When did America quit bragging? When did we stop punching hardest, kicking highest, roaring loudest, beating the devil, and leaving everybody else in the dust?
We’re the richest country on earth—four and a half percent of the world’s people producing more than twenty percent of the world’s wealth. But you wouldn’t know from the cheapjack spending squabbles in Congress. We possess more military power than the rest of the planet combined. Though you couldn’t tell by the way we’re treated by everyone from the impotent Kremlin to the raggedy councils of the Taliban. The earth is ours. We have the might and means to achieve the spectacular—and no intention of doing so.
Witness our foreign policy deliberations, mired in snits about what kind of underachievement to pursue. Should we quit following North Korea’s Twitter feeds? Unfriend Iran on Facebook? Withdraw our troops from the nuclei of terrorism too soon or much too soon? Aid Bashar al-Assad or abet him? Appease China little by little or all at once?
Consider our domestic policy debates—a people once proverbial for our risk-taking, our biggest election-year issue is now health insurance.
And we fret ceaselessly over balancing the budget as if the first duty of nationhood is to be a thrifty parent trying to skimp on a country’s infrastructure with a box of “Highway Helper.”
The United States has set itself on a course of willful self-diminishment. Seventy-four years ago the perfect American was Superman, who happened to have been, like many of our forefathers, an undocumented alien. If Superman arrived today—assuming he could get past the INS and Homeland Security—he would be faster than the postal service, more powerful than a New York Times blogger, and able to ascend tall buildings in a single elevator.
But they wouldn’t be the tallest buildings, at least not if Superman stuck around Gotham. Nine out of ten of the tallest buildings in the world are now in Asia or the Middle East. Tallest is Burj Khalifa in Dubai. At 2,723 feet, it’s nearly twice as high as Chicago’s Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower. The last time America built the tallest building was when people were still ordering things by mail from the Sears catalog in 1974.
The fastest car you can buy is the French-built Bugatti Veyron, which, at 267 miles per hour, is quicker than a Dominique Strauss-Kahn seduction. The fastest train is the Shanghai Maglev, which goes 268 mph just to get from the airport to downtown.
The biggest passenger airplane is the EU’s Airbus A380. The biggest airplane of all is the Russian Antonov An-225, now based in that hotbed of progress, Ukraine.
The fastest commercial aircraft was the Anglo-French Concorde supersonic transport, which began scheduled flights in the disco era and went out of service in 2003. America helped kill it by banning flights over the US landmass for fear that the sonic booms would interrupt us while we were talking to our plants or something. And America helped kill a newer generation of longer-range, more fuel-efficient SSTs by cutting off government funding in 1971.
The US does hold the record for the fastest military aircraft, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, flying at just over 2,193 mph. But that record was set while Gerald Ford was president, in an airplane built when President Obama was still in pull-ups.
The fastest passenger ship is American too, the SS United States, with a top speed of 38 knots. On July 7, 1952, it won the Atlantic crossing “Blue Riband,” beating the fourteen-year-old record held by the RMS Queen Mary by ten hours and two minutes. Today the United States sits derelict and rusting at a dock in Philadelphia.
The largest passenger ships in service are Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class trips-to-nowhere cruise vessels, built in Finland. The largest container ships, floating testimonies to the decline in American manufacturing, are launched in Denmark. The largest supertankers, with their proclamation of continuing dependence on nineteenth-century energy technology, are made in South Korea.
But America has both the largest and the fastest warships, useful for getting numerous military personnel stateside quickly so that the next wars can be fought by the Afghan army, our NATO allies, African Union troops, Israel, and UN peacekeepers.
The list of our sub-marvels and un-wonders goes on. The Hoover Dam is by no means the world’s highest. It doesn’t even rank in the top twenty. Number one is the Nurek Dam in Tajikistan, a country that hardly has any water.
For fifty years, from 1931 to 1981, the US had the longest suspension bridge spans, first with the George Washington Bridge, then the Golden Gate, then the Verrazano-Narrows. Now even Hull, England, has a more spectacular place to make a bungee jump. Although we are in the lead with that. The elasticized drop from Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge is 1,053 feet long, showing that whatever America has lost in technological superiority we’ve made up for in sheer idiotic behavior.
Speaking of which, there’s our space program, which has basically ceased to exist. We have a NASA that might as well have been dreamed up by Alger Hiss. In order for Americans to get to the International Space Station, they have to go to Russia.
And in order for Americans to get to the bottom of how the universe works, they have to go to Switzerland. We were planning to build a high-energy particle collider in Texas that would have had a circumference of fifty-four miles—three times the size and power of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. But Congress canceled the project in 1993.
America has had plenty of reasons to abdicate the crown of accomplishment and marry the Wallis Simpson of homely domestic concerns. Received wisdom tells us that, in the matter of great works and vast mechanisms, all is vanity. The Nurek Dam probably endangers some species of Nurek newt and will one day come crashing down in a manner that will make the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima tsunami look like an overwatered lawn. And we have better things to spend our country’s money on, like putting a Starbucks on every city block. But I suspect there’s a sadder reason for America’s post-eminence in things tremendous, overwhelming, and awesome.
My sad generation of baby boomers can be blamed. We were born into an America where material needs were fulfilled to a degree unprecedented in history. We were a demographic benison, cherished and taught to be self-cherishing. We were cosseted by a lush economy and spoiled by a society grown permissive in its fatigue with the strictures of depression and war. The child being father to the man, and necessity being the mother of invention, we wound up as the orphans of effort and ingenuity. And pleased to be so. Sixty-six years of us would be enough to take the starch out of any nation.
The baby boom was skeptical about America’s inventive triumphalism. We took a lot of it for granted: light bulb, telephone, television, telegraph, phonograph, photographic film, skyscraper, airplane, air conditioning, movies. Many of our country’s creations seemed boring and square: cotton gin, combine harvester, cash register, electric stove, dishwasher, can opener, clothes hanger, paper bag, toilet paper roll, ear muffs, mass-produced automobiles. Some we regarded as sinister: revolver, repeating rifle, machine gun, atomic bomb, electric chair, assembly line. And, ouch, those Salk vaccine polio shots hurt.
The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik caused a blip in chauvinistic tech enthusiasm among those of us who were in grade school at the time. But then we learned that the math and science excellence being urged upon us meant more long division and multiplying fractions.
The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs were cool, but not as cool as the sex, drugs, and rock and roll we’d discovered in the meantime. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969, many of us had already been out in space for years, visiting all sorts of galaxies—in our own heads. And in our own heads was where my generation spent most of its time.
Given a bouquet of opportunities from the bloom of American liberty, we stopped to smell the flowers. Or smoke them. The big world we were given just made us feel small. Although we were inward-looking to the point of solipsism, we continued to be American dreamers. But our dreams shrank from the size of purple mountain majesty above the fruited plain to the size of our runty selves. Instead of fantasizing about turbines, dynamos, rockets, fusion, and dark matter, we took the dark matter into our own hands and fantasized about living on a commune in a geodesic dome, with thirty strangers sharing the same toothbrush.
Not that the baby boom didn’t produce as many geniuses as any generation. But grandeur seemed to slip away from genius, or genius slipped away from grandeur. Hard science was . . . hard. Brilliant minds were drawn to the social sciences. Psychology, sociology, and anthropology were funky and fun. You can’t talk your way out of an algebra problem.
Or maybe you can. Those who could went straight to Wall Street. One of the most dramatic changes of the past thirty years has been that the dateless members of the high school math club, with their half tucked-in shirts and wrong blue jeans, now live with blonde bombshell wives in the mansions of Greenwich, Connecticut. This has led to national preeminence of a kind, the 2008 global financial crisis being particularly preeminent.
The other number whizzes gravitated to the new digital universe. It was small and safe, just the kind of in-group we were looking for—a zero and a one equals me. The computer revolution has given everyone enormous gifts of efficiency, inter-connection, information, and communication. It must be counted as one of America’s great contributions to the world. Though I’d count it a little greater if, post–computer revolution, the world didn’t seem so inefficient, disconnected, ill-informed, and lacking in anything to say.
Politics also lured our brightest minds. Bill and Hillary Clinton are two of the smartest baby boomers. Imagine the good they could have done if Hillary had turned her talents to generating power instead of seeking it, and if Bill had been in the business of natural gas fracking, laying pipe literally rather than in the slang sense.
But if America is still rich and strong, why should it matter that we’re no longer interested in doing anything spectacular? Maybe critics of an America whose grasp exceeds its reach are victims of atavistic machismo. Maybe we have Freudian issues. Professional help might be in order. No Americans are scheduled to go to Mars, but plenty are scheduled to go to therapy. Perhaps the realities of 2012 demand a change in attitude.
Except the change has already happened, the result of our shift from an exterior to an interior existence. America once valued the high-skilled. Now we value the high-minded. We used to admire bold ideas. Now we admire benign idealism. This doesn’t make us good, it makes us wrong. The bold can be achieved. Of the ideal, there is none in this life.
We’ve given up what we think we can make for what we think can make us happy. We deplore all the effects of technology on the earth and the climate so that—while living our lives completely indoors, protected from dirt and weather—we can feel better about ourselves.
We’ve gone from hopeful thinking to wishful thinking. We have a belief that we can make things better with make-believe. The consequences of this worldview have been with us at least since the Vietnam War. Imagine the reaction of the American public on December 7, 1941, if President Roosevelt had proposed to win the hearts and minds of the Japanese.
The change in our thought means a change in our future. The high, wide surge of postwar American prosperity is past. We’ve learned that a rising tide lifts all boats, but not if their anchor chains are too short. Hard times can come again. They have already. So never mind what we did with our own college educations, we don’t want our college kids majoring in Heuristics of Modern Dance or Neo-Marxist Anime. We want them to study science, engineering, and math.
But where are the inter-planetary missions for them to plot with their astrophysics? Where are the floating cities, flying cars, and personal jet packs for them to build with their engineering? Where is the Manhattan Project to provide the fun of turning a quadratic equation into a mushroom cloud?
They’re in Asia. So maybe our kids should be studying science, engineering, math, and Chinese.
America’s retreat from visible, tangible manifestations of superiority doesn’t hurt just our pride, our economy, and our place in the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s also a bad advertising campaign. America has one great product to sell, individual liberty. It’s attractive, useful, healthy, and the fate of the world depends upon it.
We are the most important and maybe the only country that fully embodies the sanctity, dignity, independence, and responsibility of each and every person. “American” is not a nationality, an ethnicity, or a culture; it’s a fact of human freedom. Our country was not created and is not governed by a ruling class or even by majority rule. America is individuals exercising their right to do what they think is best with due respect (to the extent human nature allows) for the right of all other Americans to do likewise. This is not an ideology or a system. This is a blessing.
The rest of the world would like to be so blessed. But the concept of individual liberty is harder to grasp than we Americans think. Those with little experience of liberty understand license and lawlessness better than they understand freedom. We want everyone on earth to have sanctity, dignity, independence, and responsibility. And we want everyone to want it for each other. We want this not because of our idealism but because of our selfish desire for a little more peace and plenty.
The world will never be good. People fight hard and cause a lot of trouble when commanded by their self-interest. But people fight viciously and cause ruin when commanded by the interests of others. Individual liberty is the best we can do. Try any other sociopolitical combination—collective liberty, individual oppression, communitarian despotism.
However, if we are going to promote the benefits of individual liberty, we have to show what free people can do. We need evidence to support the truths we hold to be self-evident. We have to advertise. Putting something double the size of the Burj Khalifa where the World Trade Towers once stood and building a Corvette that can top 300 mph would be a start.
P. J. O’Rourke is an author and correspondent for the Weekly Standard.