Is America’s Golden Age Over? How Can We Restore American Greatness?
An interview with scholar and playwright Jonathan Leaf
One of the most gifted conservative writers alive also happens to be an old friend of mine from college. No, this time I don’t mean Eric Metaxas — I’m blessed to know two such people. This is the other one, playwright, scholar, and novelist Jonathan Leaf. He just completed a study of what made societies great over the centuries — the working title is The Ten Factors: Why Golden Ages of Civilizations Happen. I decided to pick his brain about what he learned while writing it.
John Zmirak: To many people of faith and conservatives, America and the West appear to be slipping into a dark age. We’ve lost faith in our institutions. Free discourse is shutting down. Political mobs of one faction can terrorize whole cities — while the other side’s free speech is squelched. By contrast, you’ve finished a book on “Golden Ages.” What defines a Golden Age for you?
Jonathan Leaf: A Golden Age is a period in which a society suddenly has much greater wealth and a remarkable outpouring of genius in art, science, music and literature. The Golden Ages of ancient Athens and Renaissance Florence are both examples of this.
Athens in the Periclean Age had only a little more than 200,000 people. That’s about the size of Grand Rapids, Michigan. But it became the richest society before modern times. Athens invented classical sculpture, architecture and drama, along with the basics of botany, geometry and many other subjects. Renaissance Florence had between 40,000-60,000 people. Yet in one generation it produced Leonardo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo, along with tremendous wealth.
How was this possible? Take the length of a normal human lifespan – roughly eighty years. Every society in history that has had every one of ten attributes – what I call the Ten Factors – for that length of time has experienced a Golden Age.
Jonathan Leaf: There are no exceptions to that rule. It turns out that it’s an Iron Law of history. It’s regardless of population size and natural resources. In essence, it’s the basic explanation for human advancement and development. Obviously, this must be terrifying news for liberals as it more or less outlines the conservative agenda in this country.
There’s no logical argument against this. That’s because of a principle in logic called the Law of Parsimony. For instance: If Michael Jordan’s pickup basketball team always wins, no matter who the other players on the squad are, then Jordan must be a pretty good basketball player. Similarly, if every single society that had this social structure experienced a Golden Age of Civilization that enriched its people, displayed brilliance and transformed the world. Then this must be the cause. No other explanation is possible.
Other great examples of Golden Ages were the Roman Republic, the Elizabethan Age, the Dutch Golden Age and the Scottish Enlightenment. Each was starved for resources and had modest populations. The last three were also notable for their fervent Christian faith.
America’s Golden Age?
Did America ever experience a Golden Age? What characterized it?
We haven’t had something as all-encompassing as any of those I just mentioned. And we’ve had a lot more population and resources to work with. But we provided the world with three much more narrow but vital Golden Ages. These were in particular areas, and I cover them in three chapters of my book.
The first was the great period of nineteenth century American invention. This included the invention of:
- The steamboat.
- The mechanical reaper.
- The lock-stitch sewing machine.
- The telegraph.
- The steam shovel.
- The electrical relay and circuit breaker.
- Vulcanized rubber.
- The escalator and the elevator.
- The dishwasher.
- The jackhammer.
- Smoke and metal detectors.
- The fire hydrant.
- The wind turbine.
- The electric stove.
- Blue jeans.
- Barbed wire.
- The mimeograph machine.
- The electric fan.
- The zipper.
- The replaceable razor blade.
- The radiator.
- The machine gun.
- The cash register.
- The thermostat.
- The electric iron.
- The induction motor.
- The latching doorknob, and, yes, the standard mousetrap – not to mention the light bulb, the phonograph and the nickel-iron alkaline battery.
A second was the recent electronics revolution in Silicon Valley.
The third – and, from the point of view of the mass of humanity, the greatest of all – is the post-war medical revolution. Since World War II American doctors have transformed health care. They performed the first organ transplants. Americans created pap smears and angioplasty, invented the laparoscope for minimally invasive surgery, perfected skin grafts and cataract operations, devised the artificial knee joint, the bionic hand, magnetic resonance imaging machines, sonograms, mammograms and LASIK.
American doctors developed methods for re-attaching fingers, hands and whole limbs. At the same time, American pharmaceutical companies introduced drugs to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, AIDS, herpes, hepatitis, hemophilia, dwarfism, urinary tract infections, gout, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, acute lymphocytic and chronic myeloid leukemia, fertility and infertility, tissue rejection, hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, hair loss, epilepsy, macular degeneration and psychosis.
And, of course, U.S. companies just devised vaccines for the Wuhan virus!
The Ten Virtues and Institutions That Can Make an Age Golden
In your book you identify 10 factors that made Golden Ages possible. Can you briefly describe what each of them are?
- Deep Traditions of Religious Faith.
- Limited and Representative Forms of Government.
- Involvement in Banking and Trade.
- The Rule of Law.
- Low Taxation.
- Strong Property Rights.
- Widespread Home Schooling, Private Schools or Private Academies.
- Private Charity In Place of State-Run Welfare.
- The Absence of Slave Plantations (or of Manorial Serfdom).
- The Absence of Polygamy.
The book, of course, explains the crucial importance of each of these factors.
Losing Our Religion, and Our Greatness
Which of those good things have begun to fade away in America?
All but two are under sustained attack. Most intellectuals hate religion, of course, especially Christianity. They favor big government, want to control the banks and business as much as possible and oppose law and order, enhanced property rights and low taxes. They want to expand welfare. They even advocate polyamorous sexual relations. About the only thing they haven’t openly called for is slavery, though that’s back now in China. However, the disaster of online schooling has accelerated American parents’ awareness that in most cases they can do a better job educating their kids themselves at home.
Why Good Societies Decline, Then Collapse
Why do you think societies that enjoy such glory and success abandon the virtuous habits or institutions that made them possible?
It can happen for many reasons. Using the Ten Factors, my book provides the first really comprehensive explanation of a series of key events from the past and important historical anomalies. This includes everything from why the Roman Empire declined and fell to the reasons that Germany and Italy dominated classical music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – but not after.
Golden Ages are characterized by huge increases in wealth. This benefits almost everyone, but it can lead to resentment of growing economic inequality. That can spur political pressures that may lead to decisions cutting off avenues for advancement. The present campaigns for some form of national health care in the United States would seem to be an example of this. It will kill innovation. That’s what’s happened already in Germany and Japan.
Public welfare schemes can tear away at the social fabric and undermine the political order. See the Roman Republic. Military victories brought Romans lots of slaves and cheap grain. The government decided to deal with the consequent impoverishment of small farmers by placing them on the dole. That led to political instability.
Often, though, Golden Age societies were either conquered or weakened by attacks from their rivals and enemies. That’s what happened to ancient Athens and the Dutch and Venetian Republics. If we’re not careful that could happen to us with China. That you have a creative society is no guarantee that you will have military supremacy.
But free societies are much more creative. One statistic I cite in my book is this: Switzerland with its eight million people has produced 25 Nobel Prize winners in science, including Einstein. The People’s Republic of China with its 1.3 billion has produced just one. That’s not a racial thing. Scientists of Chinese extraction have won Nobels in the United States, Canada and France.
How Can We Rebuild Our Virtues?
What would you recommend Americans do to restore our previous greatness, if it’s possible?
Pay attention to those Ten Factors. The U.S. Constitution calls for a government of limited powers. That’s consistent with the Ten Factors. Maybe we should try to follow and learn from it while also acknowledging the vital role of religion.
With respect to the latter point, there’s a mountain of evidence that young people from religious homes have fewer problems: less teen pregnancy, depression, drug addiction, self-harming, etc. We need to bear that in mind as much as possible.
A Diamond Worth Cutting
In your book, you point to “bad explainers” of societal success. You single out Jared Diamond, a best-selling author of books people buy in airports. What’s the essence of what he gets wrong?
Can you use the word “everything” and still understate the point?
Over the last twenty-five years – more or less since his book Guns, Germs and Steel came out – there’s been a wave of archeological research showing that the basic tenets of Diamond’s arguments are wrong. He claimed that New World agriculture got a late start, that the indigenous peoples of the New World had poorer crops and that advanced civilization in this hemisphere started later. It turns out that all those statements are false.
Recent excavations in Ecuador and Peru have shown that the Norte Chico civilization was building huge pyramids by the third and fourth millennia B.C. That’s the same time as Mesopotamia and Pharaonic Egypt. Moreover, the crops of the Western Hemisphere – like potatoes and quinoa – are more nutritious and higher-yielding. So that can’t possibly explain the difference in development between the Old World and the New.
In addition, Diamond argued that agriculturally abundant societies dominated their resource-poor neighbors. In fact, the four regions within the Eastern Hemisphere – Sicily, Egypt, the Gangetic plain in Northern India and the Yellow River valley of North China – which produced the greatest agricultural surpluses were all repeatedly invaded and subjugated.
Conversely, many of history’s greatest conquerors were either people reliant upon primitive, low-yield farming methods or not farmers at all. Rome’s destruction came at the hands of invading hordes of German tribesmen. First came the Goths. Their knowledge of agriculture was “slash and burn.” Others who arrived after them, like the Vandals and Huns, were nomads. The conquering Huns didn’t even have beef cattle.
A hundred years later, the rise of Islam in the Middle East was heralded by legions of camel-herders. In the eleventh century, after the Battle of Manzikert, much of the Byzantine Empire fell to another nomadic people, the Seljuk Turks. (The eventual founders of the Ottoman Empire.) In the 1200s, the Mongols subjugated China and central Asia. They were pastoralists as well. This event anticipated China’s subsequent domination by the Manchus, also slash and burn farmers.
Most of these conquering people emerged from sparsely populated wastelands, areas that even now are considered unsuitable for farming. An indication of the harshness of the Mongol existence may come from this detail about their diet: they hunted rodents, including squirrels and Mongolian rats. If good land for tilling crops and cities really were the main sources for military and political power, they would have been impotent.
Simply put, not only are Diamond’s main ideas wrong, in many cases they’re actually backwards. Yet Diamond’s book has been translated into 32 languages, and it’s sold millions of copies. It’s being taught in schools. It’s served as the intellectual underpinning for multiculturalism and hatred of our civilization.
Kids are being taught that the rise of the West was just a historical accident – and they believe it. Yet, in writing about development, Diamond never studied development! He just arranged a series of erroneous claims about agriculture and military history and then extrapolated from these ideas. His book has been through eight editions, including a special 20th anniversary edition, but he’s never corrected the many mistakes. Maybe that’s because if he did, readers would plainly see how his theories fall to pieces.
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright, screenwriter, author and journalist based out of New York City. A public school teacher, Leaf has written both about education and about the arts and culture for such publications as The Weekly Standard, The New York Sun, The New Yorker, The New York Post, The New York Daily News, The American and National Review.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”