Apocalypse not yet: American culture is not in decline

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I am officially old enough, barely, to remember when television was going to convert Americans into zombies, when our surrender to the nefarious entertainments of a machine was supposed to strip our capacity to relate to actual human beings.  And every successive technology paradigm shift — cable television, computers, the internet, electronic mail, instant messaging, cell phones, video games, twitter — has occasioned the same apocalyptic warning, that we are a culture in decline if we succumb to this new titillation.

We may or may not be a culture in decline, but if we are, it is not because of new technology.  New technologies generally stimulate new possibilities for a critical mass of people inclined to seize them (while admittedly creating a subclass of people stupefied by the technology — that’s the trade-off).

America has never been endangered by technology.  To the contrary, America has consistently seized technology to its advantage.  The best example was the atomic bomb, which, like Sherman’s devastating march through the South, delivered a blessedly swift end to a horrific war against an enemy that might have been placated and then empowered to do further mischief, but would never otherwise surrender.

To say that perennial apocalyptic warnings about technology and cultural decline are overwrought is not to say that there are no dangers to American culture.  Every culture declines.  Call it the Second Law of Cultural Thermodynamics.  The contentment and profligacy of a ruling class, and the corresponding submission of the masses, guarantees cultural entropy — an ever weaker capacity of the culture to perpetuate itself robustly.  The Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Israelites, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the British — all became increasingly powerful and then increasingly incapable of maintaining that power from within.

If American culture is in decline — and I do not believe it is yet — the prophecy was written two centuries ago.  Alexis de Tocqueville — the original foreign celebrant of American exceptionalism — wrote, “one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”  Indeed.

In Russia, the television game show “Who Want To Be a Millionaire?” is played without the lifeline “Ask the Audience” because the Russian audience would tend to give intentionally wrong answers.  What Russian wants to see another Russian succeed?  This is the legacy of brutal totalitarianism and the reason why Russian culture poses less of a geopolitical threat than its vast gas reserves would suggest.  It is a culture in decline, a culture that can assert itself only in perpetually envious and adolescent fashion.  Likewise, one can contemplate the grandeur of ancient Greeks and marvel at what little is left of modern Greeks, who riot when entitlements are cut back, even though their borderline bankruptcy imperils the European Union.

America has not yet become Russia or Greece, which have macro-envy, the distaste for any lobster that makes it to the top of the boiling pot or threatens their entitlements in the boiling pot.  To be sure, we have the silliness of micro-envy — keeping up with the Joneses — but we do not yet have macro-envy, the categorical distaste for anyone’s success but our own.  Thank heavens for America’s cultural survival; America still focuses more on opportunity than equality.

According to a 2009 Pew Charitable Trusts survey — the Economic Mobility Project — “Americans insist that despite the recession it is still possible for people to improve their economic standing, and most believe that they control their economic destiny. Americans believe ambition, hard work and education primarily drive mobility, rather than outside forces like the current state of the economy.”

And this from the same source, a testament to the continuing strength of American culture: “By a 71 to 21 percent margin, Americans believe it is more important to give people a fair chance to succeed than it is to reduce inequality in this country. Each demographic subgroup, including those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, concurs with the majority on this issue.”

That is exactly how a culture perpetuates itself.  That is how a people steadfastly resist the corrosive decline that afflicts every great nation.

And that explains the deep dismay and buyers’ remorse of so many Americans who embody the very American optimism the Obama presidential campaign successfully tapped — but now see Obama’s governance as a betrayal of that optimism, a systematic insistence that abstract equality matters more than concrete opportunity.

Americans of every socio-economic class are united in robust celebration of American exceptionalism and American opportunity.  The political party that best harnesses these core American instincts will prevail.

Kendrick Macdowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.