By Tom Robotham

One of my favorite moments in the history of television is the opening scene of Newsroom, a short-lived HBO series about a jaded TV anchor, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels. In the scene, McAvoy is asked at a college forum why America is the greatest country in the world. 

“It’s not,” he answers, and rattles off a list of our nation’s failings. Then, after a dramatic pause, he says, “It sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons…We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed. We cared about our neighbors. We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chests. We built great big things, made ungodly technical advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars.”

The scene packs an emotional punch for me because I share the sense that we—as a nation—no longer strive for excellence. At the same time, I’m acutely aware that this response may be rooted, at least in part, in the natural tendency of people to imagine the era of their childhood as a golden age. 

And so I’m moved to reflect on the question: Have our society and culture changed for the worse?

For starters, I reject simplistic answers: the facile yes from many people in my age cohort, and the reflexive dismissal from many younger people. There are many arguments to be made on both sides, but the question is valid. To argue otherwise is to suggest that cultural criticism is off limits—especially for people over the age of 60. 

Whenever I watch the clip—and I have a number of times because I play it for my students as a catalyst for discussion—I immediately think, “Hold on, now,” when McAvoy asserts that America “sure used to be” the greatest country in the world.

During the era that we “reached for the stars,” after all—the 1960s—America wasn’t so great for women, Black folks, or gays and lesbians. That our country has improved dramatically in the sphere of civil rights seems undeniable to me—the recent backlashes from reactionaries notwithstanding. 

The notion that we used to fight for moral reasons is also questionable. I believe that we did in World War II—but we certainly didn’t in Vietnam. 

In many other respects, however, I would argue that our culture and society have declined. 

Let’s start with the notion that we used to reach for the stars—a phrase that can be taken literally, as a reference to the Apollo space missions, and figuratively, as a reference to a general striving for innovations of all kinds. That striving for innovative achievement, it seems to me, characterizes much of the 20th century, both in the public and private sectors. Consider two prime examples. The first is the construction of the Empire State Building, which was completed in just over one year. Today it takes longer than that to complete some mediocre suburban office park—a fact that represents not only a societal slothfulness but an embrace of architectural mediocrity. The second is the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which Eisenhower signed on June 29, 1956 (the very day I came into this world, as it happens.) Yes, in time, the building of Interstates became problematic because many old neighborhoods were destroyed in the process. Nevertheless, the boldness of vision behind the project represented a belief in our ability to build a great infrastructure for a great nation.

I also think it’s worth considering the phrase literally—for the Apollo missions were important in and of themselves. In addition to making scientific breakthroughs, they were profoundly inspiring, symbolizing the idea that if we put our minds behind an aspiration, we can do anything. In subsequent decades, the space program languished. And while it’s true that in recent years it’s gotten more attention, we have now handed over much of the project to Space X, as if to concede that we the people are no longer capable of great public enterprises. If the government has any role anymore, in the minds of many Americans, it’s the building of walls to keep out undesirables. And that, too, is more than about the ostensible goal of immigration control. It is symbolic as well. It suggests that we have replaced great aspirations with a siege mentality, which reflects a sense of weakness at our core. 

Trump’s Wall, of course, symbolizes yet another way in which our culture has been degraded: the wall between Republicans and Democrats, which has made bipartisan cooperation seem almost as quaint as rotary telephones. 

Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, moreover, the middle class was growing vigorously, based on a widespread belief in the American dream. Since the ‘70s, by contrast, it has been losing ground, according to many studies, including those done by Pew Research. Contributing to this were shifts toward policies favoring the rich and super-rich—shifts that reflected the “Looking Out for Number 1” mindset ushered in by Reagan. That mindset resulted, over time, in a disintegration of our sense of community. A recent Wall Street Journal poll documented this decline, revealing that only 27 percent of respondents say community involvement is very important. The same poll, meanwhile, showed that only 38 percent of respondents think that patriotism is very important. 

I realize that some folks may regard the latter statistic as a good thing, since patriotism is often associated with chauvinistic nationalism. But as Jill Lepore points out in her excellent 2019 book This America: The Case for Nation, nationalism has come to mean “something different from patriotism, something fierce, something violent: less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries… and a hatred of people within your own country who don’t belong to an ethnic, racial or religious majority.”

Patriotism, in other words, is a love of our nation’s founding ideals, as well as the ideal expressed in Emma Lazarus’ great poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

The idea of our nation as a beacon of hope—a sanctuary—is surely one of the things that marks its greatness, even though anti-immigration initiatives have stained our record many times throughout our history. But it’s worth remembering the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which ended a discriminatory quota system—a system that President Johnson called “un-American” and “cruel.”

Today, Republicans, at least, have fallen back into that aforementioned siege mentality, when it comes to immigration—an admission, once again, of weakness: the idea that we are no longer capable of being a beacon of hope for huddled masses yearning to breathe free. 

So yes, I would say that on this count we were a far better nation in 1965. 

Our culture, too, seems to have fallen into a kind of decadence, which I define not in moral terms but simply as a lack of energy, as the great historian Jacques Barzun did in his 1999 masterwork From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  The lack of musical innovation over the last few decades seems to reflect this. Certainly there are a whole lot of people producing great music today, but the artistic energy pales in comparison to the innovative drive that characterized much of the 20th century, from the birth of jazz to the birth of hip-hop. At the same time, our social energy seems to have flagged, defined as it is by TikTok challenges rather than a real sense of community that characterized the miracle of Woodstock, when a peaceful and joyful gathering nearly the size of the entire population of Virginia Beach took place on a single farm in upstate New York.

I realize that of all the things I’ve said, these last remarks are most likely to elicit, “OK, Boomer.” So be it. I’ll merely point out that when I asked my Gen-Z students recently, they overwhelmingly said that they thought today’s popular culture lacks vitality in comparison to earlier decades. 

Their emphatic response reinforced my sense that I’m not just wallowing in nostalgia. It seems to me that we’ve lost a widespread vision of greatness—socially, politically and culturally—and faith in our ability to achieve it. Perhaps that will change as new generations emerge. In the meantime, if you disagree with me, make your best case. I’m listening. 

Tom Robotham welcomes feedback at [email protected]