By Andrew Bacevich at Tom Dispatch
In choosing a title for his final, posthumously published book, the prominent public intellectual Tony Judt turned to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, published in 1770. Judt found his book’s title in the first words of this couplet:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay
A poignant sentiment but let me acknowledge that I’m not a big Goldsmith fan. My own preferences in verse run more toward Merle Haggard, whose country music hits include the following lyric from his 1982 song “Are the Good Times Really Over?”:
Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?
I wonder, though: Is it possible that the insights of an eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish novelist-poet and a twentieth-century American singer-songwriter, each reflecting on a common theme of decadence and each served up with a dollop of nostalgia, just might intersect?
Allow me to try the reader’s patience with a bit more of Goldsmith:
O luxury! thou curst by Heaven’s decree,
How ill exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!
Kingdoms, by thee, to sickly greatness grown,
Boast of a florid vigour not their own;
At every draught more large and large they grow
A bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe.
Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.
Powerful stuff, but here’s Haggard making a similar point without frills:
I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam War came along…
Are we rolling down hill
Like a snowball headed for Hell?
With no kind of chance
For the Flag or the Liberty Bell
Let me concede from the outset that these laments emerge directly from the heart of the patriarchy. In our present moment, some will discount the complaints of Messrs. Goldsmith and Haggard as not to be taken seriously. As the second decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, bellyaching white guys tend not to command a lot of sympathy.
Still, with this abysmal year finally ending, the melancholy notes sounded by Goldsmith and Haggard strike me as apt. The Age of Biden — or given our preference for faux intimacy, the Age of Joe and Kamala — beckons. Yet I’m anything but certain that 2021 will inaugurate a happier time.