Tuesday


The pages of Foreign Policy magazine are once again becoming agitated by the question of American decline. There is A Nation of Spoiled Brats: Financial Times columnist Ed Luce explains the real reason for American decline an interview by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy dated 16 April 2012; a few days before this there was The American decline debate by Clyde Prestowitz, while for some background we have from last January Think Again: American Decline, This time it’s for real by Gideon Rachman. The latter, Gideon Rachman, also writes for the Financial Times, which also occasionally hosts pieces on alleged American decline.

I have written before about my distaste for declensionism, so I am not simply going to repeat my arguments the continuing vitality of US institutions and ambitions. For this, you can see The Revolution Without the Revolution and Expanding on a Comment. I will also like to point out the declensionism can be considered a special case of apocalypticism, so that arguments against apocalypticism (as, for example, in The End of the End of the World) also apply, mutatis mutandis, to declensionism.

Of course, one might accept or reject both exceptionalism and declensionism; the two are not mutually exclusive. One might well maintain that the US is unique and that it is now in decline — in fact, I believe that this is the position of many if not most on the political right — as one might equally well maintain that the US is not unique and not in decline (something closer to my own perspective). However, despite the possibility of simultaneously maintaining or rejecting exceptionalism and declensionism, what is interesting about the current spate of declensionist commentary is the shift in narrative that seems to have taken place.

At one time, American exceptionalism was the dominate narrative in understanding the US and its position in the world. I now wonder if we have turned the corner so that American declensionism has become, or is becoming, the dominant narrative by which society at large attempts to understand the US and its position in the world. Having the exceptionalist or the declensionist perspective matters, because each plays into a familiar context of related narratives. That is to say, one idea leads to another, so once you get started down a particular narrative path, the internal logic of the narrative is likely to guide your thinking more than any evidence or reasoning.

The American exceptionalist is likely to say something like, “Sure, things aren’t so good right now, but they’ll turn around; good ol’ American know-how will see to to that. And when things do turn around everyone will see that America isn’t just another country in the world, it is different from all the others, and it can continue to defy the critics and stymy its enemies, and it always will.”

The American declensionist likely to say something like, “No country can forever defy the laws of nature or society; it is time for simple realism and pragmatism in facing up to the fact of America’s finite resources. We need to reassess our position in the world and adopt more appropriate horizons for our actions, learn to learn our lessons, and avoid the kind of overreach that might make things even worse. Every empire in history has eventually joined that of Ozymandias, and we must prepare for the same.”

As I wrote above, I have little sympathy for the declensionists, who are quite taken with their own wisdom in soberly recognizing what they take to be the limits of US power and ambition. The declensionists are smug and self-satified in their own self-defined ghetto — but no more so than the exceptionalists. In fact, this is precisely what these two narratives — the exceptionalist and the declensionist — have in common: their parochial outlook. Both the jingoistic promoter of exceptionalism and the shrill prophet of declension are so wrapped up in their idea of American that this idea comes to supplant the reality. It is this very parochial outlook that is the true danger to the American experiment.

However, if I had to craft my own declensionist narrative, it would not look anything like the stock, off-the-shelf accounts of American decline. If there has been an American “decline” it is because the political class of the US does not believe in the Enlightenment ideals that were instrumental in constituting the US political system. It is not that the political class is actively opposed to Enlightenment ideals, but more a matter of disconnect and incomprehension. It wouldn’t take much to acquaint any intelligent individual with the Enlightenment tradition, but this is not being done. Without an understanding of Enlightenment ideals, there is political drift. The politically expedient takes precedence over all over considerations. With political drift, there is tension between competing visions of what ought to be taking place instead of drift. .

Even if the US political class could be acquainted with the Enlightenment tradition that gave us our constitution and out institutions, it is very likely that they wouldn’t know what to do with this understanding. How does one put Enlightenment ideals into practice in the 21st century?

This is why is probably better to speak in terms of political evolution rather than declension. The world changes, and we must change with it. Hopefully we can remain true to our ideals in the midst of change, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes you must reach out for new ideals.

The Roman political system survived in one form or another from the founding of the city of Rome until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That is a run of almost 2,000 years. The Roman Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Republic, and the Byzantine Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Empire. This exemplifies what I have called historical viability. If the American political experiment is to be historically viable, it too will undergo changes as profound as those experienced by any long-lived institution.

With this in mind, we can observe that the narrative shift from American exceptionalism to American declensionism is not evidence of defeatism or pessimism or decline, but rather evidence of American historical viability. As the American self-image is able to change from exceptionalism to declensionism, this change facilitates other forms of change, so that the American experiment is changing and adapting to changed times, and in so doing demonstrating its historical viability.

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Friday


Recently I listened through Classical Mythology: The Romans, 14 lectures by Professor Peter Meineck. Professor Meineck made an interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me previously in comparing Odysseus to Aeneas. These two are, respectively, the hero of the ancient Greek “national” epic, The Odyssey, and the hero of the ancient Roman “national” epic, The Aeneid.

The Romans, like most peoples up until the modern period, sought truth, authenticity, and authority at its source, in the distant past. It was enough for a tale to be reputed to be ancient for it have a certain presumptive value. Thus the Romans looked back to the Homeric poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, as the proper measures of what a “national” epic should be (before the emergence of nationality per se). The Romans didn’t merely take on the setting and the story of the Trojan War, which was the setting of the Iliad and the Odyssey, they literally inserted themselves into it. The figure of Aeneas was extracted from The Iliad and pressed into the service as the founding father of Rome and the Roman people. Thus not only were the Greeks ultimately Trojans, but the Romans were ultimately Trojans also — in other words, an heroic people.

But the heroism of Romans was rather different from the heroism of the Greeks. Odysseus spent ten years trying to get home to Penelope, surviving many a remarkable adventure, but always focused on getting home. That is to say, Odysseus wanted to get back to the place where he started. Without the goal of home, the Odyssey loses its purpose. Aeneas, the Roman hero, on the other hand, has not set out to find his home but to make a home. His goal is not to return to the life he left, but to establish a new life and a new people. Aeneas was a man with a mission. In other words, Aeneas had a manifest destiny; Odysseus did not.

This is, of course, not the only different between Odysseus and Aeneas. Odysseus is a “man of many turns” — he takes pride in subterfuge, stratagem, indirection, and evasion. Aeneas, in contrast, even before he has established a bourg of his own has all those bourgeois values that a solid, stolid people like the Romans wold have wanted in their founding father. These are indeed two very different men.

While Odysseus was sidetracked for seven years by Calypso, and although he admitted that Calypso was more beautiful than Penelope (the former was a Goddess, after all, or at least a nymph), he ultimately left Calypso and the possibility of immortality with her in order to get back to home and to Penelope. Aeneas, too, had a notable dalliance on his journey, with Dido, Queen of Carthage. Aeneas jilted Dido when reminded of his mission to found Rome, and Dido offed herself (being thrown over for a city that doesn’t even exist yet must be tough). Dido’s being jilted by Aeneas provides the backstory to the Punic Wars, making the love affair more than tragic. In contrast, there was no Hannibal from the island of Ogygia to take revenge for Odysseus leaving Calypso.

Since the end of the Cold War it has become a commonplace to make comparisons between the Roman Empire and contemporary America. Even before the end of the Cold War one would hear references to Pax Americana, and recent US wars (and US-sponsored wars) have been relentlessly criticized as imperial. Certainly both Rome in classical antiquity and America in modern industrialized civilization represent the dominant powers in the Western world, and as such they are rightly examined for parallels.

There is, it must be said, some justification for this parallelism. The US is a political experiment that draws equally from the two greatest exemplars of political power in the ancient world: Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism. One tends to think more about the democratic heritage, but the Roman republican heritage is no less significant. The Federalist Papers were signed “Publius” and not “Demosthenes.” More than a parallelism between Rome and America, there is also an element of descent with modification.

The manifest destiny of Rome and America, however, I do not credit to descent with modification, but to parallelism and affinity of temperament. The Romans created a polyglot empire of many peoples, and eventually made Roman citizenship open to anyone who would exert themselves for Rome. America, more or less, made herself open to the peoples of the world, and assimilated diverse cultures and ethnicities no less relentlessly than Rome. (Yes, of course, there are important exceptions to both of these examples.)

How do you give shape and structure to a society of diverse peoples of diverse backgrounds and diverse beliefs? You do so by giving them a mythology based on the future, and not on the past. Most peoples the world over have taken their identity from their past, from their roots, from the origins, and I have remarked above that, like all peoples of antiquity, the Romans too sought authenticity at the source. But they also had Aeneas and his manifest destiny: that is to say, manifest destiny displaced into the past.

America, too, once had its manifest destiny in the past, and looked upon its Pilgrim fathers and its founding fathers and men who left the Old World for the Promise of the New World, much as Aeneas left Troy, that great ancient city, to found Rome, that great city of destiny. Aeneas, fatefully, founded the Eternal City.

What can possibly come after or beyond the Eternal City? The Future City. The land of the future. The people of the future. The nation that would project itself into the future. The nation possessed of manifest destiny.

With the emergence of the idea of manifest destiny, American authenticity was transformed from the past into the future, and thereby separating itself from most nations and most peoples in history. Identification with the future, with possibility, with potential, is a rare thing in human history, and it accounts, at least in part, for American exceptionalism.

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