PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

The Age of Nations

The Age of Nations

I have had a theory for some time that a century in the life and maturation of a nation is equivalent to a year in the life and maturation of an individual. By that reckoning, India and Egypt, two cultures rooted in the world’s most ancient civilizations, are about 50, Ethiopia 45, and China 42. Greece is around 28. The United States is two and a half.

If we here in the U.S. are in the two’s, it appears to be the proverbial “terrible two’s,” complete with the whole repertoire of willfulness and self-importance that we typically see in children at that age. In the 2016 presidential race, this was fully politicized by Donald Trump as “America First” and promoted under a populist pretext, but that slogan was really just an extension of the same immaturity that’s seen both conservatives and liberals of every stripe insisting for generations that “we’re the greatest nation on earth” (whatever that means) and otherwise indulging in baldfaced self-promoting, chest pounding, and throwing tantrums when things don’t go our way. It is, to understate the matter, deeply concerning. While Democrats were marginalizing blue collar, rural, and less educated citizens, Republicans were shifting to the alt-right, obstructing bipartisan cooperation and pushing their agenda with a narrowly self-serving, “win at all costs” mentality that can only be understood as childish if not infantile. Such behavior is normal and expected in an actual two-year-old. It is another matter when a 40- or 50- or 60- or 70-year-old acts this way. The consequences of this widespread arrested development among the nation’s putative leadership are proving to be disastrous, as the most pressing needs of the country go unmet while the “me first attitude” fosters gridlock, enmity, apathy, a refusal to discuss the issues of the day fairly, and the eternal tabling of critical and morally basic programs. Conspicuously, these include enacting gun control laws to keep our schoolchildren safe in school, ensuring and improving the affordability and accessibility of health care, mandating fair and humane treatment of minorities and immigrants, cooperating with other nations to safeguard the word’s climate, depolarizing race relations especially where the police are involved, and passing responsible Internet privacy legislation to protect users against the sort of gloves-off and unprecedentedly widespread abuse of personal information committed by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, which handled all digital aspects of the Trump campaign, relying largely on deceptive data mining practices (through which it acquired the personal information of millions of Facebook users) and illicit campaign influencing. Investigative reporting brought all this out of the shadows in March of this year, over a year after the election. In May, Cambridge Analytica closed its doors and filed for insolvency. Even a toddler-Congress could not keep looking the other way, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was called to Capitol Hill to explain how massive numbers of Facebook users could have been compromised in this way. Zuckerberg apologized, as he has many times, for the lax management of user data, and promised, as he has many times, to treat that data more responsibly.

Sadly, this sort of accountability is the exception that should be the rule. Here in the U.S., laws and policies are designed to protect the financial interests of companies, not the rights of individuals. It is not surprising then, that the dramatically stricter privacy laws that went into effect on Friday last—the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—came out of the European Union. Indeed, as recently as last March, the Republican Congress had struck down landmark internet privacy protections for consumers established under President Obama. Fortunately for all of us, since the Internet is global, companies with international interests have little choice now but to step up to the new GDPR requirements. Why did Congress not only fail to act to protect consumers from privacy abuse by Internet companies, but also try to dismantle the few protections that had been put in place? The answer to this is that Congress is also about two years old, and two-year-olds, who have a famously short attention span, care only about being “number one,” winning at all costs, and getting what they want when they want it. They lack the social development and maturity to consider longterm consequences or the effects of their actions on others even in the short term. Like two-year-olds, they are myopic. It is a mentality that explains why people will shoot each other over a parking space or how a group of politicians can rationalize separating parents and children attempting to immigrate into the country. It has become painfully clear that many if not most of the men and women in Congress and the White House only look like adults. Their behavior, however, gives them away, for adults have an abiding ethical sense, a conscience, an awareness of their limitations, empathy for others, and sufficient responsibility to face and tackle challenging problems especially where the need for solutions is urgent. They do not only think of themselves, their party, their agenda, their career, their reputation. They do not resort to name-calling, scapegoating, distortion and denial of the truth, boasting, overreacting, and magical thinking. They are mature enough to go slowly, consider and reconsider, tell it like it is, and weigh likely outcomes. In the matter of Internet privacy, Europe stepped in and did what Congress would not do, and consumers here in the U.S. will be better off for it, more secure and less subject to corporate exploitation of the privacy that so many Americans have blithely sacrificed for the convenience of an app they can use to change the thermostat setting or an Amazon device designed for convenience but capable of surveillance. Two-year-olds think nothing of going to the bathroom with the door wide open. They are no more concerned with privacy at that age than we have been as a society since the advent of the iPhone and other “smart” devices. And we may fairly ask, why should Congress care more about our privacy than we do? It took Europe, with a far more mature appreciation of the importance of privacy and the dangers of centralized collection of personal data by government and corporations to get us moving in the right direction.

The theory is not perfect. By my calculus, Russia is about twelve. Yet it would be hard to find a nation on earth that rivals Russia’s political machinations and power mongering not only under Putin but also going back to the Cold War and before, during Stalin’s infamous Great Purge, for example. Iran, about as old as Greece, has not outgrown its long history of sectarian feuding nor recognized the equality and rights of women. One expects more of a nation well past its teenage years. Still, I believe the theory has merit. If nothing else, it might call older nations to start acting their age, and young nations like the U.S. to tone down the rhetoric of childhood, start playing well with others, and return to a less vexing time when we expected our political leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, to bring character, conscience, and an uncompromising commitment to the common good in carrying out the duties of their office. Winning at all costs is too costly. Sowing seeds of social divisiveness, lying to look good or evade the just consequences of one’s actions, putting political agendas above the best interests of the country and all its people, shamelessly trying to justify traumatizing immigrant children by separating them from their parents at the border in the name of national security, flouting our custodial responsibilities to the earth—at the end of the day, these are puerile attitudes that confess arrested development and open the door to disastrous consequences. Perhaps before that happens, we can find a way to grow up.