I see it in the Greyhound buses with porta-potties for bathrooms. I see it in the service on our airlines that would be considered subpar, even shameful by most of the industrialized world. I see it in our near total lack of high speed rail (AmTrak’s Acela being the only one), despite the fact that it is a proven technology and can turn a profit. Perhaps I see it most often in the Americans I see overseas; from what I’ve seen in Asia, if there’s a white guy who’s dressed shabbily, he’s almost certainly American. I certainly see it in the idea held by many politicians that it’s somehow in America’s best interests to suppress the vote.
America is now unable to put a man on the moon. We depend upon the Russians to get our astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The most American-made car is the Toyota Camry, closely followed by the Honda Accord. Our merchant marine fleet is almost nonexistent. Our universities are still the best in the world, but our K-12 school system is lamentable. Worst of all, we lack the national will to correct any of these.
How did America reach this unenviable position? Many would blame partisan politics, but that’s like blaming a baby’s cry on a poopy diaper when the real problem is the parent sitting at the computer ignoring the crying baby.
As a nation and as a people, we’ve stopped trying, we’ve stopped competing. We’ve stopped striving for greatness, for achieving an ever higher standard of living; indeed, there’s a significant section of the population who believes that projects on a grand scale are somehow unpatriotic. Gone are the days when the people of a city or a state would band together to support great works like the Space Needle, or the St. Louis Arch or Mount Rushmore which become indelible landmarks, instantly recognizable symbols. Unless it’s a sports stadium or something related directly to the business community, such great projects are viewed with scorn as wastes of taxpayer money, never mind that each of these have since brought in many times their construction and operation costs.
For some time it’s been my opinion that since America was #1 for most of the 20th century, we learned to rest on our laurels, and learned to assume that if an idea didn’t come from America, then it must not be a good idea. When I was growing up, it certainly seemed that we were taught that we could only be happy if we lived in America, that America was special, that Lincoln was right when he termed America as Earth’s “last, best hope.” When our soldiers went overseas during Vietnam, they sometimes referred to coming home to America as going back to “the World,” and laughed when the locals were offended at the idea that they and their nation were somehow not part of the World. Witness the ongoing debate about American exceptionalism; despite the fact that (along with fifteen other nations) we’re twentieth on the list of nations by literacy rate, and thirty-sixth on the list of nations by life expectancy; a rank that we share with Denmark and Cuba.
I suspect that the idea of American exceptionalism exemplifies our endemic arrogance and complacency, and the willful ignorance that are their constant companions, and I would submit that these are precisely what brought down every great empire of the past. After a society and culture has spent a few generations at the top, it becomes a societal presumption that it’s number one, and that’s the natural order of things. And the people of that society become ever more resistant to ideas and concepts from outside that society, even when those ideas and concepts are crucial to the improvement and longevity of that society.
One of my favorite poems is Kipling’s White Man’s Burden. Certainly not for its apparently racist undertones, for such was the context of the times, but for how precisely it captured the passing of the torch of global supremacy from England to America. In the final verses Kipling warns us that at the end, when our time of supremacy is fast becoming a matter of history rather than of currency, we will be judged to see whether we truly belong in the first rank of the great empires of human history.
For centuries England ruled the waves, and for a time held the greatest empire the world had ever seen, an empire where the sun never set. But they had the foresight and courage to recognize and accept America’s ascension foreseen by Kipling and made official by the Great War. But America’s supremacy is coming to a close, whether due to the faster pace of the times or our own cultural failings or, more likely, both. We are fast coming to the last stanza of Kipling’s poem:
Take up the White Man’s burden!
Have done with childish days–
The lightly-proffered laurel,
The easy ungrudged praise:
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!
Our peers? The great empires of the past: China, Rome, and above all, England. Their empires lasted far longer than our own, but I would submit that the reason their empires were much longer-lived is due to modern technology and the faster pace of change in the world of today.
Will we have the great good graces that England had when she passed that torch of supremacy to us? Will we have a poet with the foresight of Kipling who will help us understand the irresistible march of history? Poetry is the truest of arts, and perhaps the sunset of America’s supremacy will be heralded by another form of art, whether in song or in film; but the artist must have the soul of a poet, and I say the time of this sunset poet is now at hand.
I suspect we can all agree that the next nation to take on the mantle of world leadership will be China. If China does take the torch of supremacy from America, then that is a new thing, for it has been the pattern over the centuries that once a people has known the greatness of empire, when they have stood at the pinnacle of power for generations and ruled not only by might but also by cultural and educational influence, once they descend from that summit, they never again ascend it. It looks as if China may be the first to break that pattern. But how many centuries did it take before they as a nation were ready to do so? That is indeed a macrosociological question that begs to be addressed, for the answer just might give a glimmer of hope that America may one day rise again.
But the America of today is falling, and Robert A. Heinlein illustrated in four sentences what I’ve taken an entire article to say: “The two highest achievements of the human mind are the twin concepts of ‘loyalty’ and ‘duty.’ Whenever these twin concepts fall into disrepute, get out of there fast! You may possibly save yourself, but it is too late to save that society. It is doomed.”
Loyalty without a true sense of duty is misguided. Duty without a true sense of loyalty is blind. Without these true senses of loyalty and duty, we cannot have a national will strong enough to compete or achieve, much less maintain a position of real leadership in the free world. Our decline will probably not be sudden; we’ll still be the largest economy in the world for years to come, and our military will be second to none for at least two more decades, but we will nonetheless diminish to a modern equivalent of Italy, forever looking back at those glorious days when all roads led to Rome. The best we can hope for now is the advent of a sunset poet to help us face with courage, with the trademark stiff upper lip of our English forebears, our descent from supremacy.