America is large, diverse, and complicated, and hard to describe in one word; ‘feedback’ is a possibility, and it explains our ‘Big 3’ freedoms, as well.
America in One Word
I asked friends on facebook to describe the USA, America, in one word. I was surprised at the number of people who responded. Some were positive and optimistic, but many of them were negative and jaded. We live in contentious times. One college classmate gave the completely accurate but snarky answer for the USA, ‘Acronym’.
The answers that appeared more than once were:
- Freedom (8)
- Divided (5)
- Broken (4)
- Home (4)
- Blessed (3)
- Opportunity (3)
- Confused (2)
- Diverse/Diversity (2)
- Oligarchy (2)
- Racist (2)
(For the other attempts to describe America in one word, see below.) The most common suggestion was what I expected, ‘freedom’. That, of course, is one of the things we pride ourselves upon, but several people pointed out that our freedoms are not complete, we are not completely free. That is certainly one of my concerns with ‘freedom’, and one of the reasons for this post.
Probably the most accurate response, though, was the person who suggested, “All of the Above!” In an egalitarian, democratic state, with guaranteed freedom of thought and expression, all opinions have some validity.
Which brings up another point. One person eMailed me, and expressed his disappointment with the negativity. I did a quick count, and the positives and negatives were roughly equal. As noted, we’re in a contentious time, and dooms-dayers have always been around. End-times predictions are certainly part of the Western tradition, which has been key to our country’s history.
Of course, there were also words that might seem negative, but I would argue are really positive, and are even sources of our strength. They come under the heading of ‘diversity’; not just racial diversity, but intellectual diversity, a diversity of opinions and a diversity of skills, things which make our system dynamic, flexible, and robust. Those include words such as challenged; complicated; contentious; contradictory; divided; multitudinous; opinion; troubled; and tumultuous. Those, in turn provide a different consideration of the popular use of ‘schizophrenic’.In popular media, schizophrenia refers to someone with conflicting personalities/thoughts. The medical term refers to a different, very deep dysfunction.
America, Pro and Con
I wanted to get ideas from my friends before weighing in with my own suggestion. For some years I’ve been searching for a single word that might describe us. Mind you, I’m no jingoist; the USA has problems. So does every country; in fact, that is one of the insights. The question isn’t, Who has problems?
The question is, Who is addressing their problems? We can’t address our problems if we ignore and deny them.
The USA has our strengths, too. Technologically and economically, we’re the best in the world. In the liberal arts, we hold our own. Our cuisine lags. Socially, we’re an odd mix: I think we have one of the most democratic and fluid social cultures in the world, with ‘rags-to-riches’ stories reaching the point of triteness. And at least on some fronts we implement social change rather quickly; we went from the Montgomery Bus Boycotts to an African-American President in just over 50 years.
On the other hand, our social safety net is perhaps the worst among the developed countries, with high neonatal death rates, extremely high incarceration rates, and often brutal approaches toward the uneducated and impoverished (and I would argue that crime is partly a result of misguided educational priorities). We are also one of just 8 countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee universal healthcare.
Yet we hypocritically claim more loudly than any other country that we are Christian,Except perhaps the Vatican, of course. all the while ignoring the maxim, “If ye have done if for these, the least of my brethren… ”
We are nevertheless remarkable. Our adversaries, such as the Russians and Chinese, point out that we are simply lucky: we inherited (stole, really, but so did every nation) an enormous territory with a temperate climate, rich soil, and tremendous natural resources. Those observations are true.
Another, often unmentioned advantage, is that we are largely isolated. To the north we have Canada, with whom we share many cultural and political traditions. Our only truly exotic neighbor is Mexico, to the south. But that’s it; except for a few Caribbean islands, we have no other neighbors.
The point of that is, we have been able to largely avoid war in our country (yes, we went to war with Canada and Mexico, but that was a long time ago). There has not been a significant invasion of the USA since the War of 1812; the bloodiest war we fought was an internal conflict, the Civil War which ended 150 years ago. This not only leaves us with great stability, and has helped us avoid the large diversion and destruction of resources and infrastructure that war demands. But it also leaves us optimistic, and less fearful/neurotic than other countries.I once read an academic paper contending that Russia’s national character of paranoia and pessimism dates back to the ravages of Genghis Khan, 700 years ago. Conquest is horror.
With apologies to the Russians and Chinese, however, those alone are insufficient to explain our success. We can point to any number of struggling countries that are rich in resources, and which have avoided recent invasion, some of which are rather large. Many of them have not prospered much.
To understand the USA, it is critical to include our laws, our traditions, and our culture. In particular, we must consider the Big 3 Freedoms, the ideological concepts which are strongly identified with America since 1776, and with all progressive countries: Democracy; Free Markets; and Freedom of Expression. Only the third is original to the New World, but the USA has largely defined all of the Big 3 Freedoms for other modern nations.
Those are three concepts, however, not one. And those three alone are still insufficient to explain us, or more to my point here, to protect us. Hitler was democratically elected; free markets are vulnerable to exploitation by monopolists and profiteers; and freedom of expression allows for dishonesty and populist inflammations, which can also be used to undermine our system. The Big 3 Freedoms can be used to destroy the freedoms they are designed to protect.
So I expanded my search to identify a single concept which might describe us, unite the Big 3 Freedoms, and which might add nuance to our understanding, helping to make for adjustments as we go.
After years of thought, let me suggest a rather ungainly word: feedback. The word as we understand it comes from ‘feedback loop’, which is fairly recent. The OED says that ‘feedback’ first appeared in 1923 in Harmsworth’s Wireless Encyclopedia. Harmsworth simply defines feedback as a power transfer from one part of a circuit to another. The concept has advanced and expanded from that simple start. In biology, Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon introduced the concept of ‘homeostasis’, the idea that biological systems such as temperature, pH, salt content, and others, are tightly maintained within narrow ranges, which we can now show is accomplished through a system of feedback loops. Feedback loops are also, not surprisingly, fundamental in artificial intelligence, robotics, and cybernetics, where it is critical to logical behavior.
If you consider the Big 3 Freedoms of advanced government, you can see that what unites them is that they all provide feedback loops. Don’t do your job in government, you (and possibly your party) will not be re-elected, or you may even be recalled. Don’t do your job in the marketplace, and your business will be out of business.
As for freedom of expression, that one is part of all other feedback loops. It supports the feedback loops for both government and the marketplace.
This is not a small insight. The American Founders claimed lofty philosophical principles, but they did not start with philosophy and history. They only found solutions in them. (Of course, philosophy was not always a help; remember The Ship of Fools. Socrates and Plato argued that democracy was an unstable form of governance.)
The Founders started their deliberations with their own experiences, problems, and complaints in dealing with England. The colonists were often manhandled by British royal forces. But they were often defrauded by British merchants as well. The colonists had not without practicable recourse, because there was no effective feedback.
Benjamin Franklin is a good case study: the Pennsylvania Assembly sent him repeatedly to England to deal with the abuses of the Penn family and the Crown. Franklin left the colonies a royalist, but the incompetence he experienced—i.e. the lack of feedback—and the bored indifference of the Crown and nobility convinced Good Doctor Franklin to become an ardent republican.
Corrective and Protective
The insight of feedback appears to be a pretty good corrective, and protective. Hitler was democratically elected, but like all dictators, he eliminated feedback loops: critics, particularly those in the press, were regular assassinated, even before Hitler became Chancellor.
Monopolies work under the rubrics of free markets, but they also eliminate the free market, and with it, the possibility of feedback loops. If there are no competitors, if consumers have no options, then feedback is muzzled. In a world that is changing rapidly, those problems leave the monopolist’s industry, and his host nation, at a great disadvantage.
And then there is freedom of expression, particularly of the press. Increasingly, the press is becoming largely immune to any concerns beyond the financial. Currently 80% of the books in the US are produced from just 5 companies, only two of which are American corporations. 90% of all U.S. media—books, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, Internet—are produced and controlled by 6 corporations. Those media empires, in turn, are controlled by just 15 billionaires.
And less and less do they cover news in a global way that improves the citizen. More and more, they publish the news in whatever way most profits the owners. First, that means that news changes from global challenges to an emphasis on pop culture. The media also focuses on anger, which is highly profitable. That leaves the citizen vulnerable to the other eliminations of feedback loops, despots and monopolists alike. And certainly, media rarely exposes the abuses of their advertisers. So frequently, we may not even hear about corporate and oligarchic skulduggery.
Here, however, the feedback loop of boycotts provides a remedy. Recently, various political and special interest groups have been able to wield power against power, by refusing to purchase from industries that interfere with politics and the press. Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King used the Montgomery bus boycotts to change the character of our democracy. And people today have a vast array of technologies that they might use to fight back against oppressive government and corporations.
So we see that the vulnerability of the Big 3 Freedoms is also their value: the feedback loop. Eliminate the feedback loop, and our laws and rules are nullified, and there is no freedom.
Strengthen feedback, however, and our country, and progress, thrive.
Continue reading below…
The Power of Stumbling
This also explains the constant criticisms of the advanced nations, which come from the ‘second world’ countries. The third world lacks resources, wealth, and education. In contrast, the second world includes those countries which have resources and well, as well as the intellectual and technological tools to move forward, but who are held back because of their primitive political systems. Chief among these second-world countries are Russia and China. The leadership of these countries point to the stumbles and embarrassments in the advanced countries, and insist that this is proof that we are not actually advanced.
What the second world countries miss is that our stumbles and embarrassments are proof our our strength. Interpreting it otherwise represents an antiquated way of looking at strength, and progress. In a primitive, static world, strength is simply overpowering others, and insisting that they maintain the current power structure: do the same things as they have always been done.
But in a world that is progressing rapidly, experimentation and failure are essential. Which brings us back to the considerations of ‘diversity’, above. The claims that we are divided do not prove that we are weak, they show that we are open, they are evidence that continued progress is possible. It is only to would-be monarchs and monopolists that disagreement is seen as a weakness.
And as countries like Russia and China have not yet fully abandoned monarchy and monopoly, they cannot understand that the decentralized and diffuse messiness of a free people is their strength.
Not their weakness.
Tolerance is Strength
Our stumbles, and our tolerance for diversity and error, are proof of our strength. To remain competitive in a changing world, debate, difference, and even default, are essential. The Chinese and Russians miss the strengths in our processes, and those strengths are the same feedback loops that those governments often block.
If the right feedback loops are in place, all problems will correct themselves.
These ideas are more fully explored in my award-winning book, Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation.
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Other suggestions for describing America in one word that are not noted above:
Archaic; Bats***; Betrayed; Big; Bought; Challenged; Changing; Codependence; Commercial; Complicated; Compromised; Contentious; Contradictory; Darkening; Declining; Delusional; Disgrace; Dying; Dysfunctional; Ethnocentric; Exceptional; Experiment; God; Hijacked; Hope; Human; Ignorant; Illicit; Jingoistic; Lost; ‘Merica; Multitudinous; Opinion; Over-Accomodating; Pluribus; Plutocracy; Possibilities; Regressing; Religious Freedom; Republic; Safe; Schizophrenic; Screwed; Selfish; Simple-Minded; Solipsist; Strength; Strong; Superficial; Troubled; Tumultuous; Underappreciated; Unqualified; Westward; Winning; Wrecked/Wretched; Young.
Graphic courtesy of WordClouds.com.
|↑1||In popular media, schizophrenia refers to someone with conflicting personalities/thoughts. The medical term refers to a different, very deep dysfunction.|
|↑2||Except perhaps the Vatican, of course.|
|↑3||I once read an academic paper contending that Russia’s national character of paranoia and pessimism dates back to the ravages of Genghis Khan, 700 years ago. Conquest is horror.|