America Unraveling: Wade Davis and America’s Undoing

Dec 20, 2020Issue 9

Photo by Michael Aleo/Unsplash

By Délani Valin

Anthropologist Wade Davis is an author, an activist, and the Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic. In 2018, Culturally Modified featured his talk, “The Worldwide web of Belief and Ritual.” The following is a discussion of his article, “The Unraveling of America,” written with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In “The Unraveling of America,” Wade Davis suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic signals the beginning of the end of the American empire. 

Empires rise at great costs to other nations. The Roman empire depleted the resources of North African countries to feed its growing population, the French and British colonized peoples on nearly every continent. The United States traces its history from this colonization, and from the slavery of African peoples that ensued. An empire uses the labour and resources of other nations to prop itself up. 

By the mid-twentieth century, the United States wielded influence during World War Two in no small part due to the nation’s manufacturing prowess. As an example, Davis notes that “a single American factory, Chrysler’s Detroit Arsenal, built more tanks than the whole of the Third Reich.” 

The American empire established itself as a world superpower with its large military presence. In his article, Davis references past President Jimmy Carter’s recent assertion that the United States is “the most warlike nation of the world.” 

But even with such military might, every empire is destined to fall. The decline of an empire, while observable by outsiders, is usually felt first within the nation itself. Well before the protests and the images of burning police precincts in late May 2020, and before the refrigerated trucks parked en masse outside New York hospitals when COVID-19 first hit the United States in April 2020, there were more subtle signs of dysfunction that Davis points to in his article: “only half of Americans report having meaningful, face-to-face social interactions on a daily basis. The nation consumes two-thirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs.” Grandparents, he notes, no longer live with their families— instead, they are housed in retirement homes, often isolated.

Family, as an institution, has been eroding. Davis notes, “the average American father spends less than 20 minutes a day in direct communication with his child,” and children spend an increasing number of hours staring at screens. And while many right-leaning politicians harken back to a family ideal from the 1950s that may have been plucked straight from T.V. dinner advertisements, rather than any person’s lived experience (placid stay-at-home mothers, well-behaved children, responsible fathers, and the not-so-subtle, ubiquitous whiteness), America has also long been fond of expressions of individualism. 

Every empire is destined to fall.

From picking a car to opting for a specific breakfast cereal, the ability to make choices, no matter how trivial, became shorthand for freedom. Perhaps nowhere is this seen more starkly than in the fashion industry, which started to unravel even before the pandemic hit. In her article, “Sweatpants Forever,” Irina Aleksander interviews fashion designer Scott Sternberg as he describes how the fashion-bubble finally burst. The unsustainable practice of creating new clothing for every single season finally came to a halt, when lockdowns forced shoppers to stay home and saw them adopting more comfortable clothing options. This resulted in the bankruptcy of American clothing giants J.Crew, Neiman Marcus, and J.C. Penney, among others. 

Yet, even as these giants fall, the pandemic is seeing the richest Americans make gains, with billionaires increasing their wealth just as the poorest Americans, often people of colour, struggle not only financially but with greater odds of mortality from the pandemic. This disparity has been growing in the background for decades. Davis notes that in the 1950s, American CEOs made on average 20 times more than their salaried staff. CEOs now make 400 times more than their staff. Davis says, “COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken.”

Individualism in American can be understood as the freedom to define one’s values, albeit often through consumption. Although the aspiration to buy luxury items has always ultimately been unattainable for many, business closures and lockdowns have made getting even basic necessities and healthcare an urgent concern for many more. It is perhaps no surprise then, that some people have been expressing their ability to make choices through the rejection social distancing measures and the wearing of masks in the name of freedom.

Perhaps it is these same Americans who chose, as Davis puts it, “to prioritize their indignations, placing their own resentments above the fate of the country and the world, as they rushed to elect a man whose only credential was to give voice to their hatreds, validate their anger, and target their enemy, real or imagined” when they elected Donald Trump as President in 2016. And though Donald Trump was not re-elected in the November 2020 election, Davis says, “for better or worse, America had its time.”

The fall of an empire is shortly followed by the rise of another, and like many, Davis predicts China will fill the power vacuum left by the United States. For this, Davis says there is no reason to celebrate, “for their concentration camps of the Uighurs, the ruthless reach of their military, their 200 million surveillance cameras watching every move and gesture of their people, we will surely long for the best years of the American century.” 

It’s important to note that what counts as the best years of the American century for some, could be considered devastating years for others, including, but not limited to, some of the countries which still have United States troops within their border. Yet, the rise of a Chinese empire is certainly not guaranteed to be any more peaceful. Perhaps what is most daunting in this new era is what is always most daunting with any change: entering into uncertainty.

To read Wade Davis’s article, “The Unraveling of America,” in full, follow this link to Rolling Stone.

Délani Valin is the editor at Culturally Modified. She is a Cree-Métis writer with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Vancouver Island University. She writes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction about culture and identity. Her work has been awarded the Malahat Review's Long Poem Prize, and subTerrain's Lush Triumphant Literary Award. She was nominated for a 2018 National Magazine Award.