Snell: What is wrong with America?

Barry Snell

Greatly dysfunctional are we as citizens.

Ignorant, inept, incompetent and apathetic. Single issue myopic. Compromising when we should be uncompromising and uncompromising when we should compromise. All these things describe how we execute our duties as citizens of the American republic. If citizenship in America was given a letter grade, we’d have a big, fat F to show Mom and Dad on our report cards. On a scale of one to 10, we rate a zero.

But this is a story of hope, not one of complaint, I promise.

The recent “squinty scandal” has had an effect on some of us at the Daily in that we have renewed old discussions about the role of the media in society and about what our place is in the world as opinion columnists. Something was mentioned in one of these discussions that intrigued me on many levels. It was said the Daily, overall, has two kinds of opinion columnists: issue columnists and “big picture” columnists.

Issue columnists are those who typically talk about a specific issue, such as health care, the economy, religion in America, Facebook, the Government of the Student Body, etc. This type of columnist comprises the majority of the Daily’s opinion staff, which is perfectly fine and absolutely necessary for a decent opinion section. We need to argue about stuff after all, right?

The so-called “big picture” columnists, however — a category I tend to fall into — usually talk about more abstract and philosophical issues. Where do our rights come from? What is the nature of government? Or in today’s case, that we are failing in our role as citizens. There are perhaps, besides me, only one or two other columnists who fall into this category generally and make it work for them.

The Daily staff keeps track of the popularity of our columns and stories through a variety of means ranging from direct feedback and Web page hits, to retweets and Facebook likes. In so doing, an interesting phenomenon was realized. It may seem obvious, but we noticed that it is easy to get ratings writing issue pieces, as they tend to be controversial in some way. A recent column about Christianity, for example, attracted tons of attention, as one might expect.

But more interesting is the fact that one or two of the abstract, philosophical columns usually seem to make it into the week’s top 10 somehow. In an era when we suck at being Americans and generally don’t appear to care about anything (or worse, we care about the wrong things), this is a curious thing to happen.

If we don’t care about anything other than Facebook, UGG boots, getting drunk or what celebrity is screwing whom this week, why then would we in the middle of all this nonsense give a damn about complex, mind-bending issues of American philosophy? Could this be what they call “hope”?

I have long postulated that while Americans are as foolish as ever, this is not the result of simple laziness but rather a confluence of failures in different aspects of our society. Regardless of our ignorance, despite living in the proverbial “Matrix,” like Neo, we Americans are actually instinctively aware that something is amiss. We can’t put our finger on it, but there it is, lingering in the back of our minds, irritating us unconsciously like an invisible rash.

What is wrong with America exactly? No, it’s not liberals and their socialist agenda. No, it’s not conservatives and their drive to make America a Christian tyranny. It’s not health care, it’s not the economy, it’s none of this. They are all just symptoms, not causes.

To be honest, I’m not sure we will ever be able to explain what’s wrong with America. What’s wrong with America isn’t any one thing, but rather a multitude of things combining together creating political, economic and social constipation. One might say we’re victims of our own success; the better our lives get, the worse they get. But I’ll leave that analysis up to the historians of the future.

What I do know for certain is that we have managed to disenfranchise ourselves from our political processes. What I know is that if we can rediscover and assert our Americanness — and I don’t mean that in the neo-conservative way — that our problems will, as though by magic, sort themselves out. Thomas Jefferson predicted it more than 200 years ago: “Whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, the people, if well informed, may be relied on to set them to rights.”

But first, before we can fix anything, you must ask yourself: Do you know how to be an American?

No, I don’t mean knowing the words to the Pledge of Allegiance or “Star-Spangled Banner.” I don’t mean shooting fireworks on the Fourth of July, putting the flag out on Sept. 11 or slapping a “Support the Troops” sticker on your car. I don’t mean participating in an online political poll or sending the occasional angry email to a congressman. I don’t mean voting either.

I mean: Do you know how to be an American? Do you even know what I mean when I ask that?

Think about it for awhile and let me know your thoughts in an email. I’ll be spending the next few weeks exploring the concept of “how to be an American” with you, in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, we can reinvigorate some of that lost Spirit of 1776 and affect a little change in each of our individual worlds.

And who knows? Maybe we can find America again too.