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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.

It was only a question of time and time is now foreclosing. Winners infallibly become losers in the chronicle of nations, cultures and civilizations, tracing, as I wrote several years ago in an analysis of the ideas of the philosophers of decline, “the deciduous arc into the mulch of history.” The decline is invariably accelerated by “the inner loss of the civilizing imperative, the erosion of pride in accomplishment, of political integrity, fiscal sobriety and belief in a system of core values, laws and conventions.”

One recalls Alexis de Tocqueville’s well-known and oft-cited passage from Book Four, Chapter VI, of Democracy in America, worth quoting more or less in full:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd…Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once…A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.

Tocqueville’s premonition of what lay in store for America is an expansion of Benjamin Franklin’s famous observation from the Historical Review of Pennsylvania of 1759: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Franklin’s apothegm itself derives from Aristotle’s seminal discussion in Politics: A Treatise on Government, where he stresses the necessity of active and committed citizens if the state is to flourish and remain strong; where such commitment is absent, the state invariably grows weak and decays into anarchy or absolutism. When one examines the social and political conduct of the United States today, one sees both anarchy and absolutism at work: a divided citizenry, giving the impression that America comprises really two -- or more -- competing nations, with the threat of secession floating in the air and economic chaos in the offing; and an increasingly autocratic political administration governing via executive privilege, the bypassing of Congress, the proliferation of draconian laws and regulations, internal espionage, stygian secrecy, constitutional delinquency, bureaucratic engorgement and the assumption of elitist privilege converging in the person of a “great leader.” The octopal state has its tentacles everywhere and its citizenry is subject to the invasive probing of a panoptic and all-encompassing entity. “1984 is here,” writes Roger Simon, “Someone is watching me, monitoring whatever I do. If I make a mistake, I will pay for it. My future will be bleak." "And here’s the big problem,” he continues, “it’s hard to see how it’s going to get better.”

History has been kind to America for an ephemeral moment in aeonian time; and America has been good for the world. But not everyone loves a winner. Envy and resentment rather than gratitude have been its international reward. But what is even more damning and far less resistible is the spirit of envy and resentment that emanates from within the republic as it turns against itself -- envy directed toward the productive classes; resentment for accomplishment and earned stature. And once an entitlement mentality asserts itself and begins to determine public policy, as Milton Friedman warned, the tipping point relentlessly approaches. When, as it has been said, there are as many people riding the wagon as there are pulling the wagon -- the socialist conundrum -- the wagon moves ever more slowly before grinding to a halt. This is precisely the condition of America today, where we appear to be witnessing the impending end of republican democracy and the “fundamental transformation” of a flawed but admirable nation into a neo-Marxist caricature of itself.

The only issue that remains is whether a winner that is losing can reclaim its place on the podium. Secession of a vital part from a sickly and imploding whole may go some way to restoration, but only for the part, and even then it is a risky proposition. A noble and determined leader -- charisma is not enough and may often be destructive, as we have seen in the U.S. today -- emerging unexpectedly on the scene may stave off disaster, at least for a time. For all his foreign policy blunders -- withdrawing the marines from Lebanon, arming the Islamists in Afghanistan -- such a leader was Ronald Reagan, who in his Farewell Speech pointed out “what it means to be an American,” namely, “a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions,” without which that “rare” and “fragile” thing, freedom, would be lost. A winner who lets freedom slip away becomes a loser before his time.

But the forecast is not encouraging. Reagan’s proud city “strong and true on the granite ridge” is sliding brick by brick and building by building into the environing ocean whose waves he thought it could withstand. Barring a miracle or a propitious awakening, the future has been written. History is claiming its due and history does not play favorites. Indeed, history does not play.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)