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Robert Teitelman

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The Carnival of Catastrophism and Its Critics

Posted: 04/10/2012 5:31 pm

Declinism and catastrophe are in the air, like this early spring's hay fever. The New York Times reviewed the Financial Times' Edward Luce new book about American decline, "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent," over the weekend (I posted on a Luce essay summarizing the book's arguments in the FT last week). And now David Brooks in the Times and Pascal Bruckner in the Wall Street Journal feel compelled to weigh in on the broad subject of declinism, or what Bruckner calls "the ideology of catastrophe," both of them taking the upbeat side of the argument.

Bruckner offers the distanced view appropriate to a French philosopher and writer. He laughs at the silliness of some of the apocalyptic scenarios, with its sub-themes of sin, punishment and atonement. "My point is not to minimize our dangers," he writes. "Rather, it is to understand why apocalyptic fear has gripped so many of our leaders, scientists and intellectuals, who insist on reasoning and arguing as though they were following the scripts of mediocre Hollywood movies." Bruckner then offers up some theories:

"Over the last half century, leftist intellectuals have identified two great scapegoats for the world's woes. First, Marxism designated capitalism as responsible for human misery. Second, Third World ideology, disappointed by the bourgeois indulgences of the working class, targeted the West, supposedly the inventor of slavery, colonialism and imperialism."

Now I generally agree with Bruckner on a couple of ancillary points. First, decline and catastrophe are often oversold. We don't know the future, and the stuff sells in the popular media like hotcakes; cable TV and the Internet are lousy with disasters. I also agree that too much of this apocalyptic pandering "deadens us, making our eventual disappearance part of our everyday routine." In finance, it's the sightings of bubbles in every market fluctuation, allowing us to blithely miss the bubbles that really count. All that having been said, and Bruckner's asides on tendencies of the catastrophe gang are pretty good, his theories of why we seem to be going through a stretch of fear mongering is, philosophically speaking, picking the low-hanging fruit. Why do you have to reach for Marxism and the Third World when we have enormous manmade disasters not far off: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, including the Holocaust and the millions killed by Stalin, Mao's depredations, Pol Pot's genocide, followed by the Balkan wars and Rwanda? We have failed states, even for a time, a failing continent in Africa. We had Sept. 11 and Katrina. And there are natural disasters, albeit ones amplified in the media: tsunamis, droughts, earthquakes. (I'm not even going to climate change.) Even in America, which is relatively safe and stable, an entire generation of men marched off to war some 70 years ago. And, just as a reminder, the financial crisis of 2008 came, for most people, out of the blue. It might not be the Great Depression, but it has had serious consequences for millions of souls. Hell, it's been enough to almost bring Europe to its knees.

You don't need fashionable theories to explain why we are a little, well, nervous. Steven Pinker may be right about the level of man-on-man violence dropping. But 14 million civilians were murdered in the Bloodlands between Germany and the Soviet Union from the late '30s to 1945. That's not that long ago. That's enough to make you toss and turn at night.

For a further example of how declinism can be used for political ends, you need only check out Brooks' column in the Times. Brooks, in his usual way, has been perusing the journals. This time he comes across a "fabulous" piece by Tyler Cowen in the American Interest that focuses in on what Cowen believes is the coming boom in American exports. Cowen makes a decent argument, and it's a relief to see a contrarian position to the usual gloom. But Brooks then takes this further with a bout of characteristically glib dichotomizing. "A rift is opening up," Brooks insists, between dynamic, competitive American businesses, ready to take the world on, and low-productivity, bureaucratic sectors that don't have to perform: healthcare, education and government. Then he slaps political labels on his version of the two Americas: not rich and poor, but productive and unproductive. The dynamic, forward-thinking Americans, eager to export to the world, are Republicans. The deadbeats, the bureaucrats, the public-sector crowd "are more likely," says Brooks, to be Democrats.

If there's any truth beneath that poppycock, it's well hidden. He offers no statistical evidence -- not even surveys. To say the least, it's dangerous -- though Brooks often takes this risk, often heading right over yonder cliff -- to try to divide the diverse, complex American society and economy into such neat faux-sociological divisions. OK, we know of Republican aversion to unions and big government. But does that make them all a bunch of dynamic exporters and global competitors? Is Ayn Rand the soul of the Republican Party, which tends to be older, more rural, more Southern, more religious than Democrats? How does the Tea Party, with its tendency toward xenophobia, fit into this dichotomy? How do Christian evangelicals or social conservatives? In many ways, Brooks seems to be arguing for a Republican Party that was once the party of business, à la McKinley, and which Mitt Romney seems eager to revive and lead. But Romney's political struggles seem to come, at least in part, from the fact that not everyone in the GOP is driven by the desire to go out and compete with the world based on brains and innovation. Rick Santorum, for instance, would view that as elitist. If Brooks is right, regions like Silicon Valley or Boston or New York -- big exporters of goods and services -- should tilt Republican. Instead they lean Democratic.

Much of this may have as much to do with the media and the audience as it does with really understanding the causes of historic and natural change. The real sin here on both sides of this debate is exaggeration, reductionism and the urge to politicize. We live in a complex, dangerous world. We also live in a time of bounty and relative peace. But juggling those complexities, and living with that ambiguity and uncertainty, certainly doesn't make it in the daily carnival of the punditocracy.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.