America’s (Current) Suicide Attempt
It’s tempting to look on current events as unprecedented, with divisions as deep as at any time since the Civil War. An antidote to this ahistorical view is to read (or re-read) historian Paul Johnson’s 1983 Modern Times -- especially the chapters titled “American’s Suicide Attempt” and “The Collective Seventies.” Moreover, what we are experiencing now, as a renewed suicide attempt gains traction, can be seen as a direct result of those policies and the misconceptions that produced them. As Johnson sees it, a good part of the suicide attempt stemmed from the Vietnam War and the attempt by another Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson, to eradicate poverty.
As historian Johnson sees it, President Johnson believed in the boundless capacity of the American economy to deliver. While President Kennedy found it difficult to educate congress in his social spending ideas, to honor his memory, in the wake of his assassination in 1963, Johnson was able to pass bills to fund "The Great Society.”
The danger of the kind of welfare state Johnson was creating was that it pushed people out of the productive economy permanently and made them dependents of the state. Poverty increased when families split up, either by old people living apart or by divorce. Legislation often promoted these processes.
Fast forward: the once stable black family has suffered the most. By 2018, 66 percent of black families were headed by single mothers, as were 33 percent of white families.
President Johnson also believed that education was a miracle cure. In the golden years of expansion, new colleges were opening at the rate of one a week. But historian Johnson reports that amassing big new groups of students led to a 49-point decline in verbal and 32-point decline in math skills in the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores.
Fast forwarding, we find that all the money poured into education and the efforts to make the tests “culturally neutral” did nothing to close the gap in group performance on SAT scores. Asians stubbornly outperformed, especially in math skills, and African Americans underperformed. So what is the current “solution”? Abolish the tests.
Paul Johnson asserts that the well-intentioned expansion of higher education had the unintended effect of fueling student violence. In 1964's "freedom summer" the governor of California had to call in the riot police due to student violence at Berkeley. The next year, 25,000 students invaded Washington to protest against the Vietnam War. In 1968, the National Student Association claimed there were 221 major demonstrations at universities in America. At the Chicago Democratic Convention in August, students fought a pitched battle with 11,900 of Mayor Daley's police, 7,500 of the Illinois National Guard, and 1000 FBI and Secret Service agents.
In 2020, student discontent is further fueled by student debt, now about $1.56 trillion. Increasingly, as prospects for graduates (and those who fail to graduate) ever paying off this debt -- while also being able to afford marriage and raising a family -- shrink, the “solution” most often offered is “Cancel the debt.” In other words, shift the burden to the taxpayer.
The attempt by successive presidents to obtain justice for American blacks also produced unintended effects. Johnson reports that while in the 1950s and early 1960s, Federal power had been used to protect blacks from white violence, the initiative in violence shifted to the blacks. Johnson cites as the turning point the night of 10 May 1962, in Birmingham, Alabama. There was a black riot, with police forced onto the defensive and white shops demolished: "Let the whole f*cking city burn," shouted a mob leader, "This'll show the white motherfuckers!" (Sixty years later, the rhetoric has not changed.)
To quote Johnson: “The first really big and ugly black riots broke out in Harlem and Brooklyn in 18 July 1964, only two weeks after the epoch-making Civil Rights Act was passed. The violence spread to Rochester in New York State, to Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth in New Jersey, to Dixmoor in Chicago, and Philadelphia. In August 1965 the Watts riots in Los Angeles lasted six days, involved 15,000 National Guardsmen, killed thirty-four, injured 856 and destroyed $200 million of property... The riots in Detroit on 24-28 July 1967 were among the most serious in American history, killing forty-three people and forcing a distraught President Johnson to move in the 18th Airborne Corps of paratroopers, whose commander said he entered a city 'saturated with fear'.”
What has changed fifty years later is the identification of many Democratic politicians with the rioters leading to calls (and action) to defund the police rather than punish the attackers and looters. Traveling from city to city, journalist Michael Tracey has documented the large-scale destruction: "From large metro areas like Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul, to small and mid-sized cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana and Green Bay, Wisconsin, the number of boarded up, damaged or destroyed buildings I have personally observed -- commercial, civic, and residential -- is staggering."
When equal opportunity did not rapidly produce equal results, starting in the 1970s, Johnson notes, government began to mandate that private companies receiving government funds or contacts had to employ races by quota and “…the rights of women, homosexuals, the handicapped and many other collective entities were interpreted by the courts as enforceable against powerful institutions, such as business or government.” The result, says Johnson, “A growing proportion of business resources and executive time was devoted to responding to litigation: in the 1970s, America had four times as many lawyers per capita as West Germany, twenty times as many as Japan.”
While the shutdown of the economy in response to COVID-19 has driven “climate change” from the headlines, the rise of the environmental movement may yet prove to be the most devastating legacy of America’s earlier “suicide attempt.” Johnson reports that the 'Conservation Congress' of 1968 passed a series of gigantic acts to impose "Ecotopia" on American business.
Johnson writes: “By 1976 it was calculated that compliance with the new [environmental] regulations was costing business $63 billion a year, plus a further $3 billion to the taxpayer to maintain the government regulatory agencies. Total costs rose to over $100 billion by 1979.”
Fast forward to 2020, when activists want to replace all fossil fuel by renewable energy. The cost of this is in the stratosphere. Moreover, as critics have pointed out to the disinterest of the mainstream media, the net effect will be to damage the environment. One such knowledgeable critic, Paul Driessen notes: "Just one electric car or backup-power battery weighs 1,000 pounds and requires extracting and processing some 500,000 pounds of various ores…. The true costs of “green” energy are staggering.”
Will this second suicide attempt be more successful than the first? In many ways this round dwarfs what Paul Johnson describes. White America in that earlier era did not hate itself. In the 1960s and 70s one could not imagine elementary school children in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States (Lower Merion outside Philadelphia), as part of its “cultural proficiency” curriculum, being assigned books claiming white people who relate to police officers are “complicit in racism.” An indignant parent (to whose complaint the school board did not even deign to reply) told the Washington Free Beacon: “This book teaches kids not only to defy parents but to hate themselves…”
America’s suicide attempt has been both cultural and economic. If we do not reverse course, America will be neither a land of opportunity nor a land of freedom.
Victor Davis Hanson offers as a best-case scenario; “There will be a counterrevolution because without one there is not much of America left.”