“America is a country where the process of conflict and reconciliation, combined with the passage of time, brings out and embeds the qualities that make the United States one people and one community.” - Arthur Herman
As I drive through my boyhood neighborhood to visit my grandfather, I can’t help but notice the many American flags twisting in the wind here in the Heart of Dixie. Some of the flags truly exemplify the name “Old Glory,” worn down and weathered by time and the elements. Others, flags so new you can still see their packing creases, burst ever so bright and bold — glaring red, white, and blue in the Alabama sun.
Then suddenly, headlines from the week’s news cycle rudely intrude upon my mind’s peace:
Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at New Low!
NYT/Siena Poll Finds Widespread Distrust in Political System!
Inflation Has Outpaced Wage Growth. Now It’s Cutting Into Spending!
88 percent say US is on wrong track!
Americans divided over what US stands for on this July Fourth!
Most Trump Voters—and Almost as Many Biden Supporters—Would Support Secession!
Condition of economy 'terrible' as inflation hits fresh 40-year high!
I snap back to the reality of my old neighborhood, American flags still flying as I follow roads I could drive in my sleep. You can almost smell the freshly manicured front lawns through the windshield. On any given Saturday morning, it’s not unusual to see kids racing their bikes up and down the sidewalks while elderly couples stroll leisurely hand in hand, sometimes with a little dog sniffing at their side.
“How could the sound and fury of the news cycle,” I ask myself, “have anything to do at all with this place?”
I pass my old house and see that the magnolia tree my mother planted 20 years ago now nearly looks taller than the home itself. Memories of laying the kitchen brick floor with my parents spring to life. I wonder if the chalkboard wall is still up in the kitchen — and how many stories have been etched and erased there since my family’s departure seven years ago? The bricks and sticks of the house my parents built may change with new families and renovations, but the heart of that place I will always call home remains.
I imagine there are many such neighborhoods, houses, homes, and families in our great American nation. Some may be richer. Some may be poorer. Memories, good and bad. But the underlying fabric of our many households — separate, sometimes seemingly mutually exclusive threads — all wrap around one another into a larger standard. Together they create an abiding series of tensions in a larger tapestry no American alone could have begun to design. The apparent paradoxes and conflicts that trouble the American heart are really deeply abiding harmonies. If only more of us had the eyes to see the surface of its tensions, our pursuits would be all the more hopeful.
The American heart has always quivered fast and slow with fear and vaunting, worry and woe, war, plague, pestilence, struggle, strife, and sin. Many have predicted its demise. But somehow the American heart still beats strong despite the well-worn changes to our nation’s home.
Yet maybe the arrhythmia that afflicts the American heart in 2022 is indeed some kind of telltale before our final death knell. No trust, no love, know-nothing news and an ever-cheaper dime isn’t a recipe anyone wishes to stomach. Nearly everyone agrees we’re on the wrong track. Shouldn’t we just go ahead and flip the titled tables and call the game rigged?
Haven’t the institutional pathologies of racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality and the rest of America’s many bloody conquests made us all irredeemably guilty? Isn’t it time for a fundamental transformation? Can’t you see how greedy capitalists have ravaged the planet and destroyed that delicate balance between ourselves and Mother Nature? Haven’t you heard the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer and that male-dominated, capitalist white supremacy has its knee on your neck? Have you already forgotten George Floyd? Don’t you know 1619 is our nation’s true founding upon the bedrock of slavery? Don’t you agree it's time to tear down the statues of our evil forefathers and replace them with better men? Don’t you understand that the atavistic, reactionary right must always be treated as the hungry wild wolf crouching at your door past, present, and future?
And speaking of the reactionary right, even they say this great American nation — like many great nations of the past — is caught up in an inevitable cycle of degradation, demoralization, and decline due to the unbridled decadence of its citizens and the globalist elite. Capitalism and liberal democracy have unmoored us from our traditions and spared us our religion, they are quick to say. Don’t you recognize your forefathers were better men than you in every way? Don’t you remember that weak men create hard times? What was it about “men without chests,” that old C.S. Lewis line? Have you already forgotten what Edward Gibbon wrote about Rome’s fall or what that Roman Polybius himself foresaw? Can’t you see there’s a hole in the soul of the West, especially America?
Point is that many pessimists on the left and right are, for very different reasons, predicting (and some actively cheering) America’s decline and demise. And they’re not completely wrong in their critiques. The bad news is America’s institutions are indeed failing many Americans today. But these prophets of doom aren’t fully right either. The good news is this is all nothing new — neither the predictions of decline nor the failing institutions. We’ve been here before only to adapt and overcome.
“Regardless of the country, regardless of the era, and regardless of political persuasion,” writes the historian Arthur Herman in his first (and some would argue his best) book, The Idea of Decline in Western History, “all these authors have shared the same prophetic vision: the capitalist bourgeois civilization of their day, whether in 1846, 1886, 1946 or 1996, is doomed to self-destruction.”
The best news is that from 1846 to 2022 these predictions of decline and self-destruction have missed the mark. From eco-pessimist fears of climate disaster to cultural pessimism’s obsession with identity politics to the many conservative theories of decadence, the United States has survived so far.
Because the American heart was originally forged and has been recast time and time again in the fire and ice of conflict and reconciliation — each time to uphold American life and liberty so that men may be free to make their own mark on history’s march. The American heart does not play victim to history but instead holds an enduring faith in a free people’s capacity to master history, to brave and tame the unknown.
Despite the sound and fury of our politics, despite our warranted distrust of our institutions, such things can be remade in the light of our best traditions and qualities tested by the passage of time.
Let us remember in the coming political and cultural conflicts why we fight and brave adventure in the first place: to eventually find our way back home. As long as everyday Americans still see the thread of their lives and the story of their households as part of Old Glory, nothing is truly lost. Even if a well-worn and weathered flag must be taken down, it’s only to make room for the same reborn anew.
Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and currently, the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 9 am-12 noon. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback please email [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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