And now, Part 2 of the English version of Thomas Fleming's interview with the Serbian magazine Geopolitika, on the decline of America:
Geopolitika: Are you saying that the American people have been victimized by the elite classes that both control mass culture and the higher culture of universities and the arts? Is the answer some sort of populist uprising against the winning side in what you Americans call the Culture Wars, of the sort led by George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot?
Thomas Fleming: No, I think it is much too late, and it was already too late when Buchanan raised the flag of cultural rebellion. The American character is so corrupt that parents acquiesce when young children declare their intention of changing their gender, and when little Johnny, wearing a dress, demands the right to use the girl's bathroom in school, while some parents do object, they do not remove their children from a school where such a move is even being considered. In California, legislators are considering proposals to give transsexual children the right to use the wrong bathrooms.
There is a complete breakdown, not just of the moral order, but of common sense and common decency. One cannot go out to a film or most restaurants without possibly facing rudeness and indecency that would be inconceivable in a civilized country. In cities like Chicago, minority teenagers, in contact by cell phone, periodically gather to terrorize shoppers in shopping malls or in fashionable neighborhoods. Everyone feels the right to be a law unto himself, and all standards for public behavior have collapsed. A free and responsible people would not submit tamely to the outrages that most Americans meekly accept. The media and intellectual elites have, of course, promoted and encouraged the decline in every standard, but a significant percentage of the population goes along with enthusiasm, and the famous "silent majority" complains and then submits.
Geopolitika: If the academic and media elites are not primarily responsible, how do you explain the collapse of civility?
Thomas Fleming: There are many factors, but one of them, surely, is American mobility. Americans are constantly on the move. People grow up in one or two places, and then move several times in the course of a lifetime. I believe the average term of residence is about seven years. Such transients cannot put down roots. They are separated, often permanently, from family and friends. This mobility encourages irresponsibility. Suppose a married man with children is caught embezzling money from his employer and spending it on women and drugs? In a stable society, the same would be unendurable. In America, he only has to get divorced and move to California, where he can start out fresh. When Scott Fitzgerald said that in an American life there were no second acts, he was wrong in his own time and completely out of bounds today. Serial monogamy encourages people some people to lead four or five lives, completely heedless of the damage done to the children they have brought into the world. Just as bad, the American transients are losing the ability to make friends or establish a stable home. With their much-vaunted individualism and hedonism, they are perpetual adolescents, incapable of leading adult lives. Even our political leaders behave like spoiled children. Vice President Biden is forever coming out with inappropriate and silly remarks, and the President himself could not resist the temptation to do a "selfie" (take a picture of himself on his phone) at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. The "leader of the free world" flew all the way to South Africa to make a fool of himself over a Danish blond?
Geopolitika: Is this really a new phenomenon? After all, Americans have always been known as individualists and footloose wanderers. Your people were rugged individualists who pulled up stakes in Europe and came to a New World, to enjoy freedom of religion and freedom from the traditions of decadent Europe. Over the years they continued to move westward in generation after generation. Your great American hero, Daniel Boone, said that when he could see the smoke from a neighbor's cabin, he knew it was time to move.
Thomas Fleming: Like all great peoples, Americans believe the myths they have made up about themselves. There is little or no evidence to suggest that most colonial Americans came to the New World for religious or political reasons. If some in New England had opposed the English Church and the British monarchy, royalist Anglicans and Jacobite Scots had made their way to Virginia and the Carolinas.
A closer look at our colonization and migration patterns reveals a different story from the tale of rootless individualists: In many cases, towns along the Atlantic seaboard and later in the Middle West were settled by family groups and something like whole villages. Outside of Rockford, Illinois, where I have been living, there were Scottish settlements (Argyll and Caledonia) established by a group of related Lowland families who had been transported to Argyll by the Duke. When one or two had checked out the region in Illinois, they sent word back and were soon joined by their kinfolk and friends. Going West, American frontiersmen were less often lone individualists like the mythical Daniel Boone than they were men of family and community, like the actual historical Boone who became the patriarch of a settlement made up of his kinsmen and good friends.
These people were, indeed, not reliant on the government, but they were not foolish enough to face the wilderness by themselves. They relied, out of habit and of necessity, on relatives and neighbors. One of the important points made by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America was the cooperative spirit and collaborative endeavors of the Americans he found in the early 19th century. When necessity arose or trouble came, Tocqueville observed, Americans did not wait for the government to solve their problems: They banded together to build barns and stockades, protect the village, gather in the crops, and even, when faced with an outbreak of crime and violence, enforce justice by means of lynch law and vigilantism.
The myth of American individualism has obscured the reality of important events in American history. In textbooks, the opening of the Revolutionary War appears as a spontaneous uprising of Massachusetts farmers who attack British troops. In fact, as the historian David Hackett Fischer has shown in a very important book, the whole affair had been planned for years and coordinated by none other than Paul Revere, who served as the communication system between New England villages.
So it was not "rugged individualism" that made America great, but a loyalty to local communities and states and a determination to resist any growth in the central government that would encroach upon the rights of the communities. That is the significance of the 10th amendment to our Constitution, reserving all rights not specifically enumerated in the document to the states and to the people. Without the promise of this guarantee, the Constitution might not have been ratified, and even if ratified, it would not endured. Modern leftist historians do not admit this, but in the very first Congress of the United States under the Constitution, James Madison told his colleagues the government could not endure without the guarantees enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
This is a necessarily circuitous way of addressing the basic question, which is, How did America begin to decay? The answer is that the rot is not the result, primarily, of a decline in individual rights and liberties, but in the rights and liberties of communities, cities, and states, whose authority has been systematically demolished by the national government since 1865,
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.