America’s Civilizational Paralysis

by Victor Davis Hanson // Defining Idea

Image credit:Barbara Kelley

The Greek city-states in the fourth-century BC, fifth-century AD Rome, and the Western European democracies after World War I all knew they could not continue as usual with their fiscal, social, political, and economic behavior. But all these states and societies feared far more the self-imposed sacrifices that might have saved them.

Mid-fifteenth-century Byzantium was facing endemic corruption, a radically declining birthrate and shrinking population, and the end of civic militarism—all the last-gasp symptoms of an irreversible decline. Its affluent ruling and religious orders and expansive government services could no longer be supported by disappearing agrarians and the overtaxed mercantile middle class. Returning to the values of the Emperor Justinian’s sixth-century empire that had once ensured a vibrant Byzantine culture of stability and prosperity throughout the old Roman east remained a nostalgic daydream. Given the hardship and sacrifice that would have been required to change the late Byzantine mindset, most residents of Constantinople plodded on to their rendezvous with oblivion in 1453.

We seem to be reaching that point of stasis in postmodern America. Once simple and logical solutions to our fiscal and social problems are now seen as too radical even to discuss. Consider the $20-trillion national debt. Most Americans accept that current annual $500 billion budget deficits are not sustainable—but they also see them as less extreme than the recently more normal $1 trillion in annual red ink. Americans also accept that the Obama administration doubled the national debt on the expectation of permanent near-zero interest rates, which cannot continue. When interest rates return to more normal historical levels of 4-5% per annum, the costs of servicing the debt—along with unsustainable Social Security and Medicare entitlement costs—will begin to undermine the entire budget.

Count up current local, state and federal income taxes, payroll taxes, property and sales taxes, and new health care taxes, and it will be hard to find the necessary additional revenue from a strapped and overtaxed middle class, much less from the forty-seven percent of Americans who currently pay no federal income taxes. The Obama administration has tried to reduce the budget by issuing defense cuts and tax hikes—but it has refused to touch entitlement spending, where the real gains could be made. The result is more debt, even as, paradoxically, our military was weakened, taxes rose, revenue increased, and economic growth remained anemic at well below 2% per annum.

Illegal immigration poses a similar dilemma. No nation can remain stable when 10-20 million foreign nationals have crashed through what has become an open border and reside unlawfully in the United States—any more than a homeowner can have neighbors traipsing through and camping in his unfenced yard.

Likewise, there are few multiracial societies of the past that have avoided descending into destructive ethnic chauvinism and tribalism once assimilation and integration were replaced by salad-bowl identity politics. Common words and phrases such as “illegal alien” or “deportation” are now considered taboo, while “sanctuary city” is a euphemism for a neo-Confederate nullification of federal immigration laws by renegade states and municipalities.

Illegal immigration, like the deficits, must cease, but stopping it would be too politically incorrect and painful even to ponder. The mess in Europe—millions of indigent and illegal immigrants who have fled their own failed states to become dependent on the largess of their generous adopted countries, but without any desire to embrace their hosts’ culture—is apparently America’s future.

Race relations pose comparable paradoxes. Inner-city Chicago has turned into a war zone with over 500 murders so far this year alone. As tragic as occasional police shootings are of African-American suspects, they do not occur at an incidence higher than the percentage of African-Americans who come into contact with law enforcement or who commit violent crimes. Yet when an African-American officer, in a department overseen by an African-American police chief, shoots an uncompliant but armed African-American suspect, a full-scale urban riot ensues, well beyond the ability of police to control.

No one would object that Americans need to be engaged in helping the inner-city poor—nor would anyone deny the moral importance of evaluating others by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin. But Americans also accept society’s obligations to maintain law and order in communities racked by gang violence. The African-American community must, in the fashion of other ethnic communities in the United States, change its cultural norms around masculinity. It should define maleness in terms of a two-parent household and a father’s daily guidance and support of his own children. In a larger sense, the misogynist, anti-police, violent, and often racist lyrics of rap music should be as ostracized as Jim Crow-era stereotypes of blacks eventually were.

The cures for the maladies of the inner city are civic reengagement, honest talk, economic entrepreneurship, self-help, and self-reliance in the black community. Liberal elites who avoid the inner city and send their children to mostly white and Asian prep schools fear honest talk as intensely as they mouth off about racism. But because we do not wish to talk honestly about the absence of parity in racial relations, and the causes for it, we plod on ahead, struggling with a slow wasting away malady rather than the chemotherapy of tough and honest solutions.

Donald Trump, in supposedly reckless fashion, questioned the present status of the seven-decade-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the cornerstone of Western collective security that deterred 500 divisions of the Soviet Red Army from overrunning Europe west of the Elbe River. Trump blasted away at our European Union allies in NATO, the vast majority of which do not contribute their fair share to the alliance. Most forget that the sole obstacle to an outlaw world led by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Iran, ISIS, China, and North Korea is the deterrent ability of the United States.

Few openly doubt NATO’s pretenses that it is willing and able to deter Vladimir Putin from swallowing the Ukraine or the Baltic states. But, on the other hand, no one wants to sit down with the Europeans and demand that they help turn the somnolent alliance into a real league for the collective defense of Western democracies. As a result, we fear the remedy more than the malady, and do nothing, in expectation that some miracle—or simple ennui—will convince our enemies that NATO is not a Potemkin Alliance.

The same lose/lose dilemmas plague current foreign policy. Under the Obama administration, the old postwar order led by the security guarantees of the United States abruptly ended—the vacuum filled by ascendant regional (and often nuclear) hegemons. Russia is expanding control, or at least influence, over the old Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. China carves out a new version of the old Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere at the expense of the democracies in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia. Iran is on the path to be the nuclear adjudicator of the Persian Gulf’s oil depot. Radical Islamic terrorism has made the Middle East a wasteland.

America’s “lead from behind” abdication is variously explained by financial weakness, anti-imperial politics, or simply exhaustion. But the result is not so ambiguous: to restore deterrence as it existed before 2009 could be in the short-term as hazardous and costly as the long-term consequences of appeasement are fatal.

What would once have been seen as radical neglect of our existential problems is now the normal way of getting by one more day. What destroys civilizations are not, as popularly advertised, plagues, global warming, or hostile tribes on the horizon, as much as self-indulgence, self-delusion—and, finally, abject paralysis.

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