The Public Humanist

The Uses and Abuses of Theories of Decline

Is the United States in decline? There is only one thing that we know for sure in response to this question, namely that we have no idea. Theories of decline abound, as they always have (those who are inclined to see the dark side, always will), but only in historical retrospect will it be known whether any of those theories was correct. This is a truism, but one that needs to be restated from time to time, at the very least to prevent us from falling too deeply into despondency.

Meanwhile, as we wait for an accurate perspective to emerge (this can happen rather quickly, as was the case with the predictions that Japan was going to “clean our clock” economically), there are some aspects of our latest crop of decline theories that are troubling, at least to me. To be sure, theories of decline have their uses, as David Tebaldi has pointed out. They may help us focus on problems and weaknesses in our society—areas where we are falling short both externally and internally—and, sometimes, that focus yields helpful change. But such theories also have their dangers.

One danger is that so many of these theories are at bottom profoundly anti-democratic. This seems to me to be especially in evidence these days in theorists on the left. All theories of decline, whether on the left or the right, share the view that the U.S. is going in a wrong direction (variously defined). But too many of our self-styled Cassandras on the left seem actually to be at war with the fact that, in our democracy, the people and their elected representatives have an absolute right to be wrong. (By contrast, the “Tea Partyers,” for example, could be described as radical democrats, seeking a return to what they see as the first principles of our Constitutional government.) New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, for example, has repeatedly charted America’s decline by comparing it to an ascendant China in terms that indicate disgust with our political system, because, unlike the Chinese government, it isn’t efficient, at best, and at worst can’t do what he thinks must be done. Only rarely has Friedman acknowledged that China is a one-party, brutally repressive state. Yes, the Chinese appear to be efficient, but at what cost?

I wish that Friedman and others who focus on our political system as the source of the United States’ purported decline would keep in mind Winston Churchill’s famous observation: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." When Churchill said this to the House of Commons in 1947, the memory was still fresh of leading figures who had supported Fascism precisely because it promised to replace the decadent and deadlocked democracies of Europe with an efficient state that would, among other things, “make the trains run on time.” Of course, it now appears that at least in Italy, on-time trains were more a figment of fascist propaganda than a reality. (Trains undoubtedly did run on time in Hitler’s Germany, but in hindsight this seems a tragedy, not a triumph.)

Could China’s purported superiority be as hollow as the achievements that Mussolini routinely boasted about? I don’t know, but as someone who still has the copy of Mao’s Red Book that he purchased in college in the late 1960s and who wrote a master’s essay on Chinese economic development under Mao that (it turned out) was based on lies coming from the Chinese government, I wish that those who point to China as a yardstick of our decline were at least a bit more cautious in believing everything they read or hear about that country.

And, anyway, is our democracy really as paralyzed as some “declinists” claim? Looking at the major pieces of federal legislation passed by a supposedly deadlocked Congress in just two years—e.g., the federal stimulus package, Obamacare, financial reform, and most recently, an overhaul of the FDA—I sincerely doubt this. Furthermore, if our institutions do have difficulty finding answers to some of our problems, it is because the problems are complex and answers are not apparent. For this reason, the claim, to quote David Tebaldi, that “solutions to virtually all of our problems abound,” but that our sclerotic institutions are too dysfunctional to take action in our long term best interest, seems wrong to me. In fact, “solutions” do not abound, only various people’s ideas of how problems could be solved: finding the actual solution and figuring out the country’s long-term interest are hard. In my view, it is far better to work these things out slowly, pursuant to the democratic process, than to leap to a so-called solution that may actually not work or have unforeseen bad consequences.

Another questionable aspect of some decline theories, in my view, is the idea that our decadence springs from a lack of a coherent social vision that supposedly we once had. But has there in fact ever been a coherent social vision in this country? I think not. Rather, like the experience of viewing Seurat’s masterpiece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, we see coherence as we view the past only because we stand at a distance. Contemporary sources from the various periods of crisis, defeat, and triumph in our nation’s history reveal an omnipresent cacophony of voices, motives, and interests. Yet, it is out of that diversity of views that our country has made the great progress it has. Perhaps the lack of a coherent vision—i.e., an orthodoxy—is actually a source of strength, not a weakness.

Finally, some thoughts about the humanities: Those of us who support and, indeed, love the humanities are rightly concerned with philistinism in the Academy and beyond. If we are correct (and I believe we are) that the thirst for what the humanities have to offer is shared by people throughout our country, then all is not lost. But, if we want more, if we wish for a return of the humanities to a central role in our culture, then we have to deal with an uncomfortable truth. For centuries, the preeminence of the humanities in the western tradition was based on the conviction that they inculcated superior western values. That view has disintegrated in the maelstrom of the humanities today and with it has gone what was a compelling argument for the culture at large to continue funding the humanities. To this extent, the humanities themselves may be partly responsible for their decline. If that decline is to be reversed, new arguments for the humanities must be found. Let us hope that we can discover them.

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Register for Mass Humanities annual symposium. This year's title: "Is America in Decline?"

It's free and it is on Saturday, December 4th from 12:30 - 5pm at Boston College. Scholars, journalists, and policy experts explore the rise and fall of American ideals, values, and influence at home and abroad in two 90-minute sessions.

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