My title is not what I want to talk about, except the way that one talks about an absence, such as the time one nearly ran off the road. The U.S.A. has not fallen. Furthermore, it has not fallen behind. Furthermore again, it is not falling, except in cultural myth.
"Ignorance is the mother of admiration." -- George Chapman (1612)Turn on a media channel, and it will not be long before someone mentions how America is a has-been or is about to be a has-been (an is-going?), but such a statement about the fall, decay, or dotage of the U.S. is always followed by an and. "America is a faltering superpower, and Hamas needs to align itself with the emerging powers of the region such as India" a person said this very morning on the BBC world service. That person's agitated "and" finds strange harmony with Don Peck in The Atlantic, whose "dead middle class" is doom and death of U.S.A.
What I would like to discuss is not the individual markers that signal alarm, but the use of the master myth of the "fall" of the U.S. While "death of middle class" is a progressive or labor mutation on the myth, the myth is primarily a conservative standby, if not the very definition of conservative ideology.
"So the rest of the evening was spent with cheerfulness, the conversation turning principally on the everlasting subjects, metaphysics and politics; of the first of which man can know nothing, -- and of the last, will not." -- Robert Bage, Hermsprong; or Man as He Is NotI would not like to get caught in debating the facts of U.S. virtue or vice. To me, it seems apparent that the U.S. fall is a myth in every sense of the word, but the particulars mask the general in this case. In 1997, the U.S. was "the last remaining superpower" and was "without an existentialist threat in sight." Now, the U.S. is a has-been? Do superpowers make such shifts in a decade?
Indeed, an existential threat came (from U.S. selection) after 2001. W. Bush decided to treat Islamic theocracy as an existential threat and implied (cool link) that the U.S. was strong to the degree that Christianity was (thereby announcing a war of theocratic states). Obama has more prudently seen theocracy in general as the threat to democracy. However, it is a far, far stretch to argue that any of these are external threats to the U.S. -- especially in comparison to internal theocratic impulses.
There are two major myths of Fallen America that I can locate quickly. (I am certain there are more. If you think of others, please contribute in the comments.) The first is a critique of character, where "We are not us anymore." This showed up most persistently in the "Lazy American Workers" trope. The other Fallen America is a hackneyed allegory that simply will not go away, and that is the argument by analogy to Rome. You have probably encountered this at one point or another: "America is just like Rome, and it fell because..." the line goes.
These myths are notable not merely in their similarities, one to another, but in their repetition. They have a function, a purpose, and they accomplish politics in some way.
Trope 1: Lazy American workers
"Labor is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it without becoming proportionately brutified." -- Nathaniel HawthorneDo you remember Japan, Inc.? When the OPEC oil embargo caused gasoline shortages in the U.S., Americans woke up to miles per gallon. This is something only hipsters and poor folks had cared about before, apparently. However, the 'toy cars' that Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan) made sold, and then Honda cars (what?! a motorcycle engine turned sideways for a car? are they serious?) sold. By 1980, those Japanese cars were selling enormously, and they were breaking 40 mpg, too.
In 1992, the Japanese Prime Minister criticized American production. He said that Japan put its profits into engineers, not dividends, and did not have lazy American workers to worry about. What he said had been said already, though. American executives had been studying Japan and gathering strange lessons (like reading Musashi's sword fighting book rather than having cradle to grave benefits for workers, having on site loyalty songs, but not company shame). At nearly the same time, though, there was yet another argument going around. German worker productivity increases were greater than American! More evidence of the laziness of the American worker.
The myth went everywhere. In fact, it's now accepted fact. American workers are lazy, according to vox populis.
This accepted plank of mythology is necessary for two new manifestations of the "lazy American" and "faded American." The first is the China alarm. Today, the American on the street is told, if not convinced, that China is the #1 nation in the world, that China "owns" America, that Chinese work harder and do more than Americans, etc. Economists and traders in currencies, meanwhile, speak of the BRIC through our window. Brazil, Russia, India and China (B.R.I.C.) will own the whole globe, and the U.S. is yesterday's news -- done in by its own loss of character and end of resources.
The curious thing about the myth is there was never a factual basis for this. Not only are American workers more productive than any on earth, but they're far more productive than any others. Americans get less vacation than almost anyone, and while Chinese workers endure miserable conditions, they exchange bodies for automation, finding it less expensive to have a hundred humans do a thing that a U.S. factory would have done by a machine (e.g. New Balance shoes, which are made in the U.S., but entirely by machine).
Subset: We're not the grand men our grand fathers were
The lazy worker is instantly recognizable as the adult version of the "spoiled children" and the "wild teenager" myth. There are two sides to the "people (men) today can't do what the great ones did before." One is encomium -- an Ecclesiasticus "Let us now praise famous men" -- and the other is a conservative wail -- "Where have all the real men gone?" Often, it is impossible for an author or speaker to manage the encomium without the lament or the lament without a tacit panegyric. What becomes interesting is merely which group is the contrast to the present "fallen" American.
The facts of the panegyrics and laments are usually suspect. Whether we're talking about the ubiquitous and annoying The Greatest Generation or the personalized Big Russ, the parriphilic myth sells. Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation forgets that the generation gave us McCarthy witchhunts, "segregation forever," and hippie bashing. It was the generation that thought, in 1960, teenage delinquents were the number one problem. It was the generation that feared the commies more than the plutocrats. This is because it was an American generation, made up of Americans, who were full of blind spots, easily hoodwinked.
The lamentations are usually far more suspect. An ode to two generations earlier has the advantage of memory and sufficient distance that the accomplishments appear in stark relief and the mistakes have been overcome, but a whine that today's generation lacks __ compared to the past is inherently false. (Sample: "Where have all the real men gone? In the past, American men bared any risk to see their vision through. Do we see any men like Thomas Edison, or even Hugh Hefner, these days? No, we don't! Today, Americans expect everything to come from the government.") These smoke bombs work, culturally, for the reason that a horoscope does: each reader can see selected examples from history that have the quality ("Yeah, and Munson the paint seller, and Baskin and Robbins, and Hewlett Packard!") and imagine everyday individuals who lack it ("My lazy nephew can't do anything!"). Comparing geniuses to the average is always going to make the average look bad.
The Function of this Myth
This particular myth is union busting and worker displacing. If we believe that American workers are vicious, then we will not fight for them. After all, their losses are proper. If we know in our hearts that they are greedy and lazy, then we will cheer for the union busters.
Further, if we can be convinced that America's prosperity is dead, that China owns everything, then we will not be outraged when another corporation moves production. We will not worry ourselves about a plant closure, because we already shake our heads in despair at our lost glory. Indeed, we'll get very anxious about our debts to China and perhaps support politicians who wish to strip government services, especially to workers, because we fear the foreign master we must please.
Trope 2: This is just like Ancient Rome, you know...
I was tempted to put the ode to fathers and lament over the present in here, because, unlike most of what people offer in their arguments by analogy to Rome, that is one thing the U.S. (and U.K.) have in common with the ancient Romans. However, I'll hang on and perhaps treat that particular flavor (the satirist's and commentator's) of comparison last.
Since I was in my early teens, in the 1970's, I heard that the United States was "just like Rome" and was either collapsing or about to collapse because, just like Rome, we were doing X or Y. These Roman comparisons were everywhere in the 1970's, in fact, and they're everywhere among the right wing today, too.
Re-read Frank Schaeffer's article on the birth of Reconstructionism. "America is going to fall like Rome" was the starting point for a long, long argument by analogy that would lead to a series of moves that has resulted in both Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry.
Furthermore, the "just like Rome" argument is used against "multiculturalism." This one is stupidly blunt: "Rome was done in by immigrants. So many with different cultures. All drained from the treasury, and the state fell apart. Now, liberals want the same thing." This analogy can also be used to advocate religious exclusion: "Rome fell because it had no character by the end; America is a Christian nation; tolerance means re-enacting Rome; we must control America to keep her pure."
I cannot count the number of ways this "like Rome" thing manifests itself. I have heard that "like Rome" we have weak defense. I have heard that "like Rome" we are not protecting our border. I have even (yes, and the speakers honestly don't know that their words come from racists) heard that, like Rome, too few 'natives' are having babies.
Digression on Argument by Analogy
Argument by analogy is a fallacy. Umberto Eco, in Foucault's Pendulum has an hilarious exposition of why it's a fallacy and why it is the favorite method of conspiracy theorists. It involves finding two or more situations, persons, or actions that legitimately share a quality and then assuming that, because they share that quality, they must share others.
If any of you remember Chariots of the Gods, it was all argument by analogy. ("This carving by the Aztecs has curvy things coming from the head. This photo of a NASA astronaut has air hoses coming from the head. Were the Aztecs showing early astronauts?") Glenn Beck is a fan, too. ("The Woodrow-Wilson introduced dime has a fasce on the back. The fascists used the fasce as their symbol! Wilson was a fascist." Never mind Wilson having died before the Fascist Party formed or that the fasce goes back to ancient Rome.) End digression
The absurdity of these arguments by analogy ought to be obvious. However, if it isn't, here are some of the more astonishing elements.
1. Rome did not fall. It crumbled slowly over a period of a long time. The withdrawal of the legions from the western provinces made those provinces fall, but that would be a different time at a different place. Further, the empire kept right on chugging in the East.
2. There was no cause. Can we agree on what single thing caused World War I? How about the War of 1812? How about the collapse/dissolution of the U.S.S.R.? Would we say that these are all very complicated? Well, these are very close to us in time, and we don't understand a single causal point, whereas Rome's predicament was long ago and slow. To say that its decline was multifocal is an understatement.
3. Each "cause" offered has a complement. For example, when people argue that Rome had a weak army and insufficient money to pay for social services, this is because wealthy Romans in the provinces began cheating on their taxes. When "citizen" arguments come up, we can note that Roman citizenship was in the city, not a nation state, and had to do with patrimony of specific families, not an ethnicity or geography or culture. The Romans were happy to integrate all sorts of "multiculturalism" in their height, but citizenship was restricted.
Never mind arguing the point. Since the argument isn't about fact, but analogy, accuracy isn't the issue.
The Function of this myth
We should be familiar with this myth structure, because it's really old. The Roman historian Sallust, a contemporary of Julius Caesar's, was writing about how Roman men were all sissies in his day, how everyone had lost their virtue, and how the state was sure to fall.
If one reads Plutarch's Parallel Lives, his idea was for young Romans to learn from Greece's rise and fall. The Romans would tell themselves tales about the fall of other civilizations and play the very same argument by analogy. The English would use Old Testament stories and compare themselves (this is particularly true of the early 18th century when political parties were becoming a fact) urging themselves,
"Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken" ("A Modest Proposal" 1729)The comparison to Rome is inherently a conservative framework. It was when Gibbon did it, and it is today. The goal of such a comparison is to embed 1) the idea that the present society is a world marvel, 2) the further idea that this marvel is in danger due to predictable and preventable mistakes.
The fall of Rome metaphor's chief value is that it is infinitely flexible. It can be used to denounce "bread and circuses" ("The Romans spent too much on bread and circuses, so they fell, and that's what the liberals want to do with their social programs"), immigration, dilution of 'the faith' (this one is particularly galling, because the Romans who felt this way responded by putting Christians to death in gruesome ways), military decreases, military increases ("Caesar became an emperor by disobeying the constitutional authority with his army, just like [Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, the Duke of Marlborough]"), homosexuals ("Juvenal has a satire where he practically vomits over going to a gay wedding").
Bonus myth: America lost its way
A combination of the "must fall like others" and the "faded glory" myths is the suggestion that a central and integral portion of the "real American" character has been lost. The antiquity of the hymn "Old-Time Religion" (collected in 1873 and composed earlier) should testify to the consistency of the feeling that "they" knew better, and "we" should go "back" to them.
The problem with such myths is that they postulate an idealized and known character to have been lost. If we have lost "our way," then the speaker implies that she or he knows what the way is. If we're not "real Americans" any more, then speaker and audience are both supposed to know what makes an American real.
One of my favorite papers on the concerns of the American public in the 1960's is here, but salient in it is the fact that Americans thought the "Happy Days" generation were hooligans. Instead of the atomic bomb, they were worried about the youth running wild. That truth has not stopped us from propagating the idea that people today lack the mores of the "simple" nuclear family of 1959.
David Barton (the invaluable Warren Throckmorton here) has rewritten the "founders" of the United States more radically than anyone since Parson Weems. He is not alone. Not only have religiously inflected groups made the Revolutionary War their own, but so have assorted political minorities. Antonin Scalia may have been the original originalist in this regard -- assuming that he had a key to the resurrected minds of the authors of the constitution, but the Tenthers, the nullificationists, and the thirteenthers are all claiming that they know the original America and that they're not living in it.
The T.E.A. Party put on its tricorn hats precisely because it believed that it knew of a "real" Constitution that the rest of us had broken. The Re-enactors of Colonial and Civil War America alike make the claim that a true character existed then, located in a definable act or attitude that is imitable, and that we have lost it.
The mask, and what's behind it.
All of these conservative gestures have a thing in common. By claiming that America is dead, they enable reactionary deeds in the guise of revolution or restoration.
We on the left have enabled the "America is no longer the only power in the world" myth because we have been in a polemical battle with conservatives peddling U.S. exceptionalism. However, in our desire to take a cultural weapon from the right, we made an error in fact. By proclaiming the loss of status of the U.S., we supply a second cultural weapon to the conservative: the call for "morning in America."
Whenever the voice of failure and disappointment sounds, we need to look at the sophistication of the analysis and the causes assigned. Blaming workers for design flaws and lack of reinvestment is a sure way to kill an industry, just as idealizing the dead is a way to turn them into ideological chimera who may be summoned to bless any undertaking or curse any opponent. If the U.S. were to fall, it would not be perceptible to those falling.
On the other hand, when grievances and disjunctions in pay and opportunity are addressed by appeals to imagined glory days, we all suffer from the toxin of the lies.