The Decline and Fall of Something or Other

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:

  1. Is America going down?
  2. Is the Western World as a whole in decline?
  3. Is such a decline inevitable or can we slow/stop it?
  4. 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.

Comments

  1. Kyle, thanks for this. A lot of really interesting ideas in here. Between the earthquake, hurricane, and massive flooding here in the DC area in the past 10 days, it really has been reminding me a lot of the time right after 9/11 when we had the anthrax scare and then the sniper spree…a feeling of “what’s next?” I think the ultimate lesson has been one of endurance. Things get better, they even out, storms end, and calm returns. I would also hope that your point of community coming together would endure as well, but I think the jury is still out on that one. We certainly have a long way to go.

    Incidentally, you didn’t editorialize much about the “pride cycle” in the original post. It is a concept that I’ve always been uncomfortable with because it seems to teach a serious cause and effect relationship between piety and prosperity. That’s just a little too Calvin for my more deist approach to religious philosophy. I think we live in a mortal world and reap the consequences of mortality, which ultimately rely a lot more on chance than our own existential philosophies.

  2. There are definitely some ways that we have improved as a society. Yet in the two crucial ways that bring about our downfall according to the Book of Mormon, Greed and Pride, I think we are getting worse, and I don’t think we are living in a sustainable society.

    As you mention the major theme of the Book of Mormon is the rise and fall of civilizations, and it is written as a warning for us, especially against greed and pride. Yet I don’t think we are heeding the warning.

  3. Hmm, I thought righteousness = prosperity was only Calvinism when applied to individuals.

  4. I think Pres. Monson’s recent Washington Post blog article gets at the core. I think it’s too easy to focus on the external things that are or aren’t happening and have hope based on the ups in the up-and-down cycle, instead of having a more constant hope in Christ that stays regardless of whether things are stormy or calm.

    Easier said than done, of course, given our mortal natures and all….

  5. Does ‘Decline and Fall’ mean we return to where we should be? ‘Greed and Pride’ are usually why people go to college rather than getting a job(?) They want more for themselves.

  6. That’s an interesting point, Karen. Like Kristine N, I see the Pride Cycle as a way of understanding, on a macro level, why God’s people fall in and out of favor with Him. And perhaps what that means in terms of material prosperity. I would reject it as a way of evaluating individual lives, their levels of righteousness, or their favor with God.

    But I think the BoM describes the societal (macro) cause and effect in pretty stark terms.

    Bob, inscrutable as always.

  7. Has anybody noticed that the principal sin of the pride cycle appears to relate to not caring for the poor? Am I getting this wrong? because in some modern political movements, the agency not to be forced to help the poor seems to be much more important than actually trying to help the poor.

  8. As a child of the Cold War and Saturday’s Warrior, I have spent most of my life emotionally prepared for the end of the world. It has only been in the last couple years that I have begun to wrap my head around the concept that the world may not come to an end in my lifetime, or even my children’s lifetimes. Of course, subconsciously I still feel that the world is coming to an end any day now. But I make conscious efforts not to think about it. Which may or may not be an improvement. I don’t know.

  9. Thanks, Kyle. Hope to be able to endure.

  10. Kyle, thanks again. Its good to be back to BCC and coming to this post. Its also refreshing to see a rationale approach to what the WOLRD, not just America is going through right now. I

  11. I would say that the extent to which I think America’s fall is imminent is directly correlated with the amount I’ve been reading M* (not because I agree, understand, but because folks like that seem to be gaining the upper hand in our discourse).

  12. I just read Cheiko Okazaki’s opinion on the despair that seems to engulf a lot of us. She points out all the ways today is BETTER than 50 years ago, like the demise of legal segregation in America; all the temples! There is good news and I think to say there’s little reason for hope is, I believe, getting that 99 truths and one lie from Satan. Today, our Relief Society teacher spoke tearfully of how she hoped Jesus came before her grandchildren became teenagers because how could they survive the evil that’s promulgating the world? I always wonder when people say things like that, “do you believe in God?”

  13. I experienced a sense of declinism when I visited Taiwan the first time. They do so much right that we USAmericans have wrong. They have an excellent healthcare system that is organized by the government but mostly funded by employers. This makes insurance affordable for small businesses, encouraging entrepreneurship. Since we know that small business creates the most jobs, this is a huge driver to their economy. They have excellent mass transit, and recycling in a much more widespread way than we do. At the mall, the food court uses real plates to avoid generating garbage. At McDonalds, which does use their usual packaging, there is a complicated multi-part recycler with pictures to show which pieces go in which slot.

    I used to wonder how the British felt about Americans taking over as world leader. When I went to Taiwan, I knew what it felt like.

    I am not impressed at our “coming together” after 9/11 because it was brief and ineffective. After 9/11, anyone working at the trade towers could get temporary health insurance through the state. Over 1,300 cases of cancer were diagnosed, mostly in low-income folks who didn’t qualify for employer-based coverage before or couldn’t take time off for a doctor’s visit to check out the symptoms. But everyday in this country, people are diagnosed with diseases that will kill them, and do because the folks can’t afford the prescription or treatment.

  14. Thanks for your thoughts Kyle. I find it unfortunate that despite it’s poor “summer blockbuster” potential Zion doesn’t enter our conversations a bit more often. At least it hasn’t in my own experience, Elder Christofferson’s General Conference talk in October 2008 being a magnificent exception. I think your reasoning for such a lack of discussion about Zion (hard work, sacrifice) hit it right on the head. And while it certainly remains important to be informed about societal decline as it relates to “the perplexities of the nations” (D&C 88:79), I prefer to work toward the hope of Zion rather than live in the despair of collapse.

  15. Agreed on all counts, Andrew.

  16. ” I prefer to work toward the hope of Zion rather than live in the despair of collapse.”

    Like.

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