Decline and Fall
Some nations do it better than others
© Bryan Zepp Jamieson
February 3rd 2013
One of the huge advantages of the Internet is that you can, with little effort, read foreign media and talk directly to people abroad and get opinions that are often much franker than you would get if you were speaking to the person face to face. (The downside to that is obvious and well-known. But many people don’t realize there’s some good things in that, too.)
An amazing number of people in America still believe that America remains a shining beacon of liberty to the world, an amazing experiment in self-governance that made America the richest and freest country on Earth. You hear this especially in the immigration debate, where it’s assumed that millions stream across the border each year in order to take advantage of the good life that America offers to all.
Seen from the outside, the vision of what 21st century America is is entirely different.
For starters, it isn’t even called “America.” It’s “The US”, “The States” or sometimes, “The USA”. Even people kindly deposed towards this country see it without the filter of decades of propaganda and flag-waving, and they certainly don’t see it as an expression of God’s will. (No sensible American does either, but that’s another story.)
They don’t have to worry about having their loyalty questioned if they don’t aver that America is the greatest country in the history of the world, and they consider it less likely that they will fall under US government surveillance if they question US policies in the middle east, or doubt the altruism of capitalism.
At best, they see the US as a country in decline. The major nations have all experienced such declines in their history – in the case of truly ancient lands such as China and Japan, dozens of times. They understand, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes with dispassionate pragmatism, sometimes with a sense of opportunity, but they understand. All great nations fall, and eventually rise again. Joseph Heller, an American, understood this, and had an old Italian villager enrage a young American World War Two flyer who mocked Italy for its recent military defeats by noting that the frog was hundreds of millions years old, America less than two hundred years old, and asked “Do you suppose America will last as long as…the frog?” The young American, of course, is livid with fury that some foreigner might suggest that America can be compared unfavorably to something as pedestrian as an amphibian.
In postwar London, where I lived as a child, it was a time of America’s greatest ascendancy, when it strode the world as a military, financial and moral colossus, and for England, it was clear that the days of Empire were truly past. Quite a few Americans would boast about this, and whilst the Britons recognized they had much to brag about, they quietly agreed amongst themselves that the Americans’ time would come, and sooner rather than later, because America had no experience with Greatness. History deals with a nation’s rise to the top, folklore with its fall. The English heart knows well the sense of perplexed decline following decades of being unassailable.
The world doesn’t see such declines as a failing, any more than grey hair and wrinkles make an individual a failure as a person. Nations rise and fall just as people are born and die. It is all part of a natural cycle.
Fifty years later, they read with droll amusement about how Americans, still reeling from the minor but strategically important plane attacks of 9/11, rejected “old Europe” ways of doing things and proposed to stride the earth, smiting evildoers and bringing the blessing of democracy to everyone except Americans. George W. Bush famously declared “freedom is on the march,” unaware of the truism that free people do not march.
Since 9/11, those outside the US have watched – some with pity, some with horror, but none with surprise – what has become of the States. At best, they see America as a great athlete who has lost a step, isn’t as quick, and must inevitably look to reinventing himself. It may be back, perhaps even within the decade. Others see the American people as being woefully unprepared for adversity, particularly the self-inflicted kind, and see an American resurgence in terms of centuries, or even millennia. Most base their opinions more on whether they like America or not.
They have watched Americans cheerfully throw away much of their vaunted free press and replace it with a toxic corporate surrogate media in which news isn’t reported, but overpaid blowhards opine on stories never actually given to an uncomprehending but opinionated audience. American workers flock to the Tea Party, which wants to eliminate the few pathetic rights and privileges American workers still enjoy. They have seen the government subsumed into a horrific slave of corporations, in which these sociopathic entities stride the land, above the puny laws and seemingly in full control of most of the pathetic creatures in the American Congress and even the president himself. To this end, the brittle paranoia of the government, which results in ever more surveillance and interference, not just amongst its own citizenry but in any and all foreign lands, becomes explicable. Governments can examine the best interests of their nation and citizenry and take reasoned actions based upon those examinations. Corporations, by their very nature, cannot.
This facet of America’s makeup was evident in the 1950s, when the most powerful nation on Earth seemed constantly in quivering fear of “the Red Menace”, and had a foreign policy which seemed defined not by diplomatic interests, but by economic ones. It was back then that the more knowledgeable observers realized that America’s downfall would not be creeping socialism, but rather strutting fascism. Long ingrained in America’s business climate, it sought to bring the country to its vision of a people united in ensuring endless profits for business interests.
To this end the fascists have arranged for court justices who were willing to place corporate interests above those of the American people, and spent lavishly to get trained monkeys in Congress willing to aver that science is antithetical to god and the corporation. Historians have seen this before; what is new in America is the seeming willingness of the people to inflict all this upon themselves.
Loss of greatness doesn’t mean hideous deprivation. Few twenty-first century Britons would exchange their lives for those of their forebears in centuries past, when England ruled the waves. England may have ruled the waves but it enslaved the populations, and Latin boasts on the coins were a poor replacement for health, security, and ample food.
Americans will need to choose between national glory not shared by the corporate beneficiaries, or a humane and prosperous land that perhaps will have to forbear the chants of “We’re number one!”
But they will need to make such a choice soon, while they still can.