How Bad is it Really?

An article has been buzzing around the Internet for the last few days. Entitled How Bad Is It?, the article is sometimes attributed, sometimes not, to the original author George Scialabba. He writes on the topic of the decline of America, and has done so over at least the last decade, with three major publications under his belt: “Divided Mind”; “What Are Intellectuals Good For?”; and ”The Modern Predicament”, the last of which was released in 2011.

Plenty of authors on both the left and the right have been arguing about the decline of American power for the last thirty-plus years. While some can be downright alarmist, to the point that they have lost a lot of legitimacy and relevancy to this reader (such as Chris Hedges, for whom I used to have a lot of respect, but whose ravings began to strike me as if he were standing on the corner of a road with a “The End Is Near” billboard draped over his front and back), Scialabba begins with a list of poll results about what the American people feel and believe in the 2010s. It is not surprising news, given the kinds of resources that I read, but it is still disturbing.

Knowledge of world and American history, and that of geography is abysmal; wealth distribution is worse than that during the era of kings and nobles; belief in the paranormal, including aliens and angels, is well above 60%. Important for me, particularly, are the statistics on reading, which Scialabba notes at one book per year or LESS for 94% of the population; 60% haven’t touched a book since graduating from school. Sociability and trust have also dropped precipitously over the course of the waning years of the 20th century, with interpersonal interaction through community clubs and related activities already dead or on their way out. A statistic that I have a hard time swallowing is the decline in trust in other people, which dropped from 77% to 37%; so, too, are we far less interested in seeking out new friends, a desire that has fallen by 30%. These are all numbers that are quoted in this article… but the author provides no links to the relevant studies, so what am I to believe from this work?

I found a study that used the 37% number, where college students were asked whether they expected a lost wallet to be returned with cash and all other contents intact; this was the percentage of those who said “yes”. But was this the study Scialabba means to refer to? The wallet test from Understanding Trust, from Northwestern University, is far from uncommon, as I’ve seen similar studies performed in Reader’s Digest as they compare the honesty of cities in Canada and elsewhere. Far down in this article, Scialabba writes that much of the preceding information came from a trilogy by Morris Berman… but he does not say “all”, which leaves me at a loss to know precisely his source for this data in particular.

Scialabba makes a bold comparison between the state of Rome during its declining years, and the state of the United States of America today. Again, it is a comparison that I have seen from previous authors, and it is one that is important in its implication. There are differences, of course, but the similarities are also undeniable. The “coarsening and dumbing down of everyday life” seems rampant throughout our culture, as the elimination of various educational programs and the assembly line nature of the K-12 and early years at many universities demonstrate. Worse, the value of intellectual inquiry seems totally out of place in the working world, where the safest course of action seems to be “don’t say anything”, and “don’t rock the boat”… with alternate courses potentially leading to situations far less desireable for an employee in today’s job market.

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