Sunday, May 08, 2005

Witnessing The Decline

The effort currently going on in Kansas to, among other things, "redefine science" so that creationist mythology can be taught in science classrooms, is only the latest evidence that American domination of the world is staggering to an end.
I'm not suggesting that the recession into obscurity and irrelevance is likely to be completed overnight, or even in my lifetime -- although the rapidity with which the Soviet Union dissolved once its weaknesses began to show should give pause to those Americans who consider themselves patriots (I don't).
What I am trying to say is that on a number of fronts, the United States has ceded the high ground and that as these failures accumulate, this country will gradually find itself and its positions marginalized.
Here's what I'm talking about.
For many years following the end of World War II, the United States of America was the undisputed, or nearly undisputed, leader of the world in many realms. In education, health care, scientific discovery, this country showed a level of leadership to match its predominance in military might, aid to poor nations and moral rectitude. We were challenged by the Soviet Union on the military front, and periodically on a few others, but for most of the world, the U.S. shone as a beacon.
Look at the situation today. The U.S. lags European nations, and in many cases Asian countries, on many of these same fronts.
After the shocking excesses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, any claim to moral leadership has been squandered. Our foreign aid programs lag those of virtually every Western European country in terms of per capita spend and, increasingly actual spend. Our health care system, as measured in such commonly accepted terms as infant mortality and longevity, has dropped out of even the top 10.
Our economy, while periodically very strong, is challenged by globalization. Emerging, educated, middle class labor forces in first Japan, then Korea, Thailand, China and India, have shown that leadership in manufacturing and innovation have many potential offshore destinations.
Now the fight against science comes along to drive further nails in the coffin of our public education system, once one of the world's very finest. The war against teaching of evolutionary theory in Kansas, Pennsylvania and other parts of this country, is a declaration that science doesn't matter. Any who would argue that evolutionary theory is somehow distinct and separate from the rest of science are fooling themselves. What is being challenged by the religious zealots is the scientific outlook itself, the view that knowledge is the natural result of observation. Darwin's theory of evolution is one of the most spectacular examples of this outlook, one that for some 150 years has held up to scrutiny and been strengthened by each piece of evidence that has been used to examine its fundamental premises. Quite simply, no one has found even a clue that would dispute this theory. Fossils are found in precisely the geological layers the theory posits, morphological characteristics of isolated populations diverge in exactly the ways that would be predicted, as does the DNA of animal and plant species. In short, the theory of evolution (and yes, it is a theory -- all science is. The attempt to create a false dichotomy between "theory" and "fact" betrays still more ignorance of the fundamentals of the scientific outlook) is supported by all of the available mountain of evidence in multiple fields -- paleontology, biochemistry, ecology -- which is increased each time we find a new fossil record or decode a new genetic sequence.
The real dichotomy -- the one that is unlikely to be resolved in school board meetings or the courts -- is not between "theory" and "fact", which are roughly the same thing in scientific parlance, but between "science" and "faith". Science and faith may co-exist in an atmosphere of mutual distance and respect, but they are unequivocally opposite. Faith may determine an individual's course of action in the absence of evidence, but only experience and results can validate science.
So, if the creationists win the battle against science education, what is this country left with? Clearly, the military is still a source of short-term strength. But even here, the actions of the George W. Bush administration and their global consequences are making it clear that our pre-eminence is not guaranteed. Global terrorism has grown during the Bush years to a point where the State Department has decided not to publish statistics anymore because of the embarrassing conclusions to which they would lead. And despite W's saber-rattling in the Middle East, nuclear weaponry continues to proliferate, in North Korea, Iran and who knows where else. Now that the nuclear "club" of nations is expanding into the double digits, U.S. ability to dominate in the military arena is clearly on the wane. Hell, we can't even bring about peace in Iraq, a country we have devastated in strictly military terms.
As someone who considers himself a resident of the planet Earth rather than a patriotic American, I am not terribly bothered by the decline in national status I am witnessing. I think that ultimately, the global society that emerges over the next 100 years will be a better, fairer thing than a world dominated by any single nation or geography.
I welcome economic, political and social advance in Asia, Africa and South America. Just as I support the concept (sadly short of reality) of a public education system that guarantees access to good schooling regardless of economic circumstances or geography, I support the concept that people are entitled to a fair -- and responsibly taken and utilized -- share of the earth's resources regardless of geography, color or faith. Ultimately, I think globalization concurrent with the deline of U.S. hegemony will lead to a better world.
I just wonder if the right wing understands how it is advancing the cause of U.S. decline.