Making America Great

Historic Albemarle Highway, U.S. 64, Near Columbia, North CarolinaThe America in which I grew up took great pride in its massive system of interstate freeways and highways. We had great roads, and they were generally well-maintained. The idea of the great American road trip still meant something. Almost all of my fondest childhood memories involved a road trip, and I carried this positive association into my early adult years. Even now that my early adulthood is a distant speck in the rearview mirror, I still experience periodic cravings to hit the road. And given the choice, I'll still take a road trip versus going anywhere near an airport.

There have been times in my life when I have gone a year or more without taking a significant road trip (i.e., driving for more than 2 hours in one direction). Even when it has been awhile since I've taken a road trip, there has always been a critical sense of freedom wrapped up in the notion that I could. Right now, for example, I could pack the car and hit the road. Keeping that in mind has always been important to me even though I don't do it as much as I'd like.

America has changed. Many of the changes have been positive and could easily be called progress. Our vehicles have become far safer and more fuel-efficient even as our performance-oriented vehicles have become more powerful. Our computer, Internet, and cell phone technologies have advanced by leaps and bounds. We've even made some progress in some of the most challenging areas (e.g., equality and human rights), despite having a long way to go. In many ways, today's America is much better than the America of my childhood.

But when it comes to the state of our nation's infrastructure, it is hard to see much cause for celebration. We have let our roads and bridges crumble to the point where many have become dangerous. For those of us who have difficulty getting to work without hitting a pothole bad enough to require repairs, it becomes harder to imagine enjoying a long road trip. And yes, I realize that infrastructure involves far more than roads and bridges. We have let entire cities decay to the point that public health crises have resulted (e.g., Flint, MI).

I do not think that problems like this have simple or singular causes. They seem to transcend politics in the sense that they have been allowed to happen on the watch of both Republican and Democratic administrations. They are not new problems or problems we could reasonably claim we haven't seen coming. They also seem to have little to do with money because we never have difficulty finding money for our priorities (e.g., fighting more wars).

If I had to pick one culprit for this sorry state of affairs, even as I recognize that there are bound to be far more than one, I'd point to a big one that I tend to blame for our lack of progress on all sorts of issues. I'd blame our chronic outrage and everything that results from it. The combination of information overload and our inability (or unwillingness) to conduct effective moral triage leads us to inhabit a state of perpetual outrage where we lack the attention span required to solve complex problems.

How the hell can we be expected to do anything on infrastructure when we have White police officers murdering Black men with no consequences? Why would we make the dismal state of our roads a priority when our children are being gunned down at school? Why should bridge repair receive any attention when so much of Puerto Rico was without electricity for so long? And how can anyone even dare to think about trying to solve any other problems when some random woman made "racist gestures" at a Korean-American veteran while someone filmed it with their phone?

The important thing here is not that this type of outrage prevents us from repairing our ailing infrastructure. The important thing is that it prevents us from making meaningful progress on anything, including all the issues about which we are rightly outraged (e.g., child rape by Catholic priests and efforts by the Catholic Church to conceal it). All of these problems are big ones, and none of them have simple solutions. They require sustained attention, persistence, coalition-building, money, and hard work. Most of us seem to do fairly well at focusing our efforts on something we claim to care about right up until the next outrage hits. And then we move to focus on that outrage...until the next outrage. It is almost as if someone has figured out that this cycle of outrage is an extremely effective way to maintain the status quo.

I think there are a handful of ways that we do need to make America great in the sense that there are things we need to do in order to restore some of our former greatness. I'd put infrastructure squarely in this category. We were once great in this regard, and I'd like to see us do it again. I'd like to see us have the sort of interstate highway system of which we can once again be proud, and I'd like to see us return to a time when every American could at least count on having safe drinking water. At the same time, I think there are a handful of ways that we need to make America great in ways it has never been even particularly good (e.g., racism, poverty).

The challenge, of course, is that we are going to have to figure out how to cultivate better attention spans. We cannot continue to allow the next outrage on the horizon to pull us away from what we are working on. This does not mean that we cannot work on multiple goals. We can and we must. But we also need to recognize the limits of multitasking and to learn that our ability to reason is often compromised by our outrage. By shoving every goal we're pursuing on the back burner when a new outrage comes along, it is unlikely that we will make the sort of progress we desire.