The secret of American exceptionalism may very well be the uniquely American susceptibility to narratives of decline. From the American defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet launch of Sputnik to the quagmire in Afghanistan and the current financial crisis, naysayers proclaim the end of the American century. And yet the prophecies of decline are nearly always, in a uniquely American spirit, followed by calls for rejuvenation. Americans are neither pessimists nor optimists. Instead, they are darkened by despair and fired by hope.
Decline, writes Josef Joffe in a recent essay in The American Interest, “is as American as apple pie. “ The tales of decline that populate American cultural myths have many morals, but one common shared theme: Renewal.
“Decline Time in America” is never just a disinterested tally of trends and numbers. It is not about truth, but about consequences—as in any morality tale. Declinism tells a story to shape belief and change behavior; it is a narrative that is impervious to empirical validation, whose purpose is to bring comforting coherence to the flow of events. The universal technique of mythic morality tales is dramatization and hyperbole. Since good news is no news, bad news is best in the marketplace of ideas. The winning vendor is not Pollyanna but Henny Penny, also known as Chicken Little, who always sees the sky falling. But why does alarmism work so well, be it on the pulpit or on the hustings—whatever the inconvenient facts?
Joffe, the editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, writes from the lofty perch of an all-knowing cultural critic. Declinism is, when looked at from above, little more than a marketing pitch:
Since biblical times, prophets have never gone to town on rosy oratory, and politicos only rarely. Fire and brimstone are usually the best USP, “unique selling proposition” in marketing-speak.
The origins of modern declinism, pace Joffe, are found in “the serial massacre that was World War I,” the rapacious carnage that revealed “the evil face of technology triumphant.” WWI deflated the enlightenment optimism in reason and science, showing instead the destructive impact of those very same progressive ideals.
The knowledge that raised the Eiffel Tower also birthed the machine gun, allowing one man to mow down a hundred without having to slow down for reloading. Nineteenth-century chemistry revolutionized industry, churning out those blessings from petroleum to plastics and pharmacology that made the modern world. But the same labs also invented poison gas. The hand that delivered good also enabled evil. Worse, freedom’s march was not only stopped but reversed. Democracy was flattened by the utopia-seeking totalitarians of the 20th century. Their utopia was the universe of the gulag and the death camp. Their road to salvation led to a war that claimed 55 million lives and then to a Cold War that imperiled hundreds of millions more.
America, the land of progress in Joffe’s telling, now exists in a productive tension with the anti-scientific tale of the “death of progress.”
“Technology and plenty, the critics of the Enlightenment argued, would not liberate the common man, but enslave him in the prison of “false consciousness” built by the ruling elites. The new despair of the former torchbearers of progress may well be the reason that declinism flourishes on both Left and Right. This new ideological kinship alone does not by itself explain any of the five waves of American declinism, but it has certainly broadened its appeal over time.
Joffe stands above both extremes of the declinism pendulum. Instead of embracing or rejecting the tale of decline, he names decline and its redemptive flipside the driving force of American exceptionalism. Myths of decline are necessary in order to fuel the exceptional calls for sacrifice, work, and innovation that have for centuries turned the tide of American elections and American culture.
[D]awn always follows doom—as when Kennedy called out in his Inaugural Address: “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear who had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted: “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back”, and again on top. Collapse was yesterday; today is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration—and wilts quickly after the next victory.
Over and over the handwriting that showed that decline was on the wall was, in truth, “a call to arms that galvanized the nation.”
Behind this long history of nightmares of degeneration and dreams of rebirth is Joffe’s ultimate question: Are the current worries about the death of the American century simply the latest in the American cycle of gloom and glee? Or is it possible that the American dream is, finally, used up? In other words, is it true that, since “at “some point, everything comes to an end,” this may be the end for America? Might it be that, as many in Europe now argue, “The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010.” Is it true that the US is a “hate-filled country” in unavoidable decline?
Joffe is skeptical. Here is his one part of his answer:
Will they be proven right in the case of America? Not likely. For heuristic purposes, look at some numbers. At the pinnacle of British power (1870), the country’s GDP was separated from that of its rivals by mere percentages. The United States dwarfs the Rest, even China, by multiples—be it in terms of GDP, nuclear weapons, defense spending, projection forces, R&D outlays or patent applications. Seventeen of the world’s top universities are American; this is where tomorrow’s intellectual capital is being produced. America’s share of global GDP has held steady for forty years, while Europe’s, Japan’s and Russia’s have shrunk. And China’s miraculous growth is slipping, echoing the fates of the earlier Asian dragons (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) that provided the economic model: high savings, low consumption, “exports first.” China is facing a disastrous demography; the United States, rejuvenated by steady immigration, will be the youngest country of the industrial world (after India).
In short, if America is to decline it will be because America refuses to stay true to its tradition of innovation and reinvention.
As convincing as Joffe is, the present danger that America’s current malaise will persist comes less from economics or from politics than from the extinguishing of the nation’s moral fire. And in this regard, essays such as Joffe’s are symptoms of the problem America faces. Joffe writes from above and specifically from the position of the social scientist. He looks down on America and American history and identifies trends. He cites figures. And he argues that in spite of the worry, all is generally ok. Inequality? Not to worry, it has been worse. Democratic sclerosis? Fret not; think back to the 1880s. Soul-destroying partisanship? Have you read the newspapers of the late 18th century? In short, our problems are nothing new under the sun. Keep it in perspective. There is painfully little urgency in such essays. Indeed, they trade above all in a defense of the status quo.
There is reason to worry though, and much to worry about. Joffe may himself have seen one such worry if he had lingered longer on an essay he cites briefly, but does not discuss. In 1954, Hannah Arendt published “Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” in Commentary Magazine. In that essay—originally given as part of a series of talks at Princeton University on the relationship between Europe and America—she asked: “WHAT IMAGE DOES Europe have of America?”
Her answer is that Europe has never seen America as an exotic land like the South Sea Islands. Instead, there are two conflicting images of America that matter for Europeans. Politically, America names the very European dream of political liberty. In this sense, America is less the new world than the embodiment of the old world, the land in which European dreams of equality and liberty are made manifest. The political nearness of Europe and America explains their kinship.
European anti-Americanism, however, is lodged in a second myth about American, the economic image of America as the land of plenty. This European image of America’s stupendous wealth may or may not be borne out in reality, but it is a fantasy that drives European opinion:
America, it is true, has been the “land of plenty” almost since the beginning of its history, and the relative well-being of all her inhabitants deeply impressed even early travelers. … It is also true that the feeling was always present that the difference between the two continents was greater than national differences in Europe itself even if the actual figures did not bear this out. Still, at some moment—presumably after America emerged from her long isolation and became once more a central preoccupation of Europe after the First World War—this difference between Europe and America changed its meaning and became qualitative instead of quantitative. It was no longer a question of better, but of altogether different conditions, of a nature which makes understanding well nigh impossible. Like an invisible but very real Chinese wall, the wealth of the United States separates it from all other countries of the globe, just as it separates the individual American tourist from the inhabitants of the countries he visits.
Arendt’s interest in this “Chinese wall” that separates Europe from America is that it lies behind the anti-Americanism of European liberals, even as it inspires the poor. “As a result,” of this myth, Arendt writes, “sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call “reactionary,” whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.” The same can largely be said today.
The danger in such European anti-Americanism is not only that it will fire a European nationalism, but also that it will cast European nationalism as an ideological opposition to American wealth. “Anti-Americanism, its negative emptiness notwithstanding, threatens to become the content of a European movement.” In other words, European nationalism threatens to assume on a negative ideological tone.
That Europe will understand itself primarily in opposition to America as a land of wealth impacts America too, insofar as European opposition hardens Americans in their own mythic sense of themselves as a land of unfettered economic freedom and unlimited wealth. European anti-Americanism thus fosters the kind of free market ideology so rampant in America today.
What is more, when Europe and America emphasize their ideological opposition on an economic level, they deemphasize their political kinship as lands of freedom.
Myths of American decline serve a purpose on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Europe, they help justify Europe’s social democratic welfare states, as well as their highly bureaucratized regulatory state. In America, they underlie attacks on regulation and calls to limit and shrink government. These are all important issues that should be thought and debated with an eye to reality. The danger is that the European emancipation and American exceptionalism threatens to elevate ideology over reality, hardening positions that need rather to be open for innovation.
Joffe’s essay on the Canard of Decline is a welcome spur to rethinking the gloom and the glee of our present moment. It is your weekend read.
China has embraced the idea of a Western college education in a big way. As the NY Times reported recently, the country is making a $250 billion-a-year investment designed to give millions of young Chinese citizens a college education. “Just as the United States helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the G.I. Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities.”
But for most of these newly minted college graduates, jobs are scarce. One reason is that these graduates often have few marketable skills and they refuse to take the jobs that actually exist. What China needs are people to work in factories. But for college graduates, factory work has little or even no allure.
Consider the case of Wang Zengsong.
Wang Zengsong is desperate for a steady job. He has been unemployed for most of the three years since he graduated from a community college here after growing up on a rice farm. Mr. Wang, 25, has worked only several months at a time in low-paying jobs, once as a shopping mall guard, another time as a restaurant waiter and most recently as an office building security guard.
But he will not consider applying for a full-time factory job because Mr. Wang, as a college graduate, thinks that is beneath him. Instead, he searches every day for an office job, which would initially pay as little as a third of factory wages.
“I have never and will never consider a factory job — what’s the point of sitting there hour after hour, doing repetitive work?” he asked.
This story is actually not unique to China. In the United States too, we here repeatedly that small businesses are unable to expand because they cannot find qualified workers. The usual reprise is that high school graduates don’t have the skills. Rarely asked is why college graduates don’t apply? I assume the reason is the same as in China. College graduates see production work as beneath them.
Plenty of college graduates, many with debt, are interning for free or working odd jobs that pay little; yet they do not even consider learning a skill and taking a job that would require them to build something. Just like their comrades in China, these young people identify as knowledge workers, not as fabricators. For them, a job making things is seen as a step down. Something that is beneath them.
Disdain for manual labor combined with respect for cognitive work is the theme of Matthew B. Crawford’s book Shop Craft as Soul Craft, based on his article by the same name that appeared in 2006 in The New Atlantis. Crawford’s writing is rich and his thinking profound. But boiled down, I took three main points from his book and article.
First, there is a meaningful and thoughtful component to manual labor. To make something is not thoughtless, but requires both skill and intelligence. This is true if you are building a table, where you must think about the shape, functionality, and aesthetics of a table. But even in factory work, there is the challenge of figuring out how to do something better. And in the modern factory, labor demands technical skill, problem solving, and creativity. Whether you are building a house or making a battery, making things requires thought. What is more, it is good for the soul. Here is how Crawford writes about the soul benefits of craft:
Hobbyists will tell you that making one’s own furniture is hard to justify economically. And yet they persist. Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future. Finding myself at loose ends one summer in Berkeley, I built a mahogany coffee table on which I spared no expense of effort. At that time I had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet I imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work. I imagined the table fading into the background of a future life, the defects in its execution as well as inevitable stains and scars becoming a surface textured enough that memory and sentiment might cling to it, in unnoticed accretions. More fundamentally, the durable objects of use produced by men “give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things as well as between men and men,” as Hannah Arendt says. “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.”
Arendt values those who make things, especially things that last, because lasting objects give permanence to our world. And such workers who make things are above all thinkers in her understanding. Work is the process of transfiguring the idea of something into a real and reliable object.
But even laborers who make consumable goods are, for Arendt, doing deeply human activity. To be human has been, for time immemorial, also to labor, to produce the goods one needs to live. A life without labor is impoverished and “the blessing of labor is that effort and gratification follow each other as closely as producing and consuming the means of subsistence.” Granted, in repetitive factory labor these blessings may seem obscure, but then again, Dilbert has taught us much about the supposed blessings of office work as well.
Second, Crawford tells the story of how schools in the U.S. have done away with shop classes, home economics, and auto-repair, all classes I and many others took in junior high and high school. In the pursuit of college preparation, education has ceased to value the blessings of labor and work.
Third, Crawford argues that in a global economy it will be work with out hands and not just work with our brains that pays well. When legal analysis can be outsourced or replaced by robots as easily as phone operators, the one kind of job that will remain necessary for humans is repair work, fixing things, and building things. Such work requires the combination of mental and physical dexterity that machines will unlikely reach for a very long time. Thus, Crawford argues that by emptying our schools of training in handwork, we are not only intellectually impoverishing our students, but also failing to train them for the kinds of jobs that will actually exist in the future.
Many of my students might now agree. I have former students who have written excellent senior theses on Emerson and Heidegger now working on Organic farms or learning the trade of gourmet cheese production. Others are making specialty furniture. One is even making a new custom-built conference table for the Hannah Arendt Center here at Bard. These students love what they do and are making good livings doing it. They are enriching the world with meaningful objects and memories that they are producing, things they can share as gifts and sell with pride.
Many of the best jobs out there now are in the specialty craft areas. These jobs require thought and creativity, but also experience with craftsmanship and labor. Crawford does not argue against training people well in the liberal arts, but he does raise important questions about our valuation of intellectual over manual labor. We here in the U.S. as well as our friends in China should pay attention. Perhaps we need to rethink our intellectual aversion to production. Maybe we should even begin again to teach crafts and skills in school.
Crawford will be speaking at the next Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Educated Citizen” on Oct. 3-4, at Bard College. We invite you to join us. Until then, I commend to you his book or at least his essay; Shop Craft as Soul Craft is your weekend read.
I haven't read Mo Yan's books, but congratulations to him for the Nobel Prize.
That said, his supporters have a funny way of explaining why he won. In the WSJ, I read this:
Chad Post, director of University of Rochester's Open Letter Books, a press that specializes in literature in translation, said he saw Mo Yan give a reading several years ago. "What struck me is that he seems to have an almost playful approach to writing," said Mr. Post. "For example, he's written a novel called 'Big Breasts and Wide Hips.' This is a good and interesting person to honor. Mo Yan is engaged with the issues of contemporary China but his books are also full of sex and food."
Not exactly the reasons I would choose for selection.
On the other hand, critics are overly focused on Mo Yan's politics, which lean towards the authoritarian Beijing regime. The great Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei is quoted as saying:
For a contemporary writer to avoid the very clear issues of today's struggle is something that's not negotiable. I cannot separate literature from the people's struggle.
What is most remarkable about the press coverage so far of Mo Yan's prize is the focus on politics, sex, and food, with painfully little attention to writing. I hope that changes soon as some of us have a chance to read his books.