Sunday, March 06, 2005

Superpower Recliner

What do we talk about when we talk about the decline and fall of a superpower?

I'm not the only one talking. So are the more informed voices of William Pitt, Immanuel Wallerstein, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Jonathan Schell. Their individual takes on this are linked to from within this article: Jonathan Schell on a Less Super Superpower. Jeremy Rifkin is yet another writer documenting the quantities of this decline in his new book, European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream.

Motifs of this discourse include the declining dollar, declining influence on European politics, declining diplomacy, declining prestige and trust internationally, declining military performance due to imperialist over-reaching, and finally an increasing exposure to ridicule and scorn for our belligerent incompetence.

Those topics all pertain to international relations. Yet they are coupled with internal domestic decline too. Bush is unraveling the basis of modern "society" itself, while instead increasing the rates of pollution and the depletion of natural resources. Surprisingly to me, Rifkin documents the steep decline of our former lead in scientific R & D, technical patents, and training of scientists. Seems knowledge itself is now being farmed out offshore to better trained populations.

Meanwhile the U.S. is still Number One in drug abuse, weapons sales, gambling, debt (both personal and state), gun murders, and similar symptoms of an empire rotting from within.

C.B. sent an article by Michael Ventura who gives an impressively long list of stats about U.S. domestic decline. It's easy to mislead or to err with statistics, and some of this list could be criticized for cherry-picking the numbers he wants while hiding other numbers that don't support his case. But look it over and see if you can tell which numbers are more valid: "America By the Numbers. No. 1?"

Here are a few of the more wounding figures:

  • The United States is 49th in the world in literacy (the New York Times, Dec. 12, 2004).
  • Twenty percent of Americans think the sun orbits the earth. Seventeen percent believe the earth revolves around the sun once a day (The Week, Jan. 7, 2005).

Ah, this might explain why so many Americans actually believe that the world revolves around the U.S. or why Bush seems presidential to them!

  • "Nearly 900,000 children were abused or neglected in 2002, the last year for which such data are available" (USA Today, Dec. 21, 2004).
  • The United States is 41st in the world in infant mortality. Cuba scores higher (NYT, Jan. 12, 2005).
  • Women are 70 percent more likely to die in childbirth in America than in Europe (NYT, Jan. 12, 2005).
  • The leading cause of death of pregnant women in this country is murder (CNN, Dec. 14, 2004).
  • "Of the 20 most developed countries in the world, the U.S. was dead last in the growth rate of total compensation to its workforce in the 1980s.... In the 1990s, the U.S. average compensation growth rate grew only slightly, at an annual rate of about 0.1 percent" (The European Dream, p.39). Yet Americans work longer hours per year than any other industrialized country, and get less vacation time.



At 7:03 PM, Blogger E. Heroux said...

A guy who was in the Air Force with me replied ahile back about this US decline topic, to say:
yeah yeah yeah, so we commit war crimes and the economy is not so fair nor as good any more, and Americans can't tell the difference between rotation and revolution, blah blah blah, but the whole world still loves Hollywood and American pop music.

This is still pretty much true. We are the song-and-dance routine for the world. But even this is beginning to sour as frustration with American imperialism grows.
And other countries are increasingly turning out their own brand of entertainment. I know that my students listen mostly to Taiwanese pop stars. They don't like blues for example. Country & Western is utterly nonexistent here. Guitar heroes are way out of fashion. They adapt hip hop though, but it is churned into a softer Chinese version and produced as local music. The US isn't collecting much money or prestige from that!
They still watch Hollywood, but they only like the big stars -- that dazzling aura of romance around, say, Tom Cruise or Uma Thurman. The story lines about heroism and triumph leave them a bit cold and indifferent. They see right through American egotism. And the comedies are hit and miss. Comedy is the hardest thing to translate into another culture. Sometimes the translation can make the leap and sometimes it's a complete dud. I find myself to be the only one laughing in the theater, while everyone else is talking on their cell phones and walking out.
More and more the Taiwanese talk instead about Chinese films from Hong Kong.

My point is that if we're going to base US superiority on military expenditures and on exporting pop culture, then it is already time to start worrying about the near future.


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