I don’t know if it’s because of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, or because my part of the country just went through a freak earthquake and hurricane scare in the same week, or because I’ve been watching the market a bit too closely, but the idea of American decline has been on my mind recently.
An article in this week’s New Yorker says I’m not alone. “Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat,” by Adam Gopnik, is a jaunt through the long history of American “declinism” (new word?) and the popular literature of the declinist movement.
I haven’t yet read the books Gopnik examines except Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, but the article grabbed my attention by speaking to some current cultural memes:
- Is America going down?
- Is the Western World as a whole in decline?
- Is such a decline inevitable or can we slow/stop it?
- Why are we so obsessed with envisioning our own downfall?
In addressing these questions, Gopnik and his sources come within spitting distance of describing our “Pride Cycle.” For instance, he paraphrases author/futurist George Friedman as saying:
“The one fixed pattern of modern capitalist life is that all booms become bubbles and all bubbles burst. The conflicts created by increasing prosperity tend to undermine it. A rising tide may lift all boats but rising expectations can capsize them, too.”
That’s pretty close to the circle we draw on the board in Sunday School. Righteous societies become prosperous societies become proud societies become humble(d) societies become righteous societies.
The Pride Cycle can get a write-up in The New Yorker, but we Mormons still have our own particular brand of declinism. And it’s natural—maybe even correct?—for us to dwell on it, given that the downfall of society is one of the dominant themes in our founding text. “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” is the perfect spiritual subtitle for The Book of Mormon, but when reading the book—especially the beginning part, the middle part, and the end—it’s easy to imagine an alternate subtitle being “The Rise and Fall of the People of Nephi, as Told By the Last Nephite.”
You could even make the case that declinism is right there in the name of our church. We’re the saints of the latter days. Whatever the Lord’s timeline turns out to be, our scriptures tell us that the last days will be a period of both decline and of triumph. I think we like to dwell more on the decline, perhaps because the triumph of Zion is going to involve hard work and sacrifice. And there aren’t summer blockbusters about it.
When you’re in a certain declinist state of mind, as I’ve been lately, The Book of Mormon and the warnings of modern prophets can be seen as a doctrinal justification for getting swept up in the worry over cultural decline and apocalyptic disasters—whether financial, environmental, or military. We read and hear about all three, all the time, which makes it that much easier to liken The Book of Mormon and its specific warnings to ourselves.
For instance, at this time two weeks ago, I was playing through various disaster scenarios in my mind as I tracked the path of a hurricane up the Eastern seaboard. I’ve seen enough disaster movies and read enough apocalyptic literature to be able to build vivid mental constructions in which society quickly deconstructs, especially in a place like New York City.
And yet there is reason for hope, because it hasn’t. When those summer blockbusters came true 10 years ago and lower Manhattan became a disaster area, the community and the nation didn’t come apart; we come together, if briefly. We have endured many things. On this 10th anniversary, let’s remember that, with the hope in our hearts that we might be able to endure all things.