It’s hard to be wildly optimistic about our country this Thanksgiving 2010, and not just because China and Russia “quit the dollar” on the eve of our iconic national holiday and celebration of abundance. According to some, the American decline has been going on for a while now. Lee Smith, writing in Tablet magazine about French novelist Marc Weitzmann, summarizes this view well:
American foreign-policy analysts are divided these days into two camps: those who believe the United States is a twilight power, and those who think that the only threat to America’s superpower status comes from a self-induced crisis of confidence, brought about by wimps in high places who are steering us toward decline. President Barack Obama appears to be in the first camp, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s right.
One way to understand Obama’s presidency is as the stewardship of a leader who must subtly make his countrymen confront a fact they would prefer to avoid — namely, that the age of American prosperity is over. From that perspective, passing healthcare legislation was all-important to his presidency because without the economic boom of the post-World War II era, the state is now being forced to care for its aging population by dividing up a shrinking pie. As for Obama’s foreign policy, it is not a matter of making the United States appear to behave in a more modest and polite fashion after eight years of George W. Bush’s stubborn unilateralism. Rather, reality itself has humbled us.
“Subtly?” Well, we could quarrel with that. Obama has been anything but subtle in his approach to American decline, which in a certain sense, and given his ideological and social predispositions, he appears to delight in or even seeks to exploit. But nevertheless you could read his administration as a coming to terms with the end of American exceptionalism, or even with the end of the American dream itself. Smith, via Weitzmann, offers an interesting explanation:
But if the American century is coming to an end, it’s not just on account of Bush’s failures or the worldwide economic crisis, but because of a larger historical divide that we have barely begun to fathom — the end of the Cold War. “There was a balance of terror during the Cold War that people didn’t acknowledge,” Marc Weitzmann, a French journalist, literary critic, and novelist, told me recently in Paris. “The violence of the Cold War was sent to the Third World. These conflicts existed in faraway areas, places that we didn’t care about, like the Middle East. Now they’re fought out everywhere. As it turned out, the Berlin Wall wasn’t between East and West Germany, it was protecting the citizens of the West from violence.”
There is no question that the aftershocks of the Cold War are still shaking all of us, possibly even to a greater degree than the aftershocks of 9/11, as Smith’s piece further argues. (Called “Twilight,” it’s worth reading in its entirety.)
But the day before Thanksgiving, I have to admit I am not sympathetic to the article’s cynicism and wish to fight it. I find the prospect of the twilight of American power truly depressing — and not just for chauvinistic reasons. (Yes, I have some of that. Like many of us, I can be a “homer,” and again not just for a hometown sports team, but for the USA. So deduct whatever cheerleading quotient you wish from what I am going to say.)
I am more convinced than I ever was of the necessity of American exceptionalism and more concerned than ever about its possible loss. I came to this view slowly, after many trips abroad, several of which were behind the then-Iron Curtain. Most of these trips were made when I was still a leftist, but even so I began to realize how many of my assumptions were wrong. Wherever I went — and however much fun I had and however much admiration for the local cultures, architecture, art, or whatever I felt, and however much my country indeed had its own myriad problems — America was still a better place.
I came to wonder why, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. One day, however, I was talking about our countries with my then French girlfriend — we spoke often of les différences between la France et les États-Unis — when she said of the USA: “Roger, you are the window of the world.”
The window of the world? I felt a little embarrassed by such a sweeping statement, but I knew instantly what she meant and that it was true — it was a kind of epiphany, I suppose. America represents human aspiration to the world. It is humanity’s window. It is the best of us — where we see our own hopes … and dreams, of course. For all its excesses and imperfections, take away America and you lose that — not just for us, but for everyone. There is no dream, no symbol of humanity’s hope.
My real beef with Barack Obama is that he does not want to acknowledge that or he doesn’t believe it. I don’t know which. But in any case he rejects it. I saw that most clearly on what was for me the worst moment of his sad presidency — when he failed to respond publicly in support of the democracy demonstrators in Iran. He wouldn’t be a window for their dreams and aspirations. Ironically, given his own bloviations, he offered them no hope. He wasn’t a wimp — to come back to Smith’s dichotomy in his first paragraph. He was something worse — a cold narcissistic fish, interested in only his now-absurd negotiation with Ahmadinejad and, of course, in himself. He left the Iranian students with no window — no American dream for their world.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I sincerely hope that Barack Obama and what he stands for is just a bump on an ever-bumpy road and that we are on our way out of the slough of despond that our country finds itself in. I think we can all agree, however, that this slough is pretty deep. Getting out of it will not be as easy as a few tea party victories. The work has only just begun. But it’s worth the effort, most certainly. Happy Thanksgiving.