Readers of the Scholar’s Stage will be familiar with a thesis I have pursued in multiple essays and posts over the last half decade: America was once a place where institutional capacity was very high. Americans were a people with an extraordinary sense of agency. This is one of the central reasons they transformed the material, cultural, institutional, and political framework of not only the North American continent, but the entire world. That people is gone. The social conditions that gave the Americans their competence and confidence have passed away. Where Americans once asked “how do we solve this?” they now query “how do we get management on my side?”
Different pieces have investigated different aspects of this thesis.
Xi Jinping’s decision to openly label the United States the source of China’s ills rolled through the newsletters, wire services, and commentators on China this week. Much has been written about this already; I have nothing to add. Here I call attention to something else that occurred at the National People’s Congress, an incident whose significance is perhaps not properly appreciated. Here is Nikkei’s description of the incident in question:
In an essay published in 2018, Geramie Barme recommends observers of US-China relations read through five pieces that Hu Qiaomu and Mao Zedong published in 1949 under the latter’s name. The five pieces were Mao’s response to Dean Acheson’s China White Paper, a compendium of State Department documents intended to clear the Truman administration from the charge of “losing China.” Neither Mao nor Hu slogged through the hundreds of documents there compiled, but they did pay close attention to the prefatory “Letter of Transmittal” that Acheson released along with the White Paper. In this statement Acheson famously argued that “the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States” and expressed his hope that “ultimately the profound civilization and the democratic individualism of China will reassert themselves and she will throw off the foreign [i.e. communist] yoke.”
Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy concludes with a dramatic pronouncement:
At this time of an inflection point in history, Japan is finding itself in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII. In no way can we be optimistic about what the future of the international community will hold
I find myself strangely affected by this document.
Last week Mary Harrington published a long interview with Peter Thiel in the online magazine Unherd. Much of her article centers on Thiel’s conviction that meaningful technological progress stopped a good half century ago. This view is not unique to Thiel. In many ways it is the starting point for the entire “Progress Studies” movement. The Thielites and the Progress Studies folk take this shared premise to different end points, but both deem scientific inertia as the defining feature of the 21st century. Both also see technological and material stagnation as the root source of myriad ills tearing at America’s social fabric.
Here is Thiel’s description of the problem, as written up by Harrington:
Over on the Scholar’s Stage forum, one forum member asks why the number of American university students selecting history as their chosen four year degree has been on the decline since the 1970s. He offers three hypotheses:
Readers may remembermy stab at a global Great Books list. Recently a reader contacted me asking for guidance: they wanted to read through the books on the “East Asian” section of that list, but did not believe he had the proper historical knowledge to understand or contextualize what they were reading. What do I recommend they read to make sense of the list?
What follows will not make sense if you have not looked at that original post. Here is what I told him:
Or so I write in an essay published this weekend in Palladium. To understand the Taliban’s victory, I argue, you must understand what made the Taliban different from the wider Pashtun society from which they sprang.
The political project of the “post liberals” is not my own. Many of their critiques of contemporary American life and politics mirror what I have written; many of their suggestions for the future of the American right I easily endorse. θBut the grander their essays, the broader their harangues, the less convincing they become. I suspect our most important divide concerns our understanding of history.
A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.
In my mind there are four central parts to this tale: