The Unites States is having a down moment. And because I have dedicated so many posts to the many different angles on French decline (real or perceived), I am delighted, in the interest of being fair and balanced, to be able to write this week about an improbable sense of…American decline.
If I mention “fair and balanced” (for those of you who don’t know, that’s the motto of the conservative network Fox news), it’s because the most spectacular declaration of American decline came from Fox news darling and conservative commentator, Anne Coulter. She wrote an extraordinarily crass and racist column expressing her indignation about the growing American interest in soccer, claiming that because soccer is a girly, boring, tepid and unmanly foreigners’ sport, its popularity is a sign of America’s moral decay.
The Unites States is having a down moment.
The fundamental root cause of this, she says, is immigration. “I promise you,” she writes, “no American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.” In brief, the World Cup has left her despairing about America (and worried, like a few other conservatives, that Americans are becoming too French: “soccer is a game for beret-wearers.”) Coulter’s view is one of extreme bigotry, but I mention it because like other, less partisan and gratuitously provocative, commentators she’s chosen to make an issue of general American decline, and not simply targeting liberals and pro-choice activists like she usually does.
This current moment of perceived decline was perhaps best captured last week in the New York Times, by Maureen Dowd, the much more left-leaning columnist. It’s called“Who Do We Think We Are?”, a title that does seem to suggest a certain chastened self-examination. And in fact she paints a pretty humbled picture of an America that’s lost hope, that’s lost pride, that’s taken itself down a few notches as it struggles “to come to grips with a world where we can no longer dictate all the terms, win all the wars and lead all the charges.”
Dowd singles out a few sources of the malaise, suggesting that the U.S. has OD’d on its own excesses which, according to her, are manifold: food, hubris, surveillance, online stupidity (“too many Buzzfeed listicles like “33 Photos Of Corgi Butts,” and too much mindless and malevolent online chatter”). She also cites Ted Cruz, the current situation in Iraq, and what she views as the pathetic inability to pass immigration reform as a few of a laundry list of signs of the downfall.
Initially, it even seems like Dowd wants to blame it a little on soccer, too: “Once our nation saw itself as the undefeatable cowboy John Wayne. Now we bask in the prowess of the unstoppable goalie Tim Howard, a biracial kid from New Jersey with Tourette’s syndrome.” Once we had idols; now we have imperfect underdog heroes. Bizarrely, Dowd seems to be reading the popularity of soccer as an indirect sign of American decline as well. It’s rare when Coulter and Dowd ever sound anything alike—enough to think that the malaise must be serious.
But when Coulter and Dowd get to probing what all this means, what’s really at the root of the moral decay and general decline, the first cites facile targets (immigration, liberals) that could easily be eliminated in her view, and the second doesn’t actually seem so convinced that la fin is near. Dowd cites an expert (Andrew Kohut from the Pew Research center) who says that the moment is actually just “chronic disillusionment”—a kind of recurrent syndrome of feeling bad that’s characterized Americans since the beginning of the 21stcentury. So we might be down—but that’s normal.
So does that mean nothing is actually…wrong? It would be a uniquely American kind of decline if indeed, in the end, the conclusion is that everything is really okay.
She seems to have decided that if some of us might be having a tough time reconciling all the changes wrought by technology and a bad economy and an indecisive president, others—the millenials of the start-up generation and the activists of the innovation economy—have never had more faith in the future. She calls this the “tension between ‘dysfunctional America vs. innovative America.’” No one really has any faith in the country or the government anymore, but many Americans are shifting their religion to something else. Take your pick, she implies.
If only the French, like these Americans, could simply decide that, well, the old systems (governments, institutions) just don’t matter anymore, and other things (technology, innovation) do. America has always been known as a land of powerful evangelism and quick conversions, and evidently a sense of decline is something you can simply choose to no longer believe.
French decline: slow, inexorable, and practically pre-ordained.
American decline: fleeting, situational, and nothing you can’t talk yourself out of.
French decline: a steamship heading toward an iceberg.
American decline: an important learning moment that some entrepreneurialism and perspective can help us overcome.
French decline and the World Cup: and in the end, inevitably, the Germans win.
American decline and the World Cup: this too shall pass.
Sometimes things are so uncomplicated in the U.S.
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