Notes & Comments December 2022
Decline . . .
On the rot in American institutions.
Dilating on the causes of Rome’s eclipse at the end of his book How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (2009), the historian Adrian Goldsworthy minutes several parallels between Rome in its decline and contemporary America. Such parallels can be overdone, it is true, but Goldsworthy makes an important point. The dominance of a civilization, he notes, depends not only on economic resources and military prowess, but also on “culture,” that hard-to-define yet palpable mixture of existential confidence, savoir faire, and commitment to foundational principles beyond the calculus of individual profit or aggrandizement. Ultimately, the potency of the former depends upon the vibrancy of the latter, a point that the hardheaded and supposedly pragmatic among us often fail to absorb.
By the third century A.D., Rome had turned definitively away from that cultural compact. It was then that decline wove itself inextricably into the sinews of Roman society. “The rot began at the top,” Goldsworthy writes, “and in time a similar attitude pervaded the entire government and army high command.”
We predict that future historians, seeking to understand the decline of the United States, will settle on the early 2020s as the terminus a quo of America’s decay. The seeds were planted decades earlier, no doubt, as anyone who has contemplated the poisonous legacy of the 1960s will recognize. Immersed in the moment, we often struggle to disentangle the main story from the cacophony and chatter of mere events. But it seems to us that we have witnessed a strange confluence of forces these past few years as various trends have ripened and displayed their full toxic potential.
Can anyone who isn’t Karine Jean-Pierre contemplate our leadership and not discern the rot at the top? Goldsworthy mentioned the Roman army’s high command. Take a look at the U.S. military’s high command, beginning with Secretary of Defense Lloyd “Stand Down” Austin and Gen. Mark “White Rage” Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both have embraced the imperatives of woke ideology, a corrosive doctrine utterly at odds not just with the sober, manly virtues of military ethics but also with the foundational principles of the United States.
A lot of ink has been spilled trying to assess both officials, particularly their surrender to identity politics and to the corrupt sentimentality of political correctness. As Victor Davis Hanson notes in a recent column, “the Pentagon and cia put out recruitment videos that sound like kindergarten diversity, equity, and inclusion programming. Yet the military is less eager to explain why the U.S. met utter humiliation in Afghanistan or why the army only has met about 50 percent of its scheduled recruitment targets.”
Milley’s effort to circumvent the chain of command in the waning days of the Trump administration, to pretend that the U.S. military answered to him above all, attracted some measure of the obloquy that it deserved, but he continues on in his exalted position.
At the pinnacle, we have an erratic practitioner of glossolalia for president, whom everyone, friend and foe alike, understands is well on the road to senility. Then cast your eyes down the line of succession: Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, President pro tempore of the Senate Patrick Leahy, and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellin. A depressing cavalcade, is it not?
But the rot is not confined to political and military figures. What Robert Frost called “the slow smokeless burning of decay” has installed itself in the hearts of many of our most cherished institutions.
We already mentioned the military. What about our intelligence and crime-fighting institutions? Roger L. Simon, in a column for The Epoch Times, got it exactly right about the fbi. It must be dismantled, and not just the leadership, “but the whole organization and everyone in it.”
The closer you look at that institution, the worse it seems.
By now, its central role in concocting and disseminating the “Russia Collusion” narrative against Donald Trump is obvious, as are its partisan operations against critics of the current regime in Washington. Christopher Wray, the director of the fbi, is assiduously pursuing the successor to the Russia collusion narrative: the January 6 “insurrection” hoax, according to which U.S. citizens exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, including some who never entered the Capitol, are branded as “domestic extremists,” hunted down, and imprisoned. The closer you look at that institution, the worse it seems. Even the mild-mannered Holman W. Jenkins Jr., writing in The Wall Street Journal, has argued that the fbi “should be scrapped,” with “something new built to replace it.”
Recent revelations about its role in planning and abetting the plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer—even The New York Times had to acknowledge that—underscore the depth of the decay at the once-respected institution.
And what about other institutions, the media, for example, or the churches, or the educational establishment? It speaks volumes, we think, that Harvard’s new chaplain, Greg Epstein, is a self-professed atheist, while primary schools across the country seem obsessed with celebrating “trans culture” and hosting “drag queen story hours” to introduce their charges to the wonders of “gender fluidity.”
Reflecting on the experience of Rome, Goldsworthy noted that when “governments or agencies forget what they are really for, then decline will occur.” Moreover, he wrote, “bureaucracies are stubborn” and “tend to expand on their own and develop their own agendas.” That habit of expansion means that the rot that was merely likely yesterday becomes inexorable tomorrow.
Can the trend be reversed? Maybe. But Goldsworthy is right: “If the trend is to be reversed, then this process needs to start at the very top.” What do you suppose the prospects of that are? Perhaps it’s an illustration of Franz Kafka’s mordant observation that “there is hope, but not for us.”
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 4, on page 1
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