Historians say you can learn a lot about a society's past by studying its laws, which offer a window into problems and issues not celebrated in song or verse. To study a society's present, however, one has to watch its television commercials, which uncover desires and anxieties that literature and film are often too high-minded or squeamish to chronicle.A look at America's latest broadcast advertisements reveals a discomfiting metaphor for a nation confronting the end to unrivalled global political and economic supremacy, a sort of vainglorious effort to mask the inevitable decay of a body long submitted to the rigours of superpower. While they share with the rest of the world the usual promises of sexier cars, germfree toilets and odourless armpits, commercials here in the world's largest economy advertise a bewildering and even embarrassing panoply of products designed to rectify a lifestyle of excess.
On American television, for example, one learns that there are products to make you sleep, and products to wake you up. There are products to freshen your breath, whiten your teeth, prevent heartburn, relieve gas and trim tummy fat without moving a muscle. Food is fat-free, fibre-rich yet still jumbo-sized. Women can take pills to stop menstruation, men to increase their potency. There is a product that softens stools and a bath tissue that promises to remove them while leaving less of itself behind.
Indeed, US consumers appear to be buying things the rest of the world does not even know it needs. To some it may recall the decadence of ancient Rome, which would be fitting because it is analogies to Rome that many pundits in the US draw to explain America's present political and economic decline.In a recent magazine essay adapted from his latest book The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, calls America the most powerful nation since imperial Rome. And like Rome, he warns, America's power is ebbing, not because of any absolute decline, but because of what he has dubbed "the rise of the rest".
In so doing, Mr Zakaria has zeroed in on an aspect of the American empire too often overlooked in the hand-wringing over its perceived decline. The rise of the rest of the world is a process that started with the rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War and has culminated in the re-emergence of China and India, and the renaissance now coursing across the Middle East and Africa. It is in large measure the consequence of the world order imposed by America and imprinted with its ideals. America's decline is therefore not only relative, but victorious.
Mr Zakaria, like other proponents of continued American power, goes on to extol the strength and dynamism of the American military, technology and economy to refute the notion that America is in any way a spent force. America remains a sanctuary of freedom and a crucible for individual expression, the very germ of innovation and entrepreneurship. America's educational institutions still lure the world's elite, and its openness to immigration sets it apart from Europe by allowing it to continually replenish its talent. Despite its current economic and financial travails, therefore, the US still tops lists of the world's most competitive economies.
Mr Zakaria and other scholars, like many historians before them, lay the blame for America's imperial malaise on what Mr Zakaria calls dysfunctional politics, "a do-nothing political process, designed for partisan battles rather than problem solving." Some pundits use this logic to predict that America's fortunes will improve next year, when a new president replaces George W Bush.It is a hopeful thesis, one that resonates when Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate for president, makes his stirring calls for "change you can believe in". But journeying back to America this month, it is unclear that this is a country ready to be stirred. Despite the angst over America's decline, there remains a mood of resolute complacency, a carefully cultivated arrogance. Americans realise that the world outside is advancing on them technologically, economically and militarily, but even the pundits do not yet seem to understand that the ideals and system that have produced America's extravagant consumer lifestyles no longer make it the best place in the world to live.
America's system seems to be producing greater wealth without necessarily improving its quality of life. The US has fallen far down the list of nations with the most cellular and internet connections in the world. Its corporate tax rates are now among the world's highest. More telling is that in the latest quality of living surveys by employment consultants Mercer, no US city shows up until Honolulu at 28th. The top ten most liveable cities include seven in Europe, two in the Antipodes and one in Canada, all of which are typically criticised for having high taxes to pay for extensive social safety nets. Not a single US city shows up in the ranking of top 50 cities for personal safety, reflecting perhaps a murder rate higher than Yemen's. And despite the fact that the US has the highest per-capita outlay on health care in the world, it also has the highest obesity rate, with a life expectancy that ranks only 44th, behind Bosnia.
Elections in November may offer the chance for change, but it remains to be seen whether Americans are not too flabby to get up off the couch to seize it.@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org