On the Daily Mail, I posted a piece under the title “The Decline of the American Empire,” which I borrowed from a movie by Denys Arcand, the great Quebecois filmmaker. Since the the savage tone of piece appears to have precluded front-page treatment, I have revised it a bit for our website in the hope that it might spark a lively discussion. In the future, we’ll have a Chronicles blog where such discussions can be held among writers, friends, and registered regular readers.
Record numbers of American citizens and legal residents are renouncing their citizenship or turning in their Green Cards. The figures are still small–1,800 in 2010, according to a Reuters story–but that is eight times the number that renounced in 2008.
For many aspiring ex-Americans, the main reason is taxes. Many of them live and earn money abroad, but they still must file complicated US tax returns, which some see as a symbolic expression of a metastasizing bureaucracy. While Americans once celebrated the ties that bound them to their country and their fellow-citizens, many now see those ties as a snarl of red tape.
By the way, there is no red tape more complicated than what ties up paperwork needed for giving up citizenship, and, if you are rich, there is a hefty exit fee. As my colleague Chris Check pointed out to me, it is the capitalist equivalent of the Berlin Wall.
There is, however, a larger issue than taxes, one that Reuters is unlikely to touch, and that is the disaffection that many Americans have been experiencing for some years. Our moral and social landscape has been swept by a series of ideological revoutions that have reinvented marriage and the family, rejected sexual morality, abjured Western civilization, and redefined the human species.
Leftist Democrats are the worst offenders, but within a few years of every leftist moral coup, moderate and even conservative Republicans have got on board. I can still remember when Republicans actually opposed feminism, children’s rights, and same-sex marriage, and I have read of Republicans who, in the distant past of the 1950s and 1960s, even understood and endorsed the Congress’s responsibility for declaring war.
Bill Clinton, when asked which 19th century President he most admired, responded that he thought little of anything that happened before the liberation of blacks, women, and children, and Obama and his people would now include the liberation of Gays and endangered species. But Mitt Romney, when he is not wooing Southern Baptists, is far more radical than Lyndon Johnson or Hubert Humphrey. The rhetoric of both political parties now sounds more like Mao’s doctrine of perpetual revolution than anything that resonates with the American experience.
Very little that is wrong with these US of A is the fault of President Obama, but in his crude, bullying style and his utter lack of substance, the President has come to stand for all that has gone wrong. Ted Nugent, famous both as a gun-nut and as rock-and-roller, says with his usual restraint that if Obama is re-elected, he will either be dead or in jail. People who have been forced to hear Nugent’s music are hoping that the jail will be sound-proofed, but even the paranoid Nature Boy can be right once in a while.
The country I was born into no longer exists. The country in which I grew up and went to school exists only in the mind of people over 60. Small wonder that so many people I meet talk about other countries they’d like to move to.
Yes, every place we can think of has its own problems. My wife and I have for years considered–in descending order of probability–Italy, Greece, France, Montenegro, and Britain. “What?” people ask. “Italy and Greece are economic basket cases, France is overrun with Muslims, Montenegro, under its current government, resembles more a den of thieves than a European country, and Britain combines the problems of the rest with a smarmy hypocrisy in the press that is even more stifling than the atmosphere in the states.”
All this is true or, at least partly true, but there is a difference. There is more to England than economic decline and the two and a half party state, more to Montenegro than tobacco smuggling and rich Russian gangsters, and there is more going on in Italy than the struggle between an aging playboy and his communist adversaries.
I used visit my friend Peter Russell, an impoverished poet who lived in a ruined turbine shed near Figline Val d’Arno. He lived in squalor, chain-smoking, binge-drinking, and scrounging off the commune, but how I envied him. He had no TV, thought his own thoughts, wrote endless lines of verse that a few people (including Katheen Raine) admired. He spoke fluent Italian in that wretched English accent that so grates on the Italian ear, but he had something closer to a human life than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet will ever experience.
America, while it has legitimate (though fast-disappearing) traditions and a history of its own, has long prided itself on the liberties enjoyed by its citizens and by the sturdy independence of its frontier communities. Here and there the cultural Sahara of the States is dotted with a small oasis–ante-bellum Charleston, New England in the days of Hawthorne–but no one in his right mind would move here from Europe to enjoy the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright or listen to endless repetitions of Rhapsody in Blue.
What we had was a pleasant way of life, marked by political liberty and economic independence. If you want to get a sense of it, you can read the novels and stories of Booth Tarkington, the optimist who chronicled its collapse but never gave up his faith in the ability of the American character to survive even the presidency-for-life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He trained a dog to put his paws up on a chair and go throw the motions of repentance, howling piteously as Booth asked him, “Do you repent? Do yo repent of the sin of voting for FDR?”
In Tarkington ‘s “Growth Trilogy,” he depicts the transformation of the old WASP republic into a plutocracy whose values and traditions are undermined by commercialism, development, and uncontrolled immigration from southern and eastern Europe. In the Magnificent Ambersons, the best known of the three, spoiled WASP Georgie Minnafer is appalled by the riff-raff, but Tarkington sees in the immigrants a growing American spirit–they walk taller, look straighter, more independent.
To a great extent, the optimism was justified. America changed greatly between the two World Wars, but we were still recognizably American. Tarkington died when I was only a year old, and it is good that he did. Given another few decades, he might have had to go back on the bottle in order to retain his sanity, to say nothing of his optimism.
In a way, the melancholy of the conservatives is reminiscent of the hippies’ melancholia in the late 1960s. It is true that a lot of counter-culturalists were either Marxists or deracinated hedonists, but there was anothe strain is closer to Chesterton or to the Southern Agrarians than to the dispiriting socialism of the schools and the parties. You see it a little in Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider, in his speech, “This used to be a good country.” Yes, used to be.
Drugged up and living as remittance men, hippies felt lost or rather abandoned. I was always haunted by the Crosby, Stills, and Nash line, “We are leaving, you don’t need us.” It’s easy to laugh. Who would miss the denizens of the Hog Farm? But, as ignorant and foolish as they were, they knew what they disliked, and that was the Rotarian paradise of their fathers and, now, of themselves as old men.
Remember the song “Going Up the Country?”
I’m going where the water tastes like wine,
We can jump in hte country, stay drunk all the time
I’m gonna leave this city got to get away
All this fussing and fighting, man you know I sure can’t stay…
Just exactly where we’re going I cannot say
But we might even leave the USA
Cause there’s a brand new game that I want to play.
I looked up the lyrics only to be disappointed. I always remembered that last line as, “There’s a brand new game, and I don’t want to play,” which expresses my sentiments to a T.
To Ted Nugent and to all his admirers who think they can fix what is wrong with our country by swapping out Barack Obama and replacing him with Mitt Romney, all I can say comes from another pop song: “Hold on tight to your dreams.” Something may happen in the future, a serious depression or a dictatorship installed by a coup, but the America of Booth Tarkington is never coming back.
Perhaps some new variation on old American themes will be restored by an oligarchy or military coup or a religious restoration. I won’t live to see it, nor will my children. And if it does happen, that new America will resemble Tarkington’s world about as much as the world of Diocletian looked like the world of Cato the Elder or even Marcus Aurelius.
There is no need to despair, but even less to indulge in a fatuous optimism that would make one postpone making a decision until it is too late.
Anyone know of some bargain real estate in Herceg-Novi?