will America grow up?
Because with a mature nation, the question of default would never even arise. Of course it pays its bills. Talk about a hypothetical! It’s what responsible, trustworthy — mature — nations do: honor their obligations. It’s what mature individuals do. We know this.
We also know there are other key areas of national life where we are — how shall I put it? — lacking. Where, developmentally speaking and despite our chronological maturity, we are still juvenile, even infantile. And the tragedy is: With the world turning ever more perilous — strongmen rulers getting ever stronger, employing ever more oppressive methods without check (surveillance, prison, torture, land grabs), bringing Fascism into view — a juvenile, even infantile America, “leader of the free world,” cannot contend or compete. In fact, such immaturity can’t even recognize this hinge moment for its mortal threat.
Again, we know this, and have known it since 9/11, “the day everything changed” — but didn’t. Not only the conscientious public, for whom I have written for over 20 years, but the less conscientious, those who use and abuse America’s signal attribute — our historic freedoms — and are heard to laugh, “Someday, when I grow up.” As if it were an option!
Let’s look — with the stronger, more focused lens of maturity — at our problem areas. Following are seven habits, if you will, of maturity:
ONE: Mature nations do not tank their economies at regular intervals, they steward them.
If America defaults, a historic first, it will be due to political malpractice: Certain politicos were fine with raising the debt ceiling under a Republican president, but not a Democrat? And do we believe these politicos even fathom a default’s tanking effect on the economy, ours and the world’s? But immature behavior in other quarters has also torpedoed us: fast-and-loose bankers on Wall Street (the 2008 financial crash) and now Silicon Valley bankers; and, speaking of Silicon Valley, fast-and-loose techies who regularly create havoc and bubbles. But until the steward replaces the disruptor — until, that is, we mature — economic instability is our lot.
TWO: Mature nations are not afraid of their history, they “front” their hard questions.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of courage to “front” tough questions. The toughest one for America today is the oldest one: delivering, finally, on the promise of the Declaration of Independence, that we are all “created equal.” That promise was expressly not extended to enslaved Blacks; it is still not extended them in freedom, not fully. We all know this: the promise, the continuing inequality, the need to make good on the promise. Yet certain citizens, to protect their white privilege, again thwart a reckoning, crying “CRT” (critical race theory) and civil war. Until we front this race question, we cannot attain maturity.
THREE: Mature nations play well with others in the international arena.
Here, real growth is seen: Instead of the arrogance reflected in the wars of choice we waged in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the deference America is showing to Ukraine in ensuring it is the prime driver in its existential struggle with the invader Russia shows that the superpower can mature. It’s also a wise superpower that organizes coalitions and bolsters alliances. For all the deference and cooperation, the American superpower looms as large as ever. Plus, as the matured superpower, it is good to be liked and trusted again. Of course, a default by America would dent, if not destroy that new reputation.
FOUR: Mature cultures don’t exalt the anti-heroic, but the heroic — the responsible, truthful, trustworthy, can-do.
Our impoverished culture is best captured in a 2022 essay — “American Culture Is Trash Culture” (print edition: “Trash Nation: American Culture Is at Its Purest When It’s in the Gutter”), by Wesley Morris, critic at large at The New York Times. In it, the critic exalts the “lewdness” of movies 30 years ago (he gets specific), stating: “[I]t’s not just that trash is what we want; it’s….who we are.” But the last 20 years disappoint him: “The trash urge is now the superhero urge…. They’re moral…. The gutters are getting a power wash.” Not that I think superheroes point the way — ordinary characters will do — but moral content is needed. And not that this critic got the trash culture wrong: He got it right. But I do wish the critic had pointed past the juvenilia, i.e., the trash and the superheroes — to a mature Art.
FIVE: Mature nations handle their freedom responsibly.
Too many Americans interpret freedom to mean: “I can do anything I please,” damn the social impact. On the right, this attitude was seen in the fierce opposition during the pandemic to vaccines and masks — a fatal attitude resulting in masses of unnecessary deaths. It is also seen in the fierce, and fatal, attachment to guns — no matter the carnage, no matter the sorrow left behind. (The hideous precedent of schools targeted of late must be noted.) On the left, conversely, this solipsistic attitude is seen in the insistence that the heart wants what it wants, no boundaries permitted — an attitude also fatal in its social impact, i.e., decadence (see: Rome). If America is to mature, the social impact must be considered, as we each exercise our scope of freedom. This entails relocating our moral compass.
SIX: Mature nations, knowing that anger deranges, rise above.
America is an extremely angry place now. For myriad reasons, we’ve gotten to this hot, hot point — and the derangement is everywhere visible. Notably in politics where, on the debt limit, no sense is being made by certain politicos (O.K., it’s Republicans). A party in decline, the GOP makes a fetish of its anger, which blinds it to default’s mortal peril. (The fetish extends to Donald Trump’s “retribution tour” for 2024.) Deep breath, everybody. Anger makes us deaf, Shakespeare said; it also blinds. All humans have an inner wolf; too many have let it loose. Mature humans cage the wolf. Mature humans also know there’s no acid like cynicism. Dilute it.
SEVEN: Mature nations, knowing that lies and lying lead to collapse, embrace Truth.
By now, after eight years of the pathological liar Trump, we see everywhere the ruinous effect of lies and lying — from campaign ads peddling outright fabrications (pity the fact-checkers) to the implication that all news is “fake” and all elections are “fraudulent” and — coming soon — all is illusion and everything is permitted. Democracies, by their very nature people-based, cannot function when the constituent’s word is disbelieved. Liberals hurt us with their “Truth is relative” line. There really is such a thing as Truth. Will we discover this eternal verity in time? Closely allied is another verity: There is the Law and no one is above it.
Readers will add to this master list (“What? Only seven items?”). I have other issues. For one, the look-at-me, over-the-top behavior on view everywhere, from the immature Elon Musk to just about everything in pop culture. For another, the lack of regard for the mature woman, seen in the absurd spectacle at just about any TV anchor desk or film premier where aging men are partnered with young women (O.K., special pleading here). We will know America is mature when it doesn’t brake for every shiny new object, every young new thing, every shocking new shock.
I hear kvetching: “So boring, to be ‘mature.’” Such cavil will come from the immature. Just a few advantages of maturity: Wit will replace yuck-yuck, wisdom will prevail over the meme and the influencer, probity will prevail over hucksterism, and honey shall flow throughout the land. It is a dream, but a beautiful one, and true. There really is nothing to do but grow up, mature. Because how much longer can this carnival act go on?
Cavilers will cavil: “In this carnival, good luck with your sweet message.” (See what I mean about cynicism?) But at least the “Grow up” message is not the same-old, same-old “reach-across-the-aisle” boilerplate, which by now makes all eyes glaze over. Try it at the next family barbecue with your opposite number: “What about it, shall we….grow up?”
Again we know, we all do, that we need to do this: mature.
Finally, the final reason America must mature. Not examined here (but examined in my series of books, “Can America Save Itself from Decline?”), is America as a special case, as a global superpower. It is not a good thing if a superpower is immature; it is tragic, even dangerous. Great nations throughout History rise and rise, then decline and fall. See: Greece, Rome, Persia, etc. We are at a hinge-point — of decline: We can go up or we can go down. If we do not mature, most assuredly we will go down. But it we mature….
Out of the Dark Ages, came the Renaissance.