This Month in American Decadence

Abraham Lincoln in 1865 (Alexander Gardner via Library of Congress)

On the back page of The Atlantic is a feature called “The Big Question.” For November, the question is: “If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?”

Charles Ryan of Napa, Calif., would go back and prevent the burning of the Alexandrian library. William Darity Jr. of Duke would see to it that Radical Reconstruction had been implemented after the Civil War. David Aalto of Etowah, N.C., would prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. David Hill of Los Angeles would spare Kennedy. Marina Warner, a historian, would stop the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Gerry O’Keefe of Olympia, Wash., would have prevented chattel slavery in the British colonies. (Why not everywhere?) I can get behind those, though I might have gone with something like preventing the Holocaust or the HIV epidemic.

But some people are bananas.

Author Anne Delia Subin believes the human race was cursed by the discovery of oil in Kuwait. Along the same lines, Roger Albin of Ann Arbor, Mich., wishes we had never seen the development of a “commercially successful oil-and-gas industry.” Roger Dengate of Rochester Hills, Mich., would have preempted the Second Amendment. Jeffrey Miller of North Woodmere, N.Y., wants Rocky Balboa to have defeated Apollo Creed. (That was a movie, Jeffrey.)

Professor Samantha Kelly of Rutgers puts her crosshairs on the invention of agriculture. “Hunter-gatherer life isn’t sounding so bad,” she writes. The hunter-gatherer life is ready when you are, professor.

The contempt we have for material abundance — for things such as agriculture and energy — is part of the disease of decadence. It is grotesque, and something one hears almost exclusively from the rich and the secure. The contempt for the Bill of Rights, increasingly common, is a worrisome sign of the times.

But I would like to shake the hand of Bernard Seneway of Ellicott City, Md., who would put the ixnay on the Interstate Highway System, a.k.a. Eisenhower’s Folly. A man after my own heart. Even Ike got a few wrong from time to time.

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