I did something very nice yesterday: I attended a luncheon at which Victor Davis Hanson spoke. I’ve read his work for years, and knew that I would be in the presence of an intellectual giant. Hanson is an expert in both Classic and military history (not to mention Classic military history). He is also an acute observer of the American political and social scene.
There’s always a risk going in that a Classics scholar’s delivery will dry and dusty, and heavily larded with Latinisms and allusions to long-forgotten historic figures known only to those who have studied them closely. Hanson is not that scholar. Instead, he is the professor you always wished you could have had in college.
Hanson is a focused speaker who uses his unusually wide body of knowledge to support a carefully constructed, well-thought out narrative. He doesn’t waste words. He also doesn’t use sesquipedalian words to impress — nor does he need to. He’s impressive enough speaking in straightforward English. (And yes, it was my little joke to use a ridiculously long word to highlight the fact that Hanson eschews ponderous obfuscation. Yup. Another little — very little — joke.)
So what did Hanson speak about? He spoke about the cusp on which America now finds herself. On the one hand, we see a world in disarray, both at home and abroad. On the other hand, America still towers over other nations when it comes to her people, her resources, and her accomplishments. If America is unable to succeed it will be because we will have followed in the path of other successful nations that disintegrated from within.
Hanson opened by detailing all the facts that should have responsible people worried. The situation abroad his grim. In 2008, Barack Obama promised direct dialog with the North Koreans, Syria, and Iran. Since that time, North Korea has produced a video imagining a joyful future in which North Korea destroys us with a nuclear attack; Syria is in the midst of a bloody civil war, with both sides hating America only slightly less than they hate each other; and Iran gleefully thumbs its nose at the world as it continues work on its nuclear arsenal.
Even as the world’s bad actors — Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, etc. — work to buff their nuclear credentials, Obama is showing his post-election flexibility by promising Russia that America will unilaterally downsize her nuclear arsenal. Those countries within the geographic radius of predatory nuclear nations are (rightly) becoming extremely worried.
In the Middle East, Obama has embraced a bifurcated policy. On the one hand, he leads from behind so that countries such as Egypt, Mali, and Libya can fall into the hands of radical Islamists. On the other hand, his visceral dislike for Netanyahu and Israel gives him an aggressive stance towards that small, democratic nation.
Not only has the Nobel-prize winning President failed to bring about world peace, he’s presided over some of the worst killing in America’s recent wars. Obama has overseen the deaths of as many American troops in four years as George Bush did in eight (not that we hear anything about that from the media). Moreover, the same president who said that it was inhumane and immoral to waterboard three known terrorists has recently announced that he has the unilateral power to use drones to kill American citizens.
I was gratified to hear Hanson make the same point I made during George Bush’s presidency — that his “wild man” persona, no matter how ill-deserved, was an effective deterrent to thugs, because they did not know how he would act under provocation. Obama, though, brings absolutely reliability to the process: When the chips are down . . . he does nothing. This means, Hanson says, that “we’re in a very dangerous period abroad.” Oh, joy.
Things at home aren’t any more cheerful. Hanson, who has an impressive mastery of facts, ran through those gloomy numbers and statistics about the debt, the deficit, the unemployment rate, and the usually flat, but occasionally shrinking, economy.
The only bright spot in Obama’s America is the Left’s/media’s relentless cheerfulness. Having embraced Obama, Hanson notes, the media also embraces a European style economy (not from the hip 60s, but from the decayed 2010s), and calls it good.
California, Hanson’s home state and mine, looks equally grim. Although California has 1/6 of the total American population, it manages to support 1/3 of the nation’s welfare recipients. Despite the highest teacher pay in the US, we’re number 48 in public school education. (California was number 1 in the 1960s and very early 1970s.) And although Californians are forced to fork over the highest taxes in America, we have the worst infrastructure.
These facts are deeply depressing, but there is a bright side, and it’s not that we’re going European. It’s that, if we can find the will, America still has the resources for greatness. To make this point, Hanson pivoted from focusing on the grim news we see in the news every day, and started identifying America’s staggering resources.
Although the U.S. has 6% of the world’s population, we produce 26% of the world’s goods. One American worker is as productive as three Chinese workers.
Our military continues to be the wonder of the world. Even downsized (and Hanson emphasized during the question and answer period that sequestration would slow, rather than reverse, military growth), it will take a long time for other nations to catch up. Even one of our aircraft carriers (and we have eleven) is greater than the carrier strength of the other nations put together. Our problem when it comes to wars, isn’t resources or our troop’s abilities. It’s the leadership’s will to win, or lack thereof.
Despite the shabby state of our primary education system, and despite the political correctness that has destroyed liberal arts programs all over America, when it comes to the hard sciences, the US still leads in higher education. Of the top ten ranked universities in the world, eight are American. And of the top ranked fifteen, five of those are in California.
Either because of, or despite, our education system, America continues to lead the world in technological innovation. In that regard, California’s own Silicon Valley, despite California’s hostile business environment, is still one of the most important intellectual and electronic/technological hubs in the world.
We also lead the world when it comes to exporting our culture. Americans may be fascinated by a variety of indigenous cultures around the world, but everyone else wants to be American. They watch our movies, buy our clothes, listen to our music, mimic our military, copy our educational institutions, and love our food.
Our fundamental strength has long been and, for now, continues to be the fact that we are not a class-based society. Unlike all other countries (whether modern European ones, Latin American banana republics, or Eastern autocracies), people in America do not need the right social or familial connections, the right accent, the right university degree, or the right anything else to succeed. If they’ve got discipline and drive, they’ll rise up, and if they add to that a touch of marketplace genius, the sky’s the limit.
America’s “room at the top” philosophy may explain why America is the only major nation left in the world with a positive demographic growth trend. Not only do immigrants want to come here, but people who live here still believe in having children. With our fertility rate at 2.1, we’re still growing ever so slightly.
The same is not true for the rest of the world. In Japan, said Hanson, the stores sold more diapers last year for old people than they did for babies. All over Europe, countries have negative population growth. China still has 1 billion or so people, but the Chinese one-child policy has ensured that the future will see a dramatically shrunken population. Russia has more abortions than babies.
The Arab world and Iran are in even worse shape. Aside from a catastrophic demographic decline, if one takes away their oil (which is beginning to be tapped out) it turns out that they do not have functioning economies. They have no education, their misogyny means that 50% of their population cannot contribute to their economic well-being, and their controlling doctrine, even more than Islam, is nihilism. When they insist on a world-wide caliphate, they don’t offer any positive vision about this new world. Instead, they threaten only destruction.
At the end of his talk, Hanson half-jokingly said that the Islamist line of argument is “Give us what we want, or we’ll make you as miserable as we are.” Part of America’s diffidence in dealing with Islamists is that we’re unwilling to suffer for short intervals, even if that limited suffering is what it takes to protect entirely us from Islamic nihilism.
The European Union is also a disaster. Not only is it going broke very quickly, it’s completely undemocratic. Once accepted into the EU, countries must abide by its Kafka-esque bureaucratic rulings. Worse, once in, there is no mechanism for dissatisfied countries to leave. (When Hanson said that, it occurred to me that the EU is the governmental equivalent of a Roach Motel: countries check in, but they don’t check out.)
Our wonderful Constitution, despite the current fights over the Second Amendment and the religious component of the First, is mostly intact. Because we have a simple, functioning Constitution, we are the most stable major nation in the world.
America is also fortunate that we have massive amounts of the two things that every society needs to survive: food and fuel. Even the Democrat’s relentless attack on California’s central valley (which sees vast swathes of land reduced to dust in order to protect the Delta Smelt), has not changed our status as the world’s major food producer. Not only do we grow the most food, people like and want American food — it’s clean, safe, and tasty.
We also lead the world in fossil fuel reserves. While the Arab lands are being pumped dry, American ingenuity means that, on private lands all over America, we are starting to produce meaningful amounts of oil and natural gas that can support us at home and leave enough to send abroad. If Obama would allow drilling on federal land, and if democrat-run states would allow drilling on their soil, we would have almost unimaginable amounts of cheap fuel. (Obama, amusingly, used the SOTU to boast about America’s oil production, even as he conveniently forgot to tell the American people that this production is all on private land, since he and many Democrat governors have forbidden it on public land.)
America also continues to be the world’s largest coal producer. [UPDATE: I erred when i said this. Please see a comprehensive correction here.] Surprisingly, given the Left’s war on coal, it’s still a money-maker. Even though the government is preventing its use at home, the rest of the world, especially Europe, is begging for more.
Given America’s vast human and natural resources, why aren’t we doing better? I can stop looking at my notes now, and quote directly from Hanson’s latest article at National Review:
The gradual decline of a society is often a self-induced process of trying to meet ever-expanding appetites rather than a physical inability to produce past levels of food and fuel or to maintain adequate defense. Americans have never had safer workplaces or more sophisticated medical care — and never have so many been on disability.
By any historical marker, the future of Americans has never been brighter. The United States has it all: undreamed-of new finds of natural gas and oil, the world’s preeminent food production, continual technological wizardry, strong demographic growth, a superb military, and constitutional stability.
Yet we don’t talk confidently about capitalizing and expanding on our natural and inherited wealth. Instead, Americans bicker over entitlement spoils as the nation continues to pile up trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Enforced equality, rather than liberty, is the new national creed. The medicine of cutting back on government goodies seems far worse than the disease of borrowing trillions from the unborn to pay for them.
History has shown that a government’s redistribution of shrinking wealth, in preference to a private sector’s creation of new sources of it, can prove more destructive than even the most deadly enemy.
(You really should read the whole article, which is a pleasing amalgam of ancient history, mid-20th century trends, and our modern condition. It takes a truly great writer and thinker to blend those disparate elements so seamlessly and to arrive at a compelling conclusion.)
If the opportunity to hear Victor Davis Hanson comes your way, seize it. It’s a great pleasure to be in the same room as a speaker who uses his education, knowledge, and intelligence to support fundamental American principles.