Will the United States Survive Until 2022?
by John Derbyshire (Jan. 2007)
“It is said of all great matters under Heaven: What has been long divided must unite, what has been long united must divide.”
—Opening words of The Three Kingdoms Romance, a classic Chinese historical novel by Luo Guanzhong.
The beginning of a new year naturally turns one’s thoughts in a numerical direction. Furthermore, as we look forward to 2007, our imagination is liable to overshoot and find itself contemplating the more distant future: the next fifteen years for example. Why fifteen? Permit me to explain.
* * * * *
The ideas I am going to put forward here came about, as ideas often do, from the conjunction of two apparently unconnected events.
Event number one occurred as I was moving a pile of books from one inaccessible place in my attic to another. I turned up an old paperback titled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? This book was a collection of essays by the Brezhnev-era Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, the lead-off essay giving the book its title. That essay was written in 1969, so Amalrik was looking fifteen years ahead.
Amalrik’s essay makes dull reading now. He speaks at length of the social stresses in late-Soviet society, and predicts a war with China—a war which, of course, never happened. He was only seven years out in his prediction, though, which is pretty darn good as political prognostications go. And the essay did remind me what a great surprise the collapse of the USSR was to a lot of people, including a lot of high-paid experts. Walter Laqueur points out, in his book on the Soviet Union, that the U.S. government and all its agencies, including the CIA, over-estimated Soviet economic strength to the very end, in some cases by a factor of ten times.
I got to wondering whether some forecast as gloomy as Amalrik’s could be made for the present-day USA. If, following Amalrik’s example, we try to look forward 15 years, to 2022, what, if anything, can we see? There are of course many futures; but some are more probable than others. Are there any probable futures in which the USA has ceased to exist in 2022?
* * * * *
Then event number two came along. I got an email from a reader concerning one of my monthly columns in National Review. The column had actually been about American football, to which I am a newcomer, my 11-year-old son having joined a youth league team just this past fall. In that column I had said the following thing: “If a foreigner should tell you that a nation as young as this one has had no time to develop a unique culture, take him to a college football game.”
What my emailer objected to was my referring to this country as young. He actually said: “Politically speaking, of the 190-odd nations that clutter up this planet of ours, the United States is the fourth oldest ranking right behind Denmark, Sweden, and Britain.”
That’s rather a striking observation. At any rate, it is striking to a person from the Old World. The people of, say, France, or Hungary, or Turkey, or Thailand, or Iran, feel their nations to be very old indeed. A Chinese person, if you ask him how old his country is, will reply reflexively: 5,000 years. That is in fact a bit of an exaggeration; but if he were to say 4,000 years, he’d have a pretty good case. All these people would laugh at the idea that the USA is an older nation than theirs.
Yet of course my correspondent has a point. He did, after all, preface his remarks with the phrase: “Politically speaking.” Something recognizable as a Chinese nation may indeed have been around since the Bronze Age, but China’s present constitution dates only from 1982, and that superseded three former constitutions in the previous 30 years. Politically speaking, China is a very new country.
From my correspondent’s perspective, then, the USA looks like a very robust creation. But then, the USSR looked pretty robust for a long time. And these two nations, the USA and the USSR shared a thing in common, a thing that differentiated them from those nations like France, Iran, and China—nations that, at least in their own estimation, are far older. What they shared was precisely the lack of what those other nations have: a sense of old, rooted, ethnic nationhood. They were, to put it very bluntly, artificial creations, assembled around a set of abstract ideas.
This being so, if one of these artificial creations could collapse in a cloud of dust, after long decades of seeming to be a permanent fixture, why might not the other one? Abraham Lincoln, as we all know, wondered whether a nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can long endure. It seemed for a few decades that the Civil War had settled the question. I am going to argue that it did not, and that the question posed by Lincoln is still an open one—more open now than at any time since Lincoln uttered those words.
* * * * *
There are a number of objections to the line of argument so far that must surely have occurred to you. Permit me to address what I should guess to be the two most salient ones: an objection from the nature of the union, and an objection from the nature of the populace.
First, there is the rather striking difference between the USA and the USSR, that the one of those nations is held together by the consent of the governed, while the other was held together by brute force and terror. Some of you might perhaps think my whole premise is insulting on this account.
I mean no insult to my adopted country. (I am a naturalized US citizen.) I am only saying that like the old USSR, the USA lacks that innate sense of ethnic solidarity that older nations have, and that sense, what Walker Connor, in his book of this title, called “ethnonationalism,” is a glue that can help preserve a nation from disintegration and political disaster. That an ethnonationalist sensibility does not infallibly guarantee national cohesion is easily shown by the disasters that various ethnostates like China have suffered in their history.
(For the particular case of China, a browse through the maps in Herrmann’s Historical Atlas of China will give a sufficient idea. Since the beginnings of continuous historical records in the 9th century BC, the Chinese people have been united under a single government less than half the time. The observation with which I prefixed this essay was written down in the fourteenth century—since when, as a matter of fact, the unity/disunity ratio has improved somewhat.)
Plainly ethnic solidarity is not a sufficient condition for national cohesion, but it may be a necessary one.
A paleoconservative reader might raise a second objection: that in fact this nation was an ethnostate, or very close to one, until recently. The 1960 census showed our population as consisting of essentially two groups: one of white European ancestry, at 88.6 percent of the population, and one of black African or mixed ancestry at 10.5 percent. The remaining 0.9 percent were “other,” mainly American Indian and East Asian.
Furthermore, the USA of 1960 was more of an ethnostate than the USA of 1790, when Americans of African or part-African ancestry were nearly 20 percent of the population. Yet even back then at the time of the Founding, Americans had the idea that they were ethnically homogeneous. John Jay, who later became first justice of the Supreme Court, made a remark about this in Federalist No. 2: “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” So (our paleocon reader will argue) the USA did have an ethnic character, just as much—or at any rate, almost as much—as Japan or Finland, and certainly more than the USSR, which was a genuine empire, containing within itself old ethnies like Lithuanians, Georgians, Mongolians, and Karelians.
The counter to the paleocon’s point is an obvious one: that our country has changed considerably since 1960, taking in new citizens from all over the world. The USA cannot now be considered an ethnostate, if it ever could; and we have in fact developed some strong taboos against so considering it, or desiring it. However astonishing it might seem to a Japanese, a Hungarian, an Irishman, or an Israeli, the very idea of an ethnostate is regarded as slightly disreputable by most educated Americans.
* * * * *
So here is the question: Given that the present-day USA, like the old USSR, is a “proposition nation,” built around a Creed—a set of abstract ideas—and given that it lacks the ethnic solidarity, the sense of being descended from a common set of ancestors, that helps hold together old ethnostates like China or Egypt at least much of the time—given that even the idea of ethnic solidarity is contentious in the USA—can this country avoid the fate of the USSR?
Of course I don’t know the answer to that question, and I very much hope, first but not solely for my childrens’ sake, that the answer is “yes.” There are strong reasons to think the answer may be “no,” though. All sorts of fault lines have opened up in US society and national consciousness this past forty years, and an edifice with so many cracks in it may not stand indefinitely.
I am going to list some of those fault lines under separate headings. (I have italicized the word “some” there because, having embarked on the following categorization, I soon got the feeling that I could continue generating topic headings indefinitely.) Following the late great political scientist Robert Wesson, these headings will all deal with one kind of failure whose consequences might contribute to the loss of our country. Here we go.
* * * * *
Political failure. A few weeks ago we went to the polls to elect, or much more often re-elect, our representatives in the US congress, and one third of our US senators. Congress is of course the legislature of our nation. Can anyone look at it, and its recent doings, without blanching?
Now of course Americans have always grumbled about the national legislature. “No man’s life or property is safe when Congress is in session”—that saying seems to go back at least a hundred years. A hundred years ago, however, the U.S. government and its laws occupied a far smaller zone of the national life than they do today. And there are signs that government wealth and power may have reached some kind of critical mass.
If you graph various proxies for state power—the number of pages in the federal tax code (currently 16,845), annual federal spending per household (currently $22,000, at its highest level since WW2, up 7.4 percent last year alone), federal employment (up nearly 80,000 under George W. Bush, just in non-defense-related positions), and so on—if you graph these proxies across time, the curves are turning sharply upward.
And yet the constituency for smaller government is weaker now than it has been for 30 years. “Self-government means self-support” said Calvin Coolidge. Well, guess what: people aren’t all that keen on self-support. Welfare statism has caught the USA in its clammy grip, and it is not going to let go. It never has, anywhere.
The natural opposition to these statist tendencies is the conservative movement. The conservative movement, however, is in a shambles. My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review wrote an article titled “Conservatives on the Couch” for a recent issue of the magazine. In that article, Ramesh noted that ever since the Gingrich debacle of 1995-6, conservatives have been trying to re-invent their party without any of that scary talk about smaller government. Quote: “Pat Buchanan tried to throw out the free traders to bring in socially conservative union members. George W. Bush offered a ‘compassionate’ (read: more statist) conservatism. John McCain and his fans had a ‘national greatness conservatism.’ Conservatism has rejected each ideological novelty like a body rejecting a transplant.”
As a result, the conservative movement has turned inwards, away from being the promoter of smaller government, towards being the promoter of traditional values. It has always been both, of course; only the components of the mix change. With the anti-statist cause apparently lost, American conservatives have little to occupy their time but Right to Life issues, squabbling over Middle East policy, and some cautious, half-hearted support for National Question issues. And the state keeps on growing.
Yet can the federal government really run the USA? It’s not obvious. Next to India, which I don’t think is a very happy model, we are the biggest—the most extensive, most populous—free nation in the world. Centralized government, of the kind that is being imposed on us, may not work. We don’t know. We have never tried it.
Certainly our federal government inspires little confidence. I have a sheaf of credit cards in my wallet, any one of which my local merchants can validate with a quick swipe. Why cannot a prospective employee’s social security card similarly be validated? Because private corporations are approximately 100,000 times better—more efficient, more capable—of doing anything than is the government.
In the 1990s I had a job which required me to make occasional phone calls to banks and investment houses, and also to the offices of federal regulatory agencies like the FDIC in Washington. To call a private company with a request, then to call a government agency, was to step through a horological time warp. A business would deal with me more or less well (sometimes less well, to be sure), usually in a single call. To get the equivalent response from a government agency needed a whole week of calls. If anyone picked up the phone at all, I would hear a slow, indifferent voice, irked at having its game of Solitaire interrupted, saying: “She ain’t here today… Oh, he left early…” Would my contact be in the office next day? “Hard to say… I guess…”
And can America cope without an active, occasionally successful, conservative movement?—a movement that is conservative in the William F. Buckley sense—distrustful of state power, committed to traditional values, patriotic and supportive of a strong national defense?
Let me tell you, it’s pretty lonely out here in conservative land. I live in the outer New York suburbs, and my neighbors are all liberal. The nearest conservative I know is two towns away. I get on all right with my neighbors, but they all know I do conservative journalism, and they think I’m a little bit nuts on that account. I think in their own minds it is connected somehow with my being English. It’s lonely. We conservatives are as lonely in our own way—though, of course, nothing like as harassed and persecuted—as Andrei Amalrik and his fellow dissidents back in the USSR.
* * * * *
Social failure. It’s ten years now since Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone documented the great decline in social bonding among Americans—our declining participation not only in bowling leagues, but in friendly societies, charitable outfits, church groups, PTAs, and so on.
Aside from the negative effects on our individual lives, this drawing in to our own private spheres has an effect on our bonding as a nation. The Shriners, the Ancient Order of Buffaloes, the daughters of the American Revolution, may have been slightly ludicrous, but they brought Americans from different regions, and to some extent different social classes, into contact with each other. Conscription, too, helped us bond as a single people. Yes, of course I am aware of the libertarian argument against conscription, though I think it’s pretty moot, as the world of today simply has no use for huge standing armies—more on that in a minute. When we had it, though, it brought us together as a people.
Our biggest social failures have been our accelerating separation by race and class. The races—and I am speaking here of the two races that inhabit the USA, the black and the nonblack—are very nearly as segregated now as they were under Jim Crow. Of course, nonblack Americans take pride and satisfaction in the few successful, well-educated, middle-class black people they know. At the same time, we have created residential patterns all over our country in which schooling, social life, and house prices are driven by a single major factor: the very strong desire of nonblacks that they not live among too many blacks—most especially, that their children not have to attend majority-black schools.
It’s hard not to feel that what we have mainly succeeded in doing this past forty years has been to brush our racial issues under the carpet, where we don’t have to think about them. We got a glimpse under that carpet a year and a half ago, at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Here, in a major American city, was a huge mass of poor people, almost entirely black, gleefully looting stores when they might have been helping themselves and their neighbors—clueless, under-socialized, waiting passively for the government to come and help them.
Those of us who cheered on the US Civil Rights movement from abroad supposed that, when unjust laws were removed, race would disappear. Well, for the able and talented, it did, at least as a functional determinant of your life course. An able African American can rise to any position in American society. In some ways he can do so more easily than a nonblack American. Those corners of our society where African Americans are in short supply are desperate to avoid the appearance of discrimination, and they strive mightily to correct the balance. I have written two books about math, and spent considerable time hanging out with mathematicians. Let me tell you: If you are a black American with a math Ph.D., the faculty recruiters of American universities will beat a path to your door.
And yet, we are in other ways more separate than ever. Black Americans and white Americans watch different TV programs and go to different movies. We obsess about different sports and give our children different names. This is a separating out, a loss of national cohesion. We are becoming two nations, barely speaking to each other.
And now, with the importation of millions of Amerindians and mestizos from south of our borders, the whole wretched process is repeating itself with Hispanics. At the entrance to my polling place, when I went to vote in the November elections, there were several notices pinned to the wall, but the only one that could be read from a distance, the one that jumped out, said LUGAR DE VOTACION.
As with race, so with class. David Gelernter wrote a fine essay for Commentary a few years back, titled "How the Intellectuals Took Over (And What to Do About It)." In that essay he noted that in pre-WW2 America, although there was in fact much inequality, there were many common allegiances that cut across social class. As he says of the upper classes: “They went to church, we went to church; they joined the army, we joined the army.” Neither thing is any longer true, and the knowledge-based technocrats of Microsoft, Silicon Valley, the law schools and research institutes, the media and Hollywood, do not go to church. Oh, they don’t join the army, either.
* * * * *
Economic failure. The economy, we are told, is doing just fine. Unemployment is down at four and a half percent. New home sales are strong, if not as strong as a year ago. Productivity is rising and inflation not really an issue, certainly not for those of us who remember the Carter years. Per capita consumption is up.
And yet… Median hourly wages have been well-nigh static for decades. Consumption is supported by borrowing—we have a negative savings rate. Income inequality is rising fast, and job volatility is up. (That means average length of employment—your prospects of having to switch jobs involuntarily.)
Michael Lind wrote a piece in Atlantic Monthly a year or two back about America’s ability to keep inventing new kinds of middle class. The first middle class (said Lind) consisted of the yeoman farmers of the early Republic, who looked down on what Jefferson called “greasy mechanicals.” Then those greasy mechanicals became the inventors, engineers and factory workers of the industrial boom, and a new middle class was born—people of the machine, who looked down on poor Bartleby the Scrivener scratching away at his ledger book in the counting-house. As industrial production automated and moved abroad, Bartleby in turn came into his own, and a third middle class of knowledge workers came up: the cube people of our own time, the ones now watching anxiously as their jobs drift off to Bangalore and Beijing.
The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about in Economics 101, like Ethan Frome, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the Cube People of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But... what? What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office,...? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps.
* * * * *
Cultural failure. When I was growing up in England in the 1950s and 1960s, American culture was utterly dominant. The movies; the pop songs; the comedians; the slang; all was American, or heavily American-influenced. The most dynamic branch of literature—I mean, of storytelling—in my youth was science fiction, which was pretty exclusively American. It fizzed with creativity. (And note that one of the most prolific generators of that creativity, Robert A. Heinlein, was born in 1907, so that we shall be celebrating his centenary this new year.)
Every kind of entertainment was basically American back then. Cliff Richard created a sensation when he showed up in 1957 Britain; yet we knew, in our hearts, that he was just a moon to Elvis Presley’s sun, just borrowing a little of that pale fire. America was the real thing.
Is that still true? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is. Worldwide, more people know Britney Spears and Brad Pitt than any Japanese or European stars you can name. What a falling-off there has been, though!
Do you ever feel, as I do, watching some old movie, or listening to the pop lyrics of the 1930s and 1940s, like a kid who’s wandered into a room where grown-ups are talking? And again, there is a loss of cohesion, here perhaps more than anywhere. Do you have any idea how many different styles of pop music there are? Just under the single heading “Heavy Metal” I find the following schools listed: Black Metal, Christian Metal, Death Metal, Doom Metal, Grindcore, Hair Metal, Hardcore, and Power Metal. The days when any two people walking along the street whistling were quite likely whistling the same tune—a show tune, probably, by Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hammerstein—are long gone. In fact, nobody whistles any more. You just can’t whistle Grindcore or Hip Hop.
* * * * *
Intellectual failure. A conservative—I had better say, paleoconservative—acquaintance of mine is fond of saying that the two body blows against the USA in the past half century were, first, the 1965 Immigration Act, which fired up the odious doctrine of multiculturalism, and second, the Griggs v. Duke Power decision of 1971.
The second of those is of course much less well known than the first. It essentially rules that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids employers giving aptitude tests to prospective hires. In other words, it forbids an employer from trying to find out how smart you are before hiring you.
The result is, that employers need a proxy for smarts. The obvious proxy is a college degree. Our colleges and universities have therefore become credentialing institutions, whose purpose is to stamp a person as suitable for middle-class employment. The actual content of college courses has degraded accordingly. What does content matter? An employer just wants to know how smart you are. You graduated from a decent college? Fine, you’re smart, you can start Monday. The fact that you accumulated your college credits from courses like Queer Approaches to Literature, or Women’s Studies, or anything beginning with “Representations of...,” is neither here nor there.
The consequences can be seen in our universities. Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons is a good introduction to current American university life. After I had read that book I went around saying that surely Tom had exaggerating a lot there. No, people assured me—including people actually working and studying at universities—no, that’s pretty much what it’s like.
And a side effect of that is, because there is so little actual thinking going on in our universities, you get an ideological uniformity. Three years ago I wrote a book about math, and my publisher sent me off around the country to address university audiences about it. A couple of times, someone in the student body went and looked me up on the internet and found out I was a conservative. At the University of Michigan, one of these guys printed off some of my columns and pinned them on the student notice board, trying to get my invitation canceled. Emails went out from the department head—I know, because I had a “mole” in the university—telling students and faculty that, basically, although I was a nutty crypto-fascist hyena, the university’s tradition of hospitality and open-mindedness could just about be stretched to include me, and people shouldn’t try to shout me down.
This kind of thing is routine. We saw it a few weeks ago at Columbia University, when the leader of a group agitating for enforcement of our country’s immigration laws was howled down and pushed off stage by gangs of leftist stormtroopers. The guy wants the people’s laws enforced, that’s all; but such a person may not speak at an American university. It is unlikely that any of those who assaulted him will receive any punishment harsher than a symbolic wrist-slap.
This ideological blight goes all the way down the educational system. A 1987 study of high school students, quoted in Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We–a book that is indispensable in this context—found that more knew who Harriet Tubman was than knew that Washington commanded the American army in the Revolution or that Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.
Again, there is a separation, a fragmentation here. As Huntington says:
Before the Civil War… American history was primarily the histories of individual states and localities. National history emerged after that war and for a hundred years was central to defining American identity. Then in the late twentieth century, the histories of subnational racial and cultural groups rose to a new prominence comparable to that of pre-1860 state and local histories, and national history was downgraded. If, however, a nation is a remembered as well as an imagined community, people who are losing that memory are becoming something less than a nation.
Perhaps we can glimpse there the trajectory of American history from the beginning of this nation to its end. First, for ninety years, we were a loose federation of states or regions, with an occasional awareness of being under a single Constitution. Then, for a hundred years, we were a modern-style nation, a true Union, under firm, though not overly intrusive, central control. Then, for a further few decades—less than six, if my 2022 target is accurate—we suffered a sort of paradoxical phase where we were encouraged to think of ourselves not as a nation, but as a collection of group identities, each wandering off in a different cultural direction, with its own heroes, history, churches, movies, TV programs, and music—the paradox being that central government control and expenditure was swelling mightily all the time.
* * * * *
Demographic failure. If you have read Mark Steyn’s new book, you will know that the USA is almost alone among Western nations in having a birth rate close to replacement level—that is, American women have an average 2.09 children in their lifetimes, not quite enough to keep the population stable (excluding immigration, of course), but higher than the number in almost any other advanced nation--Israel being the notable exception. There are some figures within those figures; differences between blue states, which have lower rates, and red states, which have high ones. Nothing much surprising there. I imagine if I were to tell you that women in Salt Lake City are more fertile than those of, say, San Francisco, you wouldn’t fall off your chair.
There are racial differences, too with white American women running an overall rate of about 1.85, black and Hispanic women at higher levels.
Now, birth rates are dropping all over the world, even in places like Mexico and Palestine. Iran, for instance, is running well below replacement level, to the degree that the mullahs have launched some natalist programs—government programs, that is, to encourage childbearing. The problem with demographics, as Mark points out, is that it’s a game of last man standing. A low birth rate takes a while to actually work through to low population numbers. Japan in 2005, for the first time ever, had fewer citizens than it had the year before; but they have been below replacement level for 40 years.
The USA—and, to a much worse degree, Western Europe and Japan—have low birth rates, below replacement level. Poorer countries in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East also have dropping birth rates; but their birth rates have only just started to drop, while ours have been falling for decades. So we are, or soon shall be, running out of people; they have people to spare.
The easy and obvious answer, if we want to keep our populations stable, is to let people from those poorer, more philoprogenitive countries, come and live in ours. Hence the mass immigration that has been a feature of the advanced world—except for Japan—this past few decades. The trouble is, these policies are premised on the Multicultural Theorem; i.e. that masses of people of different races, from different places, practicing different folkways and religions, carrying various kinds of intercultural and interracial grievances, can live together in one country in reasonable harmony. Unfortunately no-one has bothered to prove the Multicultural Theorem; and the evidence is mounting that it may actually turn out to be false.
In the special case of the USA there is the issue of a large Third World country sharing a long border with us; and a US upper-middle class that would much rather have cheerful small brown people mowing its lawns and watching its kids, than large surly black people, even though the black people are our fellow citizens, with American ancestry going back, in many cases, further than ours; while the brown people are foreigners.
Nobody, until very recently, was willing to think through the long-term social consequences of multiculturalism. When I started doing office work in London in the late 1960s, every company and government office had a cadre of bookkeepers from India and Pakistan. They, too, were small, brown, and very polite—a pleasure to have around. The main problem we had with them was in fact their habit of opening their business letters with: “Esteemed Sir,” and closing with: “I beg to remain, Sir, your most humble, most obedient servant….” That generation is all retired now. The second and third generations are quite a different story. Many are successful entrepreneurs or professionals; many have joined the slum underclasses; some are jihadists.
* * * * *
Military failure. It seems odd to speak of military failure when we have the most potent, best equipped, most lavishly funded military in the world. If you got to the CIA factbook on the web and look at the list of military expenditures by nation, the USA is way out in front with $518 billion. Number two is China at 81.5. You have to work your way down from number 2 to number 44 on the list before you get a total that exceeds the US figure. (Though oddly, Russia is omitted from the CIA list. Government work quality again…)
And look at the smashing success of the 2003 assault against Iraq. We went through their armed forces like a knife through butter. This was a brilliant feat of military organization and execution.
Unfortunately... well, you know what follows the “unfortunately.” The wars of the present age are not much like Operation Iraqi Freedom, not much a matter of tank battles and dogfights. In all the places it’s likely to matter over the next couple of decades, we face asymmetrical warfare, against low-tech weapons operated by very highly motivated young men, from big demographic pools, who don’t at all mind dying for their cause.
When IEDs first showed up in Iraq, the insurgents were detonating them with cell phones and garage-door openers. We countered that by jamming the signals of these devices. The insurgents then countered that by switching to detonators pulled by wire or string. So not only are they answering our hi tech with low tech, but when our high tech shows itself capable of coping with their low tech, they go lower tech! And it works!
At the other end of the technological spectrum, we face nuclear proliferation. This was pretty much inevitable, in my opinion. Any technology gets easier and cheaper as time goes by, and there was never any reason to suppose that nuclear weapon technology would be an exception. Yet what a terrifying prospect we face. Go to Wikipedia and look up “Tsar Bomba,” the Tsar Bomb. That was the American designation—not, of course, the Soviet one—for the most powerful thermonuclear bomb ever exploded, by the USSR in 1961. It had a yield of about 50 megatons—nearly four thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It had taken the USSR just fourteen years to get from their first nuke to the Tsar Bomba. And this was with 1950s technology.
I am told that with microminiaturization of the electronics, and advanced techniques for enhancing yield, you could get something close to the Tsar Bomba into a reasonable-sized piece of equipment—a large domestic refrigerator, for example. Imagine the scene, ten or twelve years from now: You are walking down a street in central Washington DC, and you see some porters wheeling a big refrigerator into an office building. Congress and the Supreme Court are in session.
(I had better tell you that when that particular scenario is discussed among conservatives, the mood is not always as somber as it really should be.)
* * * * *
Spiritual failure. In his book After the Victorians, the British writer A.N. Wilson notes that the most astonishing thing about the mid-20th century, as seen by a time traveler from the early 19th, would have been the survival of religion. When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, most educated Englishmen thought religion was done for. There wasn’t much of it about, anyway. The Whig landed gentry who mainly ran England were almost completely irreligious. Down at the other end of society, Mayhew noted that among the London poor, the gospel of Christ was, quote, “as unknown as it is in Tibet.”
Now here we are a century and a half later, and I read in my Daily Telegraph that a new religious think tank, Theos, has been established in London, with lavish funding. America’s story has been somewhat different, with great regional variation, but the same basic trajectory—downward, then upward—has been followed. Worldwide we see the same thing. Orthodox Mother Russia gave way to Lenin’s despotism, in which the churches and cathedrals were turned into Temples of Atheism, or warehouses. Ninety years later, the churches are full again. Over in China, the best organized and most formidable opponent of the communist dictatorship is the Buddhist-inspired Falun Gong sect.
What happened? Well, it turned out that postindustrial man was not quite as able to cope without organized religion as the progressives of 1840 had hoped. Spiritual yearning seems to be a stock feature of human nature, though stronger in some than in others, and altogether absent in a few—very much like other aspects of human nature: musical ability, math talent, or athleticism.
There has, however, here as in other spheres, been a separating-out by class and IQ. It is this sorting, this separating-out, that is important for the future of our country. You read a lot about American exceptionalism in the matter of religion. Well, yes; but let me tell you, as a foreigner who came to this country as an adult and saw it with foreign eyes, there are two very striking things about religion in America. One is the number of intensely religious people; the other is the number of intensely, angrily irreligious people. American religiosity has generated its Hegelian opposite: a huge corps of fierce God-haters.
There was always some of that, of course. Mark Twain, born in 1835, was irreligious, but he was polite and careful about it, at least in public. H.L. Mencken, born 45 years later, was louder and ruder about his atheism, but he was still an oddity in the America of the 1920s. Now we have an entire class, wealthy and influential, who are Godless and proud of it, and are angry and contemptuous of believers. The old dispensation, in which most unbelievers maintained a polite respect for the believing majority, was a kind of unity. Now we are snarling at each other across a gulf of spiritual disjunction.
I sometimes think, too, that American Christianity has developed problems of its own that are net negatives for our national cohesion. The yielding, self-abnegating, feminine side of the faith has been more to the fore in recent years. The present immigration catastrophe, is being cheered on, and to some degree actually funded, by all the mainstream Christian churches.
And look at this story from WorldNetDaily, about an auto accident in which three members of a family of six were killed by a drunk Mexican illegal immigrant. The father of the family, who survived the accident, had this to say:
Gary Ceran has said he is leaning on his faith to deal with this tragedy and to extend forgiveness to Prieto [i.e. the Mexican]. “He has to endure all the pain that I have to endure, plus knowing that he was the cause of it,” says Ceran. “I have hundreds of people coming to visit and thousands of people praying for me. But who's praying for him?”
The family are Mormons, but this sniveling, groveling, all-forgiving attitude towards evil-doers is very Christian. It has always been present to some degree in our majority national religion—it is endorsed in the New Testament, after all!—but it seems to be more and more prominent. The older, more robust American tradition—hang him first, pray for him later—seems to be slipping away. It’s enough to drive one to Nietzsche.
* * * * *
And so on. Now of course any nation, at any point in time, displays some negative indicators. I don’t think I am alone in believing, though, that our own beloved nation, at this particular point in its history, is displaying far too many. There are too many fault lines, and the cracks are widening.
We are separating out, drifting apart from each other, withdrawing into gated communities, both literal and metaphorical. Some of this is the logical end-point of our long march to pure meritocracy, the downside of which, as Michael Young pointed out half a century ago, is a ruling class freed from guilt—secure in the conviction that they deserve to rule. Some of it arises from the dashed hopes of the Civil Rights movement, the hopes that race would disappear as a significant social marker in our society. Some, like the threat of nuclear terrorism, or the demographic cratering, is just a consequence of technological advance.
Much of the damage, however, has been willfully self-inflicted. We did not have to swallow the multiculturalist suicide pill; we did not have to open our borders to the Third World flood; we did not have to delegitimize patriotism and abandon the assimilationist model of immigration.
Why did we do those foolish things? From overconfidence, I think. It has been said that a nation can survive anything but success. Success is the one true lethal disaster. The USA is a sensationally successful nation. We are also, it is not trivial to note, a very remote nation, far from anywhere else. An actual military invasion and occupation of the USA would be a very bold undertaking indeed, and I don’t think it is something we need to worry about. Our success, and our remoteness, have together made us very complacent. We can try any kind of social experiment! Nobody can harm us!
Not so. As Sanuel Huntington says in the aforementioned book: “A nation is a fragile thing.” And as he further says:
The [American philosophical-Constitutional] Creed is unlikely to retain its salience if Americans abandon the Anglo-Protestant culture in which it has been rooted. A multicultural America will, in time, become a multicreedal America, with groups with different cultures espousing distinctive political values and principles rooted in their particular cultures.
In time. In how much time? I do not think that fifteen years is an overly pessimistic estimate.
A nation that does not have the tribal bonding you get with a common culture—a nation that has actually, officially discarded the idea of a common culture as “exclusionary”—is more fragile than most. What happened to the USSR could happen to us, perhaps is happening already by slow degrees. We conservatives, who stand in dissident opposition to the reigning dogmas of liberalism and multiculturalism, as much braver souls like Andrei Amalrik stood in dissident opposition to the Marxist-Leninist dogmas of the USSR—we need to keep speaking these simple truths out loud.
To comment on this article click here.
If you enjoyed this article and want to read more by John Derbyshire, click here.
John Derbyshire is a regular contributor to our community blog, The Iconoclast. To view all his blog entries, click here