I was cheered up the other day when UPS delivered my Grundig G3 Globe Traveler. I don't know why I had procrastinated so long, but I finally had a short-wave radio which allowed me to listen, as I did last night by my bedside, to international broadcasts. Being limited in means, I have to travel the world anyway I can. Anything which gets me away from Abysmal America can not be entirely bad, even the The Beijing Hour. Such is my desperation.
I am now a stranger in my native land. Although I often describe America's (now precipitous) decline on DOTE, and perhaps many of you think I've done a creditable job, I am constantly frustrated by my inability to convey to you just how far gone this country is. On any given day, if I chose to do so, I could pick 3 or 4 stories out of the welter of manure and confusion I find at websites like Business Insider and write them up using my trademark sarcasm, which (hopefully) amounts to a clever way of conveying one simple message—look at this! Can you fucking believe this appalling shit?
But doing that would never be enough to actually get across to you the stench of our degraded society. Our decline goes far beyond the "people are stupid" mantra. Certainly people are stupid in the general case, but other cultures often demonstrate that they are also able to treat each other with dignity and respect. Not here in America, though. Sodom and Gomorrah had nothing on this country. Sometimes I think we've entered uncharted territority. I think we're setting new human lows in this country, but that's not true of course, as even a casual glance at history will tell you. It feels that bad because I'm immersed in it everyday.
Among the books nobody reads we find three volumes about America's decline by Morris Berman—The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Dark Ages America (2006), and Why America Failed (2011). I found a review of them called How Bad Is It? by George Scialabba. Surely Berman must share my frustration about conveying just how far gone we are, for he has required three separate books to describe it, and the last one uses the past tense—failed. Sciabba's review introduces the subject like this—
Pretty bad. Here is a sample of factlets from surveys and studies conducted in the past twenty years. Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.
Among high-school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War. Sixty percent could not say how the United States came into existence. Fifty percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred. Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government. Sixty percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper.
Intellectual distinction isn’t everything, it’s true. But things are amiss in other areas as well: sociability and trust, for example. “During the last third of the twentieth century,” according to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “all forms of social capital fell off precipitously.” Tens of thousands of community groups – church social and charitable groups, union halls, civic clubs, bridge clubs, and yes, bowling leagues — disappeared; by Putnam’s estimate, one-third of our social infrastructure vanished in these years. Frequency of having friends to dinner dropped by 45 percent; card parties declined 50 percent; Americans’ declared readiness to make new friends declined by 30 percent. Belief that most other people could be trusted dropped from 77 percent to 37 percent. Over a five-year period in the 1990s, reported incidents of aggressive driving rose by 50 percent — admittedly an odd, but probably not an insignificant, indicator of declining social capital.
Still, even if American education is spotty and the social fabric is fraying, the fact that the U.S. is the world’s richest nation must surely make a great difference to our quality of life? Alas, no. As every literate person knows, economic inequality in the United States is off the charts – at third-world levels. The results were recently summarized by James Speth in Orion magazine. Of the 20 advanced democracies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. has the highest poverty rate, for both adults and children; the lowest rate of social mobility; the lowest score on UN indexes of child welfare and gender inequality; the highest ratio of health care expenditure to GDP, combined with the lowest life expectancy and the highest rates of infant mortality, mental illness, obesity, inability to afford health care, and personal bankruptcy resulting from medical expenses; the highest homicide rate; and the highest incarceration rate. Nor are the baneful effects of America’s social and economic order confined within our borders; among OECD nations the U.S. also has the highest carbon dioxide emissions, the highest per capita water consumption, the next-to-largest ecological footprint, the next-to-lowest score on the Yale Environmental Performance Index, the highest (by a colossal margin) per capita rate of military spending and arms sales, and the next-to-lowest rate of per capita spending on international development and humanitarian assistance.
Contemplating these dreary statistics, one might well conclude that the United States is — to a distressing extent — a nation of violent, intolerant, ignorant, superstitious, passive, shallow, boorish, selfish, unhealthy, unhappy people, addicted to flickering screens, incurious about other societies and cultures, unwilling or unable to assert or even comprehend their nominal political sovereignty. Or, more simply, that America is a failure.
Scialabba gleans most of this information from Berman's books, which he then goes on to describe. Despite this depressing litany of astonishing facts, I don't think such descriptions actually capture America's descent, our manifest failure as a decent society. To fully understand that failure you need to live it, and you need to be able to see just how atrocious things are as you do so. For those with some awareness, simply turning on the TV is usually enough to convey just how bad things are. But for all the others who are unknowingly immersed in this enormous pile of manure, this giant game of Survivor, there is no awareness of just how bad things have become. They are too busy playing the game, and you don't hear much about the ever-growing multitude of losers anymore. They are effectively invisible.
Intelligence and highly developed analytical abilities are no guarantee that a person will be able to accurately perceive just how far down the Road To Hell this country has traveled. As with so many things, it is a matter of achieving some consciousness. Among those who are unconscious, which is just about everybody, there is no sense of what is and has been happening. For example, look at this income inequality graph.
What do these deplorable income trends actually signify? People with some awareness will understand the economic horror behind these trends. Those with no awareness will see nothing, or nothing serious, or worse, they will see a successful society in which winners are rewarded, especially if they are one of the "winners".
I could publish such graphs and explain at length what they mean until I'm blue in the face, but without the requisite awareness, my strenuous efforts will have no good effect. There's nothing to be done about this consciousness problem. You either get it or you don't. If you're trying to get it, you've already won half the battle, but few Americans are trying to figure out what's happened to them.
Let's return to our original questions about America: How far gone are we? How bad it it?
It is very, very bad. We are far, far gone. We Americans are adrift in the middle of a vast boundless sea, and can not even remember the last time we saw the shore. You will either see the truth of this or you won't, as I've just described. But unfortunately for me or Morris Berman or anybody else trying to convey America's sorry state, there's nothing we can do about this "normal perception" problem. Thus writing it up everyday doesn't quite do the trick, and never will. All we can do is beat our heads against an impenetrable, unyielding wall. Eventually this society will fall apart, as it must, and afterwards, if we live long enough, we can say I told you so amidst the chaos.
I can tell you now just how unsatisfying that would be.