Courtesy Reuters

America Agonistes

Americans have always turned inward, into an awareness of themselves as a people-their provenance, their image in history, their mission in the world. Lately this self-awareness has taken on overtones of a sense of being at the end of the tether, a mordant feeling of disintegration and decay. In the early Republic, American nationalist identity had a healthy, assertive braggadocio about it, which seems to be replaced by a Hamlet-like loss of self-confidence, with an apocalyptic sense of doom for the civilization. On the Right it embodies a conviction that the sensate culture is pushing the society down the Gaderene slope of drugs-and-fornication to destruction. On the Left there is the vague sense that America is imperialist, fascist-oriented, caught in inner contradictions of class and ethnic struggles which will end in self-destructive wars or civil chaos.

This mood must be taken seriously as part of the image that America offers the world, especially since-as a Latin saw once put it-imaginatio facit casum: the imagination creates the event. The image most nations get of America has been largely screened and distorted by a subjective press and media elites ready to think the worst of America. It has included the convulsions and confrontations of the 1960s, the hippie culture, the squalor and bombings of the Vietnam War, the corruption of Watergate. The judgment around the world-that America was coming apart as she moved, ironically, very close to her bicentenary of 1976-has been reinforced by a self-image filled with self-pity and self-hatred.

How valid is the idea of America's decline and fall? Here the best wisdom is Blake's: "God us keep/From single vision and Newton's sleep." The single vision-whether of indictment or apologia-is the enemy. Every civilization has had its inherent discontents, but none has been as flamboyantly displayed as the American, in part because America is a goldfish bowl, even more because her mammoth outer power and technology contrast with her loss of confidence. As an inveterate civilization-watcher over the past four

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