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Since coming back to the United States after three years away in China, I have been asking experts around the country whether America is finally going to hell. The question is partly a joke. One look at the comforts and abundance of American lifeâ€šÃ„Ã®even during a recession, even with all the people who are suffering or left outâ€šÃ„Ã®can make it seem silly to ask about anything except the secrets of the countryâ€šÃ„Ã´s success. Here is the sort of thing you notice anew after being in India or China, the two rising powers of the day: there is still so much nature, and so much space, available for each person on American soil. Room on the streets and sidewalks, big lawns around the houses, trees to walk under, wildflowers at the edge of townâ€šÃ„Ã®yes, despite the sprawl and overbuilding. A few days after moving from our apartment in Beijing, I awoke to find a mother deer and two fawns in the front yard of our house in Washington, barely three miles from the White House. I know that deer are a modern pest, but the contrast with blighted urban China, in which even pigeons are scarce, was difficult to ignore.
And the people! The typical American I see in an office building or shopping mall, stout or slim, gives off countless unconscious signsâ€šÃ„Ã®hair, skin, teeth, heightâ€šÃ„Ã®of having grown up in a society of taken-for-granted sanitation, vaccination, ample protein, and overall public health. I have learned not to bore people with my expressions of amazement at the array of food in ordinary grocery stores, the size and newness of cars on the street, the splendor of the physical plant for universities, museums, sports stadiums. And honestly, by now Iâ€šÃ„Ã´ve almost stopped noticing. But if this is â€šÃ„Ãºdecline,â€šÃ„Ã¹ it is from a level that most of the world still envies.
The idea of â€šÃ„Ãºfinallyâ€šÃ„Ã¹ going to hell is a modest joke too. Through the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination, or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik through whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind. Pick a year over the past half century, and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse. The first oil shocks and gas-station lines in peacetime history; the first presidential resignation ever; assassinations and riots; failing schools; failing industries; polarized politics; vulgarized culture; polluted air and water; divisive and inconclusive wars. It all seemed so terrible, during a period defined in retrospect as a time of unquestioned American strength. â€šÃ„ÃºThrough the 1970s, people seemed ready to conclude that the world was coming to an end at the drop of a hat,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland, told me. â€šÃ„ÃºThomas Jefferson was probably sure the country was going to hell when John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts,â€šÃ„Ã¹ said Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate. â€šÃ„ÃºAnd Adams was sure it was going to hell when Thomas Jefferson was elected president.â€šÃ„Ã¹
But the question wasnâ€šÃ„Ã´t simply a joke. Through the final year I spent in China, in which the collapse of the U.S. financial system was blamed for half the bad things happening in that country, I got used to hearing sentences that began â€šÃ„ÃºWith U.S. power on the wane â€šÃ„Â¶â€šÃ„Ã¹ or â€šÃ„ÃºIn a post-American world â€šÃ„Â¶â€šÃ„Ã¹ From Australia I have just received an invitation similar to many others I have heard about. The conveners began, â€šÃ„ÃºWe would like to develop a session we have tentatively titled â€šÃ„Ã²America: In Decline?â€šÃ„Ã´â€šÃ„Ã¹ I also heard from Chinese and other foreigners who look at America with an analytic eye and find it wanting. Just as the material bounty of America is more dramatic on return to the country, so are areas of backwardness or erosion you do not notice unless youâ€šÃ„Ã´ve been somewhere else. Cell-phone coverage, for instance. In other developed countries, and for that matter most developing countries Iâ€šÃ„Ã´ve visited, you simply donâ€šÃ„Ã´t have the dead spots and dropped calls that are endemic in America. There are reasons for the difference: China, in which I never lost a signal when on subways, in elevators, or even in a coal mine, has limited competition among phone companies that coordinate to blanket the country with transmitters. Still, this is one of several modern-tech areas in which the U.S. is now notably, even embarrassingly, behind. I went several times to a private medical clinic in Beijing and once to a public hospital in Shanghai (the Skin Disease and Sexually Transmitted Disease Hospitalâ€šÃ„Ã®itâ€šÃ„Ã´s a long story). In each, the nurses entered my information at a computer, rather than having me fill out the paper forms, on a clipboard, on which I have entered the same redundant information a thousand times in American medical offices. Again, thereâ€šÃ„Ã´s a reason for the difference; but weâ€šÃ„Ã´re not keeping up.
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James Fallows – The Atlantic
Copyright The Atlantic