Day By Day

Friday, October 15, 2010

American Apocalypse?

The cries of doom and gloom are everywhere. America, we are told, is degenerate and in decline and about to be eclipsed by more dynamic powers like China. It's the same old declinist cant we've heard over and over and over again. Before China it was the EU and before that Japan and before that the Soviet Union and before that Germany and before that.... well, you get the idea.

David Bell has a nice short piece on the phenomenon in the latest New Republic. He writes:
For whatever reason, it is clear that for more than half a century, many of America’s leading commentators have had a powerful impulse consistently to see the United States as a weak, “bred out” basket case that will fall to stronger rivals as inevitably as Rome fell to the barbarians, or France to Henry V at Agincourt.

Of course, this does not mean that their actual analyses are mistaken at every point. But it does mean that they often take for granted things that perhaps they should not: for instance, that overall national economic performance necessarily follows from national performance in primary education, or from the savings rate; or that political paralysis at home necessarily weakens a country’s international influence. Such conclusions stem naturally from notions of what is wrong or right, strong or weak on an individual basis. How can a weak, flabby, undisciplined couch potato possibly compete with a rival who eats right, studies hard and works out every day (like the Russians … I mean the Japanese … I mean the Chinese)? 

The trouble with the analogy is that nations do not in fact behave like individuals. Government debt is not the same thing as individual debt. The collective pursuit of new pleasures and luxuries can create economic benefits that have no real individual equivalent. Attempts to impose stringent discipline on behavior on a national scale can backfire spectacularly. But the psychological impulse to see the country in decline leads writers again and again to neglect these differences, and to cast the story of a huge, complex nation as a simple individual morality play.
 Read the whole thing here.

 He's right, of course, predictions of imminent decline and destruction have been a constant theme in American commentary and policy writing ever since World War II, and as an historian I can assure you that the theme goes much farther back than that. Since long before our nation's founding the history of America has been time and again couched in terms of moral and physical decline.

So should we take the latest wave of despair seriously? Has the wolf finally arrived? I think not! 

Much of the current discourse is simple moralistic nonsense spewed by a boomer generation that is quick to find moral error in everyone, even their peers. Some of it is inherent in academic and activist institutions that define themselves in opposition to [or at least at a critical distance from] the mainstream culture. But much of it is special pleading of the "follow my prescriptions or doom will certainly ensue" type. Predictions of doom have obvious political value, both as a club with which to beat your opponent and as a counterpoint to calls for change. Doom and gloom is the flip side of optimistic programs of reform like the "New Deal", the "New Frontier", "Morning in America", Environmentalism, or the current administration's fuzzy concepts of "Change". Given their psychological, institutional, and political utility it is not surprising that we are constantly inundated by predictions of apocalyptic doom. There is nothing new in them and, I strongly suspect, there is no need to take them too seriously.

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