Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Real Mexico

I was sitting in the back of Santa Lucia church, in Mérida, Mexico, waiting for the mass to finish so I could meet my wife and head to a nice brunch at La Chaya Maya.  The priest, vested in green, wandered down the aisle, came up to great me, and asked where I was from. After a few pleasantries he asked “so what about this Trump?”  I expressed my dismay and embarrassment about this president who has spoken so crudely and rudely about Mexicans.  “But it is the interaction of ordinary people that is most important,” responded the padre, and he gave me a reassuring pat on the arm.

We were in Mérida for the month of January, missing the grey chill of Indiana’s winter but also the inauguration, the women’s march, and the steady stream of stupefying comments and actions by the new American president. Not surprisingly, all of this attracted much attention in Mexico, both in the mass media and in the streets.  This was particularly the case with Trump’s very undiplomatic phone call with the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto (when he threatened—or joked?—that the U.S. might have to send troops to Mexico to deal with the “bad hombres” there); the President’s continuing demands that Mexico should pay for the wall; his threat to dismantle the North American Free Trade Agreement; and his ban on refugees.

Of course, none of this went down well with Mexicans.  The press was full of articles dismissing or ridiculing the President and his policies.  Peña Nieto, who’s own approval ratings in Mexico are only at about twenty percent, saw a surge in his popularity after he cancelled his visit to Washington and spoke up for Mexico’s “dignity” and “sovereignty.” In Mérida, where we had seen weekly protest marches against the recent increase in gasoline prices, now the marches often included anti-Trump banners and speeches as well.

My wife and I worried a bit that some of this anti-U.S. sentiment would spill over onto us, but it did not in the least.  Mexicans always treated us with kindness and respect and, with the exception of the priest, did not even raise the issue of Trump unless we did first.  Even then, they were uniformly restrained in their criticism, at least with us, reflecting a kind of politeness and civility that has been entirely missing in the rhetoric of our new president.  At one point, when I was waiting in a bus station, and Trump appeared on the television there, bombastic as usual, I rolled my eyes in embarrassment.  A Mexican man sitting nearby exchanged glances; I said “lo siento” (I’m sorry).  “No se preocupe,” he responded—don’t worry. I wonder how Americans would have responded to Mexicans if their president were publicly insulting and threatening the U.S.

During the campaign, candidate Trump castigated Mexicans for being “rapists” and criminals, though he conceded that “some” might be good people.  Indeed, in the hateful and fearful climate of the U.S. this year, more than one person expressed concern about our safety in travelling to Mexico.  But our experience in Mérida (with over one million residents) was a city that was peaceful and “tranquil” (a word often used by locals) and even joyful.  On Sunday mornings, the city center is closed off to traffic, so people can bicycle and skate in a circular route.  Whole families rent bikes and pedal around for hours.  In the evening, with the main streets still closed, restaurants move their tables out into the streets, street musicians play, and bands play in the public squares and parks while people (including a lot of old folks) dance on stages set up for the purpose.  People interact with each other, in community, in ways that seem to have disappeared in most of the U.S. 

As to the violence:  there was not a single homicide in Mérida during January, while in our hometown of Indianapolis, every few days there was a report of yet another murder.  We both felt safer in Mérida at night than we would in Indianapolis. Statistical comparisons (e.g. the web site Numbeo), bear this out: overall crime rates in Indianapolis are “high” and those in Mérida “very low.”

Mexico is our neighbor, and one of this country’s oldest and closest friends.  After China and Canada, it is our largest trade partner.  Over 30 million Hispanics of Mexican origin live in the U.S.  Some 25 million Americans visit Mexico each year and about a million live there.  Mexican immigrants to the U.S. have contributed enormously to our economy and our culture.  The U.S. should embrace this relationship and foster it.  At the moment, Washington, and especially our President, is poisoning it.

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Hidden Figures, Blind Bias

After seeing the film “Hidden Figures,” my 9-year-old granddaughter Katie sent me an enthusiastic voice message, and then asked me a question that took me aback: “Did you ever see a Colored water fountain?”

 I grew up in Virginia in the 1950s, so intellectually I know there were segregated water fountains in those days.  But I could not actually remember seeing one.  How could this be?  I think the answer is that such things were such a normal part of the environment in the segregated south that they weren’t considered anything special.  Segregation, racism, bigotry and bias were the norm, and one doesn’t take much notice of things that are normal and routine.

            About 10 years ago, another film sparked a similar epiphany in me. “Remember the Titans” (2000) recounts the true story of an African-American football coach trying to integrate the team at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria Virginia in 1971.  Watching this film, I was stunned and incredulous.  I graduated from McLean High School, just a few miles from Alexandria, in 1965.  Wasn’t McLean High School integrated by then, I asked myself? 

 After all, I started high school seven years after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision (Brown vs. Board of Education) that required the desegregation of public schools in the United States.  I knew all this intellectually.  As a professor of political science, I knew my constitutional history.

            While watching “Remember the Titans,” I racked my brain trying to think of African-Americans who must have been my high school classmates.  I couldn’t think of one.  I called my sister, who graduated from the same high school four years later.  She thought there might have been one or two African-Americans when she was there.  We finally resorted to our accumulated high school yearbooks, scanning for darker faces.  I didn’t find a single one in any of my four yearbooks.  My sister finally found one, a girl, in hers. 

            It finally occurred to me, 35 years after the fact, that I had attended an all-white, segregated high school.  But I had not realized it at the time.  White was normal, so what was there to notice?  Segregation and racism was the norm, and therefore unexceptional and unmemorable.

            In the aftermath of this stunning revelation, I began to read about the history of school desegregation, and learned about the campaign of “massive resistance” to the Brown vs. Board decision that was led by U.S. Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia.  The state, and most of the schools in the state, simply refused to implement federal law, and this went on in some school districts for more than a decade after the Brown decision.  This controversy had apparently been swirling around me when I was in high school, but I was oblivious to it.  Too many other things going on in the world and my life:  the Vietnam war, pimples, the Kennedy assassination, all-state marching band, the Cuban Missile Crisis, junior prom.

            The philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in a 1963 book about Adolph Eichmann, a top administrator of the Nazi death camps.  The phrase captures how easy it is for evil to become routine, even banal.  The Holocaust may have been one of the most extreme and horrific examples of this, but we have seen it in this country too with the massacres of Native Americans; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; the Jim Crow laws and segregation in the south; and with continuing manifestations of bigotry, racism, and intolerance, even coming from our top political leaders.

 Perhaps the teenage me could be forgiven for not noticing the evil of segregation, and the underlying racism and prejudice, in my own environment.  As adults, we have no such excuse.

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