Once Was America

by Benjamin Domenech on 8:55 am July 14, 2009

American Greatness

Well we’re livin’ in the shadows of a fading past
Trapped in the fires of time

A followup to this article, responding to critics, is here.

So here we are, nearly a decade into the new century, and none the wiser for it. The last six months have given our country the highest levels of unemployment in twenty five years, the death rattle of the American automobile, the Congressional embrace of population reduction policies disguised as do-good environmental programs, and the definitive onset of international irrelevance after nearly thirty years of occupying that most demanding of roles: leader of the free world.

By any technological measure, we live in a period of incredible advancement. Problems are solved, instructions communicated, and ideas created and distributed in seconds and minutes instead of weeks and months. At no prior time in human history has anyone been as capable as an average American teenager is today to gather, process, and share information spanning the entire globe at an unceasing rate.

It’s amazing, yes, and sometimes, it’s beautiful. But it’s easy to forget that information transfer isn’t the same as bequeathing actual knowledge. For the same people who have an entire world of knowledge (some of it useful, most of it not) at their fingertips, the real lessons of the beforetime, the long long ago in the days before Wikipedia, are lost and forgotten.

And it’s starting to become evident. After four hundred years of reaping the benefit of market capitalism and a near century of abject failure on the part of government-run economic socialism, Americans under 30 are none the wiser. Dependency is tempting when things get rough.

Paul Krugman declared last week that we are beyond fears of a lost decade – begging the question that if the coming decade is lost, what was the last one? – and we now find ourselves in the midst of the 1930s, headed inexorably toward another Great Depression. Tilting his fedora back on his head, Krugman’s proposed answer to this problem is that shared by many on the political left: more economic stimulus. To them, this means more debt, more money removed from taxpayers, and more funding for bureaucrats who will sit in poorly-kept conference rooms dreaming up good ways to spend other people’s money.

There is much about Krugman’s message worthy of disagreement, and it is not likely to rule the day in Washington — President Obama has already demurred, a decision that has nothing to do with ideology, but is all about the political capital he does not wish to spend — but the bearded New York Times columnist is not a fool, and in analyzing the scene before us, he, not the President, is right.

The frightening aspect is that as we stand at the edge of global turmoil, there seems to be no acknowledgment on the part of the average American what a gaping maw of difference lies between the crises of the 1930s and those of today. There is something very significant that is different, impossible to calculate only on the page or in a survey. The difference lies within today’s American — within who we are, and who we are no longer.

Some aspects of this are measurable. We are living longer lives than ever before, and arguably much better lives by every practical measurement. In 2003, Gregg Easterbrook wrote The Progress Paradox, in which he pointed out that for all their worries, Americans are better off in economic and technological measures than ever before:

“Americans are steadily better off, and while the rich are richer, the bulk of the gains in living standards – the gains that really matter – have occurred below the plateau of wealth. Almost every person in the United States and the European Union today lives better than did his or her parents. In the United States and Western Europe, almost everything is getting better for almost everybody: This has been the case for years, and is likely to remain the case.”

Easterbrook’s question can be summed up as: “We’re rich – so why are we so unhappy?” His subject may deserve reexamination these days – with the economic collapse of the last year, millions of Americans now have monetary excuses for their unhappiness, even if they can no longer afford the therapists needed to tell them why it’s their parents’ fault. But the inherent truth is still there: despite this downturn, despite rising unemployment, the vast majority of Americans have everything they could need and more. Life in America today is brimming with choices: middle class Americans today can eat anything they want, find entertainment with their fingertips, and with the right job, can live and work anywhere they want. They will assuredly leave their children a better world than their parents had, and while one cannot predict the future, in all likelihood a world better than they have today.

So why do more Americans believe that our best days are in the past, not the future?

Maybe it’s because, like Stephen Green, they recognize that we’ve lost something fundamental about the nature of America, something that we can’t get back. This isn’t about race, or ideology, or religion. It’s about something deeper — a social change that is massive in scale but is unnoticed by most observers.

American freedom was a huge, sprawling, messy, brawling thing. It consumed everything and anything, and spewed out an unimaginable bounty. For some, the freedom was about growing their business and making money. For others, it was about growing their hair and making love. But it was always here, for anyone willing to risk the journey and leave behind the Old World and its old ways. But now that we have this wonderful place, this precious idea — what are we doing with it?

Already, the government runs our children’s education and our parents’ retirement. Now we’re allowing it to usurp our banks and nationalize what remains of our auto industries. Within weeks, Washington promises a plan to dictate our health care. To do all this, we’ve let Washington run up enough red ink to impoverish our grandchildren. As if all that weren’t enough, the president still found the time to kick our friends in London and Tel Aviv while courting a genocidal, election-stealing maniac in Tehran. He even gave a speech in Cairo — that oppressed, impoverished Old World megalopolis — in which he assured the world that America really is no better than anywhere else. Well, once upon a time, we were.

This is politics. But this is not just about government. According to the National Institutes of Health, within the next few years “For the first time in history, and probably for the rest of human history, people age 65 and over will outnumber children under age 5.” And “while the global population is aging at an unprecedented rate, some countries are witnessing an historically unprecedented demographic phenomenon: Simultaneous population aging and population decline.” Russia and much of Europe is already experiencing this situation, and but for the reproductive tendencies of our immigrant population, America would be on the cusp of it as well.

An older, smaller population is not the mark of a country on the rise. In an essay for the Summer issue of The City, a journal of faith and culture I edit, Peter Lawler – an esteemed academic late of the President’s Bioethics Council – laments these facts, and the lack of an easy solution:

As Locke told us, in an individualistic society the only reliable hold the old have on the young is money. It’s more important than ever to be rich if you’re going to get very old, as almost all of us hope to do. But pension systems are collapsing, Medicare is demographically untenable, health care and caregiving costs are skyrocketing, and our economic future is in question. It’s tougher than ever to have confidence that your money is going to last as long as you are.

I tell my students I want to enroll them in my two-point program for saving Medicare. First, they need to start smoking and really stick with it. Second, they need to start making babies, and I mean right now, this week. So far I haven’t been persuasive enough to get them with the program. But members of the Greatest Generation, in effect, did. They had lots of kids and gave very little thought to risk factors. They often smoked like chimneys, enjoyed multiple martinis, and only exercised for fun. The excellent TV series Mad Men, featuring advertising executives in 1960, displays the unhealthy habits of highly successful Americans for our horror. Don’t you idiots know you’re killing yourselves! They really did drop dead much earlier and more often, without drawing a dime of Social Security or (after 1962) Medicare, but not before generating several replacements to fund those programs for the future. Our whole medical safety net is premised on demographics that have disappeared and aren’t likely to return, and that’s because, for good and bad, we’re more narcissistic than people used to be.

For the most narcissistic among us, the problem is even reaching a point in life where marriage and reproduction are viewed in positive terms. As Kay Hymowitz has pointed out in a recent series of articles in The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, “in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively.” This demographic shift has now pushed the median age of marriage for white males to nearly 28 — if they get married at all — further delaying fatherhood and motherhood.

Hymowitz offers several complex reasons why this is the case. But I say the simplest answer is true: American men today delay the act of reproduction and union because they devalue it. Because technology and culture (today, technology is culture) unite to encourage them to devalue it — to favor distraction over maturity, personal growth over familial growth, and self over society.

And what distractions there are to be had. American men and women inhabit a community of constant and unending pornography. Forget the flesh industry or the cheesecake mags — they pale in comparison to the dominance of the tabloid, the tawdry, the never-ending burlesque show of human failure among the powerful, the celebrity, and your average American family. One captured image of a faux pas, inappropriate comment, or sad incident can enter America’s grind house almost instantaneously, and be identified as an object of worldwide derision, hilarity, or controversy. Fifteen minutes of fame turn into fifteen seconds of life-destroying embarrassment. Just think how lucky you could be: tonight, David Letterman could be mocking you for a few cheap laughs (tomorrow, it could be Jon Stewart, and then people will notice). Who needs bread or circuses when you can find plenty of material to avoid boredom in the frailties of your fellow crowd members? Who would want children, why would you ever have children, if your view of child-rearing is Jon and Kate plus Eight?

Within the next few years, the American male will hit the highest median age for marriage in the history of the country. Perhaps this is a product of the new economy. Or perhaps it is the result of a media-altered vision of womanhood – young men who have an airbrushed vision of the opposite sex in mind can become reluctant to settle for normalcy and the face to face of the real world. In this technologically advanced age, it is far better, easier, and more enjoyable, we are told, to stay a permanent member in the fraternity of self, when life is a series of images and screens, you have responsibilities to defend and protect no one but yourself, and your relationships are managed, adjusted, and mocked (always ironically — it is your ironic perspective that makes you unique!) through keyboards.

In any case, we have now reached a point where parenthood, something that has been an expected and lauded part of the American life, is now viewed as inessential or even unfortunate. Lawler points out that the fastest growing demographic category in the world is single, childless men over the age of 65. One child or fewer is not the declaration of a thriving civilization, one that can count on individual freedom and the bonds of our relationships — not taxpayer funded, bureaucrat-run socialism — to survive. But this is America’s declaration today: That all men and women have the right to wifi, vice, and free stuff. Let the government take care of the rest.

The Right Stuff Astronaut

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. His controls would freeze up, his plane would buffet wildly, and he would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man would ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

For my part, American heroism was defined when I was twelve, and I read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Wolfe writes about the American man at the top of the mountain, about what it means to live and fight in worlds of unending cutthroat competition, to face life and death decision-making and live with the consequences. Wolfe is naturally given to satire, to the line that cuts so skillfully you do not realize you are dying until you’ve taken five steps. But The Right Stuff was different. As many critics have acknowledged, it was a book that marked a point where Wolfe — the intellectual, the Yalie, the shining gonzo cynic journalist of the age — was unwilling or incapable of puncturing his subject.

If you want to see the kind of spirit that America’s Greatest Generation had in the 1930s and 40s, you can read any number of excellent and interesting books on the subject. But we’re far removed from that now, so The Right Stuff can be considered a halfway point between the skinny jeans of then and the skinny jeans of now — a point where technology powered exploration of the unattained, where Americans could strike out for the new Wild West and risk all in the endeavor. Last year was the 50th anniversary of NASA, a quiet one indeed, marking roughly a generation of irrelevancy for its mission to American life. It’s easy to forget the old stuff, the way it used to be.

In Wolfe’s telling, the test pilots and astronauts are incredibly unique — courageous, patriotic, dedicated, human but bigger than the gods of the comic books. There is no task they couldn’t lick, or wouldn’t try. Yes, I say to myself rereading it as an adult — I get it, I see what it means now, the undercurrents and such, the context of history and the Cold War. But when you’re a wide-eyed kid and you finish that book, you find it perfectly believable that when John Wayne said a prayer, he said it to Charles Elwood Yeager.

In the late nineties, Wolfe wrote another book about America. Decades in the making, A Man in Full had its flaws, but upon reconsideration, it has much to say about America today. It follows a businessman in crisis, surrounded by the pressures of race and expectation, who ultimately finds purpose in Epictetus and the old stoics:

Remember then that if you imagine that what is naturally slavish is free, and what is naturally another’s is your own, you will be hampered, you will mourn, you will be put to confusion, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that only your own belongs to you, and that what is another’s is indeed another’s, no one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you.

As Orrin Judd describes the point:

For over thirty years, Wolfe has been a master of the social satire. He has basically made a career out of pricking the gonfalon bubbles of America’s most ostentatious and self-important cultural elites. But once in a great while one of his subjects has managed to pierce the ironic veil and make him stumble. The two who spring to mind most readily are the race car driver Junior Johnson (read his profile “The Last American Hero”) and Chuck Yeager (read Orrin’s review of The Right Stuff). Both of these men penetrated Wolfe’s ironic detachment and he ended up portraying them as genuine unalloyed American heroes. Now it’s perfectly understandable that this point was lost in his pretty substantial corpus of work, but with Conrad it becomes clear what was going on all along; they are all Men in Full…All of [Wolfe’s] work turns out to be an attempt to understand modern men. They say he only presents characters’ surface personae, not their inner beings.

That’s his point; we’ve abandoned our inner beings, our natural selves, and we live the lives we project to people. The essence of the Wolfe critique–from Radical Chic, to the Apollo program, to modern art–is that modern man is hollow. Like C.S. Lewis’ “men without chests”, they lack a moral core and so every passing fade or fancy is manifested in their outer beings. Lacking any internal compass for moral guidance, they follow the herd like lemmings.

What do we mean when we talk about American exceptionalism? Is this something we claim because we are fortunate enough to be born here, or because of the unique nature of America’s combination of opportunity and desire — the chance to carve an existence for yourself out of nothing, the courage to strive and work, to fail and succeed, and then to pass on what you’ve gained to your sons and daughters? Do we have the Right Stuff any more?

Don’t ask this question. It would be knocking the herd, and that’s all we have now. It gives us comfort, and safety, and distraction. It’s work, yes — you must constantly define your place in it: cull and repopulate your circle based on shared tastes and profile pictures, by what music you like, what movies you hated, what places you buy food from, whether that food is organic, or local, or both. Define it by who is more dateable, what celebrity you’re like, who’s a better dancer (you’re in the top five, and you can’t remember the last time you danced? — no matter). Rank, sort, tabulate, repeat. Technology-fueled pockets of individuals graze together, searching for more food, feeding over and over again in an ever-enclosing self-referential circle, creating pockets of American existence bound together only by inaudible laughter at the absurd, brief escapism from the cube life that turns in on itself again, and again, and again – til that great serpent “bites his own accursed tail, and call himself Eternity.” Each day is lost bit by bit, and all the days are gone, and behind the American life is just a trail of pixels.

Thanks in part to the failings of those who believe in the importance of the family and the marketplace — all the more because it is always our place to remind Americans that mankind has no history — the individuals who make up our society seem to not believe anything has been lost, or needs finding. We are on the wrong path, they agree, but let’s just keep walking, it’ll work itself out. Someone will take care of it, in Washington, or New York, or somewhere around the world. And all will be right again.

We are Americans. We measure and self-evaluate ourselves in a world we construct actively and incessantly, one filled with followers, requests, and online polls instead of the human relationships of the past. We worship at the altars of the convenient distraction. We believe ourselves audacious to invest our hope in a man who has no ideology that is rightly understood as audacious or hopeful. We place our trust in the mastery of unchecked government, that one example of eternal life on earth, because we have no children to care for us as we get old.

We have accepted a very great lie. Call it the Persistence of the Founders — the idea that Americans are by their nature exceptional, and are always making their nation so, the myth that this exceptionalism is not something that can be lost. We were wrong: American greatness is no birthright, but constantly forged in adversity, in conflict, in fearfulness and flame.

Once, we were Americans. Once, we’d win through this. But this isn’t then. This is now.

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