Declinism by Nick Gillespie - an Interesting way of looking at how we think. : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

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by Nick Gillespie
Thursday, December 09, 1999

The Link

Every party needs a pooper, even the overwhelmingly robust and upbeat shindig that is welcome-2000 America. In the broadest terms possible, things are going well, and the future looks bright, too.

The economy has been nothing less than miraculous. Inflation appears relatively stable, while buying power and overall compensation for virtually all segments of the population is growing. According to the Census Bureau, poverty is at its lowest rate in 20 years, and median household incomes are at an all-time high. Home ownership hovers at the historic high of around 67%, while unemployment shrinks below supposedly "frictional" levels -- despite an influx of welfare recipients once thought to be unemployable.

Between 1991 and 1997 (the latest year for which there are complete data), the total crime rate dropped almost 17%, while violent crime reached its lowest point in a decade. More kids than ever are going to college (two-thirds of graduating seniors, according to American Demographics magazine), and the birth rate for unmarried teens is dropping steadily.

So what is the response of America's political and intellectual classes to such generally good times? A sinking feeling, mostly, and a somewhat desperate search for the mist-shrouded iceberg that will sink us all.

Accentuating the negative

To wit, a Sept. 13 article in National Review about sex and teenagers: "For the first time in decades, more than half of America's high-school students described themselves as virgins," writes Amy H. Holmes of the Independent Women's Forum. "The rate of sexual activity among 17- to 19-year-old boys in urban areas declined from 75% in 1979 to 68% in 1995. Over the same period, the proportion of young men who approved of non-marital sex fell from 80% to 71%."

After granting that "the statistics may be improving," Holmes nonetheless asserts that "sexual practices among teenagers are becoming increasingly dehumanizing," a conclusion supported only by a few anecdotes about ostensibly disturbing new trends that would hardly seem novel to anyone who came of age since the publication of Tropic of Cancer.

Declinists can barely stomach the idea that something other than imminent ruin awaits the country unless their prescribed course of action is enacted but fast. Progress inevitably is measured not in terms of far we have come but only by who or what has been left behind.

Hence, presidential hopefuls Pat Buchanan and Bill Bradley continue to hammer away at themes such as corporate downsizing and the exporting of "good-paying" jobs overseas. These complaints were just barely plausible in the low-growth early 1990s and are simply non-issues in today's economy.

Meanwhile, left-leaning critics such as Susan Faludi bemoan "union-breaking" as an indicator of an ugly new world of workplace dislocation. Current union membership is around 14%, down from a high of about 30% in the mid-1950s. Such numbers do not reflect some new wave of sinister Pinkerton-like activity; they indicate a shift away from the assembly-line grunt work that gave rise to unions in the first place. But you would not know it from the self-styled defenders of the working man.

On the right, the focus is less on imagined economic despair and dislocation than on perceived and potentially irreversible moral dissipation. "Even during a time of record prosperity, many Americans believe that something has gone wrong at the core," former drug czar William J. Bennett writes in his updated edition of The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which documents that the 1990s have in fact been something other than a head-first slide into anarchy.

In a Wall Street Journal article, fellow conservative Robert Bork raised his eyebrows at what he called Bennett's "new-found optimism about the direction of American culture" and contended that there is "no excuse for overlooking the very real and degenerate state of much of our politics and culture."

The intellectual mindset

Why do such folks feel a need to always accentuate the negative, often to the exclusion of any positive developments? For politicians, especially those not yet in power, the impetus is fairly obvious and transparently self-interested. Crisis and dislocation are an office-seeker's best friend, as a beleaguered Vice President Al Gore no doubt understands better than anyone seeking the White House.

Back during the 1992 presidential campaign, Gore benefited precisely from such a strategy when he and Bill Clinton argued passionately -- if ludicrously -- that the U.S. economy was in its worst shape since the Great Depression. Now as the No. 2 man in an administration that has coincided with a historic economic expansion, the vice president seems unsure of how to use such good news to his own advantage.

With many intellectuals - a term that covers a wide range of social critics, commentators and writers of varying degrees of sophistication -- the reasons for persistent declinism are more sundry and less clear-cut. Intellectuals tend to define themselves against the vulgar crowd, and there is a long tradition in America of self-declared alienation from the mainstream they seek to influence.

"I feel I am in exile here," wrote Herman Melville, a line that continues to resonate with figures as disparate as the Christian right's Paul Weyrich to the far left's Noam Chomsky. If the American people tend to be optimistic about the future -- and all indications suggest that they are -- then by definition an intellectual must offer a darker vision of things or else risk being unmasked as unworthy of the designation.

That opposition stance is compounded by what historian Richard Hofstadter identified in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) as the self-defeating "hunger ... for special deference" evinced by many intellectuals in a democratic society. Even as they recognize the relative freedom and opportunity afforded them by an open society, Hofstadter argued, intellectuals want to be appreciated as a breed apart.

In a relatively egalitarian society, it has never been easy for intellectuals to gain and maintain special status, and many have long resented having to sell their thoughts in a marketplace of ideas not markedly elevated from the one for consumer goods and services.

A nation of skeptics

While at times captivated by an "expert" - whether a Harvard professor or someone like Ross Perot - with a perfect plan, Americans more generally display healthy skepticism toward authority of all sorts, a tendency that has been waxing strongly over the past few decades. After all, generally wealthier and better-educated individuals feel more and more comfortable asserting control over their own lives in all their particulars.

Like doctors, priests and even stockbrokers, politicians and intellectuals have an increasingly weaker hold over the public's mind. They are likely to confuse their relative decline in status with a larger social breakdown rather than understanding it as a decentralization of power toward individuals.

Such a shift does not destroy political or intellectual authority even as it alters the dynamic between professor and student, so to speak, to one between equals - a leveling trend that, come to think of it, may be one of the reasons why things have been going so well.

Nick Gillespie is the executive editor of Reason magazine.

The article is a month old, but is has some interesting ideas.
I always thought I was a doomer, now I find out I'm an Intellectual!(grin)

-- Possible Impact (, January 08, 2000


Obviously there is nothing to be concerned about.

No gulf between rich and poor. No sweatshops anywhere. No toxic chemicals in the food supply. No nuclear waste for future generations. No climate change to worry our little heads.

It's all just ideology, they say.

Seriously -- Reason (sic) magazine is a real piece of shit, a waste of dead trees, funded by polluting companies.

Libertarians (like Reason) are Republicans who want the right to smoke pot and be greedy and selfish.

(I'm NOT a democrat either, that's "republican light.")

Cancer causing chemicals dont care about anyone's politics.

-- dont worry be happy (, January 08, 2000.

Dear Impact...Nick's Essay on Declinism is well written and thought provoking but as with all prople who follow these these thoughts, he has forgotten God. There IS a God who owns this planet and everything and everyone in it. The total planet is in rebellion. God sent a personal peace rep 2000 years ago. It was His own Qusai Son, none the less, and the God-man was brutalized by humans. Retribution is sure. Whether it be a blast from the sun or a digital glitch, we have bought the bullet. The best reply to Nick,s essay is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Templeton speech given at Buckingham Palace, London. "Men Everywhere Have Forgotten God." Read it in the archives of the National Review Magazine July 22, 1983. Nick will have no answer to Solzhenitsyn. Divine judgment is absolute and there is no way around it. No one wants to hear this. Sincerely Tom

-- Tom (Tom, January 08, 2000.

"No gulf between rich and poor. No sweatshops anywhere. No toxic chemicals in the food supply. No nuclear waste for future generations. No climate change to worry our little heads."

I'll add a few more to that list: No bio/chemical weapons. No suitcase nukes in the hands of God knows who. No increasing dependence on oil, even though we know it's going to run out sooner or later. No rapidly decreasing biodiversity and collapse of food chains that have existed for tens of thousands of years. No epidemic of illiteracy. No commercial culture where violence is a accepted means of solving conflicts. No crack or meth or heroin addictions. No Aids. No Ebola. No Mad Cow Disease. This whole thing about strange and terrible illnesses creeping out from the rainforests we are currently destroying...not an issue! And above all, there is no complacent mindset that allows the majority of people to stick their heads in the sand and ignore what potential problems lay ahead...hey, it's someone else's problem!

Yeah the debt and speculation-driven economy LOOKS great on the surface, but REAL people are still having to work 60+ hours a week to buy all the rubbish they have been hypnotized to believe has value. This article is a load of s**t!

We got lucky on long will that luck hold out?

John Ludi

-- Ludi (, January 08, 2000.

I know everything seems to be going well, but I, PERSONALLY, am not happy with it, so therefore, there's a big, unexamined problem with our culture, economy, and general lifestyle. I'm prepared to not only whine about this problem, but to also misquote authorities, skew statistics, and make bold-faced lies to support my position.

-- These posters prove Nick's point (, January 08, 2000.

Like many writers, this one ignores some huge problems. Most of the economic growth since the early 80's has been generated by increased comsumer debt. Debt is still growing much faster than GDP and this situation can't continue indefinitely. Also, the huge trade deficit will eventually cause serious problems. The dollar will start to fall and this will have a very negative impact on the stock market as foreigners withdraw their funds.

-- Dave (, January 08, 2000.

Want to know what the teeangers are up to -- dropping out of school, violence with weapons, getting arrested, having sex with everyone, no respect for anything. Just go to your local high school and watch them walk out the door. I have a teenager and have met his friends and know of many others he associates with.

Want know what the adults are up to -- go to the courts and find out how many divorce petitions were filed over a week's time and then check out the spousal abuse, don't stop there, check out the child abuse. Go to your local doctor's office and ask how many people they've seen for STD's (sexually transmitted diseases) over a month's period of time.

But hey, we're in the greatest sustained economic growth this country has ever experienced, so who cares about this nonsense or the other nonsense that others listed above.

-- claurann (, January 08, 2000.

Wait a minute here. This author says things are better in many ways than they used to be. This is absolutely true. He does NOT say we've cured all problems, he says the problems we used to have were even worse. They were. Nor does he argue that the very real problems we have shouldn't be addressed. They should.

We're looking here at comparisons, not absolutes. We still have the poor, and that's bad. But we don't have so many, and they aren't so poor as they used to be. We still have dropouts, but not so many. We still have bad working conditions, but neither so many nor so bad. What do you want anyway?

We could be living in some fantastic utopia, and some of you people would be complaining about the boredom, and saying that at least suffering wouldn't be so boring!

-- Flint (, January 08, 2000.

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