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Column: The decline and fall of the West

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 4/13/2021 10:10:06 PM
Modified: 4/13/2021 10:10:04 PM

The older you get, the more you know. And the more you know, the more you realize how pitifully little you know. I don’t mean just the mysteries of, say, medical, chemical, psychological, financial, political and physical frontiers. I mean everything.

The print media are like whiskey distillers: They crank out their stuff faster than any of us can consume it. That, coupled with our recently enhanced skepticism of almost anything we read, can render a lot of information seem to be a shifting cloud that occludes the clear blue sky of factual information: What or whom can we believe anymore? This may be why so many of us, unable to live with uncertainty or to process nuance, retreat into simplicity, suspicion or conspiracy theories.

We read this week that a proposed hotel and parking garage will not be built, at least for now, in Vermont’s capital city, thanks mostly — apparently — to the persistent objections of residents with a view for a more attractive riverbank, perhaps like San Antonio’s famous River Walk. The state’s teachers are up arms (figuratively for now) over the poor performance and sketchy future of their pension fund. Widening the lens from there, we read about the threatening anomalies in Vermont’s heretofore excellent performance against the COVID-19 pandemic; phosphorus pollution threatening Lake Champlain; summertime bear-hounding and recreational trapping threatening our native wild animals; climate change and another dry year threatening everything from the sweetness of maple sap to our crops and water wells; the threats go on. If I were young and considering a career in what was once called public service, I’d first have my head examined (another antique expression).

The most disturbing political piece I read this week, looming like a dark cloud over the idiotic bashing of Asian Americans, opined that the leaders of China believe the West (which includes, most prominently, us) is in irreversible decline, and are rushing to capitalize on it. That little sentence, out of all the hundreds I read this week, has stuck like a bur in my consciousness. Are they right? And what might be leading them to such a conclusion?

There’s no doubt our dominance is being tested. Russia has annexed Crimea with little but finger-wagging from the United States, and is about to try the same in Ukraine. The military rulers of Myanmar have abandoned any pretense of democracy, are slaughtering protesters, and daring the rest of the world (that includes us, too) to do something about it. China has annexed and destroyed the institutions of Tibet; tightened its autocratic coils around Hong Kong in violation of prior agreements; clearly has its sights on Taiwan; and has established in far-west Xinjiang a Communist state whose rigid controls would turn Josef Stalin or Erich Honecker green with envy.

Americans have been, at least since World War II, conditioned to run for their shotguns at the mention of Communism. We’ve been conditioned to fear it like the Devil incarnate. It’s less about its ideology, which few Americans understand, than what it morphs into — autocracy.

One of the best descriptions of that process is in Amor Towles’ brilliant novel A Gentleman in Moscow. Revolutionary committees, as batty about purity of thought as any Spanish Inquisitors, rapidly impose it upon everyone and root out, execute or exile those they deem tepid or recalcitrant.

If you have an hour this week to read, get hold of “Ghost Walls,” a lengthy article by Raffi Khatchadourian in the April 12 issue of The New Yorker. It describes in excruciating detail the experience of a young woman from Xinjiang trapped in the labyrinth created in her homeland by the Chinese government. Her long, Kafkaesque imprisonment and reeducation begin when an airport official takes her passport into a back room for consultation. It’s 1984 incarnated, but with inspectors (called “family members” when they come for tea at people’s houses), microphones, and cameras everywhere, all connected to a supercomputer that recognizes and records ethnic features. Just as in the late, unlamented East Germany, everyone is afraid to step out of line and threaten the main goals of the central government: conformity and “stability.”

And what are we doing about all this? Well, we’re discussing a boycott of the 2022 Olympics; we’re arguing over an arcane political tactic called the filibuster; and we’re enacting laws to keep undesirables from voting. No wonder the People’s Republic thinks we’re in irreversible decline.

Willem Lange can be reached at

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