July 24, 2012


Mayberry R.I.P. : Declinist panic. Hysterical nostalgia. America may not be over, but it is certainly in thrall to the idea. (Frank Rich , Jul 22, 2012, New York)

[T]he underpinnings of our discontent are almost uncannily reminiscent of those that marked all our other modern waves of American declinism. Witness an essay by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington written in 1988 for the journal Foreign Affairs on the question "The U.S.--Decline or Renewal?" The proximate crisis of declinist panic then was the October 1987 stock-market crash and the economic rise of Japan. Surveying that era's own blizzard of declinist lit, led by the historian Paul Kennedy's best-selling The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Huntington compiled an inventory of woes that can be found in most of the 2012 sequels: America was losing its competitive edge, piling up trade and fiscal deficits, declining in growth, and falling behind in education, research, and development. And, as Huntington pointed out, the declinist panic of the late eighties was the fifth in a mere three decades--following the "Sputnik moment" of 1957-58, the economic rise of Europe and Japan in the late sixties, the opec oil shock of 1973, and the cornucopia of woes of the later seventies (Watergate, defeat in Vietnam, the Iranian hostage crisis). Since then, the spin-and-dry cycles of morning and mourning in America have repeated themselves like clockwork, with scant variation from the Huntington template. Hardly had Bill Clinton celebrated peace and a booming economy in his 2000 State of the Union valedictory than the tech bubble burst and the market crashed once more, soon to be followed by 9/11 and the long "Why do they hate us?" funk of the American soul.

In the post-World War II years of American might, it is hard to find a sustained period when America was not fretting about its status in the world and its ongoing or potential decline. That includes those golden years apotheosized in Coming Apart, That Used to Be Us, and The Andy Griffith Show, when rising affluence and the Cold War ostensibly unified the country around core values. It's not just Mad Men that has exposed the romantic view of the fifties and early sixties as a golden age to be something of a sham. In her revisionist 2008 excavation of that period, Inventing the "American Way," the historian Wendy Wall shows how America's mid-century political and business Establishments were sufficiently frightened about the prospect of disunity that together they manufactured an American consensus and sold it as a brand, the American Way.

The American Way was promoted in every medium available, from billboards to Superman comics. One representative stunt in 1947 was the Freedom Train, a red-white-and-blue locomotive christened the Spirit of 1776 and charged with barnstorming the nation to exhibit a bounty of historic and patriotic documents. The project was promoted by Harry Truman's attorney general, Tom Clark, financed by major corporations, and packaged by movie and advertising executives. The mission was to demonstrate to one and all that America "was unified, consensual and inclusive"--or, in other words, a nation adhering to "the vital center," a term that would be coined by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1949. The launch was celebrated in Philadelphia to capitalize on the 160th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, with an Independence Hall jamboree of patriotic songs and speeches broadcast on NBC. But though the train would chug on for sixteen months, it was nearly thrown off-track by one dispute after another. Some of the exhibition documents--including copies of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator--were dumped. The Gettysburg Address survived the cut, but by being paired with an 1865 address by Robert E. Lee. Attempts to permit white and black viewers in the South to mix freely were met with resistance, with the consequence that at a few stops, the Emancipation Proclamation was exhibited to segregated audiences. Even the choice of "freedom" as a rubric was a carefully considered avoidance of the more contentious "democracy."

A decade later, just as Mayberry was being readied for prime time, fears of decline were ratcheting up further. Bipartisan panels of elite leaders convened by the Rockefeller brothers in the late fifties--ranging from liberal stalwarts like Adolf Berle and John Gardner to conservative grandees like Henry Luce and Henry Kissinger--published their collected findings in a 1961 report titled Prospect for America. "The number and the depth of the problems we face suggests that the very life of our free society may be at stake" was the opening sentence. This history has been either forgotten--or willfully blocked out--to such an extent that a period marked by rising civil-rights conflict is now routinely trotted out by some 2012 declinists as a Platonic baseline of American unity, centrism, and fairness against which today's America can be found so sorely wanting. That nostalgia for what never was tells us more about the roots of the current declinist panic than any of the pie charts and graphs used to track America's present statistical erosion.

The roots are, of course, just our Calvinism.  The fact that we are achingly aware that Eden lies in our past and not in our future has saved us from all kinds of utopian schemes.

But one does well not to take seriously the whingeing of folks who live in a comfort undreamt by their fathers.

Posted by at July 24, 2012 7:14 PM

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