Myth of Americans Decline: A Response

Rob Asghar responded to my article (which was in response to his article). Given the depth & courtesy of his response, I’m going to post it here (along with my response and his further follow-up). Such dialogue deserves to be heard so that opinions can be heard (before being declared null). If you haven’t, you can read his original article at CNN and my criticisms here.

Rob –
Mr. Kokko, thanks for sending along your article. Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding, as I haven’t been regularly checking the account to which you wrote.

I’m happy to let you make fun of the quality of my writing. All I meant about Americans being unambivalently American is that the French don’t share that quality and the Iranians weren’t able to share it and the Pakistanis couldn’t either, and that ambivalence often results in nations reversing their course. In the same way, China and India are having passionate debates about whether they truly want to globalize in a manner that makes them more American.

America may well be “off its game” right now; that’s far from saying that it’s in irreversible relative decline. Churchill noted that war is a catalog of blunders; you may be sensitive to the blunders we’re making, but you have to be mindful of the bumblings of the others.

Since my article ran, we’ve seen all of the much-hyped BRIC nations dealing with a variety of economic and political dysfunctions of their own. China’s health-care system is a catastrophe, its food supply is poisoned, its people are increasingly agitating against their leaders, and they face dilemmas relating to an aging workforce, insufficient jobs for college grads, environmental disasters, commodity bubbles and massive political corruption.

We should bear in mind that the most optimistic scenario for China involves it catching up to America’s current living standards if, and only if, it can sustain high growth for four more decades. Its growth is already weakening. And the rise of customized 3D manufacturing technologies threatens to undercut its greatest economic edge.

Meanwhile, the Economist, which has given great attention to the “Indian Miracle,” has recently written a few pieces that say, essentially, “never mind,” based on India’s own environmental challenges and corruption and a host of other messes. And Russia is staggering and Brazil is wheezing. We are accustomed to overhyping the ability of others to work harder and smarter than us; that’s a healthy insecurity, but I don’t see why the future looks brighter in, say, India, where 600 million people lack sanitary toilets and where corruption is not just tolerated but expected.

Finally, I found it odd that you reacted harshly to the person who commented on your post. His vitriol seemed no match for what you displayed toward me. If that’s your way of being a good Christian, then bless you on your way….

Me –

A response, especially one so late, wasn’t really anticipated so I’ll offer the kindness of responding and do you the courtesy of posting your response to the article.

First off, I must confess that I am [obviously] brutal in my criticisms of major media journalists. This is intentional. Journalists deserve to held to a higher standard, and especially those belonging to major media outlets. I can’t apologize for that standard but perhaps I can offer an apology for being…. what’s a good phrase….hot penned? In my angst towards corporate media outlets that are driven more by money than facts, I am zealous to the point that I can forget to temper honesty with sensitivity. Journalists are people too. The depth of your reply [which I’ll respond to] shows character and that is commendable. I should be more tempered with my criticisms and for that I apologize.

Now, moving on….

I am still utterly confused on what you mean by ‘America being the closest thing to a society that unambivalently enjoys being American”. I’m confused as to what quality or characteristic in American culture you’re referring to hence the statement in its context is…well, rather zen in its meaning. Having read it a second (and third) time just now, I’m gathering the perception that you perhaps mean that America, unlike some other countries, rather likes what it is/has in comparison to other global identities. If that is your intended meaning, I understand your statements more. I would disagree with such on the basis that the majority of Americans are globally ignorant (but I digress).

I would agree with the fact that America is “off its game” but I’m not quite sure it was ever on it. I say that solely on the basis of history from a morality perspective knowing that morality severely influences all manner of politics. Congressional insider trading, unjustified bank bailouts, that joke of a scolding JP Morgan recently received in the congressional hearing, etc… Our government is no position to turn around a socio-economic decline. Even if they could, what does it mean if it’s done without integrity? We hide a lot of self-righteous justification (among other things) behind the patriotic red, white and blue colors of our flag. Despite the conditions (in some cases atrocities) of other countries, our scorecard isn’t optimistic because other countries are not the standard by which we should measure.

The previous poster was just trolling (and you should have seen the profanities spewed that I didn’t post). You I imagined to be thicker skinned. But alas, I shouldn’t be so quick to swing the sword so that loving my neighbor as myself will make me a better Christian.

Best Regards,
./Jon Kokko
Rob –

Thanks, Mr. Kokko. There are many things I’d agree with in what you wrote. And I think you’re getting closer to what I meant about whether someone “wants” to be American. French people hated the creeping of the quintessentially American golden arches into their society; fundamentalist Islamists resented seeing women wearing Americanized garb on Tehran streets; many Indians and Chinese today see commodity capitalism, which they view as utterly American, as a curse on their nation rather than a blessing.

America has its glaring faults, and I’m quite circumspect about American exceptionalism. But If America has never even been “on” its game, then I’m not sure decline is even an issue. My own concern is the emerging myth that India and China are superior in all the important ways to America, and that they will inexorably pass us by. Major journalists and policymakers hype this myth. A colleague in DC talks about how the think-tankers there speak wistfully of how America is handing the mantle of free-world leadership to India. In this way, they show great ignorance of what is happening in such nations. This also feeds into a sense of futility among Americans, which absolves our politicians from doing the next right thing, since we’re “doomed” anyway (in which case people are reduced to acting like vultures picking at the carcass of what’s left). I think we can do better.


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