It’s that uneasy sense that things have gone terribly wrong – and you’re not sure how or why. Things had been going well and then one thing after another happened – nothing important really – and then you realize you’ve lost it all, or you’re going to lose it all – whatever it is. It happens with careers and it happens with marriages – there is no one mistake and no one disappointment, and no dramatic setback in particular that you can point to. But it all turns to dust. And it sneaked up on you. And you sit and brood about what it was that you missed – that turning point, that moment that you should have realized things had changed and would never be the same, and maybe it was time to move on. Everyone else must have seen it. Why couldn’t you? It’s just not fair.
How did you miss that moment? Out here in Hollywood we have developed a sense for such pivotal moments, when you jump the shark. Yes indeed – jumping the shark is what we call it. And out here that refers to that precise moment in the evolution of a television show when the show begins its long decline and it’s obvious it is beyond recovery. That creative edge is gone. That spark is gone – and the phrase refers to September 20, 1977 – the fifth season premiere episode of Happy Days, when they were getting a bit desperate for clever ideas. Having the Fonz, on water skis in Santa Monica Bay, actually jump over a shark, might have seemed like a good idea at the time. Or it was all they could come up with.
And that was the beginning of the end of the show. They were running on empty. It was all decline and fall after that. America moved on. And the phrase moved into general usage – for that moment when, although you don’t realize it at all, it really is over. You should have known. Yes, Newt Gingrich just jumped the shark – and it wasn’t pretty. Gingrich became the Ford Edsel of American politics. The Ford Edsel wasn’t that bad a car in its day. It was just totally unnecessary, no matter what the advertizing people said – just like with Newt. Everyone moved on.
But it is hard to pick that precise moment when it all turns to dust, that moment you should have seen coming. After all, the Romans had no clue. Edward Gibbon covered that in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – six volumes published from 1776 through 1789 – all about the smug and satisfied Romans not knowing that is really was over, even if they didn’t realize it. That spark was gone.
And Gibbon provides the model for the methodologies of all modern historians – you find and explain, in detail, the jump-the-shark moments of the culture in question. It’s all in what people don’t realize is actually going on. And thus he argues that the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions pretty much because of the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. Everyone was looking out for themselves and thought the government was stupid and useless, as they were doing just fine. Like, who cares, man? So it was the decadence, you see. And of course Rome had become weak, what with outsourcing the defense of their empire to non-Roman (barbarian) mercenaries, and then it turned out there were so damned many of them and they had become part of the bureaucracy and all, so they kind of took over the empire – you know, kind of like Halliburton and the major defense contractors. When Eisenhower left office, warning us in his farewell speech about the Military-Industrial Complex, he was channeling Gibbon. Or he was saying that we might be coming close to jumping the shark.
But most Americans now have that uneasy sense that things have gone terribly wrong – and we’re not sure how or why. But we sense it. Maybe it is all over, and America is over, and we’re just hanging around, kidding ourselves about how fine things are. But this may be the long decline and America is beyond recovery, even though no one would ever say that. But did we jump the shark?
And the news doesn’t help. At what point did our political system become decadent? We didn’t notice before, or brushed it off before, but now it is a bit hard to ignore. And E. J. Dionne takes the Anthony Weiner scandal as the moment he realized we were late imperial Rome – as you really do wonder what’s happening to our democracy and those who serve it:
The Weiner circus is bad enough. Social networking has taken us where human nature always threatens to go: downward. Do we want to give politicians incentives to limit their thinking to 140 characters? Will Weiner’s experience – and former congressman Chris Lee’s adventures on Craigslist – encourage politicians to question whether constituents want anything close to the level of detail about their lives that fans expect from pop stars and marquee athletes?
That sounds pretty decadent, and Weiner had been a jerk, but something more is going on here:
What’s amazing is that the Scandal Management Handbook, 36th edition, offered him the perfect way out. When caught, fess up immediately, declare right from the start that you are a victim of a terrible addiction, go into treatment and disappear for a while.
You are rarely challenged these days when you take a loss of virtue and turn it into a medical condition. And you avoid the problem of encouraging your allies to defend you on a matter about which you know you are guilty.
But that won’t wash:
The Weiner episode marked the culmination of several months during which other sideshows involving outrageous male behavior – John Ensign and John Edwards come to mind – dominated news coverage at a moment when our country’s future really is on the line. (Bill Clinton’s scandal played out when we were in very good shape, which is one reason he survived.)
Add to this the political media’s tendency to prefer covering personalities that the media created in the first place (Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, above all) to those taking the trouble of running for president and thinking through what they want to say. It’s another case of politicians being reduced (or, maybe, reducing themselves) to celebrities.
I have no particular sympathy for the political views of Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty or Rick Santorum, but at least the three of them are doing the hard work that democratic politics requires. Thus: Palin’s unusual comments about Paul Revere got far more attention than did Pawlenty’s economic speech this week. It fell to policy bloggers such as The Post’s Ezra Klein to take Pawlenty’s ideas apart. Thus: Palin’s bus trip to the New Hampshire seacoast got at least as much attention as Romney’s announcement of a real, live candidacy.
But Dionne will not say that this is all the media’s fault, nor the politicians who were being fools. There’s a bigger issue:
Much of what passes for debate consists of irritable ideological gestures. The recent disappointing economic news has not changed the set-piece Washington deficit debate one bit.
Big numbers are thrown around – Sen. Jon Kyl said Tuesday that Republican agreement to raising the debt ceiling would require $2.5 trillion in spending cuts – with little inquiry as to how such reductions would affect actual people, future economic growth or our capacity to invest in ourselves. Ah, but trying to answer such questions would distract us from the Weiner story.
Dionne just wants to remind us that we’re a superpower with big economic problems even if we don’t act like it.
We’re acting like a country that has all the time in the world to dance around our troubles by indulging in ideological fantasies and focusing on the behavioral fantasies of wayward politicians – who, by the way, keep creating opportunities for distraction.
So he’s worried about our national decline if we don’t get very serious, very soon. And the Anthony Weiner thing was the tipping point. At what point did our political system become decadent? That will do.
But PM Carpenter argues that Dionne has it all wrong, as it was the Bush v Gore Supreme Court ruling:
I began to begin by making the observation that E. J. Dionne must be in gargantuan denial, behind the eight ball, slow on the uptake; that he’s in the grip of whatever condition or cliché has prevented him from accepting – not embracing, mind you, just accepting – the brutal reality that the world’s oldest, once-stablest democracy now routinely behaves like a prepubescent, incorrigible child. … I can only swear that his tolerance is made of much sturdier stuff than mine.
So he explains his own personal breaking point:
My answer is regrettably imprecise. Yet, I would imagine some qualified psychiatrist somewhere would encourage at least an attempt in some form of some sort of stream of consciousness. …
I heard my first unmistakable crack a bit more than 10 years ago, when a colossally corrupt U.S. Supreme Court not only single-handedly determined that the ineffably dimwitted George W. Bush should be president of these United States, but that its reasoning process in arriving at that staggering electoral insult should be forever regarded by future courts as sui generis, since the reasoning process was, like George W. Bush, so ineffably dimwitted. I consoled myself at the time with historical coddling: from county clerkships to the U.S. presidency, the American art of stealing elections has been a long and noble one; and besides, quite often the racketeering thief turned out to be not half bad as respectable officeholders.
So even though I had heard a crack – even though I had, in fact, suffered an undeniable breaking point – I further consoled myself with the Twainian thought that, like Wagner, perhaps Bush would be better than he sounded. Oh, what a misjudgment, or rather, what a false hope. He was worse, far worse, as in galactically far worse, and behind him he harbored a Congress-full of either likeminded ideological nincompoops or spinelessly loyal oppositionists willing to grant their imprimatur to virtually every imbecilic Bushian impulse.
And then it got worse:
Historians, for decades to come, will be unfoldingly horrified and appalled at the Bush administration’s alternating recklessness and indifference; levels that make James Buchanan, by comparison, look like a Lincoln. From W’s deliberate reversal of our fiscal health, to invading the wrong country, to Constitutional violations committed with a transcendentally arrogant shrug and a sneer, in general his transgressions against law, both domestic and foreign, as well as against human decency and just plain common sense – taken together, the Bush-Cheney record of achievement is as degenerately sui generis as was its extralegal conception.
Perhaps worse, we reelected these buffoons, subsequent to appreciating just how immensely boneheaded and corrupt they were. Added to that additional breaking point of 2004 was our national mini-stroke-slash-nervous breakdown of 2010 and – well, you get the diagnostic picture.
He wonders if he’s really supposed to be upset by Anthony Weiner’s antics. That’s small potatoes, or something.
But he does have hope:
The one intervening salvation, of course, was our restoration of presidential gracefulness, executive competence and pragmatic reason in 2008. Barack Obama is doing his damnedest to make it all better, to heal the wounds, to correct our course and put the ethical, socioeconomic and loosely philosophical meaning of “super” back into “superpower.” If he’s unsuccessful – if the ruggedly ignorant Americanism of tea partyism, Cantorism, McConnellism and Romneyism or T-Pawism proves to be insurmountable – then that compound noun of once-great distinction will not improbably become a thing of the irretrievable past.
Well, that’s two views of what might be America’s jump-the-shark moment, and Andrew Sullivan offers a third:
Personally, I think it was some moment between the Congress’s assent to torture in 2006 and when Sarah Palin was selected as a serious vice-presidential nominee in 2008.
So just when did we become Late Imperial Rome? Sullivan’s readers offer other moments:
The Clinton impeachment, hands down. The long list of ridiculous investigations leading up to it were bad enough, but taking a step designed to remove an elected President over a personal affair showed that the view of politics over country now ruled the day. The proceedings were political Kabuki Theater at its basest.
And there is this:
I have a vivid memory of reading the Kenneth Starr report on Monica Lewinsky one afternoon in the company of a number of my then-colleagues. Looking back, it is almost embarrassing how much we all giggled and snickered over that document.
(It is also interesting to consider that that must have been one of the first, if not the first, source documents for a major news event that we all read over the Internet.) I think that was the point at which I knew we had begun our decline and fall. Probably what Clinton said about the cigar, and knowing the circumstances in which he said it, and that he was our head of state and at the time in his official office (in every respect), is what put me over the top. And if that didn’t do it, surely the arguments about the meaning of the word “is,” the blue dress, and the impeachment proceedings would have. Any time a society is laughing at its leader the way we were all laughing at Bill Clinton, you have to know that something serious has ruptured in that society.
But this reader says it is less important to ask when we realized how decadent things were than to ask when the decadence actually began:
I think the best answer to that question is that it began before many of us were born: when Lyndon Johnson began lying to the country about Vietnam. Moral authority is the most powerful kind of authority there is, and at that point, at which our political leaders lost our trust and respect, they lost any sort of moral authority over the citizenry. In a democracy, where the people are sovereign, this means that we quite literally lost respect for ourselves.
Of course, what followed the Vietnam era did not help. An interesting question is where would we be today if Humphrey beat Nixon in 1968, or if Watergate had never happened. Jimmy Carter’s national malaise (a word, I learned recently, he never actually uttered in his infamous speech) did not help either. But it was all made possible, I think, by LBJ.
And this reader suspects Gibbon’s Decline and Fall “is more topical than any of us would like to think” – along with this:
Another fascinating question – and obviously I am far from the first person to think of this – is the extent to which our decline has been accelerated by modern information technology. Vietnam was the first war covered on television, and I doubt I would have been laughing at Bill Clinton in quite the way I was without the Internet. And let’s not even talk about Weinergate.
And then there’s a voice from the UK:
I’m British and lived in the US during the second half of the ’90s. What I saw profoundly shocked me – I actually used the word “decadent” to describe it at the time. It was the most extraordinary extra-democratic campaign and I’m thrilled that two of the ring-leaders’ (Tom DeLay and Trent Lott) careers ended in disgrace.
Well, everyone has their special moment chosen, that moment that you should have realized things had changed and would never be the same. And this can turn into a bit of a parlor game. But it is more than a game. It’s that uneasy sense that things have gone terribly wrong – and you’re not sure how or why that happened. It’s natural to choose a moment when you think things changed.
But it doesn’t matter. The question is now what?
And of course now we have an endless and dysfunctional spending debate, about what next, and Will Wilkinson explains that:
Some government spending gives folks stuff they want. Some government spending is worse than stealing money, throwing it in a hole and burning it. This is obvious when you think about it for a second, but it sometimes seems that partisan political discourse is based on the refusal to think about it at all.
Conservatives with a libertarian edge often proceed as if government spending as such is an evil to resist, except when they’re defending a free-lunch tax cut (we’ll have more money to wrongly spend!) or the ongoing development of experimental underwater battle helicopters. And liberals with a social-democratic streak often operate within a framework of crypto-Keynesian mysticism according to which handing a dollar to government is like handing a fish to Jesus Christ, the ultimate multiplier of free lunches.
Yep, it’s Late Imperial Rome and we’re talking nonsense to each other, with the barbarians at the gate, not realizing that moment that we should have realized things had changed and would never be the same has already come and gone. But the jumping the shark thing was a cute idea. So was the Edsel. Oh well.