Reflections on History and America

The difference between history’s winners and losers obviously depends on the criteria we adopt to discriminate between success and failure on the level of nation, culture and civilization. For the purposes of this article, I will leave the display of military splendor and the creation of great art out of the equation. Neither military parades in a public square nor architectural wonders constitute a boon for ordinary people, even if they produce a feeling of national pride. Rather, I define success as a function of three complementary factors: the ability to survive intact for extended periods; the achievement of approximate prosperity in a largely impoverished world; and the fostering of a relatively free, confident and vigorous citizenry. (Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian calculus developed in his A Fragment on Government, based on “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” plainly does not consort with these observations, since happiness is both an ambiguous concept and a non-measurable “quantity.”)

Naturally, political and social conditions will differ markedly owing to the contingencies and realities of the epoch in question, but these three criteria appear essentially stable. I should also specify that the term “winner” in this context does not designate mere brute power leading to longevity but comes with a moral valence as well, ideally, a quality of mercy, respect for one’s fellow citizens and the sane administration of reasonable laws. President Kennedy was no paragon of virtue and some of his pronouncements are distinctly troubling; yet he clearly recognized the moral component of national success when he wrote, in his Cuban Missile Cris address of October 22, 1962, in refutation of  Thrasymachus’ “might is right” doctrine in Plato’s Republic: “Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right.” It should be noted, too, that the three basic factors I have outlined do not necessarily apply as an indivisible unit; sometimes one, sometimes another, will predominate, but no single one is sufficient in itself.

What I regard as failure reverses the elements involved: an abbreviated sojourn on the historical calendar; the curse of subsistence living or economic destitution; and a repressive sociopolitical system in which individuals are merged into a featureless collective or, for one or another reason, despoiled of the opportunity to realize their innate potentials.

Of the losers, the most prominent contemporary instance is the Soviet Union, whose overhyped “Communist utopia” collapsed after 70 years. Founded on unworkable principles, meretricious theory, false premises and a complete misunderstanding of human nature, the surprise was that it lasted even that long. Another undoubted loser is the Islamic imperium. Of course, Islam as a composite civilization embracing many diverse nations has endured for over 1400 years. It satisfies the criterion of longevity, but its current differential prosperity relies on external sources and is concentrated, for the most part, in the hands of a dynastic or theocratic minority. Nor can its citizens generally be described as vigorous, inventive, well-educated and emancipated. Aside from a brief efflorescence in the medieval era, Islam has given the world little in the way of human thriving, maintaining itself through violence, dogma, slavery and conquest. In his indispensable and encyclopedic Sharia versus Freedom, Andrew Bostom quotes the scholar of religion James Freeman Clarke to the effect that Islam “makes life barren and empty…It makes men tyrants or slaves, women puppets, religion the submission to infinite despotism." Any nation or institution that makes common cause with Islam or allows its incursion into the body politic or into social and cultural life will eventually go the same route.

Arguably, the greatest winner in history was Rome spanning the period from Republic to Empire, before disintegration set in. The United States of America is not far behind in the winning category, probably the most dynamic nation ever to have appeared on the historical proscenium and the bulwark of Western civilization in the modern world, although its tenure, unlike Rome’s, was comparatively truncated, and many indicators suggest that exhaustion and decrepitude are nigh. The great experiment in republican governance, individual liberty, free market economics, industrial potency and energetic entrepreneurship was doomed by the inexorable forces of human corruption, naked greed, endemic stupidity and the onset of relaxed indifference to the kinetics of continued prosperity, the desideratum of internal unity and the harsh demands of survival in an unforgiving world. Its early decline may be understood as a function of its precipitous success and, in this sense, the current woes afflicting the nation may be considered as entirely predictable and strictly unavoidable. Debt, dependency, unproductivity, preoccupation with untenable theories and fads, internecine conflict, racial politics, affirmative (or infirmative) action, the multicultural salad bowl, intellectual debasement of the general public, a decadent clerisy, incompetent and sybaritic leaders and a climate in which, to cite Victor Davis Hanson, “profits create suspicion; failures earn subsidies” -- all were scripted in history’s Domesday Book.