Maybe, Just Maybe, America's Best Days Aren't Over

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I've been feeling pretty lousy about it. Like Rick Perlstein, I have felt pretty Eeyore-ish about the United States for about a decade. Osama won, I wrote last spring, with a jujitsu move that had the U.S. overreacting and morally bankrupting ourselves.

But, instead, should I feel fine? This weekend, two chance encounters opened a window onto my gloom. One was Adam Gopnik's excellent book essay in this week's edition of The New Yorker. He provides an overview of the "decline and fall of civilization" genre of nonfiction, using several new books as a kick-off point. Somehow, reading this persuaded me that perhaps the U.S. isn't on the inexorable road to collapse. Please read it, if only for his takedown of Tom Friedman or his explanation that:

Americans are perfectly willing to sacrifice their comforts for their ideological convictions. We don't have a better infrastructure or decent elementary education exactly because many people are willing to sacrifice faster movement between our cities, or better-informed children, in support of their belief that government should always be giving as little money as possible. ... People who don't want high-speed rail are not just indifferent to high fast trains. They are offended by fast trains ... they would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals.

But for me, what matter most was the reminder that the decline of an empire is not the end of the world for the country that once ruled:

What's worth saving about "the West" is the moral achievements that have flowed from it. The emancipation of women and their integration on equal terms in education, the granting of civil rights to homosexuals, the removal, at least formally, of racial discrimination. ... There's no pattern in history to compare us to, because nothing like us ever happened before.

Here's the other thing that cheered me up this weekend, despite all the 9/11 memorial gloom and the distressing sense that the powerful men in charge of the country learned nothing from the past ten years of pointless and destructive war. At a Radcliffe symposium on the past, present, and future of women at work, a Duke history professor, Nancy MacLean, in the course of giving a not-very-encouraging assessment of the contemporary Republican Party, happened to drop this thought: Yes, these are very dark times. But the U.S. has faced dark times in the past. You never know what event or social movement is, even now, taking shape that will change things for the better.

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