Grandma Goehring and the Decline of the West

WHEN I was a toddler in Grandma Goehring's Sunday School class, we had special little chairs lined up in front of the larger wooden chairs. The hymnbooks we could not yet read would topple from our hands. We wondered at the older boys and girls, at the adults whose voices were so big. We felt lost lost in the simple pre-class service, but we were found in the hymns we knew: ``Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,'' we would sing, for all we were worth. ``A sunbeam! A sunbeam! ... to shine for him each day.''

Today in a world whose prophets are economists and, worse, pundits, I am glad to be a half-century-old, nearly six-foot-tall sunbeam.

Some observers speak a vocabulary of decline. Their professional vantage point is to portend decline, if not disaster. And since none of us can see through the hill over which the road ahead dips, who can say for sure that they are wrong? Japan is devouring the European car market, just as it has the US market, they say. A Japanese-headquartered company has just bought a Finnish computer company, thus acquiring yet another Continental beachhead.

Western religions are said to decline now less from secularization than from the simple aging of members.

News businesses are in decline in Europe as in North America, they say. Ad revenue is off: Recession has come across the Atlantic in the economic Gulf Stream. Greater numbers of college graduates keep the French national newspapers afloat, but the popular press is losing out among nonreaders.

Immigrant waves are feared. Citizens of the Continent's northern countries marvel at veiled women. The Germans and the Swiss worry that, as crossroad countries in a freely trading Europe, they will be pounded by convoys of lorries and enveloped in pollution.

But the world is not so much in decline as it is changing. Civilization has been positioned in Europe and Asia since before Roman times. Sophisticated peoples like the Etruscans were absorbed by successor powers. Today dynamic cultures in Yugoslavia, Latvia, Korea, struggle to find a sense of their numbers and their identity as bursts of political liberty, as from sunflares, strike them.

Now, decline can be in the point of view, the attitude for seeing, rather than in the thing seen. Public analysis can get too complicated. David's five smooth stones, only one of which was needed, suggest the power of a simple well-directed idea.

There has never been a better time to be in public business - commercial business, the news business, the politics business. The world has never been more interesting than it is right now. Shares of power and prominence may be getting redistributed, but that is the historical process. When it is not occurring we panic, imagining the world to be stuck for a time.

A new Europe is emerging. It will have not one seat of power, but many points of influence. Not Paris, Brussels, London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Madrid, Rome, Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Geneva will become the throne of empire, but there will be a dispersion.

A perceptive Swiss friend observes his country was created politically by compression, much as its topography was formed by geological compression. Forces from France and Italy, Germany and Austria, drove the Swiss to their particular independence. Now, he says, as European economic, political, and cultural ways are being relaxed, the Swiss may succumb to an identity-dissolving dispersion. Fifty years from now Europeans may feel inhabitants of a continent and not a country.

More children are being born into the world than ever before. This poses tremendous hunger, health, and education demands. Their numbers are shifting the population locus of the earth from the North to the South, with all the economic and political consequences that this implies.

We cannot be naifs. And yet the future is not behind us. If we stop rejoicing in new life we will really be in trouble.

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