Sunday, December 5, 2010

China 1029843, America 0

China continues to remind us that whatever this century will be, it won't be the American Century.  This makes me think of a question I asked a while ago: When was the last time America did anything that wowed the world?  Can't think of anything.  Let's be honest, what has America done but slowly sink into the mire of history?

Why?  Many reasons.  I'm convinced that the unrestrained, unchecked, and unbalanced focus on America's sins is one reason.  Just like a person too obsessed with the negative will end up an empty shell, so a nation that can't see any good without harping on the bad will have little reason to inspire its people to think of anything but themselves.  And that's certainly what has happened.  While other civilizations and nations rise as we decline, you don't get the feeling we even care.

Oh, we're bothered when the first pangs from the birth of a new Super Power takes hold, like our floundering economy or decreasing sense of security.  But other than that, most Americans seem to focus on two things: how much they can still buy, and how they can convince themselves that it's all the other Americans' fault that we're in this mess. 

Meanwhile tick-tock, tick-tock.  The monitor is approaching flat line, and those who will be alive when it happens will be hit with the full measure of our folly and short sightedness.  Is it inevitable?  No.  Not yet.  But with each passing day that we continue our downward spiral, it becomes less likely we'll be able to pull out of the fall.


  1. It's a vicious circle. When people don't feel great about America, they don't present good ideas for her, and the ideas that are presented with a positive eye on her are sometimes a bit half-a--ed (e.g. demagoguery of talk show hosts who have generally the right idea but are, well, demagogues and overly partisan and not always straight on the details and/or the history...) After people quit presenting more than half-a--ed ideas of what is or would be good for America, it becomes difficult to see what's good about her, unless it's something from before the cycle appears to have started (and you go back as far as you feel you have to; Civil War? pre-Civil-War? back when we were independent but not federated??). Since history has its good ideas and bad ideas also, and the two are generally more interwoven than the books written by the victors would have us believe (yes, some abuse that as a trope to reject normal accounts of history in favor of making up stuff on little to no basis at all, but on some level it's nonetheless valid and true), that leaves us with two types of positivity: nuanced views of history and the wobble we mistakenly call progress, which don't get much traction because most people have difficulty following either nuance or history, and unnuanced, semi-historical views that gain some traction but are often a tad nutty (or half-a--ed), such as that the South never had a slavery problem. And so the cycle repeats itself, again and again.

    At some point, frankly, I think the discussion needs to switch from how can we keep the America we knew and bring it back to greatness, and start being about how we can pass some basic sense and the ability to learn the right lessons from the whole mess onto people supposing that America does fall from her greatness. Because I'm much more optimistic about individuals than I am about the nation in general being able to overcome this vicious cycle; yes, as much as I realize that any hope of overcoming it lies, due to the nature of the vice, in first of all not letting it dash our hopes. It's my own little unusual altruism: if we are to be done in, what are we leaving after we're done in?

  2. I changed my mind. (Yes, in the course of fifteen minutes; I spent them engrossed in thought.)

    I think we're measuring this wrong.

    I think being a superpower is not the sort of greatness a nation should strive for.

    What I do think a nation should strive for... well, I don't have a succinct statement of it, but I will grant you we're not doing so well in whatever it is, in some small part because we lack self-confidence. But in much larger part because of a sort of inverted pride -- perhaps the sort that G.K. Chesterton called a horrible sort of humility -- by which we undervalue the little things.

    You want America to be great, start by spreading the word that holding the door open for strangers is great. Start by (re)spreading the practice of saying thank you. Start by asking people to listen, not to Shakespearean monologues or Thomistic treatises, but simply to the thoughts of their fellows. When we can stop fretting about Nero fiddling while Rome burns because everyone is willing to help each other out if Rome -- or in this case America -- were burnt down a hundred times, or a thousand times, then -- then we will be great.

    I will have my private opinions on what sort of politics helps this, hurts this or is a plain old distraction from this; I will maintain that a strange sort of lip-service to the ideas I take seriously is perhaps the greatest obstacle to getting them realized; but when it comes to being great, you gotta define it simply in terms of your relationship with your neighbor: nothing can claim to be lesser because every little thing plays into that, and anything that claims to be greater is a scam.

  3. I think learning to appreciate the smaller things, was spot on. You're also right about many who advance the greatness of America. I often get the idea they aren't advancing what was really great, or are at least missing the parts that were. But sometimes if those who could sift through it and find the great parts outside of the partisanship don't do so, it's left to the talk show hosts and pundits to define what was (or wasn't) great.


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