Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Contra Decadence

Our nation faces many challenges.

Since 2000, the United States economy has grown at an annual rate of about 1.8 percent.  Between 1947 and 2000, it annually grew at nearly twice that rate.

Inflation-adjusted median household income peaked in 1999.

The long-term trend of decreasing murder rates may, in some cities, be reversing.

Across the country, civil unrest has at times boiled over into violence.

ISIS and its allies are on the march--in Nice and in Brussels, in San Bernardino and in Orlando.

The geopolitical order is strained. Power vacuums in the Middle East and elsewhere have given havens to terrorists and their friends. Major international bodies--such as the European Union--face increased internal tensions.

No wonder that, according to polls, fewer than one-third of Americans think that the nation is on the right track.  These are serious problems, and it's not fear-mongering to draw attention to them.  In fact, it enables fear and misery to deny their existence.

The American republic has undergone periods of testing before, and it has risen to the occasion.  These present challenges are not insurmountable, but the status quo has failed to face--and has often compounded--them.  In recent years, supposed technocratic wizards have failed again and again.  Those who should seek to conciliate have instead worked to divide.  Those who have a duty to the public have instead built grand palaces of self-indulgence.  The comfortable have congratulated themselves on their tired bromides--and called that back-patting courage.  Those in high office and other positions of power have inflamed the culture war as a way of distracting from their cronyism and incompetence, invoking the "right side of History" to wrap themselves in the robes of imperial luxury.

Many powerful forces have worked to spread distrust, polarization, and anger. We as a nation can instead take the--at times harder but always more rewarding--path of empathy, understanding, and deliberation. We can listen to each other and realize that each and every life has dignity, and that every person matters. We can have a republic of both diversity and comity.

In the face of a reckless technocratic transnationalism, there is a place--and even a need--for a voice for the traditions of responsible self-government. Instead of the facile self-righteousness of the new intolerance, we can instead have a culture of freedom, pluralism, and serious cultural achievement. We can have an economy where prosperity is not the preserve of the few, and where corporate cronyism does not enrich the connected at the expense of the public. We can have a foreign policy that honors American commitments and prudently uses power abroad. We can work to rebuild trust and our communities.

Decadence is all too often a choice or the product of a series of choices, when one person after another shirks the obligations of virtue, imagination, and responsibility.  Americans have a higher birthright and obligation than the cut-rate comforts of the New Normal.  This republic won its independence, survived a crippling civil war, became an industrial colossus, fought back the twin totalitarian evils of the twentieth century (Nazism and Soviet Communism), and, over the centuries, has worked to expand the blessings of liberty and self-governance both inside and outside its borders.  In the face of our troubles, it is time for national leaders to remind our republic of what is best in it and to offer a vision for the future that accords with reality but that also speaks to our nobler aspirations.  Whoever it is, it is time for someone to take that stand. 

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