Originally broadcast: June 14, 2009
Today’s pundits and politicians love to tell us that America is in decline. Michael Moore, Bill O’Reilly, Patrick Buchanan, Bill Clinton, and even philosophers like Allan Bloom and Noam Chomsky work to persuade us that America has lost its way. But this message is nothing new. From the earliest moments of North American settlement people have been preaching American downfall, yet this “jeremiad” – the use of the theme of downfall named after the biblical Book of Jeremiah – “does not invite discussion. It is not designed to create debate. It preaches to the converted, or at best draws in those who have not considered the issues before and are ready to be converted.” So writes Mark Jendrysik, author of the book Modern Jeremiahs: Contemporary Visions of American Decline.”
On this episode of WHY? we will talk about the political uses of jeremiad and ask whether it contributes to truth and citizen-participation, and we will investigate its role in manipulation and fear-mongering. Why is this negativity so popular and why does Jendrysik believe that civilizations need Jeremiahs, even if people rarely heed them? Is jeremiad anti-philosophical?
Mark Stephen Jendrysik is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Dakota. He has published and presented papers on early modern political thought, public opinion methodology, ethnic politics in the United States, utopian political theory, and contemporary American political thought. He is also the author of Explaining the English Revolution: Hobbes and His Contemporaries.
Why?’s host Jack Russell Weinstein says “this issue is tremendously important as North Dakota is itself awash in modern jeremiahs. Even our own Senator Byron Dorgan’s books Take This Job and Ship It and Reckless are variations on the theme of American decline. Mark’s astute and wry analyses of the American political system never fail to engage his audience, and his unique voice is both engrossing and entertaining.”