Observations: A Day in the Decline of America

There are days when I find myself imagining a 1 historian in some future century writing an account of “The Decline and Fall Of the United States” similar to the book Edward Gibbon produced in the 18th century about ancient Rome. One of those days was Thursday, March 20, 1986, when the City Council of New York said yes to the homosexuals and the House of Representatives in Washington said no to the contras. I imagine our future Gibbon devoting a whole chapter to that single day.

He will not, to begin with, think it a meaningless accident that these two votes should have coincided so closely. More likely he will see in this coincidence the workings of what the original Gibbon’s much younger contemporary Hegel called “the cunning of history.”

Our future Gibbon, that is, will detect a pattern in these two apparently unrelated legislative actions. Each will strike him as a different expression of the spirit of the age, together telling a coherent story about the decline — if not yet the fall — of the United States.

Looking back from a great distance on the passage of the “gay rights” bill, our future Gibbon will surely not be fooled by the contention of its supporters that the issue involved was discrimination against homosexuals in areas like jobs and housing. He will understand that contention as a tactic to dispel any lingering liberal uneasiness about the bill. Nor will he be taken in by that section of the bill denying that it constituted an endorsement of “any particular behavior or way of life.”

The point of including such a disclaimer was to foster the delusion that a vote for the bill would not be tantamount to a statement of approval for homosexuality. But to our future Gibbon the disclaimer will carry exactly the opposite message. He will read in it not a reluctance to endorse homosexuality but a refusal to endorse heterosexuality. And in this refusal he will perceive a fear on the part of some and an unwillingness on the part of others to stand up for and assert the superiority of “the particular behavior or way of life” on which their own society rested.

In other words, he will perceive that in assenting to the idea that homosexuality was as normal and natural as heterosexuality, the community was deserting its bedrock sense of reality in the face of a radical challenge. He will also perceive that in equating a way of life always characterized by sterility and often by promiscuity with a way of life based on marriage and the family, the community was betraying its duty to shore up its own most important institution.

Our future Gibbon will understand, finally, that in passing this bill the community was abdicating its responsibility to its young. Instead of helping and encouraging the young to grow properly into adulthood, the community was abandoning them to the seductive possibilities of never having to take their places in the great chain of the generations, as men and then fathers, as women and then mothers.

Looking back on the other legislative action of March 20, 1986, our future Gibbon will see the symptom of an analogous failure of nerve in dealing with a different kind of radical challenge. Just as he will not be fooled by the reassuring language of the “gay rights” bill, so he will not be impressed by the rationalizations for voting against military aid to the contras.

He will know that whatever the merits of this argument or that, and however sincere certain congressmen might have been in their professions of distaste for the Sandinista regime, the only significant fact was that they would not so much as lift a finger in support of Nicaraguans fighting to free their country from Communist domination.

Pondering this fact, our future Gibbon will come to the conclusion that these elective representatives of the American people no longer had the wit to recognize nor the will to resist the spread of a political culture radically inimical to their own and pledged to its destruction.

Since he will be seeing the cunning of history in such superficially disparate events, I wonder what our future Gibbon will make of the appearance in this critical period of a great new plague with the power to destroy the body’s natural ability to defend itself against the assault of disease.

Will he, for example, interpret the endorsement of homosexuality as a sign that the American body politic was suffering from the spiritual equivalent of this new plague — not merely because AIDS was so largely a product of the very “lifestyle” being endorsed, but also because the endorsement in itself bespoke a loss of the body politics’ ability to defend its own way of life against internal attack?

Will he see a similar loss of the body politics’ natural ability to mobilize its defenses against external attack in the refusal by the House of Representatives to take remedial action against the spreading cancer — as President Reagan rightly described it — of communism and the establishment of a new Soviet beachhead only a stone’s throw away?

Of course there may come a day when the “gay rights” bill will be repealed in a popular referendum, and another day when popular pressure will force a reversal of the vote against the contras. In that case, our future Gibbon will lose a juicy chapter, and — who knows? — he may even have to find some other civilization on which to exercise his genius as a historian decline.

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Podhoretz served as Commentary magazine's Editor-in-Chief from 1960 (when he replaced Elliot E. Cohen) until his retirement in 1995. Podhoretz remains Commentary's Editor-at-Large.

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