The passing of the present and the decline of America
“I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel about the World War II bombing of the German city of Dresden appeared the year I graduated from West Point. While dimly aware that its publication qualified as a literary event, I felt no urge to read it. At that moment, I had more immediate priorities to attend to, chief among them: preparing for my upcoming deployment to Vietnam.
Had I reflected on Vonnegut’s question then, my guess is that I would have judged the present to be both very wide and very deep and, as a white American male, mine to possess indefinitely. Life, of course, was by no means perfect. The Vietnam War had obviously not gone exactly as expected. The cacophonous upheaval known as “the Sixties” had produced considerable unease and consternation. Yet a majority of Americans — especially those with their hands on the levers of political, corporate, and military power — saw little reason to doubt that history remained on its proper course and that was good enough for me.
In other words, despite the occasional setbacks and disappointments of the recent past, this country’s global preeminence remained indisputable, not just in theory but in fact. That the United States would enjoy such a status for the foreseeable future seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, if any single nation prefigured the destiny of humankind, it was ours. Among the lessons taught by history itself, nothing ranked higher or seemed more obvious. Primacy, in other words, defined our calling.
Any number of motives, most of them utterly wrong-headed, had prompted the United States to go to war in Vietnam. Yet, in retrospect, I’ve come to believe that one motive took precedence over all others: Washington’s fierce determination to deflect any doubt about this country’s status as history’s sole chosen agent. By definition, once U.S. officials had declared that preserving a non-communist South Vietnam constituted a vital national security interest, it became one, ipso facto. Saying it made it so, even if, by any rational calculation, the fate of South Vietnam had negligible implications for the wellbeing of the average American.
As it happened, the so-called lessons of the Vietnam War were soon forgotten. Although that conflict ended in humiliating defeat, the reliance on force to squelch doubts about American dominion persisted. And once the Cold War ended, taking with it any apparent need for the United States to exercise self-restraint, the militarization of American policy reached full flood. Using force became little short of a compulsion. Affirming American “global leadership” provided an overarching rationale for the sundry saber-rattling demonstrations, skirmishes, interventions, bombing campaigns, and large-scale wars in which U.S. forces have continuously engaged ever since.
Simultaneously, however, that wide, deep, and taken-for-granted present of my youth was slipping away. As our wars became longer and more numerous, the problems besetting the nation only multiplied, while the solutions on offer proved ever flimsier.
The possibility that a penchant for war might correlate with mounting evidence of national distress largely escaped notice. This was especially the case in Washington where establishment elites clung to the illusion that military might testifies to national greatness.
Somewhere along the way — perhaps midway between Donald Trump’s election as president in November 2016 and the assault on the Capitol in January of this year — it dawned on me that the present that I once knew and took as a given is now gone for good. A conclusion that I would have deemed sacrilegious half a century ago now strikes me as self-evident: The American experiment in dictating the course of history has reached a dead-end.
How could that have happened over the course of just a few decades? And where does the demise of that reassuring present — arrangements that I and most other Americans once took to be fixed and true — leave us today? What comes next?
“So it goes.” As Vonnegut recounts the journey of his time-traveling protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse-Five, that terse phrase serves as a recurring motif. It defines Vonnegut’s worldview: fate is arbitrary, destiny inexplicable, history a random affair. There is no why. Whatever happens, happens. So it goes.
Such sentiments are deeply at odds with the way Americans are accustomed to thinking about past, present, and future. Since the founding of our republic, if not before, we have habitually imputed to history a clearly identifiable purpose, usually connected to the spread of freedom and democracy as we understand those concepts.
Yet as crises without easy solutions continue to accumulate, Vonnegut’s cynicism – tantamount to civic blasphemy — might warrant fresh consideration. “So it goes” admits to severe limits on human agency. While offering little in terms of remedies, it just might offer a first step toward recovering a collective sense of modesty and self-awareness.
Because he’s president, Joe Biden must necessarily profess to believe otherwise. By any objective measure, Biden is a long-in-the-tooth career politician of no particular distinction. He is clearly a decent and well-meaning fellow. Yet his prior record of substantive achievement, whether as a long-serving senator from Delaware or as vice president, is thin. He is the Democratic Party’s equivalent of a B-list movie actor honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in tribute to his sheer doggedness and longevity.
That said, some Americans entertain high hopes for the Biden presidency. Especially in quarters where Trump Derangement Syndrome remains acute, expectations of Biden single-handedly charting a course back from the abyss toward which his predecessor had allowed the nation to drift are palpable. So, too, is the belief that he will thereby reconstitute some version of American political, economic, and military primacy, even in a world of Covid-19, climate change, a rising China, and a host of other daunting challenges. Despite this very tall order, “so it goes” can have no place in Biden’s lexicon.
During its decades-long interval of apparent global dominion, American expectations about the role presidents were to play grew appreciably. Commentators fell into the habit of referring to the occupant of the Oval Office as “the most powerful man in the world,” presiding over the planet’s most powerful nation. The duties prescribed by the U.S. Constitution came nowhere near to defining the responsibilities and prerogatives of the chief executive. Prophet, seer, source of inspiration, interpreter of the zeitgeist, and war-maker par excellence: presidents were expected to function as each of these.
In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt boosted the morale of Depression-era Americans by assuring them that they had a “rendezvous with destiny.” At the very moment when he entered the White House in 1961, John F. Kennedy thrilled his countrymen with a pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden, [and] meet any hardship” to prevent the extinction of liberty itself globally. In his second inaugural address, delivered in the midst of two protracted wars, George W. Bush announced to his fellow citizens that “ending tyranny in our world” had become “the calling of our time.” Even today, tyranny shows no signs of disappearing. Even so — and notwithstanding four years of Donald Trump — the delusion that presidents possess visionary gifts persists. And so it goes.
As a result, whether he likes it or not — and he probably likes it quite a lot — observers are looking to Biden to demonstrate similarly prophetic gifts. Even though expressing himself in less than soaring terms, he’s sought to oblige. According to the president, the United States — and by implication the world as a whole — has today arrived at an “inflection point,” a technocratic tagline that’s become a recurring motif for both him and his administration.
That “inflection point” conveys little by way of poetry in no way diminishes its significance. Quite the opposite, it expresses Biden’s own sense of the historical moment. Implicit in the phrase is a sense of urgency. Also implicit is a call to action: “Here we are. There is where we need to go. Follow me.” Consider it the very inverse of “so it goes.”
Given both Biden’s advanced age and his party’s precarious majority in Congress, not to mention the legions of Americans hankering to return Donald Trump to the White House, the opportunity to act on this imagined inflection point may well prove fleeting at best, nonexistent at worst. If Republicans gain control of the Senate or House of Representatives next year, “so it goes” may become the mournful refrain of a lame-duck presidency. Hence, Biden’s understandable determination to seize the moment, before rising inequality at home, a rising China abroad, rising seas everywhere, and a potentially resurgent Trumpism swamp his administration.
So even though the Biden team is not yet fully in place, the inflection point already finds expression in three distinct commitments. Together, they give us a sense of what to expect from this administration — and what we should worry about.
The first commitment bears the imprint of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It assumes that vigorous government action under Washington’s benign and watchful eye can indeed repair a battered and broken economy, restoring prosperity, while redressing deep inequities. Given the necessary resources, that government can solve problems, even big ones, has for more than a century been a central precept of American liberalism. To demonstrate liberalism’s continued viability, Biden proposes to spend trillions of dollars to “build back better,” while curbing the excesses of a neoliberalism to which his own party contributed mightily. The spending and the curbs inevitably elicit charges that Biden has embraced socialism or something worse. So it goes in American politics these days.
The second commitment that derives from Biden’s inflection point centers on the culture wars. Its progressive purpose is to supplant a social order in which white heterosexual males (like Biden and me) have enjoyed a privileged place with a new order that prizes diversity. Creating such a new order implies expunging the non-trivial vestiges of American racism, sexism, and homophobia. Given trends within late modernity that emphasize autonomy and choice over tradition and obligation, this effort may eventually succeed, but rest assured, such success will not come anytime soon. In the meantime, Biden will catch all kinds of grief from those professing to cherish a set of received values that ostensibly formed the foundation of the American Experiment. So it goes.
The third commitment deriving from that inflection point relates to America’s once-and-future role in the world. Suffused with nostalgia, this commitment seeks to return the planet to the heyday of American dominion, putting the United States once more in history’s driver’s seat. Reduced to a Bidenesque bumper sticker, it insists that “America is back.” With decades of foreign policy experience to draw on, the president appears committed to making good on that assertion.
His much ballyhooed first trip abroad put this aspiration on vivid display, while also revealing its remarkable hollowness. As a start, Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a vapid revision of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, in essence posing as ersatz versions of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Few who witnessed the charade were fooled.
Then Air Force One delivered the president to Brussels where he cajoled the members of NATO into tagging China as a looming threat. Doing so meant ignoring the ignominious failure of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and disregarding French President Emmanuel Macron’s reminder that “NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic,” whereas China just happens to be located on the other side of the world.
The pièce de résistance came when Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a nearly substance-free “summit” in Geneva. Possessing neither the drama of Kennedy vs. Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, nor the substance of Ronald Reagan’s encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, it proved an empty show, even if it did play to a full theater.
Still, the entire trip and the bloated media coverage it generated were instructive. They illuminated what Biden’s inflection point truly signifies for America’s role in the world. The Biden administration yearns to reinstall familiar verities dating from World War II and the Cold War as the basis of U.S. policy. Many members of the press corps share that yearning. Hence the inclination to define the present age in terms of a new Cold War version of great-power competition, while paying little more than lip service to the need for fresh thinking and vigorous action on matters like climate change, environmental degradation, refugee flows, and nuclear proliferation.
Modeled at least in part on a New Deal that Americans remember fondly but inaccurately, Biden’s economic policies will in all likelihood promote growth and reduce unemployment. Even taking into account the risk of unintended consequences such as inflation, the effort is probably worth undertaking.
By wading into the culture wars, Biden might also bring the country closer to fulfilling the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No doubt arguments about the proper meaning of freedom and equality will continue. But the correct goal is not utopia. Merely reducing the gap between professed ideals and prevailing practice will suffice. Here, too, the effort is at least worth undertaking.
When it comes to America’s role in the world, however, it becomes difficult to profess even modest optimism. If Biden clings to a calcified and militarized conception of national security — as he appears intent on doing — he will put his entire presidency at risk. Rather than restoring American primacy, he will accelerate American decline.
Harkening back to where the nation was when I received my commission in 1969, I’m struck today by how little we Americans learned from our Vietnam misadventure. Pain did not translate into wisdom. That we have learned even less from our various armed conflicts since appears only too obvious. When it comes to war, Americans remain willfully and incorrigibly ignorant. We have paid dearly for that ignorance and will likely pay even more in the years ahead. So it goes.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.