PATRICK LAWRENCE: The Manufacture of Decline

Americans suffer the same disabilities as the Europeans of 1919: They cannot think. They cannot speak plainly among themselves. 

“Din and Cocktails,” west side of Detroit, 2014. (ddatch54, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

“We modern civilizations have learned to recognize that we are mortal like the others. We had heard tell of whole worlds vanished, of empires foundered … sunk to the inexplorable depths of the centuries with their gods and laws, their academies and their pure and applied sciences, their grammars, dictionaries, classics … their critics and the critics of their critics…. We could not count them. But these wrecks, after all, were of no concern of ours.”

That is Paul Valéry, the modernist poet, essayist and Academician, writing in April 1919. The Great War was but a few months over. Europe understood, if subliminally at that moment, that the world order of which it had been the center had shattered like glass. Or — better put — that Europe had shattered it.

“Everything came to Europe, and from Europe everything has come. Or almost everything,” Valéry wrote. “Now, the present situation permits of this capital question: Will Europe retain its leadership in all activities? Will Europe become what she is in reality: that is, a little cape of the Asiatic continent?” [Emphasis the author’s.]

Valéry was less interested in Europe’s wrecked landscapes and its blown-to-bits economy than he was in what had happened to European minds and spirits — how people thought and felt. Europe’s best brains had just wasted themselves “finding a way to remove barbed wire, baffle the submarines, or paralyze the flight of aeroplanes.”

Then, the war over, Europe no longer knew how to think. Europeans could not speak among themselves of their abruptly arrived new circumstances. People retreated into the classics of European culture and took to repeating the old verities as to the Continent’s ancient greatness. Valéry called the essay I quote “The Intellectual Crisis.” Its topic was “the disorder of our mental Europe.”

Paul Valéry photographed by Henri Manuel, 1920s. (Wikimedia Commons)

It is sobering, to put the point mildly, to sit in America in 2021 and read the reflections of a writer sitting in Paris 102 years ago. The world America made in the post–1945 years has ended just as the Great War ended the world Valéry, born in 1871, knew as his own.

And Americans suffer the same disabilities as the Europeans of 1919: They cannot think. They cannot speak plainly among themselves.

They are, in a phrase, manufacturing their own decline as they flinch from the world as it is in this, our post–American century.

‘Required to Kill’

Only a materially advanced civilization could have wreaked all the atrocities and destruction of World War I, Valéry observed: “A great deal of science was doubtless required to kill so many men… but moral qualities were equally required. Knowledge and Duty: Must we suspect you also?” [Emphasis again the author’s.]

We must, say yes, to reply to Valéry a century late.

America, the most materially advanced nation in human history, has made the same error Valéry described ever since it nominated itself, in the mid–19th century, as the very incarnation of Progress with a capital P. It has by a long tradition mistaken material progress for authentic human progress.

As to the latter, America has made little as measured by the lives Americans now live. And now, as the world it sought to make in its image goes its own way, America finds itself a desperate empire with no moral qualities to speak of as measured by its conduct. Caught up in a great game of pretend, it now has its very own “intellectual crisis.”

Three cases, of the countless number available to us, merit our consideration for their proximity. In each, we must note not merely what America did or did not do; taking a page from Valéry, we must also think about the deeper consequences for all Americans of their nation’s doing or not doing.

Julian Assange

Protester during Don’t Extradite Assange march, central London, Feb. 22, 2020. (Steve Eason, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Last week the Royal Courts of Justice in London resumed proceedings in the Julian Assange case and heard American arguments to overturn the ruling earlier this year that Britain should not extradite Assange to the U.S. out of concern for his mental state and the U.S. record for mistreating prisoners in “supermax” prisons. The legal irregularities that have featured in these proceedings from the first were again in evidence.

It is perfectly clear to anyone who looks squarely at this case that Assange faces up to 175 years in prison for revealing American and allied war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq in the post–2001 period. As Chris Hedges wrote last week, “If Assange is extradited and found guilty of publishing classified material, it will set a legal precedent that will effectively end national security reporting, allowing the government to use the Espionage Act to charge any reporter who possesses classified documents, and any whistleblower who leaks classified information.”

What is at issue in London is plain. The headline on the Hedges piece says it better than I can: “The Most Vital Battle for Press Freedom in Our Time.”

Assange’s treatment in Belmarsh prison for the past two and a half years has been properly termed torture. I would also call it a human-rights atrocity. This, too, is plain.

And what are most Americans thinking and saying about Julian Assange’s fate? What is the press, whose principles and professional practice are at stake, saying and doing? Most Americans know little to nothing of the Assange case. Apart from independent media, the press cannot write of it due to its diseased relationship to power.  

This inflicts damage of a kind not adequately considered. It is the harm done by ignorance and silence — a self-inflicted harm. A society that cannot address a crisis in its press such as America has faced for some years now is doomed to proceed without a free press. It is paralyzed to act in its own interest.

Colin Powell

Colin Powell while serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1991. (National Archives) 

Then there is the Colin Powell case. One knew as soon as Powell’s death was announced that Americans were in for days upon days of praise for a patriot, a hero, a brave warrior, a great statesman, a great American, and all the rest. I kept my radio resolutely turned to a classical station until I figured the coast was clear.

Of Powell’s famous lie at the U.N. as to the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — the most consequential lie so far told in this century — the corporate press said as little as it could get away with, and what it said was whitewash. Of his torching of Vietnamese villages, his post–My Lai cover-ups, his roles in the Iran–Contra scandal and the flagrantly illegal invasion of Panama in 1989, and other such pockmarks on Powell’s record — of these nothing.

Do Americans think there is no price to pay for this kind of self-deception? The price exacted is evident out our windows: It is our continued defense of empire and the consequences at home as measured by our increasing deprivations, our political collapse, and our social decay. Powell was a centurion in the imperial army. To glorify him is to preclude all action against America’s imperial aggressions — to sustain it, this is to say, on its ruinous path.  

Antony Blinken

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during foreign travel in May. (State Department, Ron Przysucha)

There is the Antony Blinken case. Tiresome as it is, have you taken the trouble to follow his Twitter messages?

If you want to understand his record as secretary of state you must, because all he seems to do is Tweet utterly ridiculous bromides as to America’s respect for human rights, the right of others to self-determination, and press freedom along with his deep concern for starving Syrian children — children whose malnutrition is the direct result of sanctions Blinken maintains against the Syrian Arab Republic. There is always, of course, Blinken’s idolatry in the matter of “the international rules-based order.”

Blinken is not the worst secretary of state in my lifetime — that distinction goes to John Foster Dulles. But he is the most ineffectual, and possible the stupidest. His function is to portray, to put across, carefully, a nonexistent America. 

Again, it is the consequences of America’s chief diplomat advancing this Disneyesque version of what America stands for and does that must concern us. No one in corporate media calls Blinken on all his silliness: They pretend the world according to Blinken is just as he says it is. There are consequences there, too. The unlawful, often atrocious conduct abroad continues in the name of people who do not even know it is occurring.

What Comes Into View

These three cases appear at first to have nothing in common. If we consider them together — and one could add very many others — what do we see?

I see a nation that is detached from reality (which is a basic definition of psychosis) such that its people are confined to a series of simulations:

This is what it would be like to live in a country that respects others; this is what it would be like if our government abided by the rule of law; this is what it would be like to have a free, unfettered press; this is what it would be like if America upheld either rules or order — to say nothing of both. We are merely pretending in all such cases.    

In the years after Valéry published “The Intellectual Crisis,” Europe drifted almost dreamlike into fascism, genocide and another war. He seems to suggest, without quite saying so, that Europeans had rendered themselves powerless to act as they drew back from what they had made of themselves. The piece was later retranslated as “The Crisis of the Mind.”

America’s crises today are numerous. It seems it is America’s crisis of the mind that causes the crises to multiply and worsen and stand without solutions. These are available to us in every single case whenever we are ready to… to make up our minds to speak of our crises and then to address them seriously, with determination and without dreams.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. 

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

30 comments for “PATRICK LAWRENCE: The Manufacture of Decline

  1. David Duret
    November 4, 2021 at 15:24

    Thank you Patrick and we do already quote you.
    Sadly, U.S. foreign policy are rehearsals of domestic policy.
    As we learned while kicking Monsanto out of the Pacific Northwest, when Monsanto was gushing about “food security, ” they meant that they could shut down food production immediately! That’s what brutalitarians read when they see the term “food security ” while the gullible practice generosity with a “kinder” interpretation.

  2. Robert Emmett
    November 4, 2021 at 09:13

    Eye in the sky

    Even the hawk spreads its wings to the vault
    ruled by its keen eye for what comes next.

    How does human-mind falter/fail to see?

    Does it use its own eyes or take cues from a fabricated screen?

  3. E Wright
    November 4, 2021 at 06:11

    Spengler was another pseudo-philosopher who emerged from the ruins of 1918. His view that the rise and fall of civilizations was cyclical with a set pattern was taken up by the Nazis, so even though he denounced them himself his views were relegated post-war. He defined democracy as ‘money politics’ and believed that European civilization has been in decline since the Rennaisance. He could not have predicted the advances that technology have introduced, but as Patrick Lawrence has hinted at above, has our moral philosophy kept pace?

  4. Peter Loeb
    November 3, 2021 at 16:10

    Evidently no one reads the works of Joyce and Gabriel Kolko these days. Sometimes I think much of the liberal/progressive
    whining belies the lack of thought. Otherwise, why do so many suddenly “wake up” to perceptions examined long ago?

    One should be grateful that some (like Mr. Lawrence) do “wakeup”. But where oh where is the understanding of various realities
    that the Kolkos showed us with such eloquence in work after work.

    As a baseball fan (the Boston Red Sox), I note how it is all part of picturing us to ourselves as wrapped in military glory—
    the terms and so forth. I still love the sport. I have to be aware of how we Americans see ourselves (still) and want to be seen..

    Happy Veterans Day!

  5. venice12
    November 3, 2021 at 12:52

    “Assange’s treatment in Belmarsh prison for the past two and a half years has been properly termed torture.”

    So, what exactly is “better” in Belmarsh than in any US prison?

  6. Rob
    November 3, 2021 at 12:05

    American schools fail in what should be their most important task–instilling the habits of critical thinking. Or perhaps it’s not a failure as much as a goal. Upon that foundation, build a monstrous media structure of deliberate misinformation and disinformation. The result is what one would expect: a population that cannot comprehend the nation and the world in which they live. For the minority who can, we can be thankful for outlets such as Consortium News.

    • NotStrained
      November 4, 2021 at 09:07

      “Or perhaps it’s not a failure as much as a goal. ”

      It has been a goal since 1971 along with fiats of varying shapes and colours.

  7. Sam
    November 3, 2021 at 10:20

    I won’t object to characterizing Blinken as both intelligent and stupid, as many people are, but as a member of the US Jewish Lobby, Blinken has another dog in the fight: Israel. And that greatly influences his behavior, which is much to Biden’s approval, because it was at the behest of the Jewish Lobby that Biden appointed Blinken – and others – in his cabinet.

    No insightful article about US foreign policy could disregard the influence of the Jewish Lobby on our government.

      November 4, 2021 at 10:01

      Well said!

  8. November 3, 2021 at 00:19

    If you intend to propagate some great evil in the world, be certain to do it in English; then if you get caught, you can always claim that you meant something else.

    The masses are suffering an acute case of cognitive-dyslexia, administered by professional-schizophrenics who sincerely believe whatever is necessary for the answer they need.

  9. Eddie S
    November 2, 2021 at 23:06

    Excellent points! Like other commenters here, I liked seeing the author’s statement that (paraphrasing) ‘our technological progress continues to outstrip our moral/ethical/cultural progress’. Numerous books and articles have been written about that concept since the 1930’s, but nowadays it’s an anathema to the MSM, so it’s very refreshing to see it in print.

  10. bluebird
    November 2, 2021 at 20:11

    One of the best articles I have read for awhile. I only wish every American would read it. Thank You Patrick Lawrence.

    • Lee C. Ng
      November 3, 2021 at 00:50

      Agree with you, Bluebird. I expect to see informative articles here. But an article that’s both informative and so well written — thanks much to Patrick Lawrence and consortiumnews.

  11. Aaron
    November 2, 2021 at 18:51

    Indeed. America had so much potential and promise to be the so-called “city on the hill”, and who knows?, maybe even be a global force for good with the right leader, perhaps Kennedy or somebody like him. But we have wasted it all.

    “Say a prayer for the pretender
    Who started out so young and strong only to surrender”

    The Pretender – Jackson Browne

  12. Pete
    November 2, 2021 at 18:16

    An absolutely outstanding article! (…and, born in 1931, with uncles killed young in both world wars, I’m old enough to remember.) If our media were to seek and tell nothing but truth, there would never be another war.

  13. Rob Fisher
    November 2, 2021 at 17:14

    Thank You. Very Nicely done!

  14. Taras77
    November 2, 2021 at 14:49

    Thank you Mr Lawrence!

    Absolutely brutal and absolutely spot on pertaining to powell and blinken; both were/are frauds of the highest order. It is a tough call whether blinken is the worst secstate as he has stiff competition with his predecessors but it is a very close call.

  15. rosemerry
    November 2, 2021 at 14:16

    Sad but true and devastating for the rest of us. The Washington “rules-based international order” (we decide, you obey and international law does not apply to us) ensures that the point of view of other nations, especially China and Russia, is intentionally ignored/provoked, sneered at. The USA and its minions grab any excuse to vilify designated enemies ( Uighur genocide, as recounted by a militant anti-communist “evangelical christian scholar”) tries to ruin a whole industry and culture in China’s Xinjiang province.) Navalny, a petty criminal with 2% support in Russia, is glorified and believed about novichok mark 2 to demonise the president of Russia. Failed states like Ukraine are made Heroic via cookies and billions of $USplus Russophobe “diplomat” Nuland.
    Lies are the basis of all conversations and no effort is made to seek the cooperation so urgently needed if we are to solve any of the problems we face.

    • Ian Mega
      November 3, 2021 at 11:28

      Russia and Putin’s government practice the same sort of deceit as the United States. You have chosen to believe Russian propaganda versus American propaganda.

      • eg
        November 5, 2021 at 06:44

        I chose to believe neither.

  16. Carolyn L Zaremba
    November 2, 2021 at 14:08

    Brilliant article. The U.S. empire is indeed in a terminal crisis. When people can no longer be told the truth, when people can no longer even see reality, a civilization is doomed.

  17. Ed Rickert
    November 2, 2021 at 13:21

    This is really splendid writing reminding us of the fate that awaits a people who believe their own lies.

  18. L. G.
    November 2, 2021 at 13:13

    Thank you for this perspective. Clinical, sobering and true.

    Regarding Colin Powell, it has never ceased to gall me that the City College of the City University of New York has renamed its Social Science Division the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.

    Thus, we seek to perpetuate these noxious mythologies in our youth by erecting false idols.

  19. NotStrained
    November 2, 2021 at 13:01

    “The world America made in the post–1945 years has ended just as the Great War ended”

    There were at least three mutations on the lateral trajectory of baking..

    1. Entry in “The Great War” (of opportunity) in 1917.

    2. Divide and rule through creation of “nations” with internal and/or external minorities whilst pretending to be “the good guys in white hats” in 1919 facilitating mutation in 1941 by invitation of a minor colonialst and others pursuing lebensraum which was not turning out too well by December 1941, dividing in attept to ruling, enjoying a continued half-life.

    3. From March 1943 re-appraising “What to do with the Soviet Union” in conjuction with others, such consideration extended to the SD on May 4th 1944 outside Bolzano, building on preparations made by Mr. Dulles in Switzerland from 1943 onwards.

    This was the framing of Mr. Suslov and others although they used the creation of “The Soviet Union” in 1922 as start point instead of 1917 (Not October 25 in the old calendar, November 7th in the New).

    The “Great War” of opportunity war never ended, merely mutated into different forms.

  20. Frank Lambert
    November 2, 2021 at 11:59

    Dear Patrick, you summed up the American situation perfectly! So many people I’ve talked to over the years are still in the dark regard European and World History, not to mention American History, regrettably.

    American politicians and the presstitutes of MSM have been psyching the American people up that Russia is evil and that Putin is another dictator, hoping the willfully ignorant majority are ready to go to war with “The Bear,” and quite possibly “The Dragon.”

    Unfortunately, it won’t be like World Wars One and Two, where the US was not in ruins as was in the former Soviet Union, Germany and Japan. The future doesn’t look too promising, and thanks for sharing Paul Valery’s outlook from over a hundred years ago.

    Will humanity ever learn who the real “enemies of the people” are?

  21. Piotr Berman
    November 2, 2021 at 11:59

    Blinken case is worse that stupidity. He is probably clever. It is the entire milieu that is so full of memes and shibboleths, that abandoned truth in favor of “our narrative”, that is not able to change behavior.

    The general strategy seems simple enough. Preserve dominance by either crashing disobedient states or making their all population as miserable as possible. Regretfully, in the case of larger states the results may fall short of desired, but it is important to strive every day to do our best (really, worst). Therefore there have to be two narratives: more public, hence Blinken tweets, and more private and cynical. And there is an innermost narrative: how to avoid utter debacles. To a degree, it is achieved, e.g. withdrawal from Afghanistan avoided a disaster of Dien Bien Phu type. You cannot rule by proxy when the proxies already prepared pallets of cash to load to helicopters when they flee. Major war in Ukraine is avoided with timely phone calls. Major war with Iran is avoided as well.

    Any further step toward realism would clash with “total dominance” inner narrative. Within that narrative, recognizing that other states have their core interests that no government would ignore, and that security can be enhanced with vastly less military spending by recognizing those interests is a crime thought. The outer narrative is just systematical bad mouthing of the adversaries. In either way, the “reality” is a think tank narrative.

  22. Paolo
    November 2, 2021 at 09:59

    There is one big difference with post-WWI Europe. Then the atrocity of the piles of corpses were there for all to see.

    Nothing today can be in any way compared to that monstrosity. Americans are not forced to see the disaster Europeans couldn’t avoid seeing.

    It looks more likely to me that Americans will be spared the sudden shock, they will hardly notice as the situation deteriorates slowly but steadily. The decline will be more similar to the slow one of the Roman Empire than to the sudden collapse of post WWI Europe.

  23. Herbert Davis
    November 2, 2021 at 09:47

    Someday they will quote Patrick Lawrence.

  24. mgr
    November 2, 2021 at 09:45

    “It has by a long tradition mistaken material progress for authentic human progress.” Seldom does one sentence contain so much insight and truth. This hits the nail squarely on the head.

    “… a series of simulations: This is what it would be like to live in a country that respects others; this is what it would be like if our government abided by the rule of law; this is what it would be like to have a free, unfettered press; this is what it would be like if America upheld either rules or order — to say nothing of both. We are merely pretending in all such cases.” This sentence is equally true and truly sad. It’s “the road not taken…”

  25. Dfnslblty
    November 2, 2021 at 09:32

    An excellent look at today’s usa.
    Thankyou and keep writing

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