It is a commonplace that America is a young country. The idea rests on an implicit frame of comparison (Europe) as well as the ascription of an origin in 1776 or 1789 or some such date. The idea also rests on a certain cultural ethos typically ascribed to America. Indeed, for much of the last half of the twentieth century, America had an undeniable youthful élan. America was the home of rock n’ roll, wide open highways, and endless strut. It was a land of unbounded natural resources and vital possibilities. If something was a good idea, it would be had here first. If it was had somewhere else, then we would bring it here. And either way, we—the government—would fund it. It was “Yankee can do” for decade after decade (and we did).
But then something happened. Something evolved. Something turned. And what it was—we are not quite sure. Nor have we tried very hard to look into it. We Americans are fond of our history, particularly if it is suitably idealized history and we are not asked to look at it too closely. There are three main cultural-historical stories to be told about America. One is democracy (and that we justly celebrate.) Another is race (and that we try to contain in the past.) And a third, is corruption (and that we seem to ignore entirely.) That last one is coming home to roost.
Whatever it was that happened, whatever it was that turned (and surely it was not just one thing) we are on the other side now. Some threshold seems to have been passed. We seem to be coasting out on the end of some pernicious long tail. The idea that this is a young country no longer seems to capture our conditions. Consider: Our constitution is anachronistic and, in some respects, sclerotic. Our infrastructures—from highway transportation to literacy—are utterly compromised. Our financial institutions are structurally corrupt. Our political system is run by two parties that are both bought and paid for. Our press is now almost entirely given over to entertainment. The universities—once proud institutions—have becomes businesses run by CEO’s (Presidents and Deans) to service consumers (students). The liberal arts must now answer to job training functions. Perhaps most telling of all is that we have become apparently unable to judge excellence in anything and instead require “testing” (No Child Left Behind) or “rankings” (universities.) Everywhere careerism rules. Indeed, it is so much the rule, that no one calls it that or even notices anymore. And while not so long ago—a couple of decades—the watchwords in evaluating institutions and persons were “merit” and “equality” (and they were in controversy) today the watchwords are “branding” and “networking” (and they are not.)
This is full-on decadence.
What is most concerning here (and, of course, this is characteristic of decadence) is that it is not at all clear where the points of resistance or reversal might emerge. One of the predictable consequences of decadence is that the very processes one might try to rely upon to get us out of this unfortunate condition, namely, institutional selection and certification processes—those processes that effectively determine who or what rises to the top—are themselves compromised and decadent. When the comparative advantage goes to marketing of self and institution, mediocrity is the predictable result. What else could one expect?
What happened? Lots of things. One of them is that, at some point, our institutions learned something dangerous. They learned is that it is easier to sell an image of the goods than the goods themselves, the metrics of performance rather than performance itself. And then we learned it too. It was culture-wide.
So the idea that America is a youthful country seems off. That doesn’t mean that it’s old, of course. (The young/old continuum may be inapt here.) But this much seems clear: Whatever intellectual, cultural, or economic comparative advantage we had coming out of World War II, we squandered. My guess is that, in some dim poorly articulated sense, a lot of us know that. I suspect that the “over the top rage” that currently pervades the American polity from extreme right to extreme left (not forgetting the self-righteous militant middle) is a diffuse, and yet knowing, recognition that we have, for whatever reasons, thrown it away. Repeatedly. And very fast.
It’s not at all clear to me where the points of resistance and reversal will emerge. Maybe there is room for hope here. Maybe not. But in some sense, it seems important to recognize all this. To face it—forthrightly and critically.