Letter to the New Yorker
Below is the full text of a letter I'm about to submit to the New Yorker. Given the size allotted to the letters they print, I'm going to have to reduce it by about 50%; but no reason not to post the pre-cut version here, for you to read. As follows:
As a long-time subscriber to the magazine, I found the issue of September 12, 2011 one of the funnier ones I’ve had the pleasure of reading. First we have an essay by Adam Gopnik, arguing that “declinist” theories of history are misguided and/or illusory (“Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat”); then one by George Packer documenting the very real decline of the United States (“Coming Apart”). Packer even writes that after 9/11, “the deeper problem lay in an ongoing decline that was greater than any single event or policy.” But besides taking pot-shots at easy targets such as Oswald Spengler, Niall Ferguson, and Thomas Friedman/Michael Mandelbaum, Gopnik’s argument strikes me as being rather glib and superficial, and mistaken on a number of key points. I’ll cite only three:
1. The notion that for “declinist” historians, the catastrophe never quite arrives. Gopnik makes no mention of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, or Jared Diamond’s Collapse, but it is common knowledge that history is a graveyard of empires and civilizations, and decline and fall is the one thing we can be absolutely sure of. “American exceptionalism” won’t save us now; in fact, it is a major factor in our decline.
2. This mistaken premise leads Gopnik to assert that the most recent declinist book (whatever it is) has to explain why the previous ones were wrong. But in fact, it’s not like predicting that the world will end on such-and-such a date; rather, being large-scale processes, declines take their time. They do not occur on, say, August 4, A.D. 476, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. In addition, declinist works that discuss or focus on contemporary America include, inter alia, Andrew Hacker, The End of the American Era (1970); George Modelski, Long Cycles in World Politics (1987); and my own trilogy (The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed), for which I certainly did not feel any need to “explain why the previous declinist books were wrong.” They weren’t wrong at all; rather, they can be seen to form one more-or-less continuous argument that the American empire is coming to a close.
3. Gopnik asserts that ever since Spengler, historians have found it necessary to show that the errors contributing to the decline were “part of some big, hitherto invisible pattern of decline.” The “saner” idea, he argues, is that “things were good and now they’re bad, and that they could get either better or worse, depending on what happens next.” Whose definition of sanity? The fact is that the writing of history does consist in finding or mapping patterns; and instead of citing Karl Popper’s “proof” against historicism, Gopnik would have done better to have referred to E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, which made short (and embarrassing) work of Popper’s so-called proof. Indeed, the belief that “history is just one damn thing after another” (Toynbee’s contemptuous characterization of his critics) is about as outworn as the Great Man theory of history.
There is, of course, the question of why Gopnik wants to refute declinism, which I suspect has a lot to do with not wanting to face the very real decline George Packer talks about. Garrison Keillor once wrote that “We have this ability in Lake Wobegon to look reality right in the eye and deny it.” Gopnik’s essay is a good example of this, it seems to me. The author may not be a declinist, but he is, quite clearly, a denialist.