While America Awakes…

REVIEWS, 10 Aug 2020

Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

Winston Langley, While America Sleeps: Squandered Opportunities and Looming Threats to Societies (Lulu Press, 2020)

On the surface the book offers a dose of pessimism as Langley elaborates how the United States missed several opportunities to address deep rooted violence, but a reading between the lines generates hope. It depends on which side of the spectrum you are standing, and whether you are thinking the glass is half-empty or half-full. Langley divides the book into six themes as he embarks on a journey to list the failures of the United States to ‘seize opportunities to improve national and international society’ (p. xv).

In the context of arms control, Langley details the historical developments starting from the Hague Conferences in 1899 and 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation in Russo-Japanese War, League of Nations, Pact of Paris of 1928, Non-Proliferation Treaty, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and other related treaties. He argues that there could have a better chance for peaceful world had the Reykjavik summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev in 1986 focused on arms control.

Langley writes, “It was as if moral sensibilities had become nonexistent, as the NUTS – nuclear utilization thinkers who believed a nuclear war could be fought and won – inveighed against the MADS – mutual assured destruction thinkers who felt the weapons would deter foes who understood how a nuclear war would end” (p. 15). This reminds the wise counsel of President Eisenhower. Eisenhower, while speaking at the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1953, reflected on the cost of war: “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities…We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.” Eisenhower’s caution fell on deaf ears as weapons multiplied. Though interstate conflicts declined, conflicts at many other levels increased. Historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in 2002, “the 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history. The total number of deaths caused or associated with its wars has been estimated at 187 million…”  Syria provides a recent example. Since the crisis erupted in 2011, about a half million people perished and unaccountable others displaced.

Langley elaborates various sociocultural factors shaping race and class relations in the United States. He provides the details including the 3/5th compromise and various struggles for civil and political rights. He elaborates the psychological and cultural roots of racial conflict. In this context he refers to William Faulkner’s ‘shadow’. Faulkner in his novel Light in August captures the psychological basis of this conflict by reflecting on the ‘black shadow falling upon the white people’ (p. 63). Langley elaborates some key court cases including Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 1898, and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923 to expose tensions between racial inequality and struggle for civil and political rights (pp. 63-66). He argues that despite the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution, Plessy court verdict guided the politics of the country till Brown v. Board in 1954. He talks about various waves of immigration and how they shaped American society and how despite attempts to address the conflict, it persists as reflected in color coded residential maps and discriminations at multiple levels.

While direct violence, for example physical violence is visible and accounted for, indirect violence permeates deep into social fabric. Langley believes that deep-rooted biases and prejudices are persisting despite efforts to address it. And it may not help to blame a political leader or a political party or political incident for this deep-rooted cultural othering. The killing of George Floyd is a manifestation of this deep-rooted conflict. A mind accustomed to see ‘violence met with violence’ may find it difficult to address this conflict in nonviolent way. During my meeting with Rev. James Lawson, the civil rights activist during a conference last year, Lawson argued that violence is no solution to violence, and there are still many aspects of nonviolence which we have yet to fully grapple with to address the deeply embedded sociocultural violence in our society.

On the issue of economy, Langley offers a chronological development of American economy from mercantilism to liberalism to neoliberalism. He refers to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as a guiding document for the capitalist economy. The rise of multinational corporations, and globalization of trade, rise of revolution in information technology, facilitated a more nuanced control of economy by big corporate houses. While the global institutions like International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization regulate the global economy, the rise of organizations like BRICS and Asian Development Bank has indicated a multipolar global economy. However, Langley expresses discontent at the consumerist focus of the capitalist market and the widening gap between the rich few and the poor many.

Langley refers to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, which “contended that the unregulated market would destroy society. In more specific terms, he (Polanyi) predicated that the defiling of neighborhoods and landscapes, the pollution of rivers, the destruction of agriculture, and impairment of military safety” (p. 149). He further quotes Franklin D. Roosevelt, “For too many of us the political equality we had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated in their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men no longer follow the pursuit of happiness” (p. 151). Overemphasis on material development has impacted the development in other areas. The development in economy has been realized without a corresponding development in human psychology, moral capabilities and understanding. It reminds Michael Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, in which the British economist takes a Buddhist approach to economy, in which economy is connected with right living.

Langley appears liberal as he emphasizes on interdependence, global institutions, democracy, and human rights. He elaborates movements towards universal human rights. He refers to Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, and how they have advanced human rights. He expresses disappointment that the United States lost opportunities to apply these principles at home while promoting them abroad.

Langley reflects on the lack of coordination among nations for a sustainable environment and argues the US withdrawal from Paris Agreement on climate change in 2017 was not a good sign. He refers to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, 1968, as they drew our attention to climate change and overpopulation. He also mentions Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’, 1972, United Nations Environmental Program, 1972, Rio Summit, 1992, as the landmarks towards creating a sustainable environment. One could add to these the launch of Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations. Langley refers to the World Charter for Nature, which says, “Mankind is part of nature and depends on the uninterrupted functioning of natural systems which ensure the supply of energy and nutrients.”

Langley makes a case for moral education. Education for earning livelihood is necessary, but education without a moral compass will not lead to a harmonious society, he emphasizes. This reminds the Harvard Sociologist Pitirim Sorokin’s Sane Sex Order. In this book written in 1970, Sorokin takes a critical approach to consumerist culture, and argues that the model of education and economic development have overemphasized material development and undermined moral development. This analysis also chimes with Robert Putnam’s study on social capital, broadly implying the social connectedness of the people, which is waning. Langley strongly makes a case against corporatization of education.

Langley refers to Fukuyama, who argued that the victory of liberalism after the end of the Cold War heralds new age. Around the same of publication of Fukuyama’s book, Huntington predicted the clash of civilizations. The post-Cold War world has not been that peaceful. Though interstate wars have declined, intrastate wars have increased manifold. The rise of nonstate violent actors also contributed to the conflicts. Organizations like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State are violent manifestations of a culture of othering and alienation. But, unless the root causes are addressed, unless the acute othering – of identities, cultures, values, patterns of thinking – are transformed by appreciating differences and welcoming new ideas and thoughts, it will be difficult to have peace whether at home or at abroad. An imposed peace or superficial peace might have a placebo effect, but it will not bring the real peace which human society is craving.

Langley quotes Nobel Laureate, V. S. Naipaul, who “spoke on ‘our universal civilization,’ suggesting that the United States embodies values of tolerance, equality, liberty, and individualism, as well as the pursuit of happiness” (p. 110). He also refers to Reinhold Niebuhr: “the claim of innocence allows Niebuhr to suggest that if the United States became conscious of its power and gained inner moral checks of moderation and restraint, it could, with a commitment to justice, lead in creating a community of world dimensions” (p. 106). He emphasizes on the urgency of action, and there is ‘no plan B’. He quotes President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 ‘New Nationalism’ speech, which evokes hope: “Our country – the great Republic – means nothing less than the triumph of democracy, the triumph of popular government, and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to be the best that there is of him. This is why the history of America is now the central feature of the history of the world; for the world has set its face towards democracy; and O my follow citizens, each one of you carries on your shoulders not only the burden of doing well for the sake of your own country, but the burden of doing well and seeing to it that the nation does well for the sake of mankind” (p. 33).

That current modes of human organization and governance are not perfect is an accepted phenomenon. Greek thinkers Plato and Aristotle disliked democracy. But other models of human organization and development do not evoke much hope. The socialist experiment as in the Soviet Union failed. While socialism has in its core a belief in human equality and dignity, its dangerous mix with totalitarian politics sounded its very death knell. There are yet no perfect states and societies in the world, and the United States is no exception. But it remains the leading democracy of the world and one of the most vibrant societies. One may have a pessimistic lens towards the American politics and society, but other states and societies are not perfect either. We still have totalitarian regimes, integration camps, and expansionist designs in other parts of the world

I recommend the readers of this article to read the book as a review piece cannot do justice to the content of the book. Anyone interested in American politics and international politics will find the book full of wisdom and guarded optimism.


Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Florida and Valencia College, Orlando, Florida. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, director of the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Non-Violence, Human Rights and World Peace at Hindu University of America in Florida, and a fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts Boston. He is an Indian commentator and his areas of interest include conflict transformation and peacebuilding in South and Central Asia. His edited book, Conflict and Peace in Eurasia, was published by Routledge in 2013; Conflict Management in Kashmir: State-People Relations and Peace, was published by the Cambridge University Press in 2018. His forthcoming coedited book is Gandhi and the World.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Aug 2020.

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