It was nice while it lasted, but the United States of America is gone now. For anyone over thirty-five or so, the country you knew in your formative years has been shoved so far back into the last century you’d never find it. Nor will that period — or anything resembling what we had — ever return.
Is this dissolution a good thing or a bad thing? From the point of view of our failures, it could be seen as a good, but when you look at the successes of the United States of America, this Vast Implosion is unutterably sad; each new failure will bring new sorrows for some. For others, bent on revenge, you can almost envision a sea of fists raised in wrathful joy.
Yes, as many have done, America’s failure can be likened to Rome’s decline and fall, but since we in the West believe history to be linear, the most we can do is point to similarities and differences. Compare and contrast, class.
Perhaps most importantly among our failures is how widespread and rapid was our fall. Nor is it just the United States of America whose wheels are coming off: all of what we like to call The West is breaking down rapidly as we lose (to continue the metaphor — yes, I’m paying attention, Mr. Auster, wherever you are) the various parts which allowed us to function more or less smoothly. The engine of our desire is rusting out. We’ve lost the use of several cylinders now and no one who is able to fix this machine is willing to do so. Those who are willing to get things up and running don’t have the opportunity to do so, lacking as they are in experience or accommodation by those in charge.
However, this failure of Will on the part of those placed to make a difference may be the saddest aspect of all: those who could make a difference refuse to do so. For America and the rest of the West, our leaders appear to prefer euthanasia via benign neglect to putting into place “heroic measures” for someone who is old and soon to die. If Grandma needs an oxygen tent and we somehow fail to notice her needs, is that really murder? By post-modern calculations, no. Thus, we need to redefine the situation in this manner: ignoring Grandma’s need for oxygen means her inheritance becomes available more quickly and can be used
to lower our frightening debt levels for other, more deserving folks. In this new moral equation, failing to pay attention to Grandma is not a failure; it’s a success of a different color. The moderator at her funeral service will remind you we’re merely #MakingRoomForTheFuture. And yes, in the West the quaint custom of funerals for the non-famous will be permitted to continue — at least for a while. Even longer if China wins the war of All against All.
The original uniting of thirteen quite diverse colonies into one federation was always dicey at best. Benjamin Franklin and Alexis de Tocqueville both warned us of the fragile nature of this project. The latter particularly warned of the consequences of universal suffrage: let everyone vote and “everyone” would vote for themselves. As a realist he understood the quicksand foundations on which utopias are built and, even more so, the ways in which they sink, unmourned.
The federation was always fraught with problems. So when the slave states tried to bow out of what they considered a union whose First Principles were being ignored, a way was made for the first truly modern war: thanks to advances in the making of machines, we were able to kill one another in massive numbers. Seven hundred thousand (or more) poor wretches died in the name of freedom; genuine liberty died, too. Lincoln rolled up the Constitution and locked it away for a while in order to let loose such fierce dogs of war that none could survive with integrity intact.
In other words, Lincoln was caught in the same bind as the Original Rebels. Our Founders knew they faced death and worse if they lost the war against England. Their compelling need for the southern states to be part of their Rebellion in order to avoid their own ruination caused them to lose sight of their First Principles; backs against the wall, the North made a truly Faustian bargain with the slave-holding states.
Slavery was (and remains) an abomination. Many historians have said it would have died out in America as an economic force with the onset of technology. Ironic, since the Machine Age was just gaining steam (pardon the pun) even as the Civil War began in earnest. On the other hand, the keeping of slaves was merely part of a whole caste system that included a strong concept of honor and family. The Arabs have a culture similar to the one extant in the American South from the earliest colonial times. They clothe their laws in “religion” and play the old shell game; amazingly, it still works.
In contrast to Jefferson’s ideal of the agrarian farmer, the much-vaunted small landholder, the Cavaliers of the South (including Jefferson’s Virginia) looked down on those who ‘labored’, who worked with their hands. In the South, the middle class was small and precarious, mostly merchants. The upper class, known in Virginia as the FFV (First Families of Virginia) ruled the state’s legislature and intermarried. This concept was carried into other states but in Virginia particularly, the notion of class reigned. For FFV, it was the Lees, Carters, Tazewells, etc. As other states took up the practice, they too adopted the “First Families of ____________”. And back when it mattered, you couldn’t nominate yourself for inclusion in FFV; you had to be invited to join.
We still haven’t healed from that War, neither side. Despite its caterwauling, the North is equally wounded, but as the purported victors, they can and do project any shame that comes to the surface onto the “bigoted South”. It’s the same dynamic you see in abusive families where wives and children are forced to stay in a dangerous union on pain of death. That works until the kids grow up, but eventually it implodes.
Thanks to central air conditioning which allowed manufacturing to move out of New England and the Midwest, the American South grew up; the union is now imploding and the children are scattering, taking sides as they go.
The next great mistake, after the Civil War, was adopting the rules of the Welfare State. We started small with Roosevelt’s projects, and much of that work still remains. Back then, the economic depression ground on but the work ethic among average Americans remained strong. As a result, you can still see the places built by the CCC. One of the country’s favorite ‘relics’ is still the most popular destination for travelers and has been so every year since 1946. If you come to America, skip Disneyland and visit the Blue Ridge Parkway. Of course since it was a government project it took forever to finish, the last section completed in 1987. With all the conflict in which it was enmeshed, and the beauty surrounding it, you could think of it as Americana personified:
[…]During World War II, the CCC crews were replaced by conscientious objectors in the Civilian Public Service program. [Yes, World War II conveniently served to scoop up all those unemployed workers into the military — D]
The parkway’s construction created jobs in the region, but also displaced many residents and created new rules and regulations for landowners, including requirements relating to how farmers could transport crops. Residents could no longer build on their lands without permission or develop land except for agricultural use. They were not permitted to use the parkway for any commercial travel but were required to transport equipment and materials on side roads.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were also affected by the parkway, which was built through their lands. From 1935 to 1940, they resisted giving up the right-of-way through the Qualla Boundary, and were successful in gaining more favorable terms from the U. S. government. Specifically, the revised bill “specified the parkway route, assured the $40,000 payment for the tribe’s land, and required the state to build [a] regular highway through the Soco Valley” (the highway referred to is part of U.S. 19).
The generation so crippled by the Depression and by WWII has left a heritage of craftsmanship all over the country. They scattered out with primitive recorders to catch the voices of the remaining ex-slaves, the distinctive regional music and spoken dialects of various parts of the country. Photographers who would otherwise have stood in soup lines traveled to camps and isolated “hollows” to capture the now-disappeared images of poverty and of determination. And we had thousands of tramps with their own language and signs to let others know which towns and which houses were safe places to stop.
When their children and grandchildren came along, these descendants were given opportunities the so-called “Greatest” generation never had. But as usually happens with trauma, even widespread national traumas (e.g., the effects of the Spanish Flu on the mores and manners of those who came of age in the second decade of the 20th century), the past was buried and consciously forgotten.
But The Past never ever disappears. What hasn’t been resolved, or metabolized in one era erupts in its descendants. Thus the massive pain, shame and dislocations of the first four decades of 20th century began to make their appearance in the young of the 1960s and ff. These strange behaviors by their hedonistic descendants scared and upset the older members of their families. “The Generation Gap” was worldwide (or, more accurately, “West-wide”). The older ones, born in the Depression itself, were able to take advantage of the situation. With the help of these “children” they invaded and transformed our cultural institutions.
In many ways those “transformations” were quite predictable: they were merely the acting out of the many unresolved traumas of their forebears, so deeply frightened in their own youth. With no way to metabolize their fear, they ‘injected’ it into their descendants.
Such twice-traumatized people don’t believe in a future; they tend to be fatalistic (e.g., “Allah’s will”); they often don’t have children — “too much trouble”; and they reach out for ever more extreme ways to induce some kind of inner emotional life to replace the deadness of that vacuum they can sense at the margins. Thus do we see serial relationships, mushrooming drug use; music which reaches new lows in melody or resolution, and ever more bizarre “costumes” used as everyday clothing.
- Who needs clothing when you can cover your whole body with tattoos?
- Who needs religion as an opiate when your choice of opiates is already so plentiful?
- Who needs families for celebrations when you can start an urban conflagration instead and pretend your fellow arsonists are your brothers and sisters?
- Who needs sexual identity when you’re not going to have children? Besides, who wants the hang-ups of expectations and choices? Asexuality is the new gender. In other words, NO gender at all, thank you just the same.
These are the ‘choices’ of a new Lost Generation. They have the advantages of technology that the 20th century Lost didn’t have. Those scare quotes on ‘choices’ are there to represent the ignorance of the young who so sincerely believe they can create themselves ex nihilo yet have no idea of the heavy costs of playing God. If they think to look at the price tag, they’ll see the loaded gun pointed at their foreheads. That is the cost of the “Less Than Zero” sum game their elders are playing with the future’s finances.
The coming generation — not counting the ones from intact families whose members treat one another with respect — is in for a world of hurt. A whirled of hurt. A universe of hurt from which there will be no exit. If they didn’t believe its tenets so thoroughly they might have a chance but…
America’s last opportunity to remain America came after John Kennedy’s assassination. And it came to us the same way Europe contracted its own immune deficiency: the politicians’ lust for votes created a permanent welfare state — you know, the one de Tocqueville warned us about. We — the West — were back in the Garden of Eden being offered that irresistible fruit. And so we took a tentative bite during FDR’s Depression, followed by the huge, toxic chomp of our quaintly-named “War on Poverty”. Hey, Europe’s intelligentsia was always willing to tell us how backward we were, and since this universal welfare worked so well for Europe, why shouldn’t we try it too? We’ve been chumps where Europe is concerned since Jefferson was being wined and dined in France. Even Franklin wasn’t immune to their wiles.
So “why not us” indeed? Too bad we didn’t wait a little longer to see how it turned out in Europe. If we’d only stayed in our seats through Act V, when the dénouement appears on stage. That’s when the violation of First Principles is explained. But Americans are impatient and ashamed; we just had to follow Europe down that path into the hell of unintended consequences. Had we not gone there, the poor and sick of the world would not be now surging into the country — the continent — and demanding to be taken care of. Since our political elites are aligned with the global movement of mass populations, there isn’t much the average person can do (or say) about the disasters facing us. Small comfort that the EU is in a similar leaky vessel. None of the political elites in any Western country will suffer the effects of their decisions.
Meanwhile, the huge offensive being organized by the Professional Grievance Masters in this country — Leftists all — is even hollowing out our inner cities. Every.Single.One.Of.Them.
Leading up to this July 4th I’ve done a lot of reading of others’ diagnoses of America’s soul sickness. So far the best tapestry has been stitched together by Fred Siegel. The excerpt from this essay on Daniel Moynihan (it’s Siegel’s review of three books on the subject) delineates most clearly the two types of liberalism. I hope it clears the fog for you as much as it has done for me [my emphasis in the quoted material here — D]:
[…] As an aide to Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey in the 1990s, Greg Weiner knew Moynihan, and he picks up on the crosscurrents that made the senator such a fascinating figure in American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Weiner describes how Moynihan distinguished between two types of liberalism. Pluralist liberalism, with which Moynihan identified, emphasized situation and circumstance in making policy. This was the position, Moynihan wrote, “held by those, who with Edmund Burke . . . believe that in . . . the strength of . . . voluntary associations — church, family, club, trade union, commercial association — lies much of the strength of democratic society.” But Moynihan saw another kind of liberalism developing, one caught up in an “overreliance upon the state.” This statist liberalism produced the bureaucratic “chill” that “pervades many of our government agencies” and has helped produce “the awesome decline of citizen participation in our elections.” That decline has continued to the present day, producing record-low turnouts in the recent New York and Los Angeles elections.
The two liberalisms also diverged in their view of America. Moynihan’s older liberalism identified deeply with America even as it acknowledged its failings. It respected facts and evidence. But the new liberalism, the radicalism of the late sixties that captivated educated elites, was shot through with an irrational anti-Americanism. “Radical politics,” explained Michael Novak at the time, “is so much the province of the affluent . . . that it fairly reeks of class bias,” a bias against “middle America.” Moynihan feared that “a society suffused with the alienation of its elites” would be “a society that courts — if not totalitarianism, at least statism.” He saw “totalitarian seeds in the new politics of who thinks what, and who feels how.” Moynihan understood that anti-Americanism was a useful lever for liberal elites who insisted that their inclinations be propitiated lest they undermine American society from within. But after being scorched by critics of the Moynihan Report and his Nixon-era comments about the need for “benign neglect” when it came to racial policy, Senator Moynihan confined his criticism of liberalism to occasional forays, such as his memorable 1993 essay “Defining Deviancy Down,” prompted by the frightening failures of the Dinkins mayoralty in New York.
By then, Moynihan had become an outlier whose personality and intellect insulated him from the changes that had corroded ADA liberalism. The “boodlers” Moynihan had warned Nixon about were organized into the powerful public-sector unions, whose statist aims came to define political liberalism. Obsessed with race and gender, modern liberalism has no use for Burke’s “little platoons,” among which the family stands as the central institution of social stability. Nor, with its emphasis on “narrative” as opposed to empiricism, has contemporary liberalism shown much interest in facts. The protesters screaming that “black lives matter” even as police killings of African-Americans reached new lows represent an ideological fervor whose grievances can never be sated.
There you have it. The sum of our implosion. Or perhaps erosion? Fragmentation? Fissioning?
No one can say what forms the destruction of the ancien regime will assume. Might as well try to guess the pattern you’ll see in the next turn of the kaleidoscope. Feel free to indulge your own prognostications; this is one case where distributed knowledge will be of use to all.
However, I warn you ahead of time, I will excise each and every case of “we live in interesting times” I see in the comments. Those words are worse than silence. They no longer mean anything, and have become fill-in-the-blanks nostrums spoken by people who have perhaps become afraid of thinking out loud. In the current political climate, a nice overcoat like that quote can be a comfort. While I can sympathize with anyone who is compelled to write or say the words, I don’t feel sufficient sympathy to permit that particular trite phrase to remain standing. Find yourself another Chinese saying to use instead, or you could just try flying naked, sans the over-baked quote.
For variety, maybe you could choose from this site:
- A filthy mouth will not utter decent language.
- A fool judges people by the presents they give him.
- A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor a man perfected without trials.
- A nation’s treasure is in its scholars.
- Be the first to the field and the last to the couch.
- Dig the well before you are thirsty.
- Do good, reap good; do evil, reap evil.
- Do not fear going forward slowly; fear only to stand still.
- Do not remove a fly from your friend’s forehead with a hatchet.
Or maybe you could use my own BFF, Google search. Yeah, I know Goog wants to take over the world, but so do Microsoft and Walmart and Whole Foods and Amazon and MacDonald’s. But they’re all my friends, too, (except Microsoft which wants me to keep learning new stuff I have to buy. Boo Microsoft. And no more MacDonald’s. Bad juju after I eat their food).
I will edit this later to give you the books I alluded to. Right now, though, I’ve used up a whole week’s worth of energy.