As many readers of this site know full well, Barzun's critique of our time is that despite our seeming technological advancements and capabilities, we are in the twilight of a Heroic age. According to him, we live in a time of cultural sunset. Our depleted intellectual and cultural energies are sapped further still by our civilizational moral confusion.
Tonite, as the Boy Imperator seeks to becalm the roiled demos, perhaps it is time to examine the state of America today, through Barzun's prism. And if we are in a decadent phase, what comes next? Will revolution (however defined) be the engine to haul the U.S., let alone the West, into a new era? And from what direction will it come?
1. Incompetence is the new normal.
It is striking how incompetence is not only accepted but embraced. Either enthusiastically by ideologues or with infinite resignation. A brief summary will suffice: Iraq and the foul up over a) no WMDs; b) dissolution of the Iraqi Army; c) not enough troops; d) no intelligence on the insurgency; d) no clue how to begin reconstruction; d) no auditing over lost and unaccounted for $8 billion; e) the farcical 'trial' of Saddam Hussein; f) no exit strategy.
In short, a war waged as a roll of the dice named Romance and Dreams. And no accountability.
Even more striking is the indifference to the documented catastrophe of Katrina and the aftermath. Here, unlike Iraq, there is no shortage of videotape, eye witnesses, or tens of thousands of victims. And yet, again, there is no accountability. “No one could have foreseen” etc. A major American metropolis essentially wiped off the map. And now barely 4 months later, a collective shrug. When such a failure of government is greeted by indifference, decadent hardly begins to describe the times.
But these two signal failures are merely the most salient. Failure of government programs to function competently is now a common place. Such as NASA or the new prescription plan. Or the $40 billion intelligence community.
Stunningly, “thoughtful” Republicans believe the solution is to reshuffle the cabinet and create “Super Secretaries” to oversee cabinet departments. To force management cohesion. Why do it this way? Because they begin with the assumption that Congress is so dysfunctional that true government reform is a waste of time and a concept for rubes and suckers.
Literally. They say this.
2. The Top 5 television programs.
In the midst of a failed (failing?) war, domestic economic seismic shifts (see below), Katrina, etc., what does demos watch?
1 American Idol (Tue.) 35.5 million
2 Football: Carolina Vs. Seattle 15.3 million
3 American Idol (Wed.) 31.6 million
4 CSI 27.1 million
5 Desperate Housewives 25.3 million
3. Plutocratic imbalances.
Exxon announces record profits for the year. The company reported a quarterly profit of $10.7 billion on Monday, rounding out the most profitable year in U.S. corporate history. The results pushed up Exxon's profit for the year to a staggering $36.13 billion — bigger than the economies of 125 of the 184 countries ranked by the World Bank
Chevron similary reported record profits. Chevron Corp.'s fourth-quarter profit climbed 20 percent to $4.14 billion, a company record that continued the most prosperous stretch in the oil company's 126-year history as it capitalizes on high fuel prices that are squeezing consumers and ruffling politicians. Its profit of $14.1 billion for the full year was also a company record.
Meanwhile, Ford, GM and the U.S. industrial heartland continues the descent into oblivion. It is no surprise that the elite gathered at Davos recently spent most of their time on Asia and Southeast Asia, as the centers of both current and future wealth as well as political instability. The U.S. as a creative force for change and future possibility has more or less exhausted itself. U.S. power when appreciated now appears mostly in the negatory — the capacity to harm, destroy or interdict.
The artificial nature of the U.S. economy is clear to all. And it is partially a creation of the Mephistopholean Alan Greenspan,who is the recently departed Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. By deliberately creating stealth inflation in the U.S. housing market and in other sectors, the U.S. economy from 2001-2006 has covered up greatly distorted income parity by artificial figures of rising US productivity. These figures were arbitraged by comparing rising corporate profit from imports divided by stagnant or even declining domestic U.S. wages and rising unemployment. As U.S. wages stagnate and even fall, and unemployment rises, the more corporate profit rises from import substitution. At the cost of the heart, liver, lungs, and circulatory system of the U.S. economy, hollowed out with a vengeance.
Combined with staggering new debt loads, the appearance of wealth has supplanted the reality of wealth. And yet no one seems to care.
4. Barzun Was Right.
By his definition, our demotic and decadent time is in full bloom. Yet Barzun was not a pessimist by any stretch of the imagination. He emphasized how patterns played out thoughout history, finding new expressions and new forms. In his words, “the persistence of meanings within altered expressions of life’s mysteries.” And certainly, he is right that Boredom is probably the greatest catalyst for change in human affairs since the Dawn of Time.
5. What is to be Done?
In decadent times, the possibilities of the Old Ideas will summon some to “reform” or “Renewal”. In current American lexicon, we saw some of this in Newt Gingrich's unself-aware calls for “Renewal of American Civilization” — the laughable course he taught attached with his think tank back in the day. Others, such as the neocons, seek a return to the Athenian ideal. But all such calls for reform or renewal share a time honored place in Western civilization — when the current Animating Ideas have become denatured, the impulse is to “return” to the source for a fresh infusion.
Will it work this time? It is currently an unequal contest at the moment. Regarding “Renewal”, most of the institutions, culture and their thought leaders no longer remember the animating impulses of the Enlightenment. Of science, of rationality, of reason. Of Humanism. This explains the phenomenon of Tweety and Russert for example. And why Truth and Facts are yesterday's concepts to them.
The Counter-Enlightenment forces in full bloom in the current Republican Party sense it is Their Time Now. To repeal 1789. They have come a long way in a short time.
Yet perhaps even the Counter Enlightenment New Authoritarians in the Republican Party will be cheated. Perhaps, the solution — or peril — for the U.S. “Renewal” comes from an external vector? Some, such as Francesco Sisci, Asian editor of the Italian La Stampa believe that the West must confront the challenge of China and its looming cultural, political, economic and military power or perish. He writes:
Yet while we help China to change, we overlook the fact that we should change ourselves, because China's growth has brought a systemic change to the world at large. As it spearheads the general growth of Asia, particularly Southeast Asia and India, it foreshadows a different world, where for the first time in at least two centuries the West will become an economic minority . . . Jared Diamond in his latest book Collapse speaks about civilizations that took a wrong turn and collapsed. It sounds as if he is speaking of us, the Western world: there is a huge change, and we fail to recognize it and adapt to it. As Diamond says, those who do so perish.Is Sisci right? Will gaiatsu in the American context be the engine of our future? Or is the other prediction more apt, that America will be destined to be in the future but not part of it? Or is there yet another path to follow? One that is based on some preservation of the Humanism and Rationality of the Enlightenment? Based on a realistic appraisal of our fiscal, economic and institutional health?
This, my friends, is the true State of the Empire. If only the Boy Emperor even understood the world outside his window.