Can America Save Itself From Decline? Politics, Culture, Morality

CAN AMERICA SAVE ITSELF FROM DECLINE?
POLITICS, CULTURE, MORALITY

Volume  II
2015-2021; 612 pages

by Carla Seaquist

“….an essayist in the great American tradition.”

— Seymour Hersh, investigative reporter

“Prescient and eloquent. Carla Seaquist is in top form.”
— Brian Baird, former member of Congress
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In Vol. II, Carla Seaquist in her HuffPost and Medium commentary traces the tumultuous period 2015-2020—from the “anger election of 2016” to the earthquake tenure of Donald Trump, examining how Trump accelerated America’s decline with his assault on American democracy itself.  Seeking elevation, Seaquist counsels on creeping authoritarianism, racism, sexism, despair (“Don’t”).  Culturally, she examines Western Civilization’s playbook of Tragedy and points the way upward (“Shut Up, Hamlet, and Drive”).  In a series “Notes from a Plague-Time,” she chronicles the COVID-19 pandemic, including rereading Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, this time with real understanding.  In an extended end-essay, the author addresses the question posed in the title.
 
Sample titles of 125 essays include: “Free Speech vs. Responsible Speech”; “Whatever Happened to the Famous American Ability to Say ‘Nuts’ to Charlatans, Crazies, and Fear-Mongers?”; “A ‘Breaking Bad’ Culture Got Its President”; “For Effective Resistance, Keep It Nonviolent, Respectful, Clean”; “A Historic Reckoning on Sexual Harassment: In Low Times, a Good Sign”; “Counter-Forces to Chaos: We’re Becoming Constitutionalists, Ethicists, Candidates for Office, and Other Good Things”; “Surrendering America’s Most Precious Mantle, ‘Leader of the Free World’”; “Can a Narcissist Comprehend Treason?”; “The Republicans and Donald Trump: A Faustian Bargain (Annotated)”; “Is America Having a Breakdown or a Reckoning?  7 Arguments for Reckoning”; “Impeaching Trump Would Be Right in Principle, But Disastrous Politically”; “My Fellow White Americans: Are We About Blood Identity or America’s Ideals?”; “’The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent’: Now More Than Ever”; “For Republicans, 2020 Election is Political.  For Democrats, It’s Existential.”
 
Chronicling the COVID-19 pandemic, 11 posts in the “Notes from a Plague-Time” series include: the need for truth and experts; reaching out to friends while self-isolating; redefining “essential” worker; seeking beauty, truth, lightness; seeing Can-Do Nation unmasked as Can’t-Do; rereading Camus’ The Plague; running for elective office in a pandemic (personal insights).  Various “For Our Times” series include essays on books, film, plays, TV.  Personal essays include “Writing for Our Post-9/11 Times” and “How to Keep a Good Marriage During Bad (Trumpian) Times.”

FOREWORD

by Carla Seaquist

History surprises—and how.

What I thought was a one-off has become a series. When I published Can America Save Itself from Decline? in early 2015, I had no idea there would—very soon—be good cause to think of that book as Volume I of a series.

But when Donald Trump announced in June 2015 his campaign for President of the United States, proudly touting his racist and xenophobic program in service of his mission to “Make America great again”—and when public response to his anti-democratic message became passionate, massive, and ultimately victorious—I knew America’s decline was not only not arrested, it accelerated. Thus, Volume II’s size. 

In Volume I, I traced how the notion of American decline took root and persisted, even during the comparatively sunny years of Barack Obama’s presidency: the polls showing increasing majorities of Americans believed America to be on “the wrong track” and the future to be less bright for their children than it was for themselves; the disillusion with the country in its “comeback” from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when supposedly “everything changed”—but little did; and the disillusion increasing after the financial crash of 2008, a crash caused by Wall Street, which soon enough was back to its old risky ways. Volume I began with that marker, with a pro-Main Street commentary titled “Recovery Without a Reckoning.” 

Now, with Donald Trump in the White House almost four harrowing years, we can itemize the ruin. In addition to the racism and xenophobia made explicit, we see a Justice Department become Trump’s personal legal team; we see America, the former champion of human rights, now separating migrant children from their parents; we see America, once “Leader of the Free World,” cozying up to strongmen autocrats; we see this proto-autocrat’s assault on fact and truth (“fake news”). And now, just defeated for a second term by Democrat Joe Biden, Trump is knocking off every last institutional guardrail to deny the election result. Stunningly, this four-year performance—and a criminal lack of performance in managing the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic—earned Trump in 2020 the vote of nearly half the electorate. If anyone still questions the notion of America’s decline, this marker should give them pause.

As a commentator, I had no choice but to track Trump in his—what?—“disruption”: Trump—anti-democratic, crude, amoral—hit the trifecta of my beat: politics, culture, and ethical-moral issues. I love America—the idea of it—and I write in defense of that beautiful idea: rule of law, equality, fair play, second chances. As a deep reader and playwright, I have tracked the degradation of American culture—the “anything-goes” ethos of its literature, film, TV, theatre—and I see how little it instructs or comforts us in this chaos-cum-pandemic. To recur to the disrupter archetype: America has long been fascinated with it (see: Facebook’s motto “Move fast and break things”), yet despite all the chaos, half of America cannot see this disrupter has no follow-up plan. Even with Trump gone from the White House, he, and anti-democratic Trumpism, will remain a force. Thus the need for this series’ Volume III. I will remain on duty: Just how low does this descent go? With Joe Biden in the White House, can we head for what the Roman poet Virgil called “the upper air”? I will keep writing, hoping this Dark Age can be transformed into a Renaissance.

As harrowing as Trump’s four-year Reign of Error has been, however, History had another surprise: the emergence of a formidable counter-force—the conscientious American public.

If we did not understand how precious is our democratic form of government—of, by, and for the people—we do now, having watched Donald Trump, and the Party of Trump (once known as the Republicans), attack taken-for-granted rights, like voter enfranchisement. If we did not appreciate the beautiful idea of America, we do now, seeing those migrant children pulled from their parent’s arms. If we did not understand the historic problem of racism and a Trump-driven resurgence of white supremacy, we do now, seeing the agonizing video of George Floyd, a Black American, asphyxiated under the knee of a white police officer, whose hand was propped nonchalantly on his hip. In protest, conscientious America, Black and white, poured into the streets, in numbers that were the largest in American history. To protest Trump’s record of sexual assault, the Women’s March the day after his inauguration set another record in turnout. As to turnout, voter turnout in this 2020 presidential election was also the biggest in a century, with voters braving the coronavirus, standing hours to ensure their vote. The protest, the vote, a recovered Americanism = tools for action, unity. And, bless them: Historic numbers of conscientious Americans are running for office, from local school boards to Congress.

Will this counter-force be enough to save American Democracy, reverse our decline? That is the question compelling conscientious America, also much of the world, as it struggles with the forces of anti-democracy/strongman rule everywhere.

In this journey, I thank especially my late mother, Mildred Lofberg, who died during the course of this volume. While Mom and I had our issues—she was Republican, I am Democrat—we were united in our concern for the moral health of the country. It is those close conversations that I miss most, but the memory of them informs my work.

And notably, Joe—Dr. Joseph G. Bell. Volume I was dedicated to Joe, because of our years of yeasty exchanges over the American idea—Joe emphasizing America as a capitalist entity, me emphasizing it as a democracy. Joe gets the dedicatory nod again in this volume, because: Not long after Trump’s surprise election, Joe said, “You know, I think Donald Trump may be just the stinker to get John Q. Public off the sofa.” As ever, Joe was right: Trump got America off the sofa! And as ever, eternal thanks to my husband Larry Seaquist, former Navy captain, former state legislator, now also a writer. Larry is my compagno di vita, first reader, best friend, and co-dedicatee.

 

Carla Seaquist
November 19, 2020
Gig Harbor, Washington

A ‘BREAKING BAD’ CULTURE GOT ITS PRESIDENT

It is the custom in America that, after a calamity happens—whether political, social, mechanical, or act of nature—we turn immediately to investigating how and why it happened. We do so because we presume that understanding the how and why will enable us to build toward a New Day. Americans are pragmatic that way, or at least we are when at our best.

To explain the how and why of Donald Trump’s ascendency as president—a seismic calamity to liberals, a surprise gift to Trumpsters—the commentariat in these ten months has produced libraries of political analysis, tracing over the last half-century an increasingly angry Republican politics, fanned by flame-throwers like Barry Goldwater and Newt Gingrich, with an assist directed at government by Ronald Reagan—anger that the huckster Trump exploited to blow up the party and take the White House.

But Trump cannot be understood only as a political phenomenon. Donald J. Trump is also a cultural phenomenon, a product—the exemplar—of an increasingly amoral popular culture that, over this half-century, developed parallel to our angry politics. For liberals still in a daze over Trump’s election, it is useful to consider this cultural context. After all, we choose our political party, but we live immersed in a culture.A “Breaking Bad” Culture Got Its

Perhaps the cultural signpost best reflecting the loss of our moral compass was the wildly popular and critically acclaimed TV series of recent years, “Breaking Bad,” its break with moral norms made tauntingly explicit in its title. Actually the break with norms occurred decades earlier, with this series’ story-line taking the trend to a new low: A high-school chemistry teacher, told he has terminal cancer, aims to provide for his family “after” by using his scientific know-how and becoming a producer of high-grade meth.

Lauding such degradation of character and capitalism, reflected in both “Breaking Bad” and Donald Trump, would be unthinkable to preceding generations, notably the Greatest Generation, the one that endured the Great Depression largely without a social safety net, then fought, suffered, and won World War II, securing liberty for us, their children. But such degradation is thinkable today: A critical mass of the electorate, hearing the cultural O.K. to “break bad,” last November pulled the lever for a spectacularly amoral man, a predatory capitalist of basest character. 

How could we fall so low? First, the dam broke—or rather, was broken—then came the flood. First to be sundered was the moral code, the sense of right and wrong developed over centuries of civic practice, democratic evolution, philosophy, religion. Then, after moral “deregulation,” came the flood—sexual and marital norms breaking down; profanity overpowering wit and even common sense; pornography brought in from the fringe (remember the fringe?) and poured into the mainstream, to a point where today any muchness of a muchness is called “porn” (e.g., “real estate porn”?). Most damningly, children are now exposed to, and hurt by, what once upon a time was restricted to the adult sphere; meanwhile, many adults have become children pursuing their dishonorable heart’s desire, which is easier now because we got rid of honor, too.

How was the moral code sundered? If you grew up in the post-World War II years, from the 1950s on, you noticed that in almost every grouping—the playground, the dorm, the work world, in society—when it came to a discussion of what should be done in that moment or, more elementally, what should be, there was always a voice in the group calling down the “should” and taunting the group’s acting moral arbiter as “party-pooper” (the term “party” reflecting a general lack of seriousness). In this way, voiced incessantly and derisively, a stigma was born for my generation, the boomers. Boomers grew allergic to making any moral discrimination whatsoever, for dire fear of being called “judgmental.” “Sow the wild oats and hope for crop failure” served as our moral code. Tragically, we passed this pattern on to our children.

And, tragically, in this way—by mishandling and abusing the liberty secured for us by the Greatest Generation—America lost its moral compass.

(To be sure, the Greatest Generation had its faults—notably racism, sexism, anti-Semitism—which a cohort of the boomers, myself included, sought to correct early on by allying with our African-American friends in the civil rights movement. Real milestones in debarring race and sex discrimination were achieved in employment and education. But a reaction to all this “political correctness” has set in—another fault-line Trump exploits.)

Mirroring the public’s loss of moral compass, our cultural fare—films, TV, books, theater—makes it a point to “push the envelope” of whatever’s left of propriety and taste, setting up a dynamic whereby artists up the ante or get sidelined. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), whose title characters gleefully announce “We rob banks,” set the violent and nihilistic tone for succeeding filmmakers. The sexual explicitness of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) did likewise for succeeding novelists. In TV, “Breaking Bad” was begot by “The Sopranos,” the hit series whose lead character “whacked” his rivals dead. In theater, serious examination of moral subjects got whacked by The Vagina Monologues. Critics, nominal gatekeepers, got hip to such “transgressive” artists and praised their “bent” and “twisted” product; weirdly, these artists earned prestige for their “courage” to push at a wide-open door. No wonder then, that with so much envelope-pushing over decades, there’s not much envelope left anymore.

No wonder, also, that all this envelope-pushing and trashing of things moral triggered major pushback—from the conservative right. Conservatives in the postwar era, from Goldwater to Nixon to Reagan to the Bushes, have made political hay by pointing to the worst of liberal licentiousness and winning power. Some liberals naively think an “anything-goes” mentality is just a free-speech issue, with no moral consequence, but generations of conservatives have dominated public life in big part by claiming to be America’s moral protectors. This claim allows for much hypocrisy, of course, the most egregious current example being evangelical Christians finding the amoral Trump morally acceptable and becoming his most ardent supporters. 

In his recent essay “How America Lost Its Mind,” Kurt Andersen in The Atlantic traces a related loss, also beginning in the ‘60s, “the beginning of the end of reason”: the increasing relativism of truth and fact, when America became “untethered from reality,” when the mantra became “Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative.” Again, conservatives benefited, by claiming to be Truth’s defenders, while also railing against relativism’s undercutting of “venerable and comfortable ideas—certain notions of entitlement (according to race and gender) and aesthetic beauty and metaphysical and moral clarity.” Meanwhile, Andersen writes, “anything-goes relativism” enabled the far right to become more unhinged than the left, producing “gun-rights hysteria, black-helicopter conspiracism, climate-change denial, and more.” And the big beneficiary of this “fantasy-industrial complex”? The faker Donald Trump.

As described here, the onus for our present dark and unhappy moment, this dramatic falling-off since the Greatest Generation, would seem to lie with liberals. And if we are truthful, we deserve much blame: Liberals disposed of the moral compass and Truth, conservatives reacted to save those invaluable things. Liberals acted—irresponsibly—and conservatives reacted, not always responsibly, but with the advantage of acting in defense.

What is to be done? How do we achieve a New Day and save America? Can we?

In a way, course-correction is already underway—seen in our grief at the damage America has wrought upon itself, in our nausea with the hair-raising daily reality of this wrecking crew of an administration, in our profound and heartfelt yearning for a return to decency and normalcy, out from under the shadow of the hideous Trump. We are flailing badly, groping in the dark. May I submit that, out of deep and profound need and not mere want, what we are groping for is … our moral compass, which we misplaced decades ago. To return to decency and normalcy, we need that compass.

It means “anything-goes” liberalism can’t go anymore. Like comedian Kathy Griffin holding up a mock severed head of Trump, a prank which drew universal condemnation, not only from conservatives but from other liberals. That pushback was moral discrimination working, dimly perceived. Liberals have a problem with limits, but responsible liberalism requires consideration of consequences.

Recovering decency and normalcy also means (pardon the forthcoming explicitness) “breaking good.” It means getting over the knee-jerk habit of mocking virtue, honor, truthfulness, purpose, dignity. It means redefining humanity upward, from pathology and dysfunction, back to the realm of goodness and nobility. We need to do this, pragmatically speaking, if we are to save ourselves from the moral calamity of Donald Trump. Great nations decline because of moral decay. The only way we will arrest our present decline and prevent its becoming permanent is by recovering our moral compass.

We can do this. In fact, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the deadly confrontation just days ago between the neo-Nazi/alt-right and a brave group of counter-protesters, we may at last have found our moral compass. The powerful pushback from the public and corporate America against Trump’s equivalence of the alt-right with the alt-left, a small militant group he’s contemptibly conflating with the counter-protesters, is the only heartening thing in this tragic event: The American people are taking a moral stand, declaring such equivalence is wrong. Only a president breaking spectacularly bad could ever countenance the Nazi A “Breaking Bad” Culture Got Its President swastika on our shores. Doing so, Trump has forever abdicated any moral authority—the ultimate authority he can never wield.

It may be that Donald Trump’s sole utility as president will be forcing Americans to come to our moral senses. Lord knows, regarding the rightness and wrongness of things, he presents us with what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe.” In typical American fashion, we will get there circuitously: after sowing the wild oats, hoping for redemption. But this time we must replace hope with effort. We must—and we can—deliver our own redemption.

 

—HuffPost, August 28, 2017

IN A PLAGUE-TIME, WE NEED TRUTH AND EXPERTS
First in a series, Notes from a Plague-Time

How is it possible that our life—not only in America but in all the world—can change in the course of just weeks? How is it possible that mere life can suddenly become a truly existential and inextricable matter of Life-and-Death? And how, as a nation, do we shake our normal dysfunction and get to the upside and save ourselves? Can we?

So many questions—and driving them all is a microscopic leviathan, the novel coronavirus, exploding into a worldwide pandemic, with the deadly respiratory illness COVID-19 as its prize. It dawns on us, on me, that we are, in the clichéd blink of an eye, thrust into an entirely new era. Not for nothing is this virus called “novel.”

Like everybody else who is not an epidemiologist, I start in this new era with a blank page and a sense of dread—though epidemiologists going on TV to explain this crisis to a panicked public also, under their clinical demeanor, seem to exude dread: They know, they can see, the awfulness coming at us. Solidarity in dread.

And yet: Soon enough, it comes to me the need to grapple, to manufacture hope and courage, to achieve balance and exercise uncommon common sense, to acquit myself with dignity, honor, smarts, and, if I can manage it, wit—and not, please God, to react like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, like a “harassed mouse.” In short, to get to the other side—not to Heaven, as eulogists put it, but get to the other side of this deadly scourge. To cheat Death and emerge into more Life.

I mean to fill these blank pages with notes, impressions, things learned and things discarded—in general, things useful and constructive to this new era. I come as a commentator and an artist, but principally as a human being, in solidarity with my fellow human beings. Since it is not useful, I will not indulge in polemic—except when President Donald Trump commits yet another life-threatening act—nor will I spin a literary performance. I will also—attenzione—quote from the commonplace books I have filled over a lifetime, wherein I enter wisdom and guidance from past masters. For example, when epidemic became pandemic, Dostoevsky’s “harassed mouse” came instantly to mind. So did Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nothing so astonishes as common sense and plain dealing.” I mean to put Art to work, while charting Life in this new era.

As the Chinese say, “The longest journey begins with the first step.” Here goes, first with a commentary—“In a Plague-Time, We Need Truth and Experts.”

* * *

If ever there was the absolute need for straight talk and getting real, it is in the life-and-death coronavirus pandemic we are experiencing now.

In brief, what do we need to save ourselves? Truth and expertise.

Yet—sadly, infuriatingly, but let us hope not tragically—what we get from the Trump White House is messaging driven by Trump’s re-election agenda and his absolute need to look good and always be right. Meaning: Trump’s lying and dissembling have gone into overdrive. To watch his press briefings, with the experts he must know he needs arrayed around him, is to see lying and truth-telling in real-time combat. Too often, the lying “wins.”

But sometimes, truth-telling wins. Last week, when Trump crowed at a news briefing, nearly a daily event now, that an anti-malaria drug was being repurposed for the coronavirus—against which, as of now, there is no vaccine or treatment, thus the public dread—the head of the Food and Drug Administration stepped forth and said, No, such drug was not forthcoming.

Earlier, at a White House meeting, after Trump announced a coronavirus vaccine was coming soon, Dr. Anthony Fauci, respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and now the face of the Administration’s cohort of experts, leaned in and said, No, such a vaccine can not be ready for another year or year-and-a-half. It was not what Trump wanted to hear, nor what the public wanted to hear, but it is fact—the truth. Dr. Fauci did the same again when Trump tried, again, with his repurposed anti-malaria drug.

But then, what can we expect from a president whose lies are an established habit and whose number The Washington Post now tabulates above 16,000 in the three years since his inauguration? Pre-pandemic, we had been immersed in Trumpian untruth, its own kind of contagion. The first casualty of such a habit, and the most precious loss in a leader, is trust: How can we trust a leader whose word we cannot take? Especially in a crisis? And not to forget his distaste for expertise.

But now, in this pandemic, Trump’s lying could literally kill—by giving out bad information (for example, that it’s O.K. to go to work if sick: not true), downplaying the lethality of the virus, questioning the death rates across the globe, absurdly playing up his own expertise in epidemiology. But enough about Trump, who we hope will be no more than a speed-bump in the quest for a solution.

The hard truth (there’s that word again: truth) is that, pre-pandemic, the experts did let us down, notably the once-vaunted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, specifically in coronavirus testing. The CDC performed well in the H1N1 and Zika outbreaks, sending test kits to all 50 states and over 100 countries. But with the novel coronavirus, its failure—faulty tests, faulty distribution—leaves the public In a Plague-Time, We Need Truth and Experts dangerously unprotected, thus nullifying the CDC’s claim of disease control and prevention. (The CDC has been suffering funding cutbacks for years.)

For without being tested, an infected person can unknowingly infect another, who in turn unknowingly infects another, etc., etc., leading to…pandemic. Which is why doctors, upon learning of the dearth in testing, are quoted saying, “We’re all going to get it” and “We are at war with no ammo.” (I think of my late father, a doctor admired by colleagues for his diagnostic skills, connecting the dots between no testing and mass infection and, in his quiet way, concluding the same thing.)

But now, in this crisis, surely our salvation lies with the experts and their expertise—those researchers in labs around the globe racing, Manhattan Project-style, to develop a vaccine. Those epidemiologists and other experts running the data to advocate the strategy now increasingly followed by the world’s governments, i.e., to “flatten the curve” of infection and prevent a rapid peaking of cases causing entire health systems to collapse. And, crucially, those medical personnel, doctors and nurses, now on the front lines in hospitals, treating the growing numbers of the infected and sick—and, “with no ammo,” risking their own lives in the process.

And the experts who were ignored before, but whose warnings came true: They merit rehearing, for there will be another outbreak. In 2018, the 100-year anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic, Dr. Luciana Borio, then director for medical and biodefense at the White House’s National Security Council, told a symposium that “the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern.” The next day Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton shut down the NSC’s pandemic unit, of which Dr. Borio was a part. Dr. Beth Cameron, also a member who was fired, in a Washington Post op-ed outlines how that office could have coordinated current efforts.

And other experts within government (many of whom have left or been fired): They point the way. In a simulation code-named “Crimson Contagion” conducted by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services Jan.-Aug. of last year, the draft report (previously unreported until broken by The New York Times) lays out a scenario “now playing out in all-too-real fashion,” including the outbreak’s start in China, shortages of medical equipment, command confusion. Yet, this warning went unheeded. Dr. Fauci in mid-2018 told Congress he worried about a flu pandemic. Trump keeps saying nobody thought this—a pandemic—could happen. But: Experts did—a whole universe of them. (What is lacking is an expert strategist to pull all the expertise together—leadership a president should provide.)

And experts like the Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang—who, months ago (Dec. 30), blew the whistle on the novel virus he was seeing in his ophthalmology practice; who, for his singular public service, was threatened with arrest by the Chinese authorities; who later contracted the virus himself and, tragically, died; who, belatedly, has been exonerated by his government. Until he died, Dr. Li intended to return to “the front line”: “The epidemic is still spreading, and I don’t want to be a deserter.” Dr. Li was 34.

Finally: Complicating our collective defense in this battle is our extreme political polarization. For as dangerous as viral contagion is, so in its way is ideological contagion.

For decades now, conservatives have, for their own complicated reasons, assaulted expertise, especially that exercised by government “bureaucrats.” And a majority of Republicans continues to repeat Trump’s early response to the coronavirus as the Democrats’ “new hoax” and stand by him. What a shame—what a crime?—if a disbeliever were to infect a fellow countryman who is taking the experts’ warnings seriously. Bret Stephens, conservative columnist at the Times, takes his cohort to task: “The coronavirus has exposed the falsehood of so many notions Trump’s base holds about the presidency: that experts are unnecessary; that hunches are a substitute for knowledge; that competence in administration is overrated; that every criticism is a hoax…. Above all, it has devastated the conceit that having an epic narcissist in the White House is a riskless proposition at a time of extreme risk.”

What will it take—Death?—to convince the disbelieving of this virus’ lethality?

Back to facts: Here is how the public can protect itself and, doing so, help “flatten the curve” of infection. The guidelines are straightforward—self-isolation, or “sheltering in place,” until further notice; maintaining a distance of six feet from others, or “social distancing,” if one must go out in public; and lots and lots of hand-washing (I am laving like Lady Macbeth at this point, but without the guilt). And of course avoid the infection of bad information and conspiracy theories by consulting the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the CDC, your state or county health department.

Today’s lead headline in The New York Times reads, “The Virus Can Be Stopped, but Only With Harsh Steps, Experts Say.” The experts give us hope (and guidelines, above).

While not every truth-teller is an expert, by definition every expert is a truth-teller. It has long been said—an ancient truism—that the truth shall make you free. In a deadly pandemic, the truth—and experts and their expertise—will keep you alive.
To Life!

Other resources on the coronavirus pandemic: See the Johns Hopkins global tracker. See information posted at The New England Journal of Medicine, International Journal of Epidemiology, Harvard Medical School, and STAT. See dedicated coverage at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Economist, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Politico. For ongoing TV coverage, see “The PBS NewsHour,” “Amanpour and Company” (PBS), “The Rachel Maddow Show” (MSNBC), and “Fareed Zakaria GPS” (CNN).

Medium, March 23, 2020

“Carla Seaquist is an essayist in the great American tradition of plain talk, common sense, strong ethics, and an understanding that one cannot understand current politics, foreign policy or domestic travel without a deep knowledge of history. Her work is informed, readable and provocative, in the best sense—making the reader think in new ways.”
Seymour M. Hersh, investigative reporter

“Prescient and eloquent. Carla Seaquist is in top form.” Brian Baird, former member of Congress

CAN AMERICA SAVE ITSELF FROM DECLINE?
POLITICS, CULTURE, MORALITY

Volume  I  
2009-2015; 344 pages

by Carla Seaquist

“….an essayist in the great American tradition.”

— Seymour Hersh, investigative reporter
canamericasaveitself_vol1_sides_1024x600

Can America save itself from decline? Great nations throughout History have followed the pattern of rise and rise, then decline and fall. Is this America’s fate, or can we reverse our decline and rise again? In the belief that if any great nation can reverse its decline, America can—we believe in reinvention, we are not fatalists yet, but it will take stronger leadership and reform than seen to date—Carla Seaquist in her wide-ranging commentary for The Huffington Post addresses this historic challenge from various angles—political, economic and financial, cultural and moral—all in the context of the American character. Vol. I traces the 2008 financial crash through increasing political polarization and cultural weakening. In an extended end-essay, she addresses the question posed in the book’s title.

Table of Contents

  • Forewordx
  • Recovery Without a Reckoning1
  • Good Wars, Bad Wars, and Afghanistan6
  • Deep Breath, Democrats, Change Takes Time and Work9
  • Wall Street Paints a Target on Main Street’s Back14
  • The Hurt Locker: Hollywood’s Unsettling View of the Iraq War17
  • “Government Take-Over” of Healthcare? We Already Have a Corporate Take-Over21
  • Where is the Vatican’s Outrage about Child Molestation?23
  • A Mosque at Ground Zero: Desperately Seeking George Washington’s Wisdom28
  • How Democrats Can Harness the Public Anger (and Madness) for November33
  • Hope for Reversing America’s Decline: The Millennial Generation40
  • Is This a Culture That Wants to Save Itself?44
  • Define “Change”—or It’s Perpetual Pendulum for America47
  • For Wall Street: A Loyalty Oath—to Main Street50
  • Sputnik II: Relearn the Love of Learning—Now53
  • Violent Anti-Government Rhetoric Has a Target: Politicians58
  • The Dignity Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt—and America?61
  • Fall of Spider-Man Director is Not “Stuff of Greek Drama”65
  • Republicans on Torture Post-Osama bin Laden: Defending Against Prosecution?67
  • The Mogul and the Maid: A Shift in Power71
  • Self-Criticism: A New Habit of Mind74
  • Fat Cat Pledge: “I Will Pay Higher Taxes”77
  • Critics and Other Cultural Gatekeepers: Mind the Gate!80
  • My Republican Mother Gives the Thumbs-Up to Occupy Wall Street82
  • Lost Airmen of Buchenwald: Lost Tale, Finally Told86
  • Wall Street: Brush Up Your Melville89
  • What Next, Occupy? Revise Gordon Gekko93
  • Why Can’t Art Be Instructive?96
  • Humor: There’s Funny—and There’s Symptom of Decline99
  • A War’s Premise Must Justify the Troops’ Suffering103
  • Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel Poet: An Appreciation106
  • Let’s Just Say It: As Opposition, the Republicans Are Not Loyal110
  • Not All of Us Were Mad Men113
  • In Clybourne Park, President Obama Would Be an Impossibility116
  • A Great Speech About Why America Isn’t Great Anymore (But Can Be Again)120
  • Needed: Eliot Ness, Bank Regulator123
  • Finally, the Democrats Learn How to Fight128
  • The Republicans’ No-Apology Tour133
  • Beware Theater in Politics136
  • Exceptional Nations Don’t Need to Bluster141
  • Crib Sheet for the Undecided Voter145
  • This Time, Democrats Need to Keep Control of the Narrative151
  • The Tragedy of Mitt Romney155
  • Notes on London Theater159
  • My Republican Mother Says Yes to Gun Control168
  • The Children Are Watching Us171
  • Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey: Moral Hero175
  • Society Instructs Hollywood on “Moral Ambiguity” of Torture (or What the Zero Dark Thirty Controversy Means) 179
  • Memo to Mr. Scorsese: Women Are Heroes, Too 187
  • Get Thee to Geneva, Mr. Obama: Your Drone Strikes Make Targets of Us All194

* * *

Books for Our Times: Review Essays

  • The Unwinding, by George Packer201
  • Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson206
  • Capital, by John Lanchester (a novel)212
  • This Town, by Mark Leibovich219

* * *

  • Obama’s Principled “Red Line” on Syria (Which, By the Way, Worked)225
  • Hatred: The Republicans’ Core Problem230
  • Dear Banks: “Giving Back” in Philanthropy is Fine, But Also Give Us Back a Financial System We Can Trust234
  • Book Review: The Italian-American Experience—Another Immigrant Story237
  • The Power of Moral Action and “Breaking Good”: Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis240
  • Memo to Robert Gates: Duty, Sir, Lies in Getting a War’s Premise Right244
  • Dear Boeing: Next Time, Try Benevolence247
  • Why President Obama Should Have Prosecuted the Bush Administration for War Crimes—and Still Can (By Other Means)254
  • Distinguishing Between Can and Should: What a Superpower Should Be Able to Do259
  • America Can Still Lead the World—with Coalitions Abroad and by Getting Our Own House in Order265
  • Soccer’s Teamwork: Something That Works (When So Much Doesn’t)270
  • Immigration Reform: Go Incrementally, Mr. Obama,and Go Before November273
  • A Critic, a Play, and Do-It-Yourself Abortion278
  • Democrats Are “Disgusted” with Politics? Boo Hoo281
  • Madam Secretary: A Reflection of “Deep” Washington286
  • Torture Report: America Conducts a Moral Reckoning. Next, Moral Repair?290
  • Free Speech vs. Responsible Speech: We Need to Talk, Again300
  • Behemoth in a Bathrobe: A Dialogue 307
  • End-Essay: Can America Save Itself from Decline?311
  •    I. The Question311
  •    II. America’s political suicide314
  •    III. America’s economic and financial suicide316
  •    IV. America’s cultural and moral suicide317
  •    V. Recovering our moral voice and compass322
  •    VI. “The moral obligation to be intelligent”326
  •    VII. Appealing to the conscientious public—again327
  •    VIII. Honoring America’s foundational ideals—and reversing our decline329

APPENDIX
  • “Risk Management, According to Moby-Dick335
  • My letter to the Editor of The (Tacoma) News Tribune342
  • My letter to the Editor of The Seattle Times343
  • Forewordx
  • Recovery Without a Reckoning1
  • Good Wars, Bad Wars, and Afghanistan6
  • Deep Breath, Democrats, Change Takes Time and Work9
  • Wall Street Paints a Target on Main Street’s Back14
  • The Hurt Locker: Hollywood’s Unsettling View of the Iraq War17
  • “Government Take-Over” of Healthcare? We Already Have a Corporate Take-Over21
  • Where is the Vatican’s Outrage about Child Molestation?23
  • A Mosque at Ground Zero: Desperately Seeking George Washington’s Wisdom28
  • How Democrats Can Harness the Public Anger (and Madness) for November33
  • Hope for Reversing America’s Decline: The Millennial Generation40
  • Is This a Culture That Wants to Save Itself?44
  • Define “Change”—or It’s Perpetual Pendulum for America47
  • For Wall Street: A Loyalty Oath—to Main Street50
  • Sputnik II: Relearn the Love of Learning—Now53
  • Violent Anti-Government Rhetoric Has a Target: Politicians58
  • The Dignity Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt—and America?61
  • Fall of Spider-Man Director is Not “Stuff of Greek Drama”65
  • Republicans on Torture Post-Osama bin Laden: Defending Against Prosecution?67
  • The Mogul and the Maid: A Shift in Power71
  • Self-Criticism: A New Habit of Mind74
  • Fat Cat Pledge: “I Will Pay Higher Taxes”77
  • Critics and Other Cultural Gatekeepers: Mind the Gate!80
  • My Republican Mother Gives the Thumbs-Up to Occupy Wall Street82
  • Lost Airmen of Buchenwald: Lost Tale, Finally Told86
  • Wall Street: Brush Up Your Melville89
  • What Next, Occupy? Revise Gordon Gekko93
  • Why Can’t Art Be Instructive?96
  • Humor: There’s Funny—and There’s Symptom of Decline99
  • A War’s Premise Must Justify the Troops’ Suffering103
  • Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel Poet: An Appreciation106
  • Let’s Just Say It: As Opposition, the Republicans Are Not Loyal110
  • Not All of Us Were Mad Men113
  • In Clybourne Park, President Obama Would Be an Impossibility116
  • A Great Speech About Why America Isn’t Great Anymore (But Can Be Again)120
  • Needed: Eliot Ness, Bank Regulator123
  • Finally, the Democrats Learn How to Fight128
  • The Republicans’ No-Apology Tour133
  • Beware Theater in Politics136
  • Exceptional Nations Don’t Need to Bluster141
  • Crib Sheet for the Undecided Voter145
  • This Time, Democrats Need to Keep Control of the Narrative151
  • The Tragedy of Mitt Romney155
  • Notes on London Theater159
  • My Republican Mother Says Yes to Gun Control168
  • The Children Are Watching Us171
  • Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey: Moral Hero175
  • Society Instructs Hollywood on “Moral Ambiguity” of Torture (or What the Zero Dark Thirty Controversy Means) 179
  • Memo to Mr. Scorsese: Women Are Heroes, Too 187
  • Get Thee to Geneva, Mr. Obama: Your Drone Strikes Make Targets of Us All194

* * *

Books for Our Times: Review Essays

  • The Unwinding, by George Packer201
  • Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson206
  • Capital, by John Lanchester (a novel)212
  • This Town, by Mark Leibovich219

* * *

  • Obama’s Principled “Red Line” on Syria (Which, By the Way, Worked)225
  • Hatred: The Republicans’ Core Problem230
  • Dear Banks: “Giving Back” in Philanthropy is Fine, But Also Give Us Back a Financial System We Can Trust234
  • Book Review: The Italian-American Experience—Another Immigrant Story237
  • The Power of Moral Action and “Breaking Good”: Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis240
  • Memo to Robert Gates: Duty, Sir, Lies in Getting a War’s Premise Right244
  • Dear Boeing: Next Time, Try Benevolence247
  • Why President Obama Should Have Prosecuted the Bush Administration for War Crimes—and Still Can (By Other Means)254
  • Distinguishing Between Can and Should: What a Superpower Should Be Able to Do259
  • America Can Still Lead the World—with Coalitions Abroad and by Getting Our Own House in Order265
  • Soccer’s Teamwork: Something That Works (When So Much Doesn’t)270
  • Immigration Reform: Go Incrementally, Mr. Obama,and Go Before November273
  • A Critic, a Play, and Do-It-Yourself Abortion278
  • Democrats Are “Disgusted” with Politics? Boo Hoo281
  • Madam Secretary: A Reflection of “Deep” Washington286
  • Torture Report: America Conducts a Moral Reckoning. Next, Moral Repair?290
  • Free Speech vs. Responsible Speech: We Need to Talk, Again300
  • Behemoth in a Bathrobe: A Dialogue 307
  • End-Essay: Can America Save Itself from Decline?311
  •    I. The Question311
  •    II. America’s political suicide314
  •    III. America’s economic and financial suicide316
  •    IV. America’s cultural and moral suicide317
  •    V. Recovering our moral voice and compass322
  •    VI. “The moral obligation to be intelligent”326
  •    VII. Appealing to the conscientious public—again327
  •    VIII. Honoring America’s foundational ideals—and reversing our decline329

APPENDIX
  • “Risk Management, According to Moby-Dick335
  • My letter to the Editor of The (Tacoma) News Tribune342
  • My letter to the Editor of The Seattle Times343

FOREWORD

by Carla Seaquist

The notion and reality of American decline is much on the minds of the conscientious public in this post-9/11 era. But it has also impinged on the wider public, too.

According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, asking “Do you feel America is in a state of decline?,” fully 60% to 74% of respondents said Yes, with 74% saying so in 2008, the year of the financial crash, and 60% in 2014. Equally worrying, those “not confident” their children will fare better than they fared are rapidly rising in number, from 56% in ’08 to 76% in ’14.

For those of us who grew up in the bright and prosperous post-World War II years, decline still seems unfathomable. Can we restore that bright, prosperous America?

It was only with time that I realized this question of American decline was directly or indirectly driving much of my commentary for The Huffington Post, for whom I began writing in 2009. I am grateful to The Huffington Post for granting my request to pursue my ideal beat: examining the intersection where politics, culture, ethical-moral issues, and the American character meet.

This volume collects my Huffington Post commentary from 2009 through 2014. While each commentary addresses an aspect of America in these problematic years since 9/11, the end-essay confronts the question posed in this book’s title, “Can America save itself from decline?” The several columns written for other outlets are so indicated.

In addition to The Huffington Post, I also acknowledge my former home, The Christian Science Monitor, for its useful guidance for the commentary it publishes: that it abide by a bias of hope and, no matter how bleak the examination, that it leave the reader with a constructive thought or, better, an action step. I contributed commentary to the Monitor beginning shortly after 9/11, September 11, 2001, and continuing into 2009.

It is with real pleasure that I single out Dr. Joseph Bell for special thanks. Of all the thinking Americans with whom I have chewed over the questions in this volume, Joe is the stand-out. With his expertise in politics and economics, Joe has expanded my thinking about America: that it is as much a capitalist economy as it is a democracy, that in the “great game” of Capitalism-and-Democracy, democracy must “muscle up” if it is to hold its own against the power of the dollar. In innumerable kitchen-table talks and marathon phone calls, with Joe giving capitalism the edge and me plugging for democracy, we have persuaded each other on various points and arrived at a working theory, by no means unified, of America at this hinge moment in its history. It’s been intense and fun, fun, fun. And in his inimitable way, Joe can take credit for pressing me to the conclusion: “Finish the bleeping book, Seaquist!”

I would also like to acknowledge my mother, Mildred (Millie) Lofberg. While we take opposite political tacks—she is Republican, I am Democrat—I can’t help but see in her, a member of “the Greatest Generation,” the independent and resourceful spirit that made America great, through whose eyes I view much about America today. My late father, Dr. Carl Lofberg, shared that same spirit, albeit more quietly, and was my early interlocutor on Life, etc.

And as always, I thank my excellent husband Larry. A super-active member of the conscientious public, Larry served in the Washington state legislature 2006–2014 and chaired the House committee on higher education 2010–2014. As with Joe, I have chewed over with Larry all the contents of this book. Larry is my first reader and my best friend.

Carla Seaquist
February 2015
Gig Harbor, Washington

OPENING ESSAY
Recovery Without a Reckoning

How can you have a recovery if the party that caused the crash refuses rehab?

The economy is like traffic: It moves along fine if all the moving parts adhere to the rules of the road. But introduce a speedster, driven only by his “animal spirits” and his own set of rules — by definition, ethics-free rules, heedless of others — and calamity occurs. This in jargon-free essence is what happened a year ago, when the speedsters of Wall Street caused a financial collapse that led to loss and ruin, here and across the globe.

And now, after a year of whiplash borne mainly by Main Street, “recovery” is underway, or so we’re told: The Dow climbs back toward 10,000 points — the mythical number affirming health; some banks are lending again; and productivity, consumer spending, and house purchases are creeping up for the first time since last year’s crash.

Yet without a key development — an ethical reckoning on Wall Street — this tenuous recovery will be dashed. Not only that, but a Wall Street that continues unrestrained could break the entire globalized system again — for all of us, including Wall Street — thus, not incidentally, destroying America’s chance to redeem itself for causing the current global meltdown that we, or more to the point Wall Street, started.

The ethical reckoning yet to occur is the kind best expressed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his Second Inaugural Address, in 1937. Reflecting hard elemental truths refined from the nation’s suffering in the depths of the Great Depression, he concluded:

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”

At present, this knowledge — about the destructiveness of excessive self-interest — appears confined to Main Street, passed on to us by parents who never forgot it (though some offspring did forget and, indulging in irresponsible consumption, piled up debt that helped break the system). Wall Street, though, remains untutored, also even more dangerous: After a year of bailouts and collapses, the institutions “too big to fail” are fewer now and even bigger.

Wall Street likes to tout its “talent” — its titans and traders “skilled” at the high-stakes risk-taking and deal-making deployed in pursuit of the gold. In truth, it’s a dubious and not a Nobel kind of talent — the spinning of paper, no-product deals — and it delivered us to the brink of chaos last fall.

Yet, spurning ethical rehab, Wall Street sends fleets of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to block formation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, that is, a watchdog to protect us from its predations. And, unbelievably, it is again trading in, and fighting regulation of, derivatives — the very financial instruments that sparked last year’s collapse (and whose complexity, and legitimacy, not even the “talent” can explain).

Most egregiously, after being rescued by hundreds of billions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars — wages have remained stagnant nearly 20 years — and in the televised face of mounting hardship on Main Street in lost jobs, foreclosures, and heart-in-throat anxiety, this “talent” — unwisely, not smart — proposes giving itself multimillion-dollar bonuses, bigger even than in 2007, the last high-rolling year before the collapse. Ethically, this is — no other word for it — obscene.

And for Wall Street and the media to caricature Main Street’s anger over this ethical breach as “pitchfork populism” is itself unethical: Fair play and fair reward are bedrock American values, and this is not fair, but wrong, what FDR called “bad morals.”

How can Wall Street be so deaf to the ethical injustice of its actions? It takes a “tin ear,” as New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin puts it. Sorkin describes a mentality that perceives itself as “survivors,” who escaped disaster by their own intrepidity, their talent if you will; and having saved themselves they don’t acknowledge, much less feel obliged to, the taxpayer — who performed the real rescue. Indeed, scan Sorkin’s new book Too Big to Fail, scan any remark from Wall Street, and you’ll find self-reference only — to “the bank,” “the company,” “the market” — and rare reference to “the nation” and none at all to “the commonweal.” The “animal spirits” surge more ferociously than ever.

Of course, in historical context what we’re seeing, in real-time, is the struggle between the two classic forces powering the great American experiment — Capitalism and Democracy. The story of how the dollar wins out over the commonweal, and how the unethical mentality pursues profit no matter social cost, has been told and retold by the great visionary novelists, like Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, Frank Norris in The Octopus, Theodore Dreiser in The Financier, Edith Wharton in The Custom of the Country — all written in the early 20th century and all tragedies. Will we in the 21st century write a new ending? Capitalism, powered by self-interest — of the financier, entrepreneur, worker alike — is no doubt the most productive economic system yet devised. The problem has always been, as FDR noted, excessive self-interest. Can we now contain that excess?

With Wall Street failing again in that regard, we look for reform to the political sphere. In his time FDR, characterizing monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking as “the enemies of peace,” harnessed the public’s anger and, acting as its tribune, forced reform on Wall Street, famously declaring of the monied interests “I welcome their hatred.”

President Obama has chosen a less dramatic path — moral suasion — calling the outsized bonuses “shameful” and going several times to Wall Street to appeal for change. It may be that this chess master’s method is first to try the carrot, and if that fails, the stick. Pragmatism, though unstirring, may yet be transformational; final verdicts, thick in the air, are far too premature. I do believe the former community organizer’s ethic is with the community. But Main Street increasingly doubts Mr. Obama’s closest economic advisors, formerly of Wall Street, and their allegiance to the public’s interest. And many wonder why those responsible for the collapse aren’t in jail.

In Congress, legislation to regulate the financial system inches its way forward. Perhaps Wall Street’s lobbyists can be resisted, sufficient to produce real reform, parallel to the sausage-making process that looks likely to yield real reform in healthcare, despite the obstructions of health-industry lobbyists. Yet Main Street wonders (and I quote): “Why can’t Congress just blow off the lobbyists — wasn’t that the deal?”

Which is why economist James Galbraith calls this a “dangerous time”: If the public doesn’t see constructive change, they may take destructive action. For me, the great peril if President Obama and the Congress fail is this: If the net yield of all their efforts is little reform and Wall Street is left to carry on its irresponsible, unethical ways, the responsible, ethical citizen will have to wonder: Why by responsible, why be ethical? And that would damage badly the commonweal — not that Wall Street cares, though it should.

In truth, however, legislative reform touches only behavior, not mentality. Not even FDR reformed the mentality of the moneyed interests. An ethical mentality is best activated when self-activated. Wall Street will reform its ethics when it sees it is in its self-interest.

So, instead of an appeal to principle, here is a prompt for the utility case for ethics: Unreformed, Wall Street could break, not just the commonweal, but the American brand. Unreformed, Wall Street could cause yet another global meltdown — and think what that would do for American business. Unreformed, the nation’s counting-house could very well zero itself, and the nation, out.

Some further prompts: Titans, visualize yourself as “the Savior of Wall Street,” learn probity, expand your horizons beyond the self to the nation. Board trustees, raise tougher questions about excessive risk and executive bonuses. (It amazes Main Street that apparently no board understands such bonuses might seem unseemly.) And trust-fund babies, read Sinclair, Norris, Dreiser, Wharton; read Balzac, who wrote that behind every great fortune lies a crime; and convene a family discussion on the topic, How much is enough? Rebel for a cause — the commonweal.

Only when Wall Street reforms itself, when it understands all of us — Main Street and Wall Street — are in the same boat together and vows not to capsize us again, can trust return to the system. Remember trust, the loss of which was lamented so ardently a year ago when the crash was crashing? In all the discussion about the present recovery, there’s been no sighting yet of trust.

Trust, ethics, Main Street: Ultimately, they’re too important to destroy.

The Huffington Post, Nov. 19, 2009

END-ESSAY
Can America Save Itself From Decline?

I. The Question

So, the question is: Can America save itself from decline?

The history of great nations has been one of rise and rise, then decline and fall—Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, Spain, France, Great Britain. The usual pattern entails the over-extension of empire and the over-involvement in war, with an attendant hollowing-out of institutions at home and the beggaring of the home citizenry. In America’s case, waging—and losing—too many wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq), combined with extreme political dysfunction and extreme income inequality at home, has led the nation to the cusp of decline. Some observers say we are past the cusp and are well and truly on the skids.

Wherever we are on that downward trajectory, the question—the urgent question—becomes: Does America have the capacity, and the character, and the courage to thwart the historical model and reverse its decline, to rise again?

Decline of the American enterprise is a notion that, not that long ago, would have been unfathomable to pose. America emerged victorious from the Second World War, among the Allies the most powerful and the most intact. In our economic, political, and cultural influence, the 20th century became the American Century. We were the showcase of freedom and democracy and, historically novel, a flourishing middle class. In championing human rights and the individual, we were a moral beacon to the world. Our principal rival for global influence, the Soviet Union, struggled to keep up, with its state-controlled economy, communist political system, and police state. When the U.S.S.R. imploded, in the early 1990s, America was acknowledged the victor, dubbed by international media as “the sole superpower.”

It was a short reign.

Not long after America was declared the world’s heavy-weight champion, signs of decline appeared, in the 1990s. Financial deregulation unleashed Wall Street’s “animal spirits,” leading to bubbles inflating and bursting. In Washington, give-and-take gave way to slash-andburn warfare, inaugurated by an ex-history professor (House Speaker Newt Gingrich) who might have been expected to understand decline and fall. Culturally, artists came to pride themselves on “edgy” examinations of pathological behavior; so doing, these “humanists” defined humanity downward while elevating the anti-hero and declaring moral questioning off-limits. Critics, more hip than history-minded, applauded.

Now, two decades later, American decline has become a given, a trope, a reality, with, unfortunately, a dearth of forces—economic, political, or cultural—primed and available to mount a defense.

While some Americans take offense at any mention of national decline, accusing the speaker of lack of patriotism or faith, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows a majority believes it to be true. Not the usual “wrong track/right track” question, this poll asks specifically: “Do you feel America is in a state of decline, or do you think that this is not the case?” Between 2008 and 2014, fully 60% to 74% of respondents said Yes (with 74% in ’08, the year of the financial crash, and 60% in ’14). Equally worrying, those “not confident” their children will fare better than they fared are rapidly rising in number, from 56% in ’08 to 76% in ’14. Anecdotally, in asking around, I hear the remark that civilizations come and go and perhaps it’s America’s time to go. Sadly—tragically—all this crumbling toward national decline has been self-inflicted and is not the result of external forces, such as a military invasion mounted against us or a calamity of Nature such as occurred in the Midwest during the 1930s creating the Dust Bowl.

Certainly, there was the external force of al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that inflicted the attacks of September 11, 2001 against symbolic centers of American power—New York as financial center and Washington as political-military center. But America promptly took the battle to the enemy, abroad, and decimated its leadership substantially. And now, on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, after American troops have vacated Iraq, President Barack Obama announced America will return to battle, via air strikes, to pursue and destroy an even more ferocious terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Yet, while we take objective action, away from us, against this new kind of enemy, it can be said that, subjectively, we were wounded, stricken—by fear. Especially in the tremulous aftermath of 9/11, fear lodged in our hearts—and accounts, I believe, for much subsequent bad decision-making and policy (the war in Iraq, torture).

But whatever the role of fear, what is disheartening is this: Being attacked in such horrific way—images of the twin towers of the New York Trade Center on fire and disintegrating to ground are still gut-wrenching—has not brought out the best in us. Much as America pulled together after the attack on Pearl Harbor, sacrificed, and waged a common defense against the Axis powers in the Second World War, one hoped there would be a similar pulling-together, and sacrifice, and common defense in the post-9/11 period. One hoped for our best efforts and best behavior. But, sadly, that has not been the case, in any arena—political, economic and financial, cultural and moral.

Which is why our decline, diagnosed these last few years, feels like suicide.

Our decline is due not to forces “over there,” but to forces (or lack thereof) inside. It is an internal thing, suicide. And this suicide is long, slow, and agonizing.

II. America’s political suicide

Dysfunction, if it’s in effect long enough and if it continually resists amelioration—that is, if it is not “fixed”—eventually tips over into self-destruction, and suicide. Washington seems positively bent on it.

(CONTINUED)

AUTHOR BIO

Carla Seaquist is an author, commentator, and playwright. Since 9/11 she has focused on commentary, writing on politics, culture, and ethical-moral issues, first for The Christian Science Monitor and since 2009 for The Huffington Post. An earlier book of commentary is titled Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character. She also published Two Plays of Life and Death, which includes Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks and Kate and Kafka.

Ms. Seaquist’s earlier career in civil rights culminated with the post of Equal Opportunity Officer for the City of San Diego and appointment to the Governor’s Task Force on Civil Rights. She majored in international relations in college (School of International Service, American University) and graduate school (School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University). Long a resident of Washington, D.C., she now lives in the “other” Washington (Gig Harbor), where she served on the board of Humanities Washington. Her husband Larry, a former Navy captain, served in the legislature as a state representative (Democrat) from 2006 to 2014, chairing for two terms the House committee on higher education.

            

“Carla Seaquist is an essayist in the great American tradition of plain talk, common sense, strong ethics, and an understanding that one cannot understand current politics, foreign policy or domestic travel without a deep knowledge of history. Her work is informed, readable and provocative, in the best sense—making the reader think in new ways.”
Seymour M. Hersh, investigative reporter