Chicago -- THE NEWSPAPERS across America these watershed weeks are rightly emblazoned with stories about the extraordinary collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union. We peer with morbid fascination into the hidden stairwells of each Soviet institution and see clearly the terrifying black emptiness.
But take your eyes away for just a moment from the compelling stories of Soviet anarchy. Just behind them, hidden in third columns and under the newspaper fold, are the ominous, equally revealing stories about America today. Here on one recent day in the papers of my hometown of Chicago are the headlines and the stories I see behind them:
"Murder Becoming Second Nature." (This year, to date, 605 people have been slain in Chicago, surpassing every record.)
"Welfare Paradox." (The country is in the throes of an unprecedented and largely unreported social welfare explosion, with Aid to Families With Dependent Children alone having grown 20 percent since only 1989.)
"Verbal Scores Hit New Low in Scholastic Aptitude Tests." (The verbal scores of 1991 college-bound high school seniors plunged this year to an all-time low, with America determinedly dumbing down.)
"Many Leave Emergency Rooms Needing Care." (Our health-care functions have become so over-stressed and so displaced from appropriate levels of care that emergency rooms are being overwhelmed by uninsured patients with ordinary maladies.
The undeniable fact beneath all these stories is that we are declining and splintering -- socially, politically and morally -- in many of the same ways the Soviets are.
Both societies are faced with serious crises of authority. In the Soviet Union, the crisis is of course immeasurably more vast; the institutions have almost without exception failed, and wholly new ones need to be created and patterned. The largest crisis of all revolves around the abyss of belief yawning in the death of Marxist ideology.
In the United States, the crisis is more internal, far less institutional and not at all ideological. The crisis takes the form of authorities being either too overwhelmed by the pathological social breakdown reflected in these headlines or unable to grasp enough power in a determinedly heterogeneous society to solve any problem at all.
Both societies are faced with the question of how to back away from an excess of state and group control that, albeit in vastly differing measure, is choking both countries economically and destroying personal initiative. Both societies are also faced with huge and undigestible amounts of social pathology (read, "crime") that can no longer be met by a resolute society because the proportion of care-givers and policers to the needy and the criminal is now so dangerously overloaded on behalf of the latter.
Both societies are faced with the sorry and unpalatable fruits of having ignored for far too long human nature and history's warning of what happens when foolish utopianism goes unchecked.
In the Soviet Union, that unchecked utopianism was built into the communist system at every level. A "new man" was going to be formed by 1980 who was totally philanthropic and who would not need the checks and balances of the imperfect man of the past. In the United States, the institutions remained realistic but they became largely ineffective because of the peculiar American utopianism that refuses to see the need for family authority, for the realistic socialization of children, and for the deliberate passing down of value systems from generation to generation.
But, why are we seeing such unlikely comparisons -- despite all the recognized differences -- between these two universes?
These kinds of disintegration are occurring today in the world in the disparate, universalistic empires that strove to bring together very different peoples. One can name here, for instance, the United States, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and India. Eventually the ties that bound people together in these fragile empires turned out to be just too weak in the face of ancient blood, ethnic ties and threats from outside.
Our American disintegration is slow, internal and evolutionary -- like our history. The Soviet disintegration is convulsive, apocalyptic and revolutionary -- like its history.
But there are enough ominous similarities between these two countries to make one wonder if all of our talk about whether to help the Soviets might not first be better focused upon ourselves.