Recently my friend the commentator Sohrab Ahmari controversially tweeted:
I’m at peace with Chinese-led 21st century. Late liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilization especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue.
Deleted the China tweet; it became a magnet for morons. My wife is Chinese-born, so I don’t need lectures on the horrors of the CCP. But my conservative friends lull themselves into thinking that China’s civilizational wisdom is completely dead and not a source of strength.
The idea that America is dumb and decadent has been around since America’s start. Supposedly autocracies and dictatorships are more disciplined and dynamic by comparison.
Diplomat and historian George Kennan, best known as early articulator of Cold War anti-Soviet containment, was always gloomy but was especially so later in life. He saw little moral distinction between decadent America and the Soviet Union. “I think this country is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope,” he said in 1976. “I can see very little merit in organizing ourselves to defend from the Russians the porno shops in central Washington.”
I recall those downtown DC porno shops! Interning in the 1980s near the White House, we were only two blocks from the then red light district. There were dirty book and magazine shops, triple XXX movie theaters, at least one brothel, and a gay bath house. The post office was right there and I had to regularly carry our postage meter there for recharging. Once one of the prostitutes at the Paradise Model and Escort Service propositioned me. Her fellow prostitutes were perched scantily clad in the window ledge. At age 18 or 19 I was scandalized to see office workers in suits accept the invite. Supposedly undercover police were kept at bay by the house policy of requiring all patrons to disrobe before proceeding.
Pedestrians, most of them in office attire, strode by as sex acts for pay occurred inside. Meanwhile, at the nearby gay bath house on the corner, men were having anonymous sex with strangers, perhaps during their office breaks, as the AIDS epidemic was about to explode. My office colleagues routinely got lunch at Popeyes Chicken in that same block, striding by as fornication and sodomy transpired just yards away at establishments open 24/7. Street walkers filled the streets starting at dusk. We in our office were all conservatives, and President Reagan governed just a few blocks away. Those were the 1980s! (Those places thankfully were closed in the 1990s as part of downtown DC renewal.)
Maybe archaeologists in 1000 years will discover evidence of those sordid places and conclude that America in the 1980s was uniquely debauched, like Ancient Rome at its worst, and President Reagan was the Caligula of American democracy before its collapse. Kennan would think himself vindicated.
But they and he would be wrong. The vice and carnality of seedy downtown DC in the 1980s and of many other cities then represented only a small part of America. Evangelical Christianity was growing across America in what some called a possible third great awakening. After the doldrums and crises of the 1970s there was a growing national confidence in American democracy that had seemed to fail in Vietnam and with Watergate. The Soviet Union had seemed to surge while America retreated. But in the 1980s there were growing global movements for democracy and human rights. Soon the Berlin Wall would collapse and with it the Soviet Bloc. Rightist and leftist dictatorships from Chile and Nicaragua to South Korea and the Philippines were falling to democracy, as America was increasingly seen as global model. The impending global economic boom would lift hundreds of millions from poverty amid expanding lifespans and improved global health.
Meanwhile, Kennan, grim as ever, focusing on downtown DC porn and prostitution as indicative of wider Western culture, lamented:
Poor old West: succumbing feebly, day by day, to its own decadence, sliding with debility on the slime of its own self-indulgent permissiveness; its drugs, its crime, its pornography, its pampering of the youth, its addiction to its bodily comforts, its rampant materialism and consumerism—and then trembling before the menace of the wicked Russians.
Like Kennan, even as a teenager, I noticed the decadence. But it never occurred to me that America was morally no better than the Soviet Union. (I was then reading Kennan in college and was disgusted by his despair.) Porn shops aren’t as evil as gulags and concentration camps where thousands of innocents are tormented, as in the Soviet Union then and China today. And freedom’s vices are not worse than the ostensible discipline of murderous police states. As for vices of the flesh, dictatorships have plenty, but they’re typically more hidden, like so much else.
Dictatorships and their apologists have always portrayed America as dumb and decadent. In the 1980s it was leftists who typically made these arguments of moral equivalence if not inferiority for America compared to the Soviets. (Kennan quirkily defies ideological categorization.) Today, many rightists are losing confidence in democracy. They see America as intrinsically degenerate, claiming America’s founding based on individual rights and equality was corrupt from the start and doomed to fail. Leftists today similarly claim America was always corrupt, built on racism and exploitation.
These claims of degenerate and racist America are true from a myopic perspective. Every human society has decadence and injustice. Rightist and leftist dreamers compare America to imagined ideal regimes that will never exist this side of the eschaton. America was built on a Christian Realist and Whig perspective that accepts human nature as it is and leaves redemption to Providence, not state coercion.
America’s warts are always displayed, examined, spotlighted, debated and often exaggerated. But in this furious self-critique it has a ceaseless energy and dynamism that never quits and ultimately strives for better. Competing dictatorships, by contrast, hide their faults, fabricate their successes, and silence any truth tellers.
All nations have some natural virtue, including of course China. But the coercive machinery of dictatorship corrupts national character. In democracies, there is at least the opportunity for virtue to thrive. May America amid its sins seek virtue and justice. And may America never be at peace with a world led by tyrants.