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The End of the American Century

Is the United States still the storied melting pot of cultures, or is it developing into something more?

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Takeaways


  • "Blue America" is much further along than "Red America" in its adaptation to America's waning global clout.
  • Today, Americans can profit by being takers as much as givers. Americans have the opportunity to receive the gifts of others, just as others once relied on the gifts of Americans.
  • California is a shameless borrower and mixer of multicultural styles and habits.
  • Henry Luce and others of his view, in tying America's progress and happiness as a civilization to the condition of America's global dominance, were profoundly wrong.

If 21st century America tries to cling to the America that once was, then the prospect is for pain and misery.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. Politics in a democracy, Emerson once said, is a contest between memory and hope.

A hopeful, forward-looking narrative can also be found for an ‘After America’ world. In this narrative, the "Who lost America?" debate ends, how ever it might have started — not on notes of bitterness and division, but on a recognition that America is living in a new age and has to start making some rather large cognitive adjustments.

This America becomes, as it must, post-arrogant, leaving behind the ethos of hyper hubris ingrained in Henry Luce's vision of America as teacher and preacher to the world. The adjustments must start with a new vocabulary — a new way of talking about America's 21st-century place in the world.

During its global ascendancy, culminating in the American Century, America was a giver to the rest of the world. America offered a model of democratic politics and a vital cultural style evident in distinctive architecture, music, literature and even philosophy. And these were not loans, on which interest was charged, but gifts.

There was no charge to a society that sought to emulate the American way, in the belief that this was indeed the best way.

The American ascendancy found sustenance in Emerson's dictum "Never imitate." This was necessary advice to a youthful civilization still in thrall to European ways. But that America no longer exists.

Today, Americans can profit by being takers as much as givers. Americans have the opportunity to receive the gifts of others, just as others once relied on the gifts of Americans.

I am not saying that America should become a nation of imitators in a reversal of Emerson's imperative. Rather, I am saying that America could benefit from an infusion of fresh ideas.

One reason California remains so successful in the 21st century — its current fiscal ailments notwithstanding — is that it already thinks and behaves this way, as a shameless borrower and mixer of multicultural styles and habits.

Americans everywhere need to take a cue from this and open their eyes to see how others are doing certain things better than they are.

The world abounds in such examples, like the French healthcare system, the regional government city-state model of Stuttgart, flex-fuel cars in Brazil and the wireless wonders of South Korea.

If Americans continue to dismiss such examples, they are really only damaging their own prospects. Americans will have won this mental struggle when they come to accept that Henry Luce and others of his view, in tying America's progress and happiness as a civilization to the condition of America's global dominance, were profoundly wrong.

The adjustment that America must make is a society-wide one — there is no part of American life that can escape this world. That may sound daunting, but the process of adjustment can start with individuals, with families, with communities.

A key part in all this is the shift away from the traditional ethos of the melting pot toward a more multicultural world. This transition is already evident in California. I grew up with the melting pot mindset, and like many native-born Americans of my generation, I sometimes feel disoriented by its demise.

Still, the multicultural society brings its rewards. I like being in American cities and suburbs where different languages are spoken on the street, even if I only understand fragments. I like the Southern California experience of dinner and a margarita or two in a Mexican restaurant, followed by a drive with the car radio set to a Spanish-language music station.

I understand that this is a matter of personal taste, but even those more anxious than I am about the coming of multicultural America might reflect that the dire consequences predicted by so many analysts and politicians have yet to come to pass.

While multiculturalism might make America more like Western Europe, Canada, and Australia, the American version of the multicultural society will no doubt be distinctive.

This world is most threatening to the Republican Party, because it is this party, the party of Red America, that is most deeply invested in the myth of American Exceptionalism. What story do the party's stalwarts tell themselves as Washington finds it ever more difficult to boss around lesser powers and manage America's "democratic empire?"

At this point, they are deeply in denial, believing against all evidence that the planet is as enthralled with the American way of life as it has ever been.

The Democratic Party ought to have an easier time of adjustment to the After America world. "Blue America" is much further along than "Red America" in its adaptation to America's waning global clout.

There is already a cosmopolitan, secular stamp to the party elite and to the wealthier, better-educated Democratic voters in the cities and suburbs of Blue State America, from Boston to Seattle.

A certain type of Democratic voter — the environmentalist, pro-choice, pro gay rights, UN-embracing type of voter — has counterparts across the Atlantic on the European continent and in the British Isles, as well as in Canada, South Africa, and Australia. The party's traditional sources of progressive ideas are happily casting their eyes overseas for good policy solutions.

Editor's Note: This feature is adapted from "After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age" by Paul Starobin. Copyright 2009 by Paul Starobin. Reprinted with permission of Viking Press.

The second and final part of this series will be published on The Globalist Monday, June 1.

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