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First Decline, Then Fall

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All of us historians have been saying for years, actually decades going back to the last years of the Vietnam War, that the United States appears to be in a perilous decline. It is a more than a little difficult to gauge these sort of things, given that there are plenty of optimists around, even in economic crises like the one we are in. If you were to watch or read the news online or television you would have heard the optimists crowing about the decline in the rate of decline of the economy recently. Some even called it an end to the free fall. Some even got out there with advice to get back in there and buy stocks. They are obviously trying to make a buck. Tuesday evening out here in my part of the country the ABC News people put on a show about the prospects for the year 2100. I watched most of it, losing a few moments in the middle to an unexpected telephone call. If you saw it you probably got the same drift that I did, namely, that the most likely prospects for our country, civilization, and planet are not good. In fact, one of the talking heads used the words "end of the world as we know it." This was Disney Corp, remember. Their usual take on things like global warming and human nature is optimistic, if not outright Polyanna-ish. Not last night. We saw the demise of NYC and got the impression that floods and plagues are just the precursor events to what amounts to a total downfall of western and eastern civilization. I have to admit, I was impressed. Of course the program tried to establish an alternative scenario in the fnally minutes in which human nature magically changed and in which China, India, and the U.S. agreed with the E.U. on what to do about climate change and, most importantly, in the near future. That is, Disney/ABC chose to believe that it is possible that human beings, like those currently in government, acting politically will seek an altruistic future for us, despite all of history and imagination pointing the other way. I don't know whether you monitor things like this or not, but the dollar sunk last week to its lowest value in a quarter century against other major currencies. Gold is nearly $1,000 an ounce. The world's seventh largest economy, California, is so broke, so politically exhausted, that it will be crawling to the federal government for a bailout, AS IF there were anyone on the planet who believes that California can change its Prop 13 stripes into spots. If you smoke mushrooms you tend to see what you want to see and exclude the relevant facts. The facts are that Americans just have not had the political will to correct their own self-destructive behaviors. One of the "for instance" items along these lines is drawn from an article in the NYTimes a couple days ago. The article is about the banks already mobilizing to avoid new regulations. If you missed this, you should stop and read it, for it is plain, undeniable evidence that banks at least are short-term thinkers (when they think at all). But, short-term thinking is what Congress does pretty expertly as well. Getting and staying elected is the task, all else is mere problem juggling. The things on our plate right now that are not short-term problems or situations are: Pakistan/Afghanistan and the threat of nuclear terrorism under the guidance of a metastisizing Taliban, with al Qaeda slinking around the madrasas as well, recruiting new generations of radicals with no stake whatsoever in the modern world. We have a global ruling clique of bankers and investment types who will not give up their power to anyone. We have a world economy laid waste by these bankers and investors. We have health care issues, not excluding the increasing probability of pandemics and plagues, issues that are at the heart of population problems, immigration problems, productivity problems, and moral issues. And we have the ever increasing prospect of global climate change with the attendant dislocations cause by rising sea-levels dislocating 60% of the world's peoples, disease, unfathomable poverty and all the rest. What do we have to meet this plate of horrors with? The United States Congress, the senior body of which, voted overwhelming last week against funding the closing of Guantanamo Detention Facility because of the fact that most of the detainees (many of them acknowledged terrorists) would be housed in maximum security prisons within the United States. Their excuse was that Obama and his people had not laid it out for them. In other words, they saw a chip on the table and found a way to politicize it. These are the people, including those like Senator Feinstein who spoke for the funding and then unaccountably voted against it, who will be making decisions about war and peace, climate change, health care, immigration, and an economy that is equitable for all. I see no reason to be optimistic about any of it. And that is where essays of this kind usually end. Perhaps some writers would acknowledge the fear factor straightforwardly and advise all sane people to move north and to higher ground, to places where they can defend themselves against marauding hordes of displaced and grievously sick people, to places where subsistence farming is possible, if not actually likely. This essay, however, cannot end here. There is much too much at stake to just wrap it up in its ugly truth and split. There has to be a way short of catastrophe to turn our civilization around. To me it boils down to the nature of representative government. Either we wait until the central government is brought to its knees by unfolding events that it failed to address in a timely and effective way or we teach government how to act for us. My Representative, Gabrielle Giffords, is a bright, earnest, politically savvy, light blue dog Democrat with a reasonably good voting record. My two Senators are the very epitome of intransigent conservative ignoramus Republicanism—McCain and Kyl. My state is not quite broke, but soon enough will be, and the governor suddenly is no longer a Democrat, but is a staunch Republican elevated as the former governor took a cabinet post with the Obama administration. My county is Republican and unlikely to change politically before the century is done, being composed of modern-day agricultural braceros, modestly wealthy retirees from the mid-west, and out-of-work unimaginably uneducated miners. The main industry of the county seat (some 60 miles north) is one of several state prisons. I am painting a truly ugly picture so you can see how much better off politically you are and how you can see your way clear to writing and emailing your representatives in Congress. Really the point is not just to write once about one issue, pat yourself on the back, and then go on being pessimistic and depressed. The point is to make a habit of it. Call on the telephone and speak to the person who takes constituent calls. When you call be sure to let them know you will be calling again. Have the word 'DISAGREE' in your vocabulary, and when you do, tell them why. The point also is to tell your friends what you are doing. Ask them to write and call and to do it frequently. JB
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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese History, (more...)

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