How can we sum up all of America in One Word? It’s a challenge, but an important exercise. Needless to say, in a democracy, there are many different responses.
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, optimistic; many of them were negative, 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 suggestions for describing 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 man who suggested, “All of the Above!” In an egalitarian, democratic state, with guaranteed freedom of thought and expression, all opinions are valid.
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. We’re in a contentious time, but dooms-dayers have always been around. Doomsday predictions are certainly part of the Christian tradition, which has played an important role in our country’s history.
Of course, there were also words that might seen negative, but I would argue are really positive, and are even sources of our strength. They come under the heading of ‘diversity’; not simple racial diversity, but intellectual diversity, a diversity of opinions, diversity of skills which make our system dynamic, flexible, and robust. Those include words such as: Challenged; Complicated; Contentious; Contradictory; Divided; Multitudinous; Opinion; Troubled; Tumultuous. Those, in turn provide a different consideration of ‘schizophrenic’ in the popular sense of the word.1)In the popular interpretation, schizophrenia refers to someone with conflicting personalities/thoughts. The medical use of the word refers to a different, very deep dysfunction.
America, Pro and Con
I wanted to get some ideas 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 have 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 one of 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 a dependency of misguided educational priorities). In all of these, we claim more loudly than any country in the world that we are Christian2)Except for the Vatican, of course. while seeming to ignore 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 country) 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. And that’s it. The point is, we have been able to largely avoid war in our country. There has not been a significant invasion since the War of 1812; and the bloodiest war we fought was an internal conflict, which ended 150 years ago. This not only leaves us with great stability and without large diversion and destruction of our resources and infrastructure, but it also leaves us optimistic, and less fearful/neurotic than other countries.
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 with resources, and which have avoided invasion, some of which are rather large. Most of them are impoverished.
To understand the USA, it is critical to include our laws, our traditions, and our culture. In particular, we must consider the three essential, ideological concepts which are strongly identified with America, and since 1776, 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 three of them for the 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 profiteers; freedom of expression allows for dishonesty and populist inflammations, and those can also be used to undermine our system.
So I have been looking for a single concept which unites these, and which might add nuance to our understanding, and help us guide for adjustments as we go.
The Feedback Loop
After years of thought, let me suggest a rather ungainly word: feedback. The word is new. The OED says it first appears 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 since then. In biology, Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon introduced the concept of ‘homeostasis’, the idea that biological systems such as temperature, pH, and salt content, are tightly maintained within narrow ranges, which we can now show is accomplished through a complex system of feedback loops. Feedback loops are also, not surprisingly, fundamental in artificial intelligence, robotics, and cybernetics, where homeostatic systems are critical to logical behavior.
And if you consider the ‘Big 3’ of modern government, you can see that what unites all three is that they guarantee feedback loops. Don’t do your job in government, you (and possibly your party) are not re-elected, and 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 is a feedback loop in and of itself.
It is not a small consideration. The American Founders claimed to lofty philosophical principles, but they did not start with philosophy and history, they only found solutions there.3)And of course, philosophy was not always a help; remember The Ship of Fools, Socrates was opposed to democracy.
The Founders started with problems and complaints over their dealings with England. The colonists could be manhandled by British occupying forces, and were often defrauded by British merchants, without recourse, without 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 toward them. Franklin left a royalist, but the incompetence (from the lack of a feedback loop) and the bored indifference of the Crown and nobility (again, no feedback loop) convinced the Good Doctor to become an ardent republican.
Corrective and Protective
The insight of a feedback loop 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, long before Hitler became Chancellor.
Monopolies work under the rubrics of free markets, but they also eliminate feedback loops. At first, they eliminate competition and choice, which mutes feedback; but once in power, they disregard feedback, because they don’t have to listen to it. 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. The press has become largely immune to any concerns beyond the financial. 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 considerations to an emphasis on pop culture. It also leaves the citizen vulnerable to despots and monopolists: if media doesn’t cover the news in a way that serves the powerful and profitable, they will exclude that outlet from their advertising revenues. So we may not hear about corporate and oligarchic skulduggery.
Here, however, the feedback loop 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.
The Power of Stumbling
This also explains the criticisms of the advanced nations, that comes from the still-existent ‘second world’ 4)Those that are neither advanced politically, nor struggling financially. countries of Russia and China. They point to the stumbles and embarrassments in the advanced countries, and offer this as proof that we are not actually advanced.
This is an antiquated way of looking at strength, and progress. In a static world, strength is doing the same thing repeatedly, and doing it well. But in a world that is progressing, experimentation and failure are essential. Which brings us back to the considerations of ‘diversity’, above. The claims that we are divided are not proof that we are weak, but that we are open, and that progress may happen. It is only to the old monarchical and monopolistic rulers that disagreement is seen as weakness.
Continue reading below…
And Russia and China have not yet fully abandoned monarchy and monopoly.
Our stumbles 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 strength in the process, and the strength is the feedback loop that those governments block.
If the right feedback loops are in place, all problems will correct themselves.
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.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||In the popular interpretation, schizophrenia refers to someone with conflicting personalities/thoughts. The medical use of the word refers to a different, very deep dysfunction.|
|2.||↑||Except for the Vatican, of course.|
|3.||↑||And of course, philosophy was not always a help; remember The Ship of Fools, Socrates was opposed to democracy.|
|4.||↑||Those that are neither advanced politically, nor struggling financially.|