Sunday, October 10, 2010

America's Non-Decline

"America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." -- Oscar Wilde

From Kevin Drum in Mother Jones Magazine, America's Non-Decline:

David Bell on the common theme of America's decline:

Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of “America’s decline” had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam war; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current “Great Recession.”

....What is particularly fascinating about these older predictions is that so many of their themes remain constant. What did our past Cassandras see as the causes of America’s decline? On the one hand, internal weaknesses — spiraling budget and trade deficits, the poor performance of our primary and secondary educational systems; political paralysis — coupled with an arrogant tendency toward “imperial overstretch.” And on the other hand, the rise of tougher, better-disciplined rivals elsewhere: the Soviet Union through the mid-'80s; Japan until the early '90s; China today.

My guess is that this is a bit more of a conservative impulse than a liberal one, since conservatives tend toward both an over-rosy view of the near past and a religious temperament that views man as a fallen creature. Still, that doesn't mean they're wrong. After all, in relative terms America has declined since World War II. How could it not? There's simply no possible world in which a single country could retain the kind of power and influence that America held over a shattered world in 1945. As other countries rebuilt and grew, the inevitable consequence was that their power would grow relatively faster than ours.

But what's remarkable, really, is how little America has declined. We are perpetually astounded that our military might doesn't guarantee us instant victory anywhere we go and that other countries are routinely able to make trouble for us, but that says more about our national psyche than about our actual global influence or military power. If anything, our ability to project power may be greater today than it's ever been, and it's certainly greater relative to other countries than it was 50 years ago. Economically, our share of GDP fell surprisingly little in the postwar era, from 28% to about 22%, and has stayed very nearly flat since 1980. And political idiocy aside, our ability to lead the world in a rebound from a world historical financial crash has actually been pretty impressive ...

The quote, " ... conservatives tend toward both an over-rosy view of the near past and a religious temperament that views man as a fallen creature ..." is the one that I take the most from because it points to the two things that are the biggest causes of our stagnation as a society. One, an unrealistic view of our past accomplishments and a complete disregard of our failures. How else could Ronald Reagan be given near-Godlike status? Secondly, religion informing policy.

Like the article says, it's not that we are not declining as a society in certain ways ... we are. It's that we are not declining in the ways that they think. Conservatives believe our society is going to hell in a handbasket because of gay marriage and "socialism". But our actual decline is because of the shortsightedness and arrogance of previous (and current) generations. Imperial hubris in our dealings with the Muslim world going back a hundred years has caused us to repeat the same mistakes over and over. A belief that oil is never-ending and that the Earth will recover regardless of how we damage it has caused us to permanently destroy thousands of species and, perhaps, eventually destroy our own species. Religion, besides influencing the previous items, also has adversely guided family and societal planning. The Church's consistent and strident criticism of contraception and abortion has caused the world's population to increase to unsustainable levels. There will be days in the not-so-distant future where fresh water is more valuable than oil.

It's an arrogance borne of moral certitude. More atrocities have been done by groups that believe they have the moral high ground and thus can do no wrong. That religious "get-out-of-jail-free" card expunges its adherents of their guilt and their doubt. But doubt is a powerful and good thing. And it's in short supply.

"Mankind is not likely to salvage civilization unless he can evolve a system of good and evil which is independent of heaven and hell." -- George Orwell

1 comment:

wunelle said...

"More atrocities have been done by groups that believe they have the moral high ground and thus can do no wrong. That religious "get-out-of-jail-free" card expunges its adherents of their guilt and their doubt. But doubt is a powerful and good thing. And it's in short supply."

Amen. I'm always skeptical of any claim that things or people are worse or more degraded or more dire than in the past. I think human nature is, for our purposes, consistent; we are exactly who we have ever been, and our tendencies and capacities for goodness and brilliance and meanness and cruelty and selfishness are steady as the sun.

We have real problems, perhaps historic ones. But we've always had problems, and we've typically felt that some of them were game-changers. Best to rely on evidence and hard work.