I just want America to be the America of my dreams, growing up as a boy in Canada. And that was the America of Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and the Grateful Dead. — Wade Davis, interview, PBS, Aug. 17, 2020
This video of an interview with an Canadian anthropologist popped up, courtesy of a YouTube algorithm, in my directory when I was looking for something else. And coming onto it for the first time two years after it was broadcast on Christiane Amanpour’s show on PBS, I was struck by how prescient it was. Especially by what he said about American individualism, which I believe is both toxic and fundamental to our cultural and economic successes.
Besides, the guy’s right about Lincoln, Walt Whitman and the Grateful Dead!
I’ve been thinking about that for a long time now, asking myself whether the more-or-less unfettered individualism that made possible the expansion of the American economy after the Civil War carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. Wade Davis, of the University of British Columbia, touches on this in a Rolling Stone article that went viral just before the 2020 election.
More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family. It was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose.
And this, from an interview in Rolling Stone in November 2020:
One of the things that I find really important in the American experience is what happened in 2016. It was 62 million people who voted for Trump, wasn’t it? Those people weren’t stupid, they weren’t a monolith, they weren’t hoodwinked. […] What happened in 2016 is 62 million people, quite consciously and proudly, voted their indignation. They voted their grievances. They voted all about self — the country and the future of the world be damned.
Any hope that this would change after Trump was defeated for re-election has dissipated by now.
Verbatim excerpts follow, first from the article followed by a written interview in Rolling Stone, which appeared in November 2020 and touched on the themes raised in the article:
Cite: Wade Davis, “The Unraveling of America,” Rolling Stone, Aug. 17, 2021 https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/.
Pandemics and plagues have a way of shifting the course of history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors. In the 14th Century, the Black Death killed close to half of Europe’s population. A scarcity of labor led to increased wages. Rising expectations culminated in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, an inflection point that marked the beginning of the end of the feudal order that had dominated medieval Europe for a thousand years.
The COVID pandemic will be remembered as such a moment in history, a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the crisis. It will mark this era much as the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the stock market crash of 1929, and the 1933 ascent of Adolf Hitler became fundamental benchmarks of the last century, all harbingers of greater and more consequential outcomes.
In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the world.
For the first time, the international community felt compelled to send disaster relief to Washington. For more than two centuries, reported the Irish Times, “the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity.” As American doctors and nurses eagerly awaited emergency airlifts of basic supplies from China, the hinge of history opened to the Asian century.
No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. Bled white and left bankrupt by the Great War, the British maintained a pretense of domination as late as 1935, when the empire reached its greatest geographical extent. By then, of course, the torch had long passed into the hands of America.
More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family. It was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose. In wide swaths of America, the family as an institution lost its grounding. By the 1960s, 40 percent of marriages were ending in divorce. Only six percent of American homes had grandparents living beneath the same roof as grandchildren; elders were abandoned to retirement homes.
With slogans like “24/7” celebrating complete dedication to the workplace, men and women exhausted themselves in jobs that only reinforced their isolation from their families. By the time a youth reaches 18, he or she will have spent fully two years watching television or staring at a laptop screen, contributing to an obesity epidemic that the Joint Chiefs have called a national security crisis.
Only half of Americans report having meaningful, face-to-face social interactions on a daily basis. The nation consumes two-thirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs. The collapse of the working-class family has been responsible in part for an opioid crisis that has displaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.
At the root of this transformation and decline lies an ever-widening chasm between Americans who have and those who have little or nothing. Economic disparities exist in all nations, creating a tension that can be as disruptive as the inequities are unjust. In any number of settings, however, the negative forces tearing apart a society are mitigated or even muted if there are other elements that reinforce social solidarity — religious faith, the strength and comfort of family, the pride of tradition, fidelity to the land, a spirit of place.
Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent. As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.
The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.
How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community? Flag-wrapped patriotism is no substitute for compassion; anger and hostility no match for love. Those who flock to beaches, bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it. Leading their charge is Donald Trump, a bone spur warrior, a liar and a fraud, a grotesque caricature of a strong man, with the backbone of a bully.
Over the last months, a quip has circulated on the internet suggesting that to live in Canada today is like owning an apartment above a meth lab. Canada is no perfect place, but it has handled the COVID crisis well, notably in British Columbia, where I live. Vancouver is just three hours by road north of Seattle, where the U.S. outbreak began. Half of Vancouver’s population is Asian, and typically dozens of flights arrive each day from China and East Asia. Logically, it should have been hit very hard, but the health care system performed exceedingly well. Throughout the crisis, testing rates across Canada have been consistently five times that of the U.S. On a per capita basis, Canada has suffered half the morbidity and mortality. For every person who has died in British Columbia, 44 have perished in Massachusetts, a state with a comparable population that has reported more COVID cases than all of Canada. As of July 30th, even as rates of COVID infection and death soared across much of the United States, with 59,629 new cases reported on that day alone, hospitals in British Columbia registered a total of just five COVID patients.
When American friends ask for an explanation, I encourage them to reflect on the last time they bought groceries at their neighborhood Safeway. In the U.S. there is almost always a racial, economic, cultural, and educational chasm between the consumer and the check-out staff that is difficult if not impossible to bridge. In Canada, the experience is quite different. One interacts if not as peers, certainly as members of a wider community. The reason for this is very simple. The checkout person may not share your level of affluence, but they know that you know that they are getting a living wage because of the unions. And they know that you know that their kids and yours most probably go to the same neighborhood public school. Third, and most essential, they know that you know that if their children get sick, they will get exactly the same level of medical care not only of your children but of those of the prime minister. These three strands woven together become the fabric of Canadian social democracy.
Asked what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi famously replied, “I think that would be a good idea.” Such a remark may seem cruel, but it accurately reflects the view of America today as seen from the perspective of any modern social democracy. Canada performed well during the COVID crisis because of our social contract, the bonds of community, the trust for each other and our institutions, our health care system in particular, with hospitals that cater to the medical needs of the collective, not the individual, and certainly not the private investor who views every hospital bed as if a rental property. The measure of wealth in a civilized nation is not the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but rather the strength and resonance of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that connect all people in common purpose.
Interview in November 2021 with Alex Morris of Rolling Stone. Cite: Wade Davis, “On the Frailty of Civilization,” interview with Alex Morris, Rolling Stone, Nov. 11, 2021 https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/wade-davis-interview-unraveling-of-america-magdalena-1088622/.
In his headnote, Morris quotes Davis on culture:
“If there’s one lesson of anthropology,” he says, “it’s that culture is not trivial, culture is not decorative, culture is not the songs we sing, the clothes we wear, the prayers we utter. Culture ultimately is a body of ethical and moral values that every culture wraps each individual in to keep at bay the barbaric heart that history teaches us lies within every one of us.”
An excerpt from the headnote:
This summer, with his publicity tour for Magdalena [Davis’ new book on Colombia] having been quashed by the pandemic, it was American culture that grabbed Davis’ attention. A kayak trip around an island near Vancouver, where he is a professor at the University of British Columbia, found him coming to the realization that maybe Covid-19 wasn’t a medical story as much as it was a cultural one, and that maybe the cultural story it told was about the end of the United States’ supremacy in the world. “The Unraveling of America,” an article he wrote on the subject for Rolling Stone, went viral in August, becoming our most popular story of 2020 and igniting the question of what America’s fate might be in the near and middle future.
Rolling Stone talked with Davis about his new book, the response he got from readers about “The Unraveling,” and what it would take to see a new dawn in America.
Speaking of bullies, a lot of the civilizations that you wrote about in Magdalena were destroyed by other civilizations. America is in a different situation. Do you feel like there is a theme uniting the demise of civilizations that destroy themselves, as opposed to ones that are destroyed by other groups or cultures?
One thing that does seem to be consistent is that kingdoms, though they are born to die, never seem to anticipate their demise. That does seem to be a constant in history. What brings empires down also is somewhat consistent in history: expensive and unnecessary military adventures. Think of America, the fact that what was a demilitarized society before the Second World War has never really stood down. We have soldiers now in 170 countries.
And then there’s another element, which I think is really fundamental and does touch upon the Rolling Stone piece: When countries in general are on their way up, if you will, there’s an energy and a sense of collective duty. One of the things that I find really important in the American experience is what happened in 2016. It was 62 million people who voted for Trump, wasn’t it? Those people weren’t stupid, they weren’t a monolith, they weren’t hoodwinked. They were fully aware that this man lacked all traditional credentials for what is the toughest job in the world, and they knew that job really was an important job. Not only does he have the finger on the nuclear triggers, but he is the leader of the industrial world, at least for the moment, even as we face the ascendancy of China. What happened in 2016 is 62 million people, quite consciously and proudly, voted their indignation. They voted their grievances. They voted all about self — the country and the future of the world be damned.
Rolling Stone’s bio: Wade Davis holds the Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. His award-winning books include “Into the Silence” and “The Wayfinders.” His new book, “Magdalena: River of Dreams,” is published by Knopf.
[Published May 12, 2022]