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America Proved It Still Works This Week

INTEL REPORT--At last, some good news. A President’s corrupt lawyer was sentenced to jail time. Let me try and interpret it as best I can. In times like these — we shouldn’t underestimate the power of such events, and what they mean. I’ll sum up my thoughts in this simple dictum: the test of American institutions isn’t just negative — it’s positive. Here’s what I mean by that.

What the Cohen sentencing proves is that American institutions are still functional. In the barest, most minimal way, perhaps. We can and should expect the judiciary to put bad guys in jail — pretty simple. Now, you might think I’n being harsh, mean, uncharitable, but I think that itself is cause for celebration. Because for the last several years, you’ve probably wondered — and been right to wonder — does anything around here work anymore? You’ve probably been angry, frustrated, disappointed, and enraged, maybe in that order. So to see just vivid proof of functioning institutions is indeed a genuinely good and welcome sight — not just a relief, or a consolation, but something to applaud.

It would be overly generous to say that the sentence, and indictment, proves something like two branches of American government are operating robustly, effectively, at the heights of competence — both the executive and judiciary. But it’s probably fair to say that it’s evidence, at least, that the judiciary stands untainted — not in whole, but enough to function when it needs to, most crucially, most vitally, in order to quite literally save the republic from the fate of many other nations: sudden, unexpected implosion. Take a good look at Britain these days, my friends.

Still, it’s also important to really understand that idea, that word, “function”, in a subtle way. Functioning can mean two things. Negative functioning — which is the prevention of malady, illness, harm. And positive functioning — which is the expansion of health, of possibility, of what can be achieved. Do you see the difference? Negative function is an immune system working well. Positive function is a mind soaring to new breakthroughs, or a body leaping to new heights.

So which kind of “function” has America proven it’s still capable of this week? Negative function. It’s immune system has shown that it’s still viable enough, alive enough, strong enough, to fight off truly existential threats, like the encroachment of authoritarianism — threats which promise the death of the body social. It is as if America’s immune system suddenly kicked in to fight off a lethal infection — at the moment it counted most. Again — that’s no small thing. We should and must recognize for the good — and welcome — news that it is. To see a society’s immune system working where and when it is needed most is cause for confidence in that society.

But we should be able, at the same time, to think clearly about the “function” of a society’s institutions. It’s true that an immune system is necessary — but for a country as sick, as ill as America is, and I don’t mean that in a judgmental way (“this is a sick society, dude!”), but more in an observational one (a society is in ill health when life expectancy, incomes, and happiness are all falling) probably isn’t enough. Think of it this way. Just a functioning immune system alone is not enough to nurse a runner who’s been badly ill for years back to full and proper health, to the point that they can run a marathon every month. Like that athlete, America will need nourishment, sustenance, exercise, training, and perhaps most vitally of all, self-belief and confidence and courage again. Do you see the difference that I mean?

So the larger test for America is is whether its institutions still function in a positive sense. It’s one thing to put aspiring kleptocrats in prison. Good. But it’s another to have a genuinely well working society. Can American institutions rewrite a working social contract? After all, the one Americans enjoy is badly obsolete. Can they offer people a vision, agenda, plan, for a better society — not just one which offers dilemmas between disappointing outcomes? Can they find a way to lift everyone up — not just the super-rich, while the middle implodes into the new poor, and the poor are ground into dust?

You see what I mean. Positive function is expanding health at its optimum. Negative function is sustaining health at its minimum. Positive function is the presence of the good. Negative function is the absence of the bad. But these aren’t nearly the same thing. America has proven this week that it’s still capable of negative function. But what remains to be seen is the question of positive function.

We’re about to find out. Right about now, everyone’s a little weary from the last year — myself included. It’s been a bruising, trying time. Next month, when the new Congress takes power, we’ll see whether it’s capable of genuine positive function. Can it get it together, and really offer Americans the social contract they’re desperate for? Remember — 70% of Americans support things like universal healthcare, debt-free education, retirement, and so forth: the problem is that so far, 100% of American politicians haven’t. (And no, “Medicare for all” isn’t quite universal healthcare, it’s plagued by gaps and shortages and holes, but that’s a topic for another essay.)

If you suppose all the above makes a bit of sense, then I think the implication is clear enough. The Democrats (and whatever sane Republicans are left) can and must seize the next two years to demand, press for, and present a vision for an American future which resounds with positive function — with the presence of a well-functioning society, not just the absence of a disastrously dysfunctional one. They must go beyond the lesser evil now, and really stand up for the kind of society Americans want. Not just because I say so — but because those 70% of Americans who are fed up and furious will shake their heads in disgust if they don’t, if they squander the chance they’ve been given.

You can call it a New Deal, a Marshall Plan, whatever you like. Whatever metaphor or example you choose, you are talking about the question of positive function. And the issue is that for too long, American thinking — whether political, economic, or social — has bought into the fatal and foolish myth that a society does not need to be a place of positive functioning, doesn’t need to do any more than “get out of the way of the market”, in the first place. It only needs to ever be a contest for the Darwinian survival of the fittest — but not a place where people enjoy decent lives. Nobody needs to have any plan, agenda, vision, or purpose for society. The results of that foolish myth, that failure of thought are clear to see — the last grim, gruesome decade of American life collapsing.

I don’t imagine that the challenge of going from negative to positive function will be easy for Americans. Luckily, there are many fresh Congressmen and women who are excited about doing just that. So we will see — time will tell. Still, let us celebrate a little bit of good news. In times like these, times in which degeneration and atrophy, decline and decay, have become too much a daily reality, too commonplace and frequent — to see a society’s immune system suddenly kicking in, fighting for life, at exactly the crucial moment, is a good and wonderful thing.

(Umair Haque posts at Medium.com.)

-cw