Commentary Magazine


Topic: symposium

Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Michael Dirda

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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Can I just say that each morning I look at the paper and grow increasingly despondent? Back in the 19th century there was a Know-Nothing Party, but I never thought I’d see its revival. We now have elected hicks who have apparently spent their lives reading nothing but Ayn Rand and the King James Bible, who express grave, very grave reservations about evolution and global warming, and who would like to rescind any social or economic law of the past century that helps the working class.

Some days, I say to myself, that it was ever thus. Nearly a hundred years ago, H.L. Mencken described the America of his day:

Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

Mencken had no children, so he could afford to be entertained at what he viewed as a carnival of bunkum. But I have sons, just starting out in life, and I weep at the state of this country and the gimcrack, meretricious mall-world of the 21st century. As a child of the frequently maligned 1960s, I grew up on dreams of, on the expectation of, a better, more equitable and peaceful world. Progress was made, no question. Yet, look back on this past decade and what stands out? Suicide bombers and a forever war, the economic destruction of our country by venal plutocrats, and our young blithely sedated by the addictive distractions of their digital toys.

Americans are taught to believe that somehow our country is uniquely indestructible, that we can bounce back from anything. But in 1911 the British Empire—the one upon which the sun never set—felt and believed exactly the same. Forty years later, it was gone. These United States of America are, of course, absolutely exempt from such a possibility. We’re special.

As for literature, my own field: I worry that e-book culture actually inhibits serious reading. A work of art requires a slow, steady interaction between a reader and a text, a contemplative frame of mind, a kind of immersion in a poem or novel’s waking dream. Screens, however, are all about speed, the quick retrieval of facts, the gathering of data. But the getting of information is not the same as the getting of wisdom or aesthetic delight. Will an e-book user slow down enough to appreciate the great and sometimes demanding books of the past?

I really hope I’m dead wrong about the future of America and about the negative consequences of screen technology. Maybe, just maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow or the next day and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well. That Dirda, such a dreamer.

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Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prizewinning literary journalist whose books include four collections of essays, the memoir An Open Book, and the recently published On Conan Doyle (Princeton).

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?

_____________

Can I just say that each morning I look at the paper and grow increasingly despondent? Back in the 19th century there was a Know-Nothing Party, but I never thought I’d see its revival. We now have elected hicks who have apparently spent their lives reading nothing but Ayn Rand and the King James Bible, who express grave, very grave reservations about evolution and global warming, and who would like to rescind any social or economic law of the past century that helps the working class.

Some days, I say to myself, that it was ever thus. Nearly a hundred years ago, H.L. Mencken described the America of his day:

Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

Mencken had no children, so he could afford to be entertained at what he viewed as a carnival of bunkum. But I have sons, just starting out in life, and I weep at the state of this country and the gimcrack, meretricious mall-world of the 21st century. As a child of the frequently maligned 1960s, I grew up on dreams of, on the expectation of, a better, more equitable and peaceful world. Progress was made, no question. Yet, look back on this past decade and what stands out? Suicide bombers and a forever war, the economic destruction of our country by venal plutocrats, and our young blithely sedated by the addictive distractions of their digital toys.

Americans are taught to believe that somehow our country is uniquely indestructible, that we can bounce back from anything. But in 1911 the British Empire—the one upon which the sun never set—felt and believed exactly the same. Forty years later, it was gone. These United States of America are, of course, absolutely exempt from such a possibility. We’re special.

As for literature, my own field: I worry that e-book culture actually inhibits serious reading. A work of art requires a slow, steady interaction between a reader and a text, a contemplative frame of mind, a kind of immersion in a poem or novel’s waking dream. Screens, however, are all about speed, the quick retrieval of facts, the gathering of data. But the getting of information is not the same as the getting of wisdom or aesthetic delight. Will an e-book user slow down enough to appreciate the great and sometimes demanding books of the past?

I really hope I’m dead wrong about the future of America and about the negative consequences of screen technology. Maybe, just maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow or the next day and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well. That Dirda, such a dreamer.

_____________

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prizewinning literary journalist whose books include four collections of essays, the memoir An Open Book, and the recently published On Conan Doyle (Princeton).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Richard N. Haass

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?

_____________

It is tempting to be glibly optimistic and quote Winston Churchill’s observation that “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”

But this would be, well, glib. There are, to be sure, plenty of reasons for optimism: America’s many excellent institutions of higher education; its relative openness to immigrants; the availability of venture capital for promising innovations; its fundamental political stability; a rich endowment of minerals, energy, and water; and the absence of a powerful peer competitor akin to Germany in the first half of the 20th century and the USSR in the second.

At the same time, there are reasons for genuine concern: a debt larger than GNP; persistent high unemployment; low economic growth; a K-12 educational system that is not preparing most Americans for a competitive, dynamic world; aging infrastructure; a rising China; and a polarized political system that is beholden to special interests and increasingly unable to act in behalf of national interests.

So, confident or pessimistic? The best reason for optimism is that we can identify policies that will help: raising the retirement age; means-testing entitlements; simplifying taxes, reducing tax rates, and eliminating certain tax deductions; cutting use of oil through regulation, taxation, or both; combining near-term economic stimulus with long-term deficit reduction; expanding trade.

Changes also need to be made in how we do things: allowing more talented immigrants to remain in the country, reforming health care so the incentive is not always to increase treatment, curbing the power of public-service unions, resisting wars of choice where the interests at stake are less than vital or where policies other than military intervention promise to yield acceptable results.

But none of this will just happen. It will take real leadership, defined here as a willingness to advocate policies that are inconsistent with the narrow interests of many groups and individuals but that would be good for the society and the country as a whole. It will require leveling with the American people about the consequences of not meeting our challenges and what it will take to meet them. It will require taking on numerous sacred cows.

There are three alternatives to real leadership. One is drift. Business as usual, though, would likely bring about the second alternative: crisis. It could come in the form of domestic unrest or economic disaster imposed by a world that tires of lending us dollars. A third alternative—faux leadership, essentially populism that would deepen social divisions without fixing problems—would be the worst of all worlds.

It may not be realistic to do what I am calling for and survive, much less thrive, politically. It may not be possible within either of the two existing parties; it certainly won’t be easy given our 24/7 Internet and media environment.

Still, I am hanging on to my optimism, if only barely. I could just as easily be a pessimist who has not given up. Either way, it is too close a call for comfort.

_____________

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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?

_____________

It is tempting to be glibly optimistic and quote Winston Churchill’s observation that “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”

But this would be, well, glib. There are, to be sure, plenty of reasons for optimism: America’s many excellent institutions of higher education; its relative openness to immigrants; the availability of venture capital for promising innovations; its fundamental political stability; a rich endowment of minerals, energy, and water; and the absence of a powerful peer competitor akin to Germany in the first half of the 20th century and the USSR in the second.

At the same time, there are reasons for genuine concern: a debt larger than GNP; persistent high unemployment; low economic growth; a K-12 educational system that is not preparing most Americans for a competitive, dynamic world; aging infrastructure; a rising China; and a polarized political system that is beholden to special interests and increasingly unable to act in behalf of national interests.

So, confident or pessimistic? The best reason for optimism is that we can identify policies that will help: raising the retirement age; means-testing entitlements; simplifying taxes, reducing tax rates, and eliminating certain tax deductions; cutting use of oil through regulation, taxation, or both; combining near-term economic stimulus with long-term deficit reduction; expanding trade.

Changes also need to be made in how we do things: allowing more talented immigrants to remain in the country, reforming health care so the incentive is not always to increase treatment, curbing the power of public-service unions, resisting wars of choice where the interests at stake are less than vital or where policies other than military intervention promise to yield acceptable results.

But none of this will just happen. It will take real leadership, defined here as a willingness to advocate policies that are inconsistent with the narrow interests of many groups and individuals but that would be good for the society and the country as a whole. It will require leveling with the American people about the consequences of not meeting our challenges and what it will take to meet them. It will require taking on numerous sacred cows.

There are three alternatives to real leadership. One is drift. Business as usual, though, would likely bring about the second alternative: crisis. It could come in the form of domestic unrest or economic disaster imposed by a world that tires of lending us dollars. A third alternative—faux leadership, essentially populism that would deepen social divisions without fixing problems—would be the worst of all worlds.

It may not be realistic to do what I am calling for and survive, much less thrive, politically. It may not be possible within either of the two existing parties; it certainly won’t be easy given our 24/7 Internet and media environment.

Still, I am hanging on to my optimism, if only barely. I could just as easily be a pessimist who has not given up. Either way, it is too close a call for comfort.

_____________

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: R.R. Reno

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?

_____________

Mark me down as an American optimist. True, we face many challenges: the fiscal crisis of the modern welfare state, the end of American military super-hegemony, an elite culture bent on dismantling the Judeo-Christian moral consensus. Add our present economic woes, which seem intractable, and only a naif can but conclude that we face real problems posing real threats. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that America will remain a vital, attractive, and immensely powerful nation in the coming decades.

The overwhelming majority of Americans—elite, middle class, and working class—are visceral patriots. We’re critical, we find fault, we anguish over our racist past, but the Declaration of Independence continues to express what we believe. This fact about America—the fundamental, deep, and rock-solid legitimacy not only of our system of government but also and more important of our common myths and civil religion—gives us an incalculable strength over and against any of our competitors on the global stage.

The American myth, moreover, has a remarkable—an unprecedented—absorptive power. It reabsorbed a defeated South after the Civil War. It absorbed and still absorbs waves of immigrants, even the children of ex-slaves, whose suffering and humiliation should have made them eternal enemies. A decade ago at my church, one of the elderly black members wept as he watched a documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots in World War II who had to endure Jim Crow while training in the South. “How,” he said to me afterward, “could our country have been so unjust to those men?”

Our country! I defy anyone who understands the anguish of that man (who had himself grown up under Jim Crow!) to be anything other than an American optimist. Deficits, unemployment, new international threats, the fraying moral fabric of society—has any generation, any nation not faced these or similar challenges? A country doesn’t “solve” these sorts of problems but rather meets, ameliorates, and endures them. In these times of threat (and we certainly live in such a time), a nation is only as strong as its common culture, and ours is very strong, very strong indeed.

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. My elderly friend at church is a rock-ribbed Democrat, and I have little doubt that he disagrees with me about how to solve our present fiscal woes. Other friends think me a religious fanatic in my opposition to same-sex marriage, easy divorce, and abortion on demand. Still others have dreamy ideas about global conflict, the United Nations, and international law. They take the Rodney King approach to national defense: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Their views and those of others on the left are wrongheaded, and if they control our national future we’ll suffer accordingly. But a nation hobbled by its own stupidity is almost inevitable. What makes us great is the fact that underneath our political and moral debates we have a healthy, robust common culture, a backstop, a bottom line.

Osama bin Laden was stupid enough to imagine that America’s all too real and obvious corruptions—our wanton hedonism, our empty materialism, our reality-TV political culture, our supine, bleating efforts to placate enemies with our vast treasure rather than meet them with military resolve—constitute our national essence. He was very wrong. As we face and fight these corruptions, let’s not make the same mistake.

_____________

R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.

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?

_____________

Mark me down as an American optimist. True, we face many challenges: the fiscal crisis of the modern welfare state, the end of American military super-hegemony, an elite culture bent on dismantling the Judeo-Christian moral consensus. Add our present economic woes, which seem intractable, and only a naif can but conclude that we face real problems posing real threats. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that America will remain a vital, attractive, and immensely powerful nation in the coming decades.

The overwhelming majority of Americans—elite, middle class, and working class—are visceral patriots. We’re critical, we find fault, we anguish over our racist past, but the Declaration of Independence continues to express what we believe. This fact about America—the fundamental, deep, and rock-solid legitimacy not only of our system of government but also and more important of our common myths and civil religion—gives us an incalculable strength over and against any of our competitors on the global stage.

The American myth, moreover, has a remarkable—an unprecedented—absorptive power. It reabsorbed a defeated South after the Civil War. It absorbed and still absorbs waves of immigrants, even the children of ex-slaves, whose suffering and humiliation should have made them eternal enemies. A decade ago at my church, one of the elderly black members wept as he watched a documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots in World War II who had to endure Jim Crow while training in the South. “How,” he said to me afterward, “could our country have been so unjust to those men?”

Our country! I defy anyone who understands the anguish of that man (who had himself grown up under Jim Crow!) to be anything other than an American optimist. Deficits, unemployment, new international threats, the fraying moral fabric of society—has any generation, any nation not faced these or similar challenges? A country doesn’t “solve” these sorts of problems but rather meets, ameliorates, and endures them. In these times of threat (and we certainly live in such a time), a nation is only as strong as its common culture, and ours is very strong, very strong indeed.

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. My elderly friend at church is a rock-ribbed Democrat, and I have little doubt that he disagrees with me about how to solve our present fiscal woes. Other friends think me a religious fanatic in my opposition to same-sex marriage, easy divorce, and abortion on demand. Still others have dreamy ideas about global conflict, the United Nations, and international law. They take the Rodney King approach to national defense: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Their views and those of others on the left are wrongheaded, and if they control our national future we’ll suffer accordingly. But a nation hobbled by its own stupidity is almost inevitable. What makes us great is the fact that underneath our political and moral debates we have a healthy, robust common culture, a backstop, a bottom line.

Osama bin Laden was stupid enough to imagine that America’s all too real and obvious corruptions—our wanton hedonism, our empty materialism, our reality-TV political culture, our supine, bleating efforts to placate enemies with our vast treasure rather than meet them with military resolve—constitute our national essence. He was very wrong. As we face and fight these corruptions, let’s not make the same mistake.

_____________

R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Herbert I. London

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?

_____________

McLandburgh Wilson once observed, “Twixt the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll: the optimist sees the doughnut, but the pessimist sees the hole.” Since a diet of doughnuts can be deadly, I describe myself as a guarded optimist. The adjective saves me from the charge of being a Pollyanna. As I see it, there are two reasons for hopefulness.

One, pessimism is not a policy prescription. If the world were going to hell in a handbasket, most people would, ostrich-like, put their head in the sand and yield to forces they cannot control. My fear is that pessimism can easily morph into despair.

Two, empirical evidence provides some justification for guarded optimism. 1979 was a terrible year politically: the Iranian revolution deposed the shah and set loose Islamic fanaticism; the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan; the Grand Mosque in Mecca was captured by Wahhabis who were able to extract extortion payments from the House of Saud; the United States was living through a period of double-digit inflation; and the nation was saddled with a bungling president whose only response to the Soviet military action was boycotting the Olympics. Read More

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?

_____________

McLandburgh Wilson once observed, “Twixt the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll: the optimist sees the doughnut, but the pessimist sees the hole.” Since a diet of doughnuts can be deadly, I describe myself as a guarded optimist. The adjective saves me from the charge of being a Pollyanna. As I see it, there are two reasons for hopefulness.

One, pessimism is not a policy prescription. If the world were going to hell in a handbasket, most people would, ostrich-like, put their head in the sand and yield to forces they cannot control. My fear is that pessimism can easily morph into despair.

Two, empirical evidence provides some justification for guarded optimism. 1979 was a terrible year politically: the Iranian revolution deposed the shah and set loose Islamic fanaticism; the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan; the Grand Mosque in Mecca was captured by Wahhabis who were able to extract extortion payments from the House of Saud; the United States was living through a period of double-digit inflation; and the nation was saddled with a bungling president whose only response to the Soviet military action was boycotting the Olympics.

The Cassandras warned of even more dire days ahead. But in 1980, an actor from California who became the state’s governor was elected president of the United States. He exuded hope about the future, and that hope was infectious. Ronald Reagan described the Unites States as a shining city upon a hill and, despite his many detractors, lifted the nation out of doubt.

Analogies are usually faulty. Surely this moment is different from 1980, but it would be a mistake to underestimate national resilience and the role a leader can play in elevating the spirit in the body politic. There are days when gloom is a mist in the country’s air. I understand why so many are convinced the best of times are in our past, but I don’t buy this line.

Paul Valéry was right when he said, “the future isn’t what it used to be.” Alas, the future is what we make of it. An inspirational leader can awaken a dormant national esprit. Notwithstanding all the problems we face, the United States is still a model of liberty for people across the globe.

When those courageous Chinese freedom fighters jammed Tiananmen Square in 1989, they didn’t build a statue of Muhammed or Chairman Mao. They constructed a Statue of Liberty. It is our liberty that they wanted to emulate. From the condition of liberty we often take for granted springs our strength and our endurance.

Yes, I am an unapologetic optimist, admittedly guarded. But my view is grounded in reality. As I see it, in a world of manic pessimism, my realism seems like manic optimism. I wonder if that could be a bumper sticker.

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Herbert I. London is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president emeritus of the Hudson Institute.

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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?

_____________

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. Read More

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?

_____________

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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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Peter Lawler

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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Any modern country is about narratives of change. Our conservative view, found everywhere from the Tea Party to professors of political philosophy, is that our country’s recent history has been a turn away from the limited government based on the natural rights of free individuals toward bigger and bigger government based on a progressive devotion to History. From this view, our country has been getting worse as it slouches toward the serfdom Friedrich von Hayek described or the soft despotism Alexis de Tocqueville imagined.

This narrative contains some truth, of course, but it’s clearly becoming less true. Big government is now in retreat on two fronts, national and state. The entitlements that have structured our welfare state are eroding or even imploding. The movement is fromdefined benefits to defined contributions, with risk being transferred from the government or the employer to the individual. The good news is that free people are going to have more opportunity to exercise personal responsibility. The bad might be that elderly Americans will have less reason than ever to believe that their money will last as long as they will. The Tea Party is wrong to believe that what its members regard as a new birth of freedom will ever actually be popular.

As every reader of Commentary knows, our country’s always ambiguous and now seemingly temporary use of big government as a way of redistributing income and eradicating poverty started to fade in the late 1960s. Big government has continued to gradually get bigger, but more because of inertia than any ideological enthusiasm. (What about the Progressive Obama? His vision for change is already discredited, and ObamaCare just won’t work.) Today, most Americans know that a bigger nanny state can’t provide any effective remedy for what really ails them. Read More

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?

_____________

Any modern country is about narratives of change. Our conservative view, found everywhere from the Tea Party to professors of political philosophy, is that our country’s recent history has been a turn away from the limited government based on the natural rights of free individuals toward bigger and bigger government based on a progressive devotion to History. From this view, our country has been getting worse as it slouches toward the serfdom Friedrich von Hayek described or the soft despotism Alexis de Tocqueville imagined.

This narrative contains some truth, of course, but it’s clearly becoming less true. Big government is now in retreat on two fronts, national and state. The entitlements that have structured our welfare state are eroding or even imploding. The movement is fromdefined benefits to defined contributions, with risk being transferred from the government or the employer to the individual. The good news is that free people are going to have more opportunity to exercise personal responsibility. The bad might be that elderly Americans will have less reason than ever to believe that their money will last as long as they will. The Tea Party is wrong to believe that what its members regard as a new birth of freedom will ever actually be popular.

As every reader of Commentary knows, our country’s always ambiguous and now seemingly temporary use of big government as a way of redistributing income and eradicating poverty started to fade in the late 1960s. Big government has continued to gradually get bigger, but more because of inertia than any ideological enthusiasm. (What about the Progressive Obama? His vision for change is already discredited, and ObamaCare just won’t work.) Today, most Americans know that a bigger nanny state can’t provide any effective remedy for what really ails them.

In the same 1960s, the Supreme Court began its very successful war against big government understood as the moral regulator of the state. Our Court now thinks it’s adhering to the Founders’ view that the single word liberty in the 14th Amendment is a weapon every generation of Americans can wield to achieve unprecedented individual liberty. It makes a strange kind of sense, from this view, to say that same-sex marriage didn’t used to be an individual right, but it’s become one over time. Soon enough the Court might discover it makes sense to say that the entitlement of marriage itself is unjustified oppression, because it arbitrarily privileges what married people do at the expense of the dignified autonomy of single individuals.

So change over the last generation has been progress in the individualistic sense of John Locke. But some of it has been change Locke himself didn’t anticipate. It didn’t occur to Locke, it seems, that so many free persons would become so self-absorbed—or that contraceptive technology would work so well—that we’d be stuck with a “birth dearth.” Sophisticated Americans have not so much transferred their dependence from family to government as they have chosen to thwart nature’s intention for them by staying around as individuals for an indefinitely long time. If I’m not planning on going anywhere, there’s no need for me to generate any replacements.

If it weren’t for our demographic crisis, nobody would be talking much about reforming or eliminating Social Security and Medicare. We’re going to be stuck more and more with too many old and unproductive people and not enough young and productive ones. That change can be accounted for as a product—both good and bad—of our creeping (and sometimes creepy) individualism or libertarianism. The change has wrecked the progressive dream of an expanding social democracy humanely enveloping us all.

There are some reasons to be confident about America’s future. The road to serfdom, it turns out, never gets to serfdom. The downsizing of the welfare state and the accelerating progress of technology demanded by free individuals will likely be good for prosperity. There is, of course, also reason to worry about people so unwilling to think of themselves as parts belonging to wholes greater than themselves—as parents, children, citizens, friends, and creatures.

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Peter Augustine Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and executive editor of the scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science, is the author, most recently, of Modern and American Dignity(Intercollegiate Studies Institute).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Dana Gioia

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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I remain optimistic in general terms about the United States. Despite all the troubling economic, political, and social trends, I still trust the energy and common sense of the average American. However slowly and painfully, the country will eventually sort out its most pressing problems.

I am far less confident, however, about the nation’s cultural and intellectual future. There has been a vast dumbing down of our public culture that may already be irreversible.

There can be no doubt from the many detailed and reliable studies available that Americans now know less, read less, and even read less well than they did a quarter century ago. These trends have measurable consequences in lowering academic achievement and economic productivity. They also demonstrably diminish both cultural activity and civic participation. We live in a society addicted to constant electronic entertainment—mostly done by individuals at home, isolated not only from their communities but increasingly even from their own families. Read More

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?

_____________

I remain optimistic in general terms about the United States. Despite all the troubling economic, political, and social trends, I still trust the energy and common sense of the average American. However slowly and painfully, the country will eventually sort out its most pressing problems.

I am far less confident, however, about the nation’s cultural and intellectual future. There has been a vast dumbing down of our public culture that may already be irreversible.

There can be no doubt from the many detailed and reliable studies available that Americans now know less, read less, and even read less well than they did a quarter century ago. These trends have measurable consequences in lowering academic achievement and economic productivity. They also demonstrably diminish both cultural activity and civic participation. We live in a society addicted to constant electronic entertainment—mostly done by individuals at home, isolated not only from their communities but increasingly even from their own families.

Our public culture consists mostly of low-level entertainment and advertising (often intermixed), which is now ubiquitous—filling not only television, radio, the Internet, and print, but also restaurants, bars, airports, and even gas stations and elevators. Media saturation is no longer voluntary but mandatory for anyone entering public spaces. The goal is to fill every moment of human consciousness with paid commercial content. Perhaps this is good to stimulate economic consumption, but it cannot be good for human thought and reflection. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”

Cultural vitality has fewer advocates than do wealth and prosperity. When the arts and humanities break down, the outer signs are less immediately visible. There are no sophisticated monthly measurements to track their progress or decline. But their collapse has human consequences as devastating as material decline, even to a society that may have forgotten why they once mattered.

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Dana Gioia is a poet and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Robert Darnton

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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Pessimist? Optimist? Why not go all out and embrace the great American tradition of the jeremiad? Given the slightest excuse, we Americans rend our garments, fill the air with lamentations, and prophesy doom. The end is approaching; strap on your seatbelts; we are going to hell. Evidence can be found everywhere: harvests wilting, prices rising, oil spills gushing, banks defaulting, Congress stalemating, and the economy threatening to collapse.

From my corner of the world (I am a professor and a university librarian), there is a lot to lament, beginning with the use of language. Students’ papers contain phrases such as “between you and I.” Deans say, “going forward” instead of “in the future.” And a corporate idiom has invaded everything. We deal in “trade-offs” and “takeaways” and can’t pursue a course of action without issuing “mission” and “vision” statements, preferably in color and with arrows pointing to boxes meant to show where we are headed and how we intend to get there.

I take the language as a symptom of something more serious: the commercialization of the world of knowledge. Learning never was free, and research libraries are complex organizations, which require business plans. But how can we balance our budgets when the price of scholarly journals, set by monopolistic publishers, has spiraled out of control? The average institutional subscription price to a journal in physics is now $3,368 a year, and several journals cost $30,000. Read More

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?

_____________

Pessimist? Optimist? Why not go all out and embrace the great American tradition of the jeremiad? Given the slightest excuse, we Americans rend our garments, fill the air with lamentations, and prophesy doom. The end is approaching; strap on your seatbelts; we are going to hell. Evidence can be found everywhere: harvests wilting, prices rising, oil spills gushing, banks defaulting, Congress stalemating, and the economy threatening to collapse.

From my corner of the world (I am a professor and a university librarian), there is a lot to lament, beginning with the use of language. Students’ papers contain phrases such as “between you and I.” Deans say, “going forward” instead of “in the future.” And a corporate idiom has invaded everything. We deal in “trade-offs” and “takeaways” and can’t pursue a course of action without issuing “mission” and “vision” statements, preferably in color and with arrows pointing to boxes meant to show where we are headed and how we intend to get there.

I take the language as a symptom of something more serious: the commercialization of the world of knowledge. Learning never was free, and research libraries are complex organizations, which require business plans. But how can we balance our budgets when the price of scholarly journals, set by monopolistic publishers, has spiraled out of control? The average institutional subscription price to a journal in physics is now $3,368 a year, and several journals cost $30,000.

It once seemed as though Google would democratize access to knowledge by digitizing all the books in our research libraries. But when Google struck a deal with the authors and publishers who had sued it for breach of copyright, it turned its digitizing operation into a commercial venture; the prices it could charge libraries for subscriptions to its database could have escalated as badly as the prices of journals did. Fortunately, a New York court declared the deal unacceptable because it threatened to eliminate all competition, and now we have an alternative to Google Book Search.

I refer to the Digital Public Library of America, a project to digitize millions of books and to make them available free of charge to everyone in the world. Far from being a utopian dream, this plan is doable. A coalition of foundations will provide the funding, and a coalition of libraries will supply the books. We will announce its details at a conference in Washington, D.C., on October 21, and we expect it to begin providing books and all kinds of digital material to the public within three years.

Despite my lamentations, therefore, I look forward to a promising future, at least insofar as ordinary people will have access to their cultural heritage. Am I an optimist? Yes, but not a cockeyed optimist.

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Robert Darnton is the Carl. H. Pforzheimer University Professor and university librarian at Harvard. He is the author, most recently, of Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Belknap).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: James K. Glassman

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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The big question is whether America can continue to lead the world.

If we can’t, our future looks awfully grim. Either the world slips into chaos or another country—China?—takes the lead. Imagine that within the next decade, North Korea threatens Japan or Iran gets set to attack Israel or Pakistan falls completely apart. Will the United States be able to decide what to do—and have the authority to do it, with or without a coalition of the willing?

Global leadership has two requirements: one moral, the other economic. On the moral side, America’s will to lead seems to be slipping away, with the growing attraction of isolationism (to both parties); and on the flip side of that coin, multilaterism for its own sake. The superficial success of the lead-from-behind strategy in Libya doesn’t help. Waiting for the Arab League or the United Nations to step out first could easily become American custom and policy, especially at a time when we’re so preoccupied with domestic economic matters. The moral requirement for leadership is, of course, a function of desire and priority in a nation’s leader. But the zeitgeist counts, and right now, it bodes ill.

Which brings me to the second requirement of leadership. Today’s moral and political atmosphere is heavily determined by the state of the economy, and, in the short term, the U.S. economy is lousy. Typically, the economy snaps back like a rubber band: bad recessions are followed by strong recoveries. That hasn’t happened. But even worse is the long-term picture. Economists forecast growth in the 2-to-2.5-percent range as far as the eye can see. That’s a full percentage point lower than the post–World War II average. Living standards will still rise, but at a snail’s pace. The danger is that we won’t have the wealth to lead or, worse, we won’t have the confidence, in a crisis, to believe that we should spend what we must now, with the certainty that we can pay for it later, as we did in World War II. Read More

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?

_____________

The big question is whether America can continue to lead the world.

If we can’t, our future looks awfully grim. Either the world slips into chaos or another country—China?—takes the lead. Imagine that within the next decade, North Korea threatens Japan or Iran gets set to attack Israel or Pakistan falls completely apart. Will the United States be able to decide what to do—and have the authority to do it, with or without a coalition of the willing?

Global leadership has two requirements: one moral, the other economic. On the moral side, America’s will to lead seems to be slipping away, with the growing attraction of isolationism (to both parties); and on the flip side of that coin, multilaterism for its own sake. The superficial success of the lead-from-behind strategy in Libya doesn’t help. Waiting for the Arab League or the United Nations to step out first could easily become American custom and policy, especially at a time when we’re so preoccupied with domestic economic matters. The moral requirement for leadership is, of course, a function of desire and priority in a nation’s leader. But the zeitgeist counts, and right now, it bodes ill.

Which brings me to the second requirement of leadership. Today’s moral and political atmosphere is heavily determined by the state of the economy, and, in the short term, the U.S. economy is lousy. Typically, the economy snaps back like a rubber band: bad recessions are followed by strong recoveries. That hasn’t happened. But even worse is the long-term picture. Economists forecast growth in the 2-to-2.5-percent range as far as the eye can see. That’s a full percentage point lower than the post–World War II average. Living standards will still rise, but at a snail’s pace. The danger is that we won’t have the wealth to lead or, worse, we won’t have the confidence, in a crisis, to believe that we should spend what we must now, with the certainty that we can pay for it later, as we did in World War II.

The trend lines for both the moral and economic imperatives of leadership are heading down, but they can both be raised. The moral side needs inspiration and purpose from policymakers and intellectuals, who should dedicate themselves to the project of its revival. The economic side needs a clear goal to which policy can be directed. The Bush Institute suggests 4 percent sustainable economic growth—perhaps a bit aspirational, but we can certainly get close with a consumption tax, cuts in wasteful spending and regulations, a sensible immigration policy that beckons the best, and policies to produce domestic energy production.

America can no longer get very far on momentum alone. The physics of inertia are kicking in. Yes, our comparative advantages in technological imagination, entrepreneurship, and good business management remain unmatched, and animal spirits haven’t been snuffed out. Will America continue to lead the world? I say yes, but right now that’s a judgment based more on faith than reason.

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James K. Glassman, formerly undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Danielle Pletka

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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Americans remain intoxicated by the possibilities of the future, untrammeled by economic convulsion, and undeterred by the persistence of enemies. While indicators have declined during this corrosive recession, nonetheless, only 31 percent of Americans polled by Pew last year were pessimistic about the next 40 years. Consider that the same poll also found that most Americans believed we would face another world war in the next 40 years and that there would be a major terrorist attack on the United States involving nuclear weapons by 2050. In other words, despite bets on a probable world war or nuclear terrorist attack on our nation, most Americans think life for their family, our country, and the U.S. economy will be better. A little odd, no?

But it isn’t really odd. Too many think of the nation’s founding as a desperate escape from the onerous bonds of a greedy monarch; for the Founders, however, the notion of America was much more. Indeed, the description of America as a “shining city on a hill” did not begin with Ronald Reagan but with John Winthrop, at the founding of the Massachusetts colony. Americans have long regarded themselves as being in the vanguard of human history, destined for greatness. The Virginia colonists immodestly set their western border at the Pacific Ocean. When the White House extols the virtues of “leading from behind,” it swims against four centuries of the American tide. And most Americans still hold a firm conviction that their country is something special; that their children’s lives will be better than their own; that come what may, the country will explore new frontiers and expand what Thomas Jefferson called the “empire for liberty.” Read More

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?

_____________

Americans remain intoxicated by the possibilities of the future, untrammeled by economic convulsion, and undeterred by the persistence of enemies. While indicators have declined during this corrosive recession, nonetheless, only 31 percent of Americans polled by Pew last year were pessimistic about the next 40 years. Consider that the same poll also found that most Americans believed we would face another world war in the next 40 years and that there would be a major terrorist attack on the United States involving nuclear weapons by 2050. In other words, despite bets on a probable world war or nuclear terrorist attack on our nation, most Americans think life for their family, our country, and the U.S. economy will be better. A little odd, no?

But it isn’t really odd. Too many think of the nation’s founding as a desperate escape from the onerous bonds of a greedy monarch; for the Founders, however, the notion of America was much more. Indeed, the description of America as a “shining city on a hill” did not begin with Ronald Reagan but with John Winthrop, at the founding of the Massachusetts colony. Americans have long regarded themselves as being in the vanguard of human history, destined for greatness. The Virginia colonists immodestly set their western border at the Pacific Ocean. When the White House extols the virtues of “leading from behind,” it swims against four centuries of the American tide. And most Americans still hold a firm conviction that their country is something special; that their children’s lives will be better than their own; that come what may, the country will explore new frontiers and expand what Thomas Jefferson called the “empire for liberty.”

If there is any nation that can resist the siren song of retreat and decline, it is this one. A country that continues to believe that life will be better after a nuclear attack is a country that believes in its own future. That belief remains the foundation of America’s power. To be sure, the edifice needs a little work. Our government now wastes “the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them,” as Jefferson warned it might. A political culture of exceptionalism and individual rights has given way to one of apology and group grievance. We seem embarrassed still to be the “sole superpower” and impatient for the “rise of the rest.”

Such lassitude will not last. Americans have always found within themselves the strength to rise from adversity, to take, as with Lincoln at Gettysburg, “increased devotion” to the “great task remaining before us.” America is forever “an unfinished work,” one “nobly advanced,” but with greater nobility ahead.

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Danielle Pletka is the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Brooke 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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I am pessimistic. Let me count the ways!

First of all, there is our government: no longer merely dysfunctional, it has now entirely ceased to operate in a coherent manner. The sorry spectacle of the impasse on Capitol Hill over the summer disgusted the American electorate, a majority of whom now believes Congress should simply be dismissed. It has become all too apparent that, with a few valiant, struggling exceptions, the members of Congress no longer represent their constituents and have been bought and paid for by various corporate powers and financial institutions. Perhaps we should require them all to wear uniforms with logos, like NASCAR drivers, so that we can identify their corporate sponsors. The fact that a significant majority of American voters would like to raise taxes for the very rich and to preserve Medicaid and Medicare, while Congress is swinging in the opposite direction, is proof enough that they’ve stopped representing us.

And what about our national debt? Congress can bicker over limiting “entitlements” all they want, but the problem cannot be resolved without overhauling the health-care system and radically reducing military engagements—issues that our government’s corporate and military-industrial sponsors will not allow onto the table. The total price tag for the Bush/Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is now estimated at something between $3.7 and $4.4 trillion, if one counts the medical costs of caring for maimed and traumatized veterans.

As for unemployment: even if our Democratic president came up with a truly brilliant jobs program and our Republican-led Congress actually passed it, we would still be dealing with the basic facts that industrial and manufacturing jobs are disappearing and much of the American workforce is not prepared for the new information-technology jobs that are coming along. Workers in India and other offshore sites are just so much cheaper, and so much better educated. Read More

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?

_____________

I am pessimistic. Let me count the ways!

First of all, there is our government: no longer merely dysfunctional, it has now entirely ceased to operate in a coherent manner. The sorry spectacle of the impasse on Capitol Hill over the summer disgusted the American electorate, a majority of whom now believes Congress should simply be dismissed. It has become all too apparent that, with a few valiant, struggling exceptions, the members of Congress no longer represent their constituents and have been bought and paid for by various corporate powers and financial institutions. Perhaps we should require them all to wear uniforms with logos, like NASCAR drivers, so that we can identify their corporate sponsors. The fact that a significant majority of American voters would like to raise taxes for the very rich and to preserve Medicaid and Medicare, while Congress is swinging in the opposite direction, is proof enough that they’ve stopped representing us.

And what about our national debt? Congress can bicker over limiting “entitlements” all they want, but the problem cannot be resolved without overhauling the health-care system and radically reducing military engagements—issues that our government’s corporate and military-industrial sponsors will not allow onto the table. The total price tag for the Bush/Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is now estimated at something between $3.7 and $4.4 trillion, if one counts the medical costs of caring for maimed and traumatized veterans.

As for unemployment: even if our Democratic president came up with a truly brilliant jobs program and our Republican-led Congress actually passed it, we would still be dealing with the basic facts that industrial and manufacturing jobs are disappearing and much of the American workforce is not prepared for the new information-technology jobs that are coming along. Workers in India and other offshore sites are just so much cheaper, and so much better educated.

Which leads me to one of the root causes of my long-term pessimism: the state of American education. We are constantly confronted with dismal statistics on test scores, our students’ performance relative to other developed nations, etc. But what is the reason for this, and what is the solution? It’s not an answer, I think, to throw more money at the problem. As the parent of college students and as a teacher of college students, I’ve noticed that kids from “good” high schools (both public and private) are often as ill-prepared as any others. The problem seems to me a deep-seated one: we simply have no consensus as a nation, no unified philosophy of what an educated person should know. Perhaps this relates to the breakdown of government; we have arrived at no consensus as a nation about what a government should do.

As he took office in 1789, George Washington admitted in private that he doubted the Union would last for more than two decades. It has lasted, if dysfunctionally, for more than two centuries. But it is no longer a nation he would recognize, and its government is certainly not one he’d be proud of.

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Brooke Allen is the author, most recently, of The Other Side of the Mirror: An American Travels Through Syria (Paul Dry Books).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Matt Welch

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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The year I was born, the nonviolence champion Martin Luther King Jr. was slain by an assassin’s bullet, touching off race riots in more than 100 American cities that left 46 people dead and a trail of physical destruction still visible to the naked eye. It was the deadliest year for the United States in the Vietnam War, with more than twice as many servicemen dying than have succumbed, combined, in every U.S. military action since. Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, Americans elected a future crook as president, and most right-thinking people were convinced by Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, that “hundreds of millions of people” would soon “starve to death,” particularly in India.

The year I turned 21, elite anxieties had moved on to Japan’s imminent takeover of the U.S. economy. Entire American cities (including New York City) had been given up as lost causes, Nelson Mandela was still a prisoner in apartheid South Africa, and then all at once the world as we thought we knew it fell on its head. As predicted by no one, imperial Communism collapsed largely without a shot, proxy superpower wars all over the globe gave way to fragile but lasting peace, and a decade of unparalleled prosperity and freedom tumbled happily forth.

The year I write this may prove to be the most momentous for human freedom since that annus mirabilis of 1989, with one authoritarian regime after another in the Islamic world coming under intense pressure from decentralized protesters demanding more liberalized lives. Even before the Arab Spring, we had already seen the number of “free” countries, as rated by Freedom House, rise from 29 percent in 1972 to 45 percent in 2010 (and “partly free” countries rise from 25 to 31 percent) and 44 new sovereignties enter or reenter the family of nations. Former mass-starvation candidates India and China are now producing yet another wave of American neuroses over competing with Asiatic foreigners, even though U.S. per-capita income, adjusted for inflation, has doubled since 1968. Read More

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?

_____________

The year I was born, the nonviolence champion Martin Luther King Jr. was slain by an assassin’s bullet, touching off race riots in more than 100 American cities that left 46 people dead and a trail of physical destruction still visible to the naked eye. It was the deadliest year for the United States in the Vietnam War, with more than twice as many servicemen dying than have succumbed, combined, in every U.S. military action since. Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, Americans elected a future crook as president, and most right-thinking people were convinced by Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, that “hundreds of millions of people” would soon “starve to death,” particularly in India.

The year I turned 21, elite anxieties had moved on to Japan’s imminent takeover of the U.S. economy. Entire American cities (including New York City) had been given up as lost causes, Nelson Mandela was still a prisoner in apartheid South Africa, and then all at once the world as we thought we knew it fell on its head. As predicted by no one, imperial Communism collapsed largely without a shot, proxy superpower wars all over the globe gave way to fragile but lasting peace, and a decade of unparalleled prosperity and freedom tumbled happily forth.

The year I write this may prove to be the most momentous for human freedom since that annus mirabilis of 1989, with one authoritarian regime after another in the Islamic world coming under intense pressure from decentralized protesters demanding more liberalized lives. Even before the Arab Spring, we had already seen the number of “free” countries, as rated by Freedom House, rise from 29 percent in 1972 to 45 percent in 2010 (and “partly free” countries rise from 25 to 31 percent) and 44 new sovereignties enter or reenter the family of nations. Former mass-starvation candidates India and China are now producing yet another wave of American neuroses over competing with Asiatic foreigners, even though U.S. per-capita income, adjusted for inflation, has doubled since 1968.

It requires a surplus of myopic self-regard to gaze upon this undeniable and thrilling human advancement and proclaim a wasteland of impending decline, but we Americans have always had a difficult time distinguishing between our market share of global responsibility and the overall health of the world.

The apparently uncomfortable truth is that people everywhere are, on balance, seeking more and more freedom, and they don’t necessarily need or even want heavy American involvement in that quest. Which is fortunate for us, because we can no longer afford to take care of ourselves, let alone the rest of the world.

Like it or not, the near future will be marked by a relaxation of American geopolitical control and a resurgence in local and regional responsibilities assumed by the people who actually live there. For those of us who truly believe in the virtues of responsibility and competition, and who have an enduring faith in the irresistible lure of freedom, it is the very best of times to be alive.

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Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents (Public Affairs).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Gilbert Meilaender

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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It has become common to contrast the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, with the pessimism of our current president, Barack Obama. “Morning in America” versus disbelief in American exceptionalism. This is too simple a contrast, of course, and I do not, in fact, believe that pessimism about America is Obama’s problem. His problem is the condescension and arrogance with which he too often approaches his fellow citizens. In any case, I want to approach the optimism/pessimism contrast from three different angles.

First, and answering the question most directly, I am optimistic about America as a political community but rather pessimistic about America as a cultural community. Contrary to the constant calls that we hear for an end to partisanship, partisan politics serves us well. Disagreement and argument are essential to the health of a free people, and, unfortunately, many of those most given to regarding diversity as an undoubted good are the least willing to tolerate disagreement. But as long as we remain free to argue about our political aims and policies, I suspect we will not go too far wrong. Nevertheless, it does take a certain kind of citizen to engage in American politics, and too many of our children are growing up in a culture of failed marriages and broken homes. Such cultural disintegration does not produce the trust or trustworthiness that democratic politics requires. How the political and the cultural interact will in large measure shape our future. Read More

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?

_____________

It has become common to contrast the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, with the pessimism of our current president, Barack Obama. “Morning in America” versus disbelief in American exceptionalism. This is too simple a contrast, of course, and I do not, in fact, believe that pessimism about America is Obama’s problem. His problem is the condescension and arrogance with which he too often approaches his fellow citizens. In any case, I want to approach the optimism/pessimism contrast from three different angles.

First, and answering the question most directly, I am optimistic about America as a political community but rather pessimistic about America as a cultural community. Contrary to the constant calls that we hear for an end to partisanship, partisan politics serves us well. Disagreement and argument are essential to the health of a free people, and, unfortunately, many of those most given to regarding diversity as an undoubted good are the least willing to tolerate disagreement. But as long as we remain free to argue about our political aims and policies, I suspect we will not go too far wrong. Nevertheless, it does take a certain kind of citizen to engage in American politics, and too many of our children are growing up in a culture of failed marriages and broken homes. Such cultural disintegration does not produce the trust or trustworthiness that democratic politics requires. How the political and the cultural interact will in large measure shape our future.

Second, claiming a measure of agnosticism seems to me the right way to respond to this question. America’s future is finally in the providence of God, not in our hands. In the greatest political speech ever given in our country’s history, Lincoln—while fondly hoping and fervently praying that the bloody Civil War might cease—left the question of its duration up to the true and righteous judgments of the Lord. That seems right to me. What we need is not so much optimism or pessimism, but a willingness to carry out the public and private tasks set before us with care and devotion: “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” The results can be left in the hands of those more knowledgeable than us.

Finally, we can grant that there are plenty of political reasons for pessimism: an economy in which many people may be permanently unable to find work, the racial divide that has burdened our entire history and still does, the threat of Islamism around the world but especially in the Middle East, an aging population that is setting us up for a clash of generations. What we need in the face of such difficulties is not optimism but hope, and they are not the same. As G.K. Chesterton noted, external conditions can never—in good times or bad—give sufficient reason for hope. We need the virtue of hope precisely when circumstances seem to offer no grounds for optimism. “For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly when hope ceases to be reasonable, it begins to be useful.” Which means that the question that most needs our reflection is: How does one elicit, nourish, and sustain the virtue of hope?

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Gilbert Meilaender is the Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Arthur C. Brooks

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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Recent statistics about America’s levels of debt and tax burden make for depressing reading. Our national debt has increased from 42 percent of GDP in 1980 to 100 percent of GDP today. Government spending (27 percent of GDP in 1960) is 37 percent of GDP now—and is set to hit 50 percent in 2038. Between 1986 and 2008, the share of federal income taxes paid by the richest 5 percent of Americans has risen from 43 percent to 59 percent. At the same time, the number of Americans who pay zero or negative income taxes has risen from 18.5 percent to 51 percent.

Numbers like these have led some to despair that there are really only two possible scenarios for America’s future. In one, we finally hit a tipping point where so few people actually pay for their share of the growing government that we embrace European-style social democracy. (Think France.) In the other scenario, our growing welfare state slowly collapses under its own weight, and we get some kind of permanent austerity once the rest of the world finally realizes the depth of our national spending disorder and stops lending us money at low interest rates. (Think Greece.) Read More

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?

_____________

Recent statistics about America’s levels of debt and tax burden make for depressing reading. Our national debt has increased from 42 percent of GDP in 1980 to 100 percent of GDP today. Government spending (27 percent of GDP in 1960) is 37 percent of GDP now—and is set to hit 50 percent in 2038. Between 1986 and 2008, the share of federal income taxes paid by the richest 5 percent of Americans has risen from 43 percent to 59 percent. At the same time, the number of Americans who pay zero or negative income taxes has risen from 18.5 percent to 51 percent.

Numbers like these have led some to despair that there are really only two possible scenarios for America’s future. In one, we finally hit a tipping point where so few people actually pay for their share of the growing government that we embrace European-style social democracy. (Think France.) In the other scenario, our growing welfare state slowly collapses under its own weight, and we get some kind of permanent austerity once the rest of the world finally realizes the depth of our national spending disorder and stops lending us money at low interest rates. (Think Greece.)

These are not, however, the only two choices. We can make the hard choices as a nation to consolidate fiscally in a way that cuts government spending and stops penalizing entrepreneurs. But the way to achieve this is not the way conservatives typically advocate, which is doubling down with scary data about terrible economic growth and distortionary taxation. Instead, what conservatives must do is turn to the moral case for free enterprise: that it allows individuals to flourish as they earn their own success, is fundamentally fair in rewarding merit, and is the best way to give opportunities to the less fortunate.

This prescription would hardly sound foreign to our Founders, who in the Declaration of Independence asserted our right to pursue happiness instead of the mere possession of property. On the other side of the Atlantic, the father of free-market economics, Adam Smith, was articulating a soulful defense of human liberty in which every man “is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way.” He wrote these words 17 years before penning The Wealth of Nations.

How is it that today’s free-enterprise warriors have forgotten how to use the language of morality? Statists may talk about fairness and “social justice,” but free marketers seem content to console themselves with the language of economic efficiency and productivity. They are right about free enterprise being good for economic growth, but their arguments rarely move the soul. Yet it is the moral, cultural case for free enterprise that America most needs to hear today if it is willing to make sacrifices for the future.

Rather than making the business case, free-enterprise advocates must stop talking about dollars and cents and start talking about what is written on their hearts. They must talk again about why America is an exceptional nation and about what its system of free enterprise offers—the possibilities of self-realization, matching our skills with our passions, and pursuing happiness in whatever way we choose to define it.

If we do this, then Americans may help us change course before statism changes our nation for good.

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Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Rich Lowry

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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The 1990s were a decade to make you believe there was no such thing as an intractable problem. We had defeated the Soviets. We won in the Persian Gulf War in a matter of weeks and quieted ancient ethnic furies in the Balkans. At home, we beat back crime. Welfare reform was a success. We seemed to have the business cycle figured out. It wasn’t really until the financial crisis of 2008 that we were reminded of what it means for things to be utterly out of control. It was a calamity for which no remedy presented itself; and, even if we made the best decisions, it might still have ended in catastrophe. Everything since—the spiraling debt, the persistent unemployment, the sense we might be on the precipice of another collapse—has been a great humbling.

I still tend to be an optimist about most of what dominates our public debate. Over time, the economy will recover. One way or another, we’ll bring the deficit under control. We’ll reform entitlements, inadequately and clumsily, but reform them nevertheless. Our international power will diminish, yet we’ll still be far ahead of any competitor. The American public has shown an admirable resistance to the vast designs of the Obama administration, and I expect President Obama to be either defeated or even more hemmed in during a second term than he is now. Read More

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?

_____________

The 1990s were a decade to make you believe there was no such thing as an intractable problem. We had defeated the Soviets. We won in the Persian Gulf War in a matter of weeks and quieted ancient ethnic furies in the Balkans. At home, we beat back crime. Welfare reform was a success. We seemed to have the business cycle figured out. It wasn’t really until the financial crisis of 2008 that we were reminded of what it means for things to be utterly out of control. It was a calamity for which no remedy presented itself; and, even if we made the best decisions, it might still have ended in catastrophe. Everything since—the spiraling debt, the persistent unemployment, the sense we might be on the precipice of another collapse—has been a great humbling.

I still tend to be an optimist about most of what dominates our public debate. Over time, the economy will recover. One way or another, we’ll bring the deficit under control. We’ll reform entitlements, inadequately and clumsily, but reform them nevertheless. Our international power will diminish, yet we’ll still be far ahead of any competitor. The American public has shown an admirable resistance to the vast designs of the Obama administration, and I expect President Obama to be either defeated or even more hemmed in during a second term than he is now.

What makes me pessimistic about our future is what nearly no one talks about: the breakdown of marriage and associated bourgeois institutions and virtues in what sociologist Brad Wilcox calls “the solid middle”—those Americans, representing 58 percent of the adult population, who have graduated from high school but don’t have a four-year college degree. Illegitimacy started its corrosive march from the bottom decades ago, but it has steadily crept up the income scale. Among those without a high school degree, the rate is 54 percent; among the solid middle, it’s 44 percent. Marriage and traditional sexual mores have made their last stand among the highly educated (people with a four-year degree or more), reversing everything we thought we knew about the supposed decadence of the elite. Their illegitimacy rate is only 6 percent, and they are less likely to divorce or commit adultery. The solid middle is becoming de-institutionalized. Its members are less likely to go to church or get involved in civic institutions than they were 30 years ago. The middle is thus losing crucial stores of social capital just as—in an interrelated trend—the economy offers fewer ready opportunities, especially for its men. We are witnessing a slow-moving social catastrophe that is mostly ignored, especially on the right.

It has become a mantra among conservatives—echoing a point originally made by Charles Krauthammer—that decline is a choice. But this social decline is not. Even those sounding the alarm about these trends offer few plausible answers for how to check them. How do you recover a culture of marriage once it’s been lost? How do you counteract the baleful side effects of globalization and automation? We seem to be heading inexorably in a direction that threatens our identity as a mass middle-class society. We’ll become more stratified and less mobile, with long-term political consequences that are impossible to predict, except that they can’t be good. William Dean Howells said that Americans love a tragedy so long as it has a happy ending. This is a tragedy that won’t end well.

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Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Peter Wehner

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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In 1993 I helped William J. Bennett assemble The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which provided an empirical assessment of the social condition of American society. It provided a comprehensive statistical portrait of behavioral trends over the previous 30 years, and the results were alarming: a 500 percent increase in violent crime; more than a 400 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; a doubling in the divorce rate; and a drop of almost 75 points in SAT scores.

I believed at the time that these exploding social pathologies might lead to the decline and even the collapse of our republic.

It was right about that time that the United States, as if at once, began to turn things around. And within a decade and a half, significant improvements were visible in the vast majority of social indicators, with progress in some areas, such as crime and welfare, taking on the dimensions of a sea change.

It was a stunning, encouraging, and wholly unexpected recovery. And I learned my lesson: do not underestimate the recuperative and regenerative powers of America. Read More

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?

_____________

In 1993 I helped William J. Bennett assemble The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which provided an empirical assessment of the social condition of American society. It provided a comprehensive statistical portrait of behavioral trends over the previous 30 years, and the results were alarming: a 500 percent increase in violent crime; more than a 400 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; a doubling in the divorce rate; and a drop of almost 75 points in SAT scores.

I believed at the time that these exploding social pathologies might lead to the decline and even the collapse of our republic.

It was right about that time that the United States, as if at once, began to turn things around. And within a decade and a half, significant improvements were visible in the vast majority of social indicators, with progress in some areas, such as crime and welfare, taking on the dimensions of a sea change.

It was a stunning, encouraging, and wholly unexpected recovery. And I learned my lesson: do not underestimate the recuperative and regenerative powers of America.

This does not mean that success is preordained or that optimism is always warranted. And we shouldn’t for a moment downplay the challenges we face, which include reforming public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century. Our health-care and entitlement system, tax code, schools, infrastructure, immigration policies, and regulatory regime are outdated, worn down, and insanely out of touch with the needs of our time. This has impeded economic growth, impaired the creation of human capital, and put us on the path toward an unprecedented fiscal crisis. Each of these public institutions needs to be improved and modernized, requiring structural reforms on a scale that right now seems nearly impossible to achieve.

It’s not. The necessary first step toward reform and renewal is a massive ballot-box repudiation of President Obama, his progressive agenda, and those who have supported it. That needs to be followed by the emergence of political leaders with concrete plans to replace the liberal welfare state and who possess the skill to rally the public to their cause. “Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln said. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

This is no easy task. Fundamental reforms, especially when it comes to entitlement programs, will require (carefully) changing settled ways and settled assumptions. On top of that, right now Americans are anxious, unnerved, and unusually pessimistic. A recession and a failed presidency will do that to a nation. But we also continue to possess enormous strengths, economic as well as military, and great resiliency. We can take some comfort in the fact that at every important moment in American history—our founding, the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II, the civil-rights struggle, the wreckage of the Carter years—America has produced political leaders who were up to the challenge. I’m betting it shall again.

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Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a managing director of e21.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Dorothy Rabinowitz

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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I sit down to ponder whether there’s cause for optimism about America’s future on a day that brings proofs, as the days regularly do, that a significant number of Americans—Americans of all ages—live lives bereft of any sense of identification with the nation, with all that it has been and all that it is. This is not a cause for optimism. True, that sense of identification still lies entrenched in the hearts of most Americans, but there is no missing the fact that it would not have been necessary to make grateful note of that point, say, 40 years ago. Decades of revisionist history taught as revealed truth in high schools and universities have taken their toll, decades in which students have learned, at the hands of politically progressive instructors—there are precious few of any other kind in most institutions of higher learning—to view their country as a rapacious exploiter of the poor and the oppressed, and fierce enemy of justice and truth.

But we know all this. We’ve known it for a long time—books galore have been published and conferences held on the transformation of our campuses into centers of indoctrination and thought reform. What we’ve not quite grasped are the insidious consequences of decades of this learning, which has sent countless graduates into the world armed with a degree and an education shaped by poisonously distorted views of their nation, its history, and its values. These are the graduates who now people our media, of course. It was from the political swamplands of such learning that the current president of the United States came as well. No need to ask why the members of our media took so easily to candidate Barack Obama: they had gone to the same schools and shared the same assumptions.

The more dramatic impact of this learning comes in the form of views that most Americans, fortunately, still look upon as aberrations. Few people take the 9/11 Truthers seriously, and rightly so—but that their view has taken even as much hold as it has is altogether telling. These middle-aged and older Americans have found in this deeply held faith—that American leaders arranged to have 3,000 American citizens slaughtered—an outlet for their fixed idea that the U.S. government is a source of evil and an enemy to fear. To encounter any Truther in standard mode is, of course, to witness psychological disturbance of a familiar kind—a kind not far different from the sort found in people who believe that the CIA has implanted radio transmitters in their teeth to control them. Read More

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?

_____________

I sit down to ponder whether there’s cause for optimism about America’s future on a day that brings proofs, as the days regularly do, that a significant number of Americans—Americans of all ages—live lives bereft of any sense of identification with the nation, with all that it has been and all that it is. This is not a cause for optimism. True, that sense of identification still lies entrenched in the hearts of most Americans, but there is no missing the fact that it would not have been necessary to make grateful note of that point, say, 40 years ago. Decades of revisionist history taught as revealed truth in high schools and universities have taken their toll, decades in which students have learned, at the hands of politically progressive instructors—there are precious few of any other kind in most institutions of higher learning—to view their country as a rapacious exploiter of the poor and the oppressed, and fierce enemy of justice and truth.

But we know all this. We’ve known it for a long time—books galore have been published and conferences held on the transformation of our campuses into centers of indoctrination and thought reform. What we’ve not quite grasped are the insidious consequences of decades of this learning, which has sent countless graduates into the world armed with a degree and an education shaped by poisonously distorted views of their nation, its history, and its values. These are the graduates who now people our media, of course. It was from the political swamplands of such learning that the current president of the United States came as well. No need to ask why the members of our media took so easily to candidate Barack Obama: they had gone to the same schools and shared the same assumptions.

The more dramatic impact of this learning comes in the form of views that most Americans, fortunately, still look upon as aberrations. Few people take the 9/11 Truthers seriously, and rightly so—but that their view has taken even as much hold as it has is altogether telling. These middle-aged and older Americans have found in this deeply held faith—that American leaders arranged to have 3,000 American citizens slaughtered—an outlet for their fixed idea that the U.S. government is a source of evil and an enemy to fear. To encounter any Truther in standard mode is, of course, to witness psychological disturbance of a familiar kind—a kind not far different from the sort found in people who believe that the CIA has implanted radio transmitters in their teeth to control them.

What is significant about the Truthers is the reach of their views: all sorts of Americans can now be found entertaining the possibility that America could well have been responsible for 9/11. Academics, entertainers—too many are now drawn to a view that would have been limited to the clinically deranged 50 years ago. The belief that the United States planned the 9/11 attacks testifies to an unparalleled hostility toward the nation, not just its government. And such belief can now be pronounced aloud and considered an acceptable—indeed distinguished—viewpoint.

So it happened that I could hear, the week I write this, Tony Bennett’s views, offered on Howard Stern’s radio show. Bennett said that the United States, which had bombed other countries, had “caused” 9/11. He let it be known, as well, that we—not the people who flew the planes into the buildings—were the terrorists. We hear voices like this regularly these days. They’re worth noting because of what they represent. So, too, if we’re looking for a bright side, are the splendid tides of outrage with which Americans respond to this preening pathology.

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Dorothy Rabinowitz writes on politics and culture for the Wall Street Journal.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Paul A. Rahe

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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We live at the end of an era—at a time when the old order can no longer be sustained and a new set of arrangements has yet to emerge. It is a time fraught with discomfort, distress, and anxiety. Millions of Americans are looking for work; millions more have given up the search; and further millions are underemployed. All of them are having trouble making ends meet, and those fortunate enough to have steady work fear that a market collapse, rampant inflation, or a government desperate for revenues will deprive them of their savings.

This is also, however, a time of unparalleled opportunity. It helps that Americans are no longer in denial. They now know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that the entitlements regime begun under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, vastly expanded under Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society, and expanded again, at least in prospect, under Barack Obama’s New Foundation is unsustainable. It is now possible for a presidential candidate to describe Social Security as a gigantic Ponzi scheme without ruining his prospects, because everyone understands that the money in the so-called trust fund was spent by Congress long ago, and hardly anyone under 50 seriously expects to get Social Security upon retirement in his mid-60s. Everyone is aware, moreover, that Medicare is insolvent, that we cannot pay for Medicaid, and that the cost of health care is soaring; and most Americans recognize that Obama’s attempt to expand the sphere of public provision will, if not repealed, make matters considerably worse. Read More

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?

_____________

We live at the end of an era—at a time when the old order can no longer be sustained and a new set of arrangements has yet to emerge. It is a time fraught with discomfort, distress, and anxiety. Millions of Americans are looking for work; millions more have given up the search; and further millions are underemployed. All of them are having trouble making ends meet, and those fortunate enough to have steady work fear that a market collapse, rampant inflation, or a government desperate for revenues will deprive them of their savings.

This is also, however, a time of unparalleled opportunity. It helps that Americans are no longer in denial. They now know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that the entitlements regime begun under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, vastly expanded under Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society, and expanded again, at least in prospect, under Barack Obama’s New Foundation is unsustainable. It is now possible for a presidential candidate to describe Social Security as a gigantic Ponzi scheme without ruining his prospects, because everyone understands that the money in the so-called trust fund was spent by Congress long ago, and hardly anyone under 50 seriously expects to get Social Security upon retirement in his mid-60s. Everyone is aware, moreover, that Medicare is insolvent, that we cannot pay for Medicaid, and that the cost of health care is soaring; and most Americans recognize that Obama’s attempt to expand the sphere of public provision will, if not repealed, make matters considerably worse.

The presumptions that sustained the administrative state have also been exposed as lies. The experts on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors and those in charge at the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board have repeatedly been proven wrong. When the president of the United States consulted his advisers and claimed in early September that his “jobs bill” would reduce unemployment and that it could easily be paid for, hardly anyone, even in his own party, believed a word. Distrust in the federal government is at an all-time high.

All of this is a blessing in disguise. As a people we were far worse off when we were prey to the illusion that we would be better off if we outsourced provision for our welfare to an administrative elite empowered to manage every detail of our lives. Our liberation from this illusion means that we can begin to dismantle the administrative entitlements regime; that we can return to the states and the localities the functions that are properly theirs; that we can refocus the federal government on the limited but vitally important tasks that the Constitution reserves for it; and that we can restore to individuals and families the obligations, responsibilities, and liberties that are properly theirs. The transition will be painful, but prosperity and low unemployment will return if we limit the burdens that public provision and administrative regulation place on private initiative and if we create a legal regime favorable to entrepreneurship—and morally, in taking responsibility for our own well-being and those of our families, we will be much better off.

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Paul A. Rahe is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author, most recently, of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift (Yale).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Wilfred M. McClay

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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The answer can’t be arrived at by reason alone, for there are always as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. In addition, history is full of surprises and unexpected potentialities, like a board game in which new pieces are constantly introduced. What gives one heart, though, is the recognition that challenging events have in the past called forth unsuspected strengths in the American people, a lesson that both Imperial Japan and Osama bin Laden learned to their dismay.

In the end, everything depends on the character of the American people. About that, one simply can’t be sure, although one’s faith is better placed in the people than the elites. One can be encouraged by the astounding upsurge of sheer dogged resistance from ordinary Americans to the statist agenda of the Obama administration. No one would ever have predicted such a thing in 2007 or 2008. Yet one also can be appalled by the foolishness and gullibility of the American people in electing such an unknown and ill-prepared man to the presidency, and investing such preposterous hopes in him. Which qualities of character will predominate at the polls when the question is something difficult but essential, such as the dramatic reform of Medicare and other entitlements?

There is one tectonic shift, however, that may make a positive response more likely than anyone might have thought possible even five years ago. For most of my lifetime, advanced minds have tended to advertise themselves in the United States by delivering national chastisements beginning with the following words: “The United States is the only major nation in the developed industrialized world that does not have…” The relevant noun was always some feature of the all-embracing social-welfare state that so many European nations adopted over the course of the 20th century. Universal health care, generous paid maternity leave, indexed pensions: the list went on and on. The blood and treasure of the United States may have saved European democracy, but, as the tut-tutting admonishment was meant to remind us, Americans remained seriously backward in comparison with the European social-democratic model. Read More

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?

_____________

The answer can’t be arrived at by reason alone, for there are always as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. In addition, history is full of surprises and unexpected potentialities, like a board game in which new pieces are constantly introduced. What gives one heart, though, is the recognition that challenging events have in the past called forth unsuspected strengths in the American people, a lesson that both Imperial Japan and Osama bin Laden learned to their dismay.

In the end, everything depends on the character of the American people. About that, one simply can’t be sure, although one’s faith is better placed in the people than the elites. One can be encouraged by the astounding upsurge of sheer dogged resistance from ordinary Americans to the statist agenda of the Obama administration. No one would ever have predicted such a thing in 2007 or 2008. Yet one also can be appalled by the foolishness and gullibility of the American people in electing such an unknown and ill-prepared man to the presidency, and investing such preposterous hopes in him. Which qualities of character will predominate at the polls when the question is something difficult but essential, such as the dramatic reform of Medicare and other entitlements?

There is one tectonic shift, however, that may make a positive response more likely than anyone might have thought possible even five years ago. For most of my lifetime, advanced minds have tended to advertise themselves in the United States by delivering national chastisements beginning with the following words: “The United States is the only major nation in the developed industrialized world that does not have…” The relevant noun was always some feature of the all-embracing social-welfare state that so many European nations adopted over the course of the 20th century. Universal health care, generous paid maternity leave, indexed pensions: the list went on and on. The blood and treasure of the United States may have saved European democracy, but, as the tut-tutting admonishment was meant to remind us, Americans remained seriously backward in comparison with the European social-democratic model.

Well, given the highly visible and accelerating problems of what has now proven to be an unsustainable model, there is a new way to complete the sentence. The United States is now the only major nation in the developed industrialized world that does not face inevitable decline, caused by the enormous and insuperable barriers to growth and prosperity imposed by an impossibly expensive social-welfare apparatus saddled on feeble economies supported by ever-diminishing populations. America has a chance to avoid this fate. And if we do survive and thrive, it will be because of our resistance to the very advanced ideas that have condemned our cousins in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to a future of steady, grinding diminishment.

Obama was educated by those who have lived according to the motto “America is the only developed industrialized country that does not have…” and he was their dream candidate. With his ascent to the presidency, and his muscling-through of cardinal pieces of state-aggrandizing legislation, it seemed that America was finally on the verge of shedding its unwanted exceptionalism. Yet world-historical timing has worked against Obama, and his moment has already passed. It has never been clearer, thanks to the inescapable empirical examples across the Atlantic, that America should not go that route. Far from being the heralded prophet of a new America, Obama represents yesterday’s visionary of tomorrow, the last gasp of dated and fatally flawed ideas.

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Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Heather MacDonald

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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In Seoul, South Korea, thousands of people sequester themselves for months and years at a time in “Exam Village” to study for grueling professional tests. In China, tiger parents push their children relentlessly to succeed. American teens are definitely good at socializing.

As waves of Asian engineers and computer scientists lap at our shores, it’s hard not to despair at the educational apathy of many American students. Placing all the blame on schools for our listless academic performance ignores some unpleasant truths. Yes, the reign of progressive pedagogy means that American students spend much of their time in dopey “group learning,” allegedly creating their own knowledge (translation: talking about last weekend’s parties), rather than interacting with a teacher who demands attention and conveys hard facts. Yes, America’s fear of not being “inclusive” has redirected focus away from high achievers to the bottom rung. But if you dropped a Chinese student into a mediocre American classroom, my guess is that he would still learn, and he would certainly outlearn his peers, at least until he succumbed to the anti-intellectual student culture.

One of the reasons why educational effort is so fierce in the Far East and Southeast Asia, however, is that economic opportunities are more constricted there. Corruption and crippling red tape in many exam-driven cultures make it far harder to start a business, resulting in bottlenecks of talent. Americans take for granted the absence of endemic corruption in our political system, but it represents one of the great triumphs of Western civilization. However oppressive it can seem to comply with the Clean Water Act or the California Coastal Commission, at least an entrepreneur usually doesn’t have to pay off his local environmental inspector and other parasites to get a building permit. And while the thousands of regulations that pour out of federal agencies every year absorb senseless amounts of a businessman’s time, they are miracles of efficiency and minimalism compared with the Indian bureaucracy. Read More

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?

_____________

In Seoul, South Korea, thousands of people sequester themselves for months and years at a time in “Exam Village” to study for grueling professional tests. In China, tiger parents push their children relentlessly to succeed. American teens are definitely good at socializing.

As waves of Asian engineers and computer scientists lap at our shores, it’s hard not to despair at the educational apathy of many American students. Placing all the blame on schools for our listless academic performance ignores some unpleasant truths. Yes, the reign of progressive pedagogy means that American students spend much of their time in dopey “group learning,” allegedly creating their own knowledge (translation: talking about last weekend’s parties), rather than interacting with a teacher who demands attention and conveys hard facts. Yes, America’s fear of not being “inclusive” has redirected focus away from high achievers to the bottom rung. But if you dropped a Chinese student into a mediocre American classroom, my guess is that he would still learn, and he would certainly outlearn his peers, at least until he succumbed to the anti-intellectual student culture.

One of the reasons why educational effort is so fierce in the Far East and Southeast Asia, however, is that economic opportunities are more constricted there. Corruption and crippling red tape in many exam-driven cultures make it far harder to start a business, resulting in bottlenecks of talent. Americans take for granted the absence of endemic corruption in our political system, but it represents one of the great triumphs of Western civilization. However oppressive it can seem to comply with the Clean Water Act or the California Coastal Commission, at least an entrepreneur usually doesn’t have to pay off his local environmental inspector and other parasites to get a building permit. And while the thousands of regulations that pour out of federal agencies every year absorb senseless amounts of a businessman’s time, they are miracles of efficiency and minimalism compared with the Indian bureaucracy.

So for the moment, let’s be optimistic—if the United States can expand its deep-seated advantages of the rule of law and a culture of entrepreneurship. In the long run, however, if the rising economies in the East can reform their corrupt and backwards governments, the discipline of their populations in the fanatical pursuit of knowledge could well leave the United States as a pop-culture-addicted also-ran. It’s time to junk the communitarian agenda of progressive education and to embrace competition and grouping by ability in schools. Vocational training should be rehabilitated from its unjustified ignominy, and the idea that everyone is capable of and should pursue a college degree should be recognized as the fantastical pipe dream that it is. Most important, however, we should acknowledge that learning requires focused, disciplined work to master a body of knowledge that exists independently of a student’s overrated need for self-actualization.

_____________

Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.

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