HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 23, 2008
From Liberty Street

Deterioration or Not?

John Turner


In Kevin Phillips's book American Theology he offers this general assessment of the future of our country: "The United States is a longtime oil power... and the aging of its energy infrastructure, guarded by a globally aggressive, entrenched-interest political coalition, is a harbinger of costly confrontations and military embroilment likely to lead to national decline."

His judgment is probably accurate, but I wonder if he would be willing to consider a different sort of national decline from the one he seems to have in mind, one that wouldn't come from overreaching and arrogance.

What, exactly, is national decline and is it a thing that all of us Americans should dread?

I must preface this commentary by admitting that my own thoughts and values on subjects of this kind are probably not in line with those of most of my fellow citizens. While I try to comprehend -- and sympathize to some extent with -- other people's emotions about national power, I see no sense in pretending that I share them. If I said I did I'd be lying.

I'm concerned with the power of the government of the United States only to the extent that it's needed to help the American people lead healthy and meaningful lives. I don't care whether America is great in the way that word is normally used. In fact, I'm weary of that kind of greatness and would like to get away from it. I don't want the United States to be able to dominate anyone. I certainly don't care about having military forces that can be projected all over the world for the sake of making other people do what they don't want to do. And, in particular, I don't glory in using military force to help Americans get rich or maintain a style of living that's harmful to the human environment.

I would rather have a country that's poorer than it is now if keeping it rich requires the use of military coercion.

So, you see, I'm un-American in many ways and I don't hesitate to admit it.

Thus, I am led back to the concept of national decline. What is it? What would it look like right here on Liberty Street?

Would it mean that people here would have to consume a simpler diet than they do now? If it were nutritious, I wouldn't care.

Would it mean they would have to drive older cars than they do now? That would be okay with me.

Would it mean they would find themselves restricting the amount of driving around they did, compared with how much they drove ten years ago? That wouldn't bother me.

Would it have them buying fewer consumer goods than they do now? What would be so bad about that?

Would it cause airplane trips to become rare for them rather than normal? That could cause some sadness because people who care for one another might not be able to get together as often as they have been in the habit of doing. But, still, I think we could adjust.

Would it result in our having fewer news reports about what our brave boys, dressed up in gear that costs thousands of dollars for each of them, are doing to spread politician- defined freedom all around the world? I could get by with watching something else.

Would it require than when the president met with foreign leaders he would negotiate more and dictate less? My ego wouldn't suffer one wit as a result.

Would it put a dent in the number of proclamations that Americans are the grandest people the world has ever known and far grander than any other people now in existence? I would find that a relief.

Would there be fewer trucks on the road? Too bad.

Would the gross domestic product -- as it's now defined -- decline by a third? My heart would not ache.

Would the number of American billionaires go down? I could cheer about that.

As I think about the way in which national grandeur is commonly measured, a bit of national decline wouldn't trouble me in the least.

I'm probably most un-American in that I care more about people than I do about nations. I even think that nations should be the servants of people rather than having people serve nations. Put in a call to the FBI.

I don't know if Kevin Phillips would agree with me about the nature of national decline, but I would certainly like to hear from him, or from anyone else, on the subject.


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