Cities in the Dust

At the new York review of Books, a lament for the disappearing library:

All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire. People everywhere are unhappy about these closings, and so are mayors making the hard decisions. But with roads and streets left in disrepair, teachers, policemen and firemen being laid off, and politicians in both parties pledging never to raise taxes, no matter what happens to our quality of life, the outlook is bleak.“The greatest nation on earth,” as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.

The University where I work is one of the few places in the US that still has one of the old Carnegie Libraries on campus. It’s no longer a library of course, hasn’t been in years. But it’s a reminder of a different era, when America’s wealthy still believed in the social contract. Back then, a sure fire philanthropic gesture was to spend a few bucks and open a public library. Andrew Carnegie, for all his faults, was a big advocate of libraries at the turn of the 20th century. At the time of his death in 1919, almost half the libraries in the United states had been built with grants form the Carnegie Foundation.

Imagine the Koch Bros. using their vast fortune to build libraries, or anything at all. America’s wealthy upper class doesn’t create any more. They tear down. Rend. Destroy. Before our elite fell sway to the cult of Rand, they gave at least a pitance back to the country that allowed them to become stinking rich in the first place. Some did it out of the quaint old notion of Christian Charity (imagine, charitable Christians! They’d be run out of the pews in our era of the Prosperity Gospel) while others did it out of a sense of fairness and justice.You give back to the community that helped make you. This idea is dismissed as “Socialism” now. As if calling it something that smells vaguely of Eastern Germany makes it intrinsically evil.

Funny to think that Andrew Carnegie, Steel Baron and second richest man in history, would be called a howling Commie by Republicans today, dismissed like that nefarious class traitor, George Soros. And by funny, I mean sad.

When I was little, we all thought that if the USA ever fell (as monumental an IF as there ever was), it would be due to Soviet missile strikes, an alien invasion or the heat death of the universe. But when great nations fall, they don’t always crash and burn from the machinations of jelous rivals. Sometimes they just wither away when their ruling class decides that the cost of maintaining civilization cuts too much into their own profits.

I have no doubt that America will continue to be a nation for many decades to come. Maybe even centuries. But it will not be the great beacon it once was, just another twilight power, coasting on momentum, a tarnished reputation and the fond memories of what it once was.

Link via Morgan Meis at 3QD.