Why are U.S. media and elites so quick to quiet criticism of how the United States conducts itself?
Whenever an author criticizes the United States these days, an American-inspired thought police quickly raises the charge that this person is a “declinist.” That charge is leveled to signal that either someone does not wish the country well or, worse, believes the United States of America is destined for doom.
It only gets worse if in the same breath or train of thought, one raises the case of other nations (say, in Europe or, God forbid, China). To suggest that these countries — or any country for that matter — might provide a positive example for the United States on a specific matter usually leads to all hell breaking loose.
To be sure, reflexive as it is the declinism charge attests to a certain thin-skinnedness of Americans today. It is especially rife among the country’s elites, for an understandable reason.
On a personal level, they are doing most splendidly. It is only natural for them to resist having that moment of personal glory and boundless material satisfaction perturbed by any niggardly naysayers.
As someone who receives his fair share of the declinist charge, I have obviously given quite a bit of thought to the issue — but not as a matter of self-defense.
In seeking to understand what’s going on in the world’s most powerful nation, look back a bit in history. I am immediately reminded of European attitudes during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Lèse majesté thinking in the 21st century
At that time those critics of the presumably natural order were often charged with committing the heinous act of lèse majesté — insulting her majesty, the King or Queen. That was a criminally punishable offense (as it still is in some countries around the world).
Thankfully, no such crime is on the books in the United States — even though this country, despite its decidedly anti-royalist foundational moment, does have its regal traditions. Witness the pomp and circumstance whenever a President of the United States makes any appearance at home.
At the core, what the critics of the critics of America still overlook is that much of that criticism is (a) well-founded and, more importantly, (b) well-intended.
Holding U.S. to a higher standard
Just take my own case. I continue to live in the United States. More and more of my European friends who know of my criticisms and the U.S. well, ask me how I can continue to live here. They wonder whether most Americans do not consider me a complete outcast by now. Or they ask me how I can tolerate living in a place where so much is out of whack.
Indeed: How can I do that, and why? Because I am a strong believer in America’s potential. Perhaps perversely, or illogically, I feel a constant temptation to look at the United States by what could be, if done right — and not by what is.
That is why consider myself an American constructivist. What do I mean by that?
Many of the founding principles of the country remain very attractive today. Unfortunately, in real life, most of the promise that America has always held and still holds accrues to a happy few nowadays who tend to make out like bandits.
That is neither democratic nor is it republican. It is a feudalist attitude, which is mercilessly advanced by the Republican Party and shamefully condoned by the Democratic Party.
The real declinists
From where I stand, those who bat down any criticism of the United States are the ultimate declinists.
They no longer believe that America can become a better place. Or, more accurately, they don’t see the need for that since they are personally doing swimmingly. They have an acute sense that any of the things that urgently need doing would help the population at large, but not the narrow interests of the elites. To them, that’s a net negative.
After all, almost anything that needs to be done to fulfill the U.S.’s potential will cost some money, and will likely be a net subtraction from the splendid glory in which the rich and famous currently live.
Newport, Rhode Island, the place where the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Rockefellers and other robber barons congregated in the 1890s, is no longer a singular place. It has become a national phenomenon.
Does that constitute progress? Or is that development truly bizarre for a country that has always prided itself, from its moment of conception, as a beacon of democracy — “of the people, for the people, by the people,” in Lincoln’s inimitable words?
Can the U.S. still remake itself?
If anything, I have not lost my faith in the ability of the United States to remake itself, to live up to the noble words of the Declaration of Independence and to establish a true democracy.
Given America’s inherent promise and fortuitous factor endowment, “the pursuit of happiness” must be more than remote, if not empty words.
Let’s look at this from a practical perspective. For a nation that is at the very bottom of the table in terms of vacation time, those words just smack of clever propaganda, if they aren’t a statement of profound self-delusion.
Most critics of the United States today attest to something that is very different from the declinism charge that is so liberally and systematically leveled at them. They profess their profound disappointment about how much the United States undershoots its own potential.
Their ambition is to change that. They believe that reimagining a nation begins with understanding what goes wrong with open eyes, not eyes wide shut.
That is why I, for one, call myself an American constructivist and insist on not being labeled a declinist.