David Remnick's elegiac lament for the decline of the United States of America makes for tough reading at the beginning of the 21st century. If this is a fair & balanced) report that the bell is tolling, so be it.
The Decline Of America
By David Remnick
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H. Ross Perot is just about the richest man in the land, a scrawny Eagle Scout who has stuffed his office with the emblems of American Empire—Rockwell paintings, Remington cowpoke bronzes, an original Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Can you blame him for his cartoonish idealism? Perot grew up in Depression-era Texarkana, and now he's worth billions. "I like to think of myself as something out of a Horatio Alger book." But that will not be his literary niche. Instead, one day, Perot will be a signal character for the American Edward Gibbon, a twangy, desperate voice of warning in The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.
Despite himself, he is a harbinger of national decay. In his Dallas office one afternoon, a dark shadow swept over Perot's face. He rose from his rocking chair and said, "Y'all know where they know how to do things? Tokyo. And y'all know the center of the automobile universe? Toyota City." He was staring out at the Saint Augustine grass, but his mind was in another country. "It's someplace else," he said.
Perot, as almost everyone knows, bought up huge blocks of General Motors stock a couple of years ago and waged war against chairman Roger Smith and the company's executives, whom he saw mainly as fat cats past their prime. They, in turn, despised this outsider punk. They would not listen. Who was he to tell them to "get down on the factory floor and see what the hell is wrong?" Who was he to suggest GM get rid of the executive dining room and the heated garages? It was un-American, that's what it was, and the GM boys were having none of it. In the end, they decided to buy back his stock and shut him up for a $700-million premium. Perot was richer, but he had lost. Nothing changed. America's corporate flagship and symbol—"Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet!"—preferred to stuff wads of cash in its critic's mouth and continue on its merry course of decline.
Perot, of course, is still touting America. But in his heart, he knows the truth. He has seen the future, and he knows it stinks. Say good-bye to empire, say hello to the long, slow fade. America is England in the making.
Britannia peaked with Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The day was uncommonly sunny; all England called it "Queen's weather." She was that powerful.
Then began the steady slide. The main business was Her Majesty's government, especially after the world wars, was its own dismantlement. By 1949, with India independent and Britain yielding the world stage to its brassy colony across the Atlantic, Prime Minister Clement Attlee spent an endless summer rereading Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The New York Times reported, "No significance, his admirers say, should be attached to his selection at that time of the particular work." The English knew better.
In 1965, Winston Churchill, the last great symbol of the Empire, died, and for one long, gray day, England went through the old imperial trot. Big Ben was silent. Bands across London ground out [Handel's] Dead March from "Saul." A boat bore the casket down the Thames on the way to the final resting place in Oxfordshire. The funeral was as much for an empire as for its exemplar. "The true old times were dead, when every morning brought a noble chance, and every chance a noble knight."
The American descent has been a comic shadow of England's, embodying Karl Marx's comment that historical figures and events always occur twice—"the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."
Never was the American Empire so strong as on the cold day in 1961 when a millionaire's young son stood triumphant on the Capitol steps to deliver an inaugural address full of promise and swaggering gall. John Kennedy had behind him the confidence of military triumph and untold wealth. We would conquer space, poverty and Communism. We would all wear mink to work and drink champagne for breakfast. The future was ours.
As they say in Victorian novels, the years passed. Passed bitterly. Then, in an effort to revive some of the old dream, Ronald Reagan came along, bearing "It's Morning Again in America" slogans. He promised nothing less than to revive the empire feel of the Kennedy years, its glamour, its might, its promise. As it turned out, Reagan's greatest mistake was to win re-election. The great soufflé that Reagan had baked in his first term collapsed. Suddenly the spectacle of conservative culturati Jerry Zipkin and Wayne Newton at state dinners seemed to so much elegant as grotesque.
The party's over. When the stock market crashed 508 points one Monday last October, the cartoonist Herblock drew a hung-over party boy clutching his forehead. The caption: "Morning in America." It's not just the economics. American influence abroad makes the money picture look positively vibrant. The splendid military mission in the Caribbean, in which the cabanas and golf clubs were made forever safe from Communism, seems now a depressing event, merely another embarrassment in line with the jumbled efforts in Nicaragua, the Philippines and Lebanon.
Reagan himself no longer summons memories of his fresh-faced days as the Gipper. He is more like Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," obviously aping his starlit days by the emerald swimming pool while the world around him moves ineluctably on. The signs of decadence before the fall can be seen in all the restaurants in New York: hyper-starved wives of real-estate barons, wearing the great poufs and flounces of Arnold Scaasi and Christian Lacroix, lunching without eating, kissing without touching. The glorious waste! The manic spending before the crash is reminiscent of the tulip inflation in Holland, the brief period before its fall, when the Dutch were willing to spend thousands of dollars for a single bulb. Nowadays the sacramental tulips are everywhere—the $100 tie, the $10,000 gown, the $7 movie ticket, the $1-millon one-bedroom apartment.
In his second term, Reagan has become the American Attlee, presiding over one mortal blow after another. Only don't expect to hear about Reagan reading Gibbon or writing the depressing tale himself. All he can see is the ephemeral glitz. It will be left to us to identify and describe the decline of the Empire.
The Rhinestone Jubilees
Celebration and ceremony were at the center of the British Empire. Nothing roused the nation so much as a chorus of "Rule Britannia" and the notion of the blood never drying on the lands of the Empire. And just as the volume increased, one knew the Empire was shrinking.
Our latest version of the Diamond Jubilee was 1986's centennial rededication of the Statue of Liberty—brought to you by ABC (which bought the rights to the woeful slop for $10 million). Producer David Wolper promised it would be "one of the most spectacular nights in a person's lifetime." Indeed. There were 300 tap dancers, a football field filled with Elvis imitators, the runtish gymnast Mary Lou Retton and perky skater Dorothy Hamill (who fell flat on her butt). There were patriotic advertising tie-in arrangements like Allied Van Lines' "Move to Liberty" exhibitions at shopping malls, which described the immigrant experience as "moving."
Not to be outdone, Chief Justice Warren Burger, known as "dummy" behind his back, quit the Supreme Court to lead the celebration of the Constitutional Bicentennial last year. In his last days on the bench, Burger distributed Bicentennial place mats to the law clerks. Burger eventually expanded his idea, distributing the mats to fast-food restaurants. "Do you know how many place mats McDonald's uses every day?" he asked a reporter. "Take a guess. Go ahead. Ten million place mats a day. Someone may belittle that... but it's in the very best of taste."
America On The Beach
Britain's long-overdue retreat from empire was a noble venture compared with American diplomacy of the Eighties. The decade began with Jimmy Carter's attempt to free the hostages in Iran. The raid had to be aborted because of poor planning, sandstorms and faulty equipment. Eight members of the elite special-operations forces died. When Carter finally canceled the mission, he told one assistant, "It could have been worse."
Astonishingly, he was right. The military high point of the Reagan era came on the beaches of Grenada, where the world's most powerful nation miraculously outmanned the Club Med water polo-team. But there were hints of disaster in the great triumph. When Army officers needed to call in supporting fire from Navy ships, they discovered they had incompatible radio systems. They had to resort to ham radios, couriers and, in one case, an AT&T credit card, used to call Fort Bragg to have the order relayed.
The spectacle of Elliot Abrams shaking down the tiny government of Brunei for $10 million in order to finance the contras can be counted as a pivotal moment in American rot. So can Robert McFarlane's trip to Iran in search of "moderates." He flew under cover, carrying an Irish passport and posing as an airline crewman. As tokens of goodwill, McFarlane took with him a Bible signed by the president and a cake baked in the shape of a key. Unfortunately, hungry Revolutionary Guards ate the cake at the Tehran airport, and the rest is history.
With the Soviet Union we are doing a little better. At the Washington summit, Mikhail Gorbachev outdid the Iranians. He sang "Moscow Nights" at the state dinner and had Reagan for lunch. Two weeks after the summit, the No. 10 book on The New York Times hardcover-nonfiction best-seller list was A Day in the Life of America. No. 9 was A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union.
Whiz Kids Fan Out
Americans invented the video recorder. Do you see any American-made video recorders around?
The next technology bound to change everyone's life is superconductivity, the new absurdly efficient method of transmitting electricity. Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences, says the superconductivity race is a "test of whether the United States has a technological future."
"One of the events that might shake people up is when Japan's gross national product becomes roughly equal to that of the United States," says Yale historian Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. "In 1880, it was a huge shock for Britain when the U.S. passed it in GNP," Kennedy said in a recent interview. "Now, if you take into account the decline of the dollar against the yen, the Japanese are in a position to do that to America. They've already passed the Soviet Union."
The grim specter is growing. Where once an American could roam the world and see his culture in every corner—a Wendy's in Kuala Lampur, a Lionel Richie album in Mauritius—it seems now that they don't want us anymore. Recently , McDonald's Corporation opened a franchise in Rome: The old empire meets the new! And for days, angry Romans shouted, "Go home!" They didn't want Big Macs. Imagine.
The Culture Crash
In his Nobel Prize-acceptance address, the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky insisted that literature is something "more ancient and inevitable, more durable than any form of social organization." That is a heartening thought when one thinks of the works of Dostoyevski and Tolstoy in light of the Soviet regime, but the American version is a bit jarring. Mr. Brodsky has clearly not read the works of Bret Easton Ellis et al. The shining literary lights of the Reagan era are the tiny eminences behind Less Than Zero and A Cannibal in Manhattan. The young, proto-serious novelists aren't killing the novel, says critic Terrence Rafferty, they're staging a "hostile takeover."
Greed and commercialism reign in the arts as well. The best-known artist in the land is Julian Schnabel, whose work is gobbled up for gobs of cash, according to art critic Robert Hughes, by "the very new rich—arbs, developers, soap opera producers, agents, admen, all manner of important folk whose uncertainty in cultural matters matches their socioeconomic vanity." Schnabel's signature move is to stick a great many shattered dinner plates on his canvases, a gesture that he feels obtains "the sound of every violent human tragedy."
The movies are a good indicator of decline as well. This year, for the first time, no American was among the Oscar nominees for best director. Comedy is far and away the dominant mode, and yet Woody Allen, the funniest filmmaker we have, is a cross-pollination of Buster Keaton and Anton Chekov. Aykroyd and Williams and Murphy are pulling down the dollars, but it's Woody who has the best sense of the room. His is the pessimism of America's worried age: "I'm not sure I believe in life after death, but I'm bringing a change of underwear."
Meanwhile, the best-seller lists are peppered with such uplifting successes as The Closing of the American Mind, The Great Depression of 1990 and, yes, Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. And if Time magazine can be taken as a barometer of popular culture and its acceptance into the mainstream, well, then, beware. The Irish group U2 is the cover band, and British hurdy-gurdy man Andrew Lloyd Webber is the cover boy of Broadway. In fact, the only attractive figure in Tom Wolfe's end-of empire novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is the whiskey-sodden journalist. A Brit.
The Playing Fields of Sao Paulo
A telling area in the history of crumbling empires. Witness the way the British national cricket team is now routinely whipped by teams from the West Indies, Pakistan and India. Most humbling.
The American erosion is well under way. Last year, George Bell won the American League's most valuable player award. A Dominican playing for a Canadian team. Soon the World Series will be Bell's Toronto Blue Jays versus the Yomisuri Giants. Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have won seventeen of the last twenty-one Little League World Series, even after the rules were changed to ensure that at least one American team reaches the finals every year. At the Pan-American Games in Indianapolis last summer, the United States flubbed two of its native sports. Cuba beat the baseball team, 13-9, and Brazil, led by a dwarf Doctor J. named Oscar Schmidt, beat the cream of the NCAA for the basketball gold. After the game, one of the Brazilian stars explained the upset this way: "We have a saying in Brazil. We are the piano players, and our teammates are the piano carriers."
There is trouble on every front. The premier big man in the NBA is Akeem Olajuwon, a Nigerian, and it seems there are at least forty-seven Bavarian forwards named Ernst. The tennis world has become the province of sour Czechs, winsome Swedes and earnest Germans. Patriotic John McEnroe has managed to insult them all with shouts of "Kraut" and "Commie." Soon he will shout from the cheap seats.
Even the NFL is endangered. The Canadians, the Brits and even the Japanese are nuts about American football. As a teacher in Japan, I well remember the sight of my male students, none of whom had ever witnessed the grace of Sayers or the ferocity of Nitschke, doing "glass drills" in the parking lot. As they rolled about on the pavement, they yelled bits of Japanese—"Hyoooo Hyoooo!" Very frightening. Soon you may see the NFL getting whipped in the Super Bowl by the Yokohama Yaks.
Truth And Beauty
In a fit of aw-shucks idealism, Reagan once said, "I'm not smart enough to lie." Now the nation senses otherwise. The Washington Post Magazine named 1987 the "Year of the Big Lie," and in a scientific poll, seven out of every ten people said the president had told a "serious" lie in the past year. In a period of Ivan Boesky, Ollie North, Gary Hart and John Poindexter, Reagan was voted the man who had told the biggest lie of the year.
"Who could dispute this choice?" the Post asked. "Our winner is the man who told us that trees cause pollution, that Trident missiles can be called back after they've been launched." No wonder, then, that Reagan's most trusted aide and keeper of American justice, Edwin Meese, made it his year's lofty goal to avoid indictment.
It was an era, too, when a White House advance team flew to Germany in order to plan the president's trip to a Nazi graveyard and, at the same time, used their diplomatic passports to buy nine BMWs on deep discount. Reagan said he saw nothing at all wrong with that, calling it "a standard practice that's been used for many, many years." Soon Michael Deaver would use his keen public-relations sense to pose in the backseat of his limousine for Time's cover story on Washington influence peddling. That marked the first time a decision to model led straight to a conviction on three counts of perjury.
So how will we know when the lights are really out? Churchill seemed to get the idea, once and for all, when an American, Dwight Eisenhower, headed the Allied invasion at Normandy. And awful blow, that. One that caused the old man considerable anxiety.
But decline can be a pleasant thing if understood with modesty and wisdom. It's a part of every empire's life. America is a country in late middle age, and it may do well to scale itself down to British-style ambitions. Mature ambitions, like survival rather than puff-chested world-beating. Look at Japan, with its puissant defense obligations, turning into an affluent, if speedy, nation. It might be a bit like growing up and, finally, growing old, but gracefully. Instead of wrinkling and dying young, we might become the political version of a "woman of a certain age."
But it may be years before Americans get a sense of ourselves, as one among many rather than One above the rest. "A country can look grand and powerful and number one-ish long past its prime," says empire expert Kennedy. "The powers on the decline tend to lack a certain self-awareness. There's a time lag. Powers tend to think that their own virtues, like Manifest Destiny, are what made them great, not the geographical or economic factors that might have favored them for a time. It's terribly hard for people to even recognize they're in a chronic state. If you're a dentist in Evanston, Illinois, you might say to yourself, "Well, what's so awful about the world? My income went up 6 or 7 percent last year and who cares what's happening in the factories in Korea and Japan?"
In late middle age, we are fed a more-than-modest presidential race in which the front-runners, George Bush and Michael Dukakis, have the vision of that orthodontist in Evanston. Their prescription for the future are slight, corrective and can-do, as if the nation were suffering merely from a slight overbite and a bit of decay here and there. In decline we face the great vision of Manifest Destiny. Ω
[David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker. Remnick won a Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction (1994) for Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. His most recent book is The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (2010). Remnick received an AB (comparative literature) from Princeton University.]
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