A fascinating article by James Fallows in the Atlantic that explores our concern about decline, and what can be done about it.
The idea of “finally” going to hell is a modest joke too. Through the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination, or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik through whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind. Pick a year over the past half century, and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse. The first oil shocks and gas-station lines in peacetime history; the first presidential resignation ever; assassinations and riots; failing schools; failing industries; polarized politics; vulgarized culture; polluted air and water; divisive and inconclusive wars. It all seemed so terrible, during a period defined in retrospect as a time of unquestioned American strength. “Through the 1970s, people seemed ready to conclude that the world was coming to an end at the drop of a hat,” Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland, told me. “Thomas Jefferson was probably sure the country was going to hell when John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts,” said Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate. “And Adams was sure it was going to hell when Thomas Jefferson was elected president.”
When I was a schoolboy in California in the 1950s and ’60s, the freeways were new and big and smooth—like the new roads being built all across China. Today’s California freeways are cracked and crowded and old. A Chinese student I knew in Shanghai who has recently entered graduate school at UC Berkeley sent me a note saying that the famous San Francisco Bay Area seemed “beautiful, but run down.” I remember a similar reaction on arriving at graduate school in England in the 1970s and seeing the sad physical remnants—dimly lit museums, once-stately homes, public buildings overdue for repair—from a time when the society had bigger dreams and more resources than it could muster in the here and now. A Chinese friend who flew for the first time from Beijing to New York phoned soon after landing to complain about the potholed, traffic-jammed taxi ride from JFK to Manhattan. “When I was growing up, these bridges and roads and dams were a source of real national pride and achievement,” Stephen Flynn, the president of the Center for National Policy in Washington, who was born in 1960, told me. “My daughter was 6 when the World Trade Center towers went down, 8 when lights went off on the East Coast, 10 when a major U.S. city drowned—I saw things built, and she’s seen them fall apart.” America is supposed to be the permanent country of the New, but a lot of it just looks old.
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