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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Charlotte Allen

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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Twelve years ago, I was asked by First Things to write my predictions for America in the new millennium. I decided to look at the question from the perspective of an ancient Roman in the year 0 trying to predict his city’s own next millennium. Self-confident Rome in many ways resembled self-confident America in late 1999: it was robustly prosperous, the world’s lone superpower, heir to a vast and rich storehouse of Western civilization, and overwhelmingly dominant culturally. The Roman world stretched—or was on the verge of stretching—from nearly all of Western Europe well into Central Asia. I observed that Rome might have seemed invincible in the year 0, but by the year 1,000 its Western European heartland was in shambles, there was little left of its empire, and the world had changed in ways that would have shocked that ancient Roman. I wrote that America’s future was equally unpredictable, and that by the year 3000 we might well be yet another long-vanished civilization whose downfall will be puzzled over by archaeologists and historians.

What I could not predict was how quickly the downward slide would come. As with ancient Rome, the signs were already present: the barbarians at the gates (9/11 was months away); the demographic implosion of populations of European descent; the cultural decadence; and, worst of all, the drastic loss of national self-confidence and self-direction. And now, the statistics everywhere you look are ghastly: an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent; all-time-record-setting foreclosures; a 40-percent out-of-wedlock birthrate; uncontrollable illegal immigration (12 million illegals currently living in the United States, compared with 5 million in 1996); a Federal Reserve that seems to be aiming at Weimar Republic–level inflation; swollen, immovable unionized bureaucracies at every level of government; a K-12 education system that is one of the worst in the industrialized world; and an entitlement burden that eats up half the federal budget. Over all this looms the colossal black shadow of our $14 trillion national debt—an amount so massive that we can’t even imagine what the number really means, let alone figure out how to repay it.

Lone superpower? Tell that to China. Or for that matter, natural resources–rich Russia. We seem unable to deal firmly with militant Islamists—one group of people that is not demographically challenged and is systematically replacing Europe’s declining population. It is a horrifying sign of the decline of our national will that not only has 9/11 not yet been properly avenged, but public authorities are pushing a plan to build a mosque on one of the devastated sites that, until a public-relations makeover, bore the Islamic-triumphalist name “Cordoba House.” Another sign of national weakness: ObamaCare. Not only because it’s an expensive, wasteful, intrusive health-care scheme, but because enough Americans were willing to turn health care over to the government in the first place, ending our proud and longtime resistance to socialized medicine, a resistance that once helped make American medical care the best in the world.

Some of these problems may be temporary. We can elect a better president and a better Congress whose ideas about curing the recession do not consist solely of raising taxes, further bloating the government, and crippling us with even more debt. I don’t know what we can do about everything else. What is called for are deep cultural changes that may come too late. I hope not. But I have to remember that Rome did disappear. And one of the driving forces behind the disappearance of its last Eastern remnants was militant Islam.

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Charlotte Allen has a doctorate in medieval studies and is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and theWeekly Standard.


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