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Algora Publishing - Decline and Fall
                                               For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Tuesday,
Decline and Fall
Here in the United States, according to the same survey, 60 percent of Americans over 50 believe “our culture is superior.” I’m not sure what’s more terrifying: the new French modesty or an old U.S. delusion.
International Herald Tribune

Decline and Fall

by Roger Cohen

BOSTON — Everyone’s so glum and gloomy. I suppose this is what decline looks like: the faces in the laundromat. It puts me in mind of Rome circa 475 A.D., Visigoths on the prowl.

Not so long ago Google chefs were making millions. Now everyone sits around with badges saying “99 percent.” That would be the 99 percent not getting the stock options Google chefs once got and banking executives still do.

Envy was never the American way. It is Thanksgiving week. Be thankful. You, too, can be a Google chef, or maybe a Groupon chef! You just have to get lucky.

Speaking of chefs, Mario Batali, the celebrity chef who caters to the 1 percent and is involved in a lawsuit over alleged underpayment of staff, has compared bankers to “Stalin or Hitler.” I guess he’s too busy uncorking super-Tuscans to fine-tune his similes. Even the rich are angry about something.

As is the Occupy movement, with reason. I just wish we could get a fix on what proposals lie beyond protest.

Over in Europe, dreams are also unraveling. In France, according to a Pew Research Center survey, only 27 percent of the population now believes that “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior.”

I haven’t read such depressing news in a long time. When humility overtakes French culture, it’s over, folks.

French culture is superior. Just consider the cut of a Chanel suit, the sweep of the Champs Elysées or the line of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s brow. It’s obvious — to everyone except the doom-struck French, apparently.

Here in the United States, according to the same survey, 60 percent of Americans over 50 believe “our culture is superior.”

I’m not sure what’s more terrifying: the new French modesty or an old U.S. delusion. These are not happy times in the Atlantic community. Germans are particularly angry. They don’t think they’re being thanked enough for not quite saving the euro.

Sure as there are acorns beneath the oak tree, the West is shot. As Jim Morrison put it, “Your ballroom days are over, baby.” The U.S.A. is negative-equity central. Some 100 million Americans live below or close to the poverty line.

Greece wallows in the words it gave us: crisis, chaos and catastrophe.

Elsewhere it’s the Renaissance. Palaces rise. A bottle of Château Lafite-Rothschild goes for $4,000 in Hong Kong. Chinese and Brazilian bankers ponder whether Europe is creditworthy. It is payback time for the majority of humankind. They’re feeling pretty good about their former overlords feeling pretty bad. To be honest, I don’t blame them.

But never fear, resurgence is around the corner, the world will not be upside-down for long. The American century will in fact be two centuries!

I’ve heard that message from every Republican candidate, including one who can’t recall where Libya is, another who can’t think his way to the three government agencies he wants to disband, and a third who can’t remember why his dog got tied to the roof of his car en route to a family break in Canada.

They’re actually making me nostalgic for Sarah Palin. She forgot things with panache. She knew roughly where Russia was. She made no bones about killing animals — and did so with dispatch.

Still, folks, there’s hope out there. Japan, whose economy went dead for a decade, is enjoying a spurt. All it took was a tsunami to notch up a quarter of growth. Perhaps what Europe and the United States need is a major natural disaster — it would make a change from the man-made ones — or a good little war.

On reflection, wars are a bad idea, although Republicans seem to have plenty of ideas for new ones. President Obama is replacing conventional war with undercover operations — drone attacks, explosions in Iran, cyber-invasions. The president is effective, ice-cool and solemn as covert commanders-in-chief should be.

He just hasn’t made Americans or others in the languishing West feel good. That’s a serious omission.

Obama’s communication with the American people on the economy reminds me of one those off-key e-mail exchanges where each party gets more irritable, misunderstandings multiply, and you end up longing for someone to pick up the phone and clear things up with a declaratory sentence of the unambiguous “It’s morning again in America” variety.

I don’t see any such new dawn before November 2012, which makes what’s going to happen to the incumbent then uncertain. Glum people tend to go for change even if it may be bad for them.

But the election is a year away. Let’s shake off some of the gloom. America’s powers of reinvention are not exhausted. A friend of mine’s teenage son is a passionate pianist. He recently broke his right arm. So what did he do? Looked up Ravel’s concerto for the left hand and went to work on it. That’s the spirit needed.

I have an idea for Mario Batali’s penance. Cook free turkeys for some of the 100 million. Deeds matter. Americans know it — and let’s give thanks for that good sense at least.

You can follow Roger Cohen on Twitter at twitter.com/nytimescohen.

Decline and Fall