Spoiler alert: This is not going to be a happy column. It might even qualify as a bummer. If you need something to cheer you up, you might want to move on to another page.
On the other hand, misery loves company. So you might want to read on if you, too, find yourself increasingly troubled these days by persistent feelings that we are experiencing — I don’t know what else to call it — the decline of our American civilization.
Yes, decline. But hopefully not fall.
There have been great societies throughout history: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Napoleonic France, The British Empire. You name it. All have risen. And then all of them, without exception, have fallen by the wayside. And I find myself increasingly bugged by a fear that this American society that we all have loved so much is on its own scary downhill slide.
And it’s not just me. When I expressed some of these grim emotions the other day at a gathering of friends, I was surprised by the number of nodding heads.
“I couldn’t agree more,” one of them told me after taking me aside later. “I’m not just talking about the current occupant of the White House — though it was not easy to control my disgust at that recent so-called victory celebration. I mean, instead of rising to the occasion and maybe calling for reconciliation and national unity or whatever, he spent an hour bragging about himself, accusing his opponents of ‘bullshit,’ and calling them childish names that would embarrass a third-grade playground bully.”
Pretty strong feelings. But it goes beyond that — and beyond our sorry impeachment polarization, regardless of which side you’re on.
I happen to have been born in the middle of World War II (do the math), when the United States was in the midst of rescuing the globe, preserving Western Civilization, and was about to emerge as the object of tremendous universal respect, gratitude and envy.
And now, just one human lifetime or so later? Draw your own conclusions. But I thought one little piece of news footage that was surreptitiously filmed a month or so ago spoke volumes. It showed several of the most prominent leaders of modern-day Europe huddled around a table and laughing at our leader behind his back.
But never mind the rest of the world. Never mind current politics or politicians. What about we ourselves, the American people? How does our domestic world compare to that of our grandparents or great-grandparents? Take a look around.
Just the other day, my wife, Brenda, went down to the Sunrise Theater to watch a showing of the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Afterward, she couldn’t get over what a different world it portrayed.
“Everything was terribly dated, of course,” she said. “But there was just such a difference about how people treated other people — even those of different races. They all dressed for dinner. When they were introduced, they addressed each other as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ Everyone was just exceptionally well-mannered. ‘Would you like a drink?’ … ‘No thank you, Mrs. Drayton.’ Men stood when women entered the room, and so on.”
I know just what she meant. It’s the same feeling I get whenever I look at something like a faded 1940s photograph of folks standing outside a movie
theater or wherever — with the women wearing dressy blouses and skirts and hats, and the men all decked out in suits, vests and ties. Compare that with today. Sorry, but we appear to be turning into a nation of slobs.
Consider some other trends.
I’ve written before about growing up in small-town Missouri and spending a lot of time on my grandparents’ dairy farm — and how much I regret that my own children never had that kind of cherished experience. That’s all part of a pattern, of course. Family farms, the soil from which so much of America’s national root system drew its strength, are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Well more than half of North Carolina’s counties, mostly the rural ones, are now losing population, leaving a growing sense of desolation.
So many of the small towns that served their rural surroundings are also fading away.
And in turn, the malls that lured away the business of so many downtowns are themselves too often in trouble as more of us order our clothes and stuff online. (Macy’s, as it happens, announced just last week that it is closing more than 100 stores.)
Then there’s the subject of military service, which used to be a unifying rite of passage for so many millions of us. But now it’s experienced by less than 1 percent. Instead of defending ourselves, we now seem to depend on a bunch of career strangers.
I could go on, but enough.
Is change itself necessarily bad? Of course not. But in terms of our national character and behavior and set of values, I just find it harder and harder to believe that this is the kind of America our Founding Fathers had in mind.
Please set me straight.
Steve Bouser is the retired editor and Opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.