Saturday, August 11, 2007

America's report card

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass contains a poem entitled Song of the Broad-Axe. The fifth canto in that poem describes the place where the great city stands. The great city, Whitman says, is not the place of great commercial enterprises, nor the place of the biggest and most splendid buildings, “Nor the place of the best libraries and schools—nor the place where money is plentiest, Nor the place of the most numerous population.”

The place of the great city, says Whitman, is the place where we find the following:

  1. Where thrift is in its place
  2. Where prudence is in its place
  3. Where the men and women think lightly of the laws
  4. Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases
  5. Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons
  6. Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority
  7. Where the citizen is always the head and ideal—and President, Mayor, Governor, and what not, are agents for pay
  8. Where children are taught to be laws unto themselves, and to depend on themselves;
  9. Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs
  10. Where women walk in public processions in the streets, and enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men

Taking a couple of these as criteria, let's see what grade a fair-minded teacher would give contemporary America on its report card.


When I was a child, the adults in my life hardly ever turned on the electric lights during the daytime hours. They relied on sunlight that came in through windows. When my family finally got a television set, we agreed that we would watch it no more than an hour an evening. (If we opted not to watch it at all on some evenings, we allowed ourselves to apply the time to other evenings. When the television was off, it was completely off. When it was turned on, it took about a minute to warm up. Nowadays, even when most televisions are turned off, they are consuming electricity, because a small amount is used to keep all the circuits warmed up. The same is true of several other appliances. (Learn more about hidden electrical bandits.) Nowadays lights are left on routinely, although recently awareness of this seems to be on the rise. Michael Hodges reports that America's consumption of energy has nearly quadrupled since 1955. During that same time the American population has not even doubled, which means that each of us is using on average more than twice as much energy as we used fifty years ago. reports that the average household in the U.S. is about $14,500 in debt, not counting mortgage debts. Sixty years ago hardly any households were in serious debt, while now about 40% of American families annually spend more than they earn. The United States as a nation is a little more than 13 times more in debt than it was in 1940. (This figure is corrected for inflation; without that correction, the absolute debt is, of course much higher. A fuller explanation can be found on Ed Hall's national debt clock FAQ.) Conclusion: As individuals and as a nation, Americans have completely lost sight of thrift. So by Walt Whitman's first criterion of a what makes a great city, we must give the USA an F.

Has the slave and the slave-owner ceased?

Walt Whitman lived to see the end of the ownership of kidnapped Africans forced to work for wealthy families who owned them (families that included several signatories to the Declaration of Independence and a number of America's first presidents). Whitman rightly called slavery “the foulest crime in history known to any land of age” (See This dust was once a man.) It might, however, be premature to say that America has abolished a slave-based economy. True, human beings are no longer formally owned by others, but the American economy depends heavily on an underpaid workforce made up of citizens who work at wages that keep them below the poverty line and of non-citizens who migrate here to do black-market labor. When 13% of the US population lives below the poverty line, giving the United States one of the highest poverty levels in the industrialized world, and when a significant number of families cannot afford health care, it is not unreasonable to say that conditions barely better than slavery still prevail. In a spirit of generosity, a fair-minded teacher might give the country a C.

Does the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons?

A recent report on the Bill Moyers Journal stated that 45% of Americans favor impeachment hearings for President Bush and 54% favor impeachment for Vice President Cheney. While those numbers are encouraging in some ways, they hardly serve as evidence that the population as a whole has risen against the audacity of elected officials. And if they have risen at all, it has certainly not been at once. The response has been sluggish and reluctant, and there is little reason to believe a) that our elected representatives in the Congress will vote for impeachment, or b) that the American electorate will vote their elective representatives out of office for their failure to impeach even when the grounds for so doing are probably as strong as they have ever been in the history of the nation. Conclusion: As individuals and as a nation, Americans have become jaded about the audacity of their elected officials. So by Walt Whitman's fifth criterion of a what makes a great city, we must give the USA no better than a C minus.

Does outside authority enter always after the precedence of inside authority?

George Fox, founder of the Quakers, claimed that any external authority is only as good as the insight and wisdom of the person who interprets it. This is a classical statement of what people nowadays call theological liberalism, that is, the position that individuals are free (liber) to interpret scriptural authority by their own lights. This is not so much a claim of policy as it is a claim of fact. That is, it is not claiming that people ought to be free to interpret authoritative statements so much as it is claiming that people have no choice but to interpret everything they encounter, for there is no such thing as any belief that is not a personal interpretation of something.

While it is obvious to theological liberals that we all swim in a sea of personal interpretation (most of which is, of course, conditioned by our desires to fit in with people around us), there are people who believe that it is possible just to read the Bible, or the US Constitution, and know immediately, without intervening interpretation, what an authoritative source means by what it says. Such a conviction is part of what we mean by the concept of fundamentalism.

So how fundamentalist is the United States? To what extent does the populace of the United States admit that they appeal to external authority only after appealing to internal authority, and celebrate that they approach authority in this way? A clue is provided by an article on the website of Copernicus Marketing, where we read:

Copernicus discovered that among the general population, the number of Americans who consider themselves religiously liberal increased much more dramatically over the course of 30 years while the number of fundamentalists increased only marginally. Liberals expanded from 18 percent of the population in 1972 to 29 percent in 2002, while fundamentalists grew from 27 percent in 1972 to 30 percent in 2002.

Although the emphasis in the wording of the paragraph above is on the percentage growth among theological liberals in the United States, it is worth noting that the number of self-identified fundamentalists is still 1% higher than the percentage of self-identified liberals, and that fundamentalism is still on the rise, even if less rapidly than theological liberalism. Conclusion: As individuals and as a nation, Americans have never been as good at thinking for themselves as they sometimes like to believe. The United States is still, to a large extent, a nation of sheep. So by Walt Whitman's sixth criterion of a what makes a great city, we must give the USA no better than a barely passing C minus.

Is equanimity illustrated in affairs?

Given that nearly every commentator on the contemporary scene has pointed out how polarized the US population has become, and given that polarization is rarely the outcome of careful, balanced thinking and equanimity, I think it is clear that, the United States is dangerously close to failure. At best, the United States is currently doing no better than D minus.

Are the genders equal?

As this is written, a woman is the leading contender to be the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, and for the first time a woman is Speaker of the House. More women than men are graduating from high school and entering college. Women are routinely in public view as news commentators, journalists, higher-level educators and political candidates. About all this, Whitman would no doubt be pleased. Women are still, however, dramatically underpaid in comparison with men who do the same jobs. The nation has been heading in the right direction for the past few decades, but there is still room for improvement. Not wanting to give a grade on this issue without consulting my wife, I asked her what grade she would give America in the area of gender equality. Her grade was exactly the same as I was thinking before asking her. So the answer must be right: in gender equality America gets a B.

Overall assessment

Averaging all the above grades according to Walt Whitman's poetic criteria of the place where the great city is found, we come up with a D+ for the United States of America as a whole. While that is strictly speaking not a failing grade, it is not high enough to earn a credit in a required course. The case is not hopeless, but there is a great deal of work to be done before a satisfactory grade can be given. The United States should perhaps have a tutor. I recommend turning for high-quality mentoring to Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden for a start. Later, when a good foundation of social and political knowledge has been reached, the United States can turn to other countries for help.

As with any student in danger of failing to make the grade, the biggest question with the United States is: is the student willing to learn? Only time will tell.