THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE
(ARE WE ROME?)
THE LOWDOWN ON AMERICA (WITH A BRIEF SIDE TRIP TO CHINA)
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE
(Are we Rome?)
Predictions of the eminent decline and fall of the U.S. have been being made for several decades now, and comparisons to the Roman Empire abound. Many of the comparisons, highly intelligent, and if you live in America, as I do, and you look around at the culture of the U.S., you have to wonder how much longer this country can sustain itself, let alone remain the dominant ruler of the world.
FROM THE BOOK:
“THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE.” by Gore Vidal
(it is worth mentioning here, before you read what follows, that it is now 2008, and Gore Vidal's version of what was to become has not panned out....at least not yet, but his history is sound)
On September 16, 1985, when the Commerce Department announced that the United States had become a debtor nation, the American Empire died. The empire was seventy-one years old and had been in ill health since 1968. Like most modern empires, ours rested not so much on military prowess as on economic primacy.
After the French Revolution, the world money power shifted from Paris to London. For three generations, the British maintained an old fashioned colonial empire, as well as a modern empire based on London’s primacy in the money markets. Then, in 1914, New York replaced London as the world’s financial capital.
Before 1914, the United States had been a developing country, dependent on outside investment. But with the shift of the money power from Old World to New, what had been a debtor nation became a creditor nation and central motor to the world’s economy.
All in all, the English were well pleased to have us take their place. They were too few in number for so big a task. As early as the turn of the century, they were eager for us not only to help them out financially but to continue, in their behalf, the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race; to bear with courage the white man’s burden, as Rudyard Kipling not so tactfully put it.
Were we not-English and Americans-all Anglo-Saxons, united by common blood, laws, language? Well, no, we were not. But our differences were not so apparent then. In any case, we took on the job. We would supervise and civilize the lesser breeds. We would make money.
By the end of the Second World War, we were the most powerful and least damaged of the great nations. We also had most of the money. America’s hegemony lasted exactly five years. Then the cold and hot wars began.
Our masters would have us believe that all our problems are the fault of the Evil Empire of the East, with its satanic and atheistic religion, ever ready to destroy us in the night. This nonsense began at a time when we had atomic weapons and the Russians did not. They had lost twenty million of their people in the war, and eight million of them before the war, thanks to their neoconservative Mongolian political system. Most important, there was never any chance, then or now, of the money power shifting from New York to Moscow.
What was-and is- the reason for the big scare? Well, the Second War made prosperous the United States, which had been undergoing a depression for a dozen years, and made very rich those magnates and their managers who govern the republic, with many a wink, in the people’s name. In order to maintain a general prosperity(and enormous wealth for the few), they decided that we would become the world’s policemen, perenial shield against the Mongol hordes.
We shall have an arms race, said one of the high priests, John Foster Dulles, and we shall win it because the Russians will go broke first. We were then put on a permanent wartime economy, which is why close to 90% of the government’s revenues are constantly being siphoned off to pay for what is euphemistically called defense.
As early as 1950, Albert Einstein understood the nature of the rip-off. He said, “The men who possess real power in this country have no intention of ending the cold war.” Thirty-five years later, they are still at it, making money while the nation itself declines to eleventh place in world per capita income, to forty sixth in literacy and so on, until last summer (1985) we found ourselves in close to two trillion dollars in debt. Now(1992) the debt is $4 trillion.
Then, in the fall, the money power shifted from New York to Tokyo, and that was the end of our empire. Now the long feared Asiatic colossus takes its turn as world leader, and we - the white race- have become the yellow mans burden. Let us hope that he will treat us more kindly than we treated him.
In any case, if the foreseeable future is not nuclear, it will be Asiatic, some combination of Japan’s advanced technology with China’s resourceful landmass. Europe and the United States will then be, simply, irrelevant to the world that matters, and so we come full circle: Europe began as the relatively empty uncivilized Wild West of Asia; then the Western Hemisphere became the Wild West of Europe. Now the sun has set in our West and risen once more on the East.
(interesting to note that while Japan never sustained their power, China in 2007 is certainly the behemoth on the rise, not to mention the E.U.)
THE LOWDOWN ON AMERICA:
From the book: “ Dark Ages America” by Morris Berman
Who then will inherit the mantle of world leadership, as American hegemony begins (“continues” would be more accurate) to fade? The two most popular contenders for the “throne” that are bandied about are China and the European Union. The real money has piled up in Europe and Asia, whereas America has become “the planet’s glorious beggar.” The imbalance of trade reveals a nation that is industrially weak. Basically, the U.S. is no longer able to subsist on its own production, and it needs an equivalent inflow of foreign capital in order to balance its accounts. Starting around 1987, we have managed to accumulate nearly $3 trillion in foreign debt, a figure that economists predict will double by 2007-9. Lester Thurow argues that this situation constitutes a severe threat to the U.S., because our standard of living now depends on borrowing from abroad. At some point, he and many other economists believe, foreign countries will pull the plug: they will not want to continue to invest in American stocks, bonds, and dollars, and will buy euros instead - which means the dollar will crash. (Thus many financiers, such as billionaire investor Warren Buffet, have shifted large amounts of capital into foreign currencies.) In essence, the U.S. economy is propped up by huge foreign loans, enabling American consumers to keep buying even more foreign products. This will come to an end when China, Japan, the European Union and others decide we are an unsafe bet, an event that may be further abetted by a decision of the oil-producing nations to begin selling oil in euros. If that happens, the oil-importing nations will no longer need dollar reserves to purchase oil, which would lead to a serious decline in the demand for dollars. All of this does not bode well for the U.S. economy. As political journalist William Greider notes, “no nation can borrow endlessly from others without sooner or later forfeiting control of its destiny, and also losing the economic foundations of its general prosperity.” The crunch- a huge stock market crash and the meltdown of the dollar - may not be very far off.
Meanwhile, the myth of American economic superiority continues to be trumpeted by the American news media even while the data tell another story: Ford and GM are lagging behind Volkswagen; Nokia has more than two times the cell phone market as does Motorola; Airbus has overtaken Boeing, and now controls 76 percent of the global airplane market; Bertelsmann is the largest book publisher in the world; and the EU leads the US in the number of science and engineering grads, public research and development expenditures, and new capital raised. After expanding to 25 members, the EU accounts for nearly half the world’s foreign investment, and exerts greater leverage than America over key countries such as Russia and Brazil. Although there has been a lot of fluctuation in the euro-to-dollar exchange rate since the euro was first introduced, as of late 2005 the euro was still ahead of the game. In 2003, for the first time ever, China supplanted the US as the number one destination for worldwide foreign investment, while France was number two. Factor in the statistic that from 2001 to 2004 the US went from a $5 trillion budget surplus to a $4 trillion budget deficit, and it’s not exactly a rosy future we are looking at.
As for our military situation, once again, appearance and reality are two different things. Despite all of our vast military resources and our cutting-edge technologies, they are in large part inadequate for fighting a war - a real one, that is. With our decision to act as world policeman, we have, says Chalmers Johnson, bought into a “domino theory” that leads to an endless number of places and commitments to protect, “resulting inevitably in imperial overstretch, bankruptcy, and popular disaffection, precisely the maladies that plagued Edwardian Britain.”
Note that since World War II, we have avoided taking on an equal power. Our engagement with the Soviet Union itself was a balancing act involving the (often judicious) use of diplomacy. When we actually attacked, it was at the periphery: Korea (a stalemate); Vietnam (a defeat). Otherwise, the engagement consisted of covert operations against virtually defenseless nations or massive attacks on puny countries or tinpot dictators (Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and so on). In situations that really matter, there is a huge gap between America’s military power and its ability to shape events according to its will. “Preponderance,” says Zbigniew Brzenzinski, “should not be confused with omnipotence.” By the summer of 2003 it had become clear that the waging of two small “wars” and the occupation of two weak nations - Afghanistan and Iraq - had strained our manpower to the limit.
Meanwhile, serious rivals have better things to do with their time. New York Times reporter Jane Perlez observes that “China has wasted little time in capitalizing on the U.S. preoccupation with the campaign on terror to greatly expand its influence in Asia.” In fact, most Asians regard the American obsession with terrorism as tedious, while China, she says, “ has the allure of the new.” Japan, Australia, and South Korea are all rebounding because of the huge exports being devoured by the Chinese economy, a process the Indonesians call “ feeding the dragon.” Indeed, in the fall of 2003, former Australian prime minister Paul Keating asserted that the American century was ending and the Asian one dawning, and there is good bit of data to support this prediction. During the first six months of 2003, the Chinese car manufacturing industry, for example, expanded at a rate of 32 percent. Shopping malls have sprung up along Beijing’s Avenue of Everlasting Peace, where tanks once mowed down protestors. In fact, the Chinese economy has been doubling in size every ten years, which is astounding. Thus a 2004 study by the investment firm of Goldman Sachs predicted the Chinese economy would be the world’s biggest by the early 2040s. How long before China leverages that economic power into political power? Already, Perlez continues, it is pushing for an East Asian Economic Community “that would cut out the United States and create a global bloc to rival the European Union.” If China does manage to replace us, it will do so by becoming us, and by doing that more successfully.
And yet, there’s the rub: thinking in terms of quality, and not just geopolitically ( that is, who’s top banana), this is as much a disappointment as the American experiment finally proved to be, if not more so. Change is always different, but it isn’t necessarily better. There is little in the way of an “inner frontier” in China, a concern about civic virtue, civil liberties, or the quality of life - except on the part of dissidents, who are ruthlessly crushed. Leaving its abysmal record on human rights aside, China is beginning to resemble the US in Mandarin. It seems to have no larger vision, and there is absolutely no indication that its emergence as a superpower will herald a better world. One percent of the Chinese population owns 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, while 18 percent lives on less than a dollar a day. In a single generation, the gap between rich and poor there has become the largest in the world, with all the attendant problems characteristic of the US: widespread corruption, huge inequities in health care, gated suburban communities (with names such as Napa Valley, Palm Springs, and Park Avenue), luxury supermarkets, fleets of SUVs and stretch limos, millions of workers laid off, and a candid belief on the part of the new elite that, as Ross Terrill writes in The New Chinese Empire, “the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where....notions of fairness count for little.” A “me first” psychology is very much in evidence in the People’s Republic now, as the old socialist China of thirty years ago is being replaced by a new “money centered cutthroat society.” Meanwhile, the number of beggars on the streets of the major cities has risen dramatically, and in the countryside the number of farmers living in poverty went up by eight hundred thousand during 2003 alone.
It is also the case that the kitsch and crap of American culture is fast being reproduced in China as well. ( a perfect opportunity in the film to insert George Carlins routine on “STUFF”) In China Pop, Jianying Zha reports on the culture of mass consumerism - from soap operas to pornography - that has swept over the old People’s Republic, the commercialization of every aspect of life, and the media market that propagates this whole process. By 2003 Wal-Mart had thirty-one outlets in the country (complete with the firm’s characteristic exploitation of labor). Instead of buying pancakes from street vendors, young families now crowd into McDonald’s and KFC, while the walls of metro stations are lined with ads for cell phones and stylish clothing. Bustling bazaars- the famous old chaotic “wet markets” that used to sell ducks and squid- are now getting pushed aside by huge Western Supermarkets (Carrefour, Hymart), with everything antiseptically packaged in clear wrap and Styrofoam. Nor does the plastic end there. Cosmetic surgery clinics have sprung up like pimples, promising to give young women more rounded, Western eyes; and beauty pageants, once regarded as bourgeois “spiritual pollution,” are now held across the country, as the beauty industry takes in something like $24 billion a year. In general, said Paul Keating in 2003, the Chinese goal is to give everyone “a refrigerator, a television set and CD player, plenty of telephones and lots of toys for the kids.” Meanwhile, as in the U.S., it’s the kids who will suffer: the Chinese are starting to work ungodly hours to pay for all of this, and their lives aren’t necessarily better. Indeed, more and more, the culture of China seems to be awash in power, money, and bullshit.
And speaking of quality of life, it continues to deteriorate. The Chinese have always put production ahead of the environment, and this seems to be getting worse. The air quality, for example, is appalling; and while private houses are very clean, the Chinese - for reasons different from our own, of course - have very little regard for public space, so that the cities tend to be polluted and dirty. It turns out that China has sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities.
China might indeed replace the United States as the world’s major power by midcentury or before, the more so if it is savvy enough to pull off the East Asian bloc maneuver referred to above. But to what end? I repeat: this is basically the United States in Mandarin, but without the tradition of democracy and civil liberties. I may be totally offbase here, but all this just seems like old wine in new bottles: a consumer capitalist regime complete with kitsch, corruption, class divisions, and a questionable quality of life. An economic powerhouse, but possibly not much else.
WHICH BRINGS US TO EUROPE:
Some have argued that it will be the European Union, rather than China, that will replace the United States as the world’s dominant power. We have already discussed how well European companies are doing in comparison with their American counterparts, and it is noteworthy that when French president Jacques Chirac visited China in October 2004, he waltzed away with $4 billion in industrial orders. Airbus accounting for the lion’s share. European productivity grew 2.4 percent annually from 1973 to 2000 as compared with America’s 1.37 percent. The GDP of the EU is nearly 30 percent of that of the world’s, and more than six times that of China. If one looks at the 140 largest companies in the Global Fortune 500 ratings, 61 of them are European, while only 50 of them are American. Fourteen of the twenty largest commercial banks in the world are European, including three of the top four. All in all, the EU has emerged as a formidable entity, with roughly 450 million citizens and a $9 trillion economy.
There is also the matter of European military power, suprisingly enough. The combined armies of the EU number more than 1.6 million soldiers. Despite opposition from the United States and Great Britain, the EU is moving in the direction of having a military force capable of operating autonomously - that is, without American or NATO interference - and the plan is to build a command headquarters near Brussels. Many European officials see this as necessary if the EU is to have a meaningful foreign policy - i.e., to have clout in world affairs. European countries already provide ten times as many U.N. peacekeepers as does the United States, and its sixty- thousand-troop Rapid Reaction Force can be deployed around the world whenever this is deemed necessary. In The New World Disorder , philosopher and social critic Tzvetan Todorov candidly urges Europe to abandon its pacifism and rearm. “You must be able to defend your values,” he writes ; Europe “need not be submissive to the United States.”
Finally, in a short essay in Foreign Policy, Parag Khanna of the Brookings Institution points out that America has made a great mistake in conceiving of power primarily in military terms. Presence and influence, he says, are hardly the same thing. Real power is “overall leverage,” and this Europeans understand very well. This is why the EU is the world’s largest bilateral aid donor (it gives twice as much aid to poor countries as does the United States) and is the largest importer of agricultural goods from the Third World, thus enhancing its influence in unstable regions. Its universities are now attracting students in larger numbers from all over the world, ones who would have wound up at American institutions of higher learning in earlier days. The EU also makes itself attractive via environmental sustainability and the promotion of international law and social welfare. The American record in these three areas is of course quite poor by comparison, and so European views are more easily exported to the rest of the world. Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola will continue to have their allure, to be sure, in terms of “soft power” (cultural influence), but in the end, the sheer sensibleness of the European approach, its savvy internationalism, and perhaps its more solid currency are going to look a lot better than American arrogance and violence.
Impressive as all this is, however, it does not mean that the EU will manage to outweigh China in terms of geopolitical power as the United States continues on its downward course. Thus historian Niall Ferguson asserts that “ the reality is that demography likely condemns the EU to decline in international influence and importance.” Fertility rates are dropping in Western Europe, while life expectancy is rising. By 2050, one in every three Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks is expected to be 65 or older, even allowing for immigration. The EU can counter this by permitting even more immigration than it has - which would entail cultural changes that many Europeans oppose (witness the conflicts that already exist in France, Germany, and elsewhere) - or by becoming a “ fortified retirement community.” Richard Bernstein of the New York Times agrees, pointing out that the median age in Europe is expected to be 52.3 by 2050, and that at the present time only 49 percent of European men between fifty-five and sixty-five still work. Forecasts of possible long term French and German economic stagnation periodically appear in major newspapers. The upshot of all this is that the jury is still out, and one can find a wide variety of opinions across the political and social science spectrum as to what the world’s power arrangements will look like fifty years hence. But that America will be in a much weaker position relative to China and the EU by that time is, in the view of many informed observers, a foregone conclusion.
Regarding the matter of the quality of life, however, here the verdict seems to be a bit less ambiguous. In terms of the “inner frontier” we have talked about, Europe may come closest to offering its citizens the best lifestyle currently available on the planet. While Robert Kagan’s assessment - “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus” - was drawn up as a condescending neocon put-down of the EU as a collection of wimps, he did nevertheless manage to capture a stereotypical difference that does have a ring of truth to it. To reverse his condescension, one might argue that while the American norm is to throw one’s life away in a frantic, workaholic competition for money and power, Europeans take time to savor what life is really all about. With their social safety net, generous pension plans, “extended” holidays and maternity leaves, and concern for nature and the environment, these folks have created a way of life that should be the envy of the world. They work, obviously, but they also linger in non - Starbuckish cafes, reading and conversing; prepare and eat food that doesn’t taste like cardboard; stroll, drink wine, and make love (something Americans don’t spend a lot of time doing anymore, according to all the latest studies); listen to music; and take time with their kids. Their cities are beautiful and organic, designed for human beings, not for corporations or commuters. Ever cynical, Kagan argues that all this is the result of no longer having any “real” power. But perhaps centuries of war and violence wised them up, so that they finally recognize the stupidity of trying to control everything and everybody and have discovered that the world has greater pleasures than being king of the dunghill. As for us, says Nicholas von Hoffman, “America will not rest until it has turned the globe into replicas of itself.” No triumph, that.
Europe is certainly not perfect, but it is far more humane. There is a conscious effort afoot there to avoid the pattern of liquid modernity described in the first chapter of this book. The reader will remember the discussion of Citta Lente (Slow Cities), which now has over sixty member towns in Italy and beyond. These cities have worked to increase pedestrian zones, foster a spirit of neighborliness, ban supermarket chains and neon signs, and reduce cell phone use. The idea, writes Canadian journalist Carl Honore, is to create places where one has time to think, to reflect on the big existential questions, rather than simply get caught up in the fury of the modern world. The movement has as its ideal the late-medieval town, where people walked on cobbled streets and socialize in the piazza. In fact, many European cities are emulating this pattern, banning traffic from the town center, or holding occasional car - free days.
There is also a conscious attempt, both official and unofficial, to work less. Germans now spend 12 percent less time on the job than they did in 1979 and frankly regard leisure as a right. In 1993, the EU declared forty eight hours of work to be a weekly maximum, and France subsequently cut its workweek to thirty five hours. (This is reportedly going to change with the administration of the new French President Sarkozy, who is reputed to be very Pro-American and because the French economy supposedly cannot sustain itself under present policy) A survey taken in 1999 revealed that 77 percent of temp workers in the EU had chosen to work fewer hours so as to have time for family, hobbies, and the rest. One of the best selling books in France in recent years is Corrine Maier’s Bonjour paresse (“Hello Laziness”) a slackers manual that coaches French workers how to engage in calculated loafing on the job. Why slave away for corporate culture, writes Maier, when it is nothing more than the “crystallization of the stupidity of a group of people at a given moment?”
Of course, some sociologists have argued that Americans have no choice, that they have to work like slaves, given the abscence of generous pensions, subsidized college education, universal health
care, long paid vacations and maternity leave, and the other benefits that Europeans take for granted. Perhaps; but who agreed to this, after all? I don’t know how far one can push the “false consciousness” argument in this case. Having bought into a pernicious philosophy that everyone has to make it by themselves, that there is and should be no free lunch, that these sorts of benefits are “socialistic” and therefore evil, Americans have only themselves to blame for a life riddled with pervasive insecurity, which leaves them without a moment to breathe.
( In my opinion, what was once philosophy is now hard core reality and like it or not, the American people are now truly stuck in a society that benefits the elite, and it will not change for the better, ever. As Michael Moore said on public television recently, “ In Europe the government is afraid of the people, in the U.S. the people are afraid of the government.” )
As reporter Katrin Bennhold writes, “the Atlantic....separates two radically different philosophies of life.” For Europeans, states one European commissioner for economic affairs, economic growth is a means, not an end - something Americans literally cannot fathom. Numerous polls have shown that Europeans are only too happy to pay high taxes to get social services in return, and they understand that their lower rates of child poverty, incarceration, illiteracy, homicide, suicide, and the like are the result of this. It’s even more ironic when we consider the fact that Europe may be pulling ahead of America on the economic front.
So many Americans possess what might be called a kind of “ life stupidity” : they haven’t a clue as to what the good life really is. Like Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo, they think it amounts to a single word: MORE. I was having lunch one day at the Holiday Inn near the Department of Agriculture in downtown Washington, and started talking to an older Indian woman at the next table. The TV was blaring, as usual; nobody else was around. I got up and, with a nod from her, turned it off. She thanked me and said “I’m so tired of the endless noise in America. You know, when you first come here, it’s very exciting, because the possibilities seem endless. Then you get embedded in the system, and begin to see how limited you really are.” She went on:
“Everybody in America works constantly. They have no time to enjoy anything. Even the simple enjoyment of being alive escapes them.”
(in the film a good place to insert George Bush having one of his “downhome” talks with the American people on TV, wherein a forty year old mother of three says with a smile on her face “ I work three jobs” At this a look of horror washes over the Presidents face for just a moment before he recovers from the shock and spins it into a positive soundbite “UNIQUELY AMERICAN” beams George W.)
I am aware of this “life stupidity” every time I leave the country. Walking around an ordinary, middle class district of Barcelona a couple of years ago, I was struck by the beauty of the physical design, the palpable atmosphere of relaxation and friendliness, and the quiet of it all, the graciousness; and I couldn’t help thinking how brutal life in so many American cities tends to be, by comparison: harsh, solitary, high-pressured, antagonistic. Joan McQueeney Mitric, who is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., reports a similar reaction she had in Belgrade. “Coming from the West,” she writes, “it takes a while to remember that not everyone in the world is on edge.”
Nevertheless, it’s not all that rosy, and the American - European differences are not all that stark. Downtown Barcelona in not quite as noisy as Miami, but it is definitely moving in that direction. We are still talking about consumer societies, after all; and in addition, the European culture of leisure is being seriously threatened, in large part because of American economic pressure. ( This is surely one of the reasons for such vehement anti-Americanism in Europe) German shopkeepers have had to extend their hours; the government of Gerhard Schroder pushed through tax cuts and reduced social benefits while it increased health costs; German workers have - like their French counterparts - been forced to give up their thirty-five hour work week, and work forty to forty-two hours a week without extra pay; and so on. As of this writing, there have been huge protests across Germany, but it is unlikely they will succeed. Similar developments are taking place across the EU. ( and this is where the “Davos Culture” comes in: The International Bankers and Businessman who are pushing their agenda on America, Europe and the World at large.)
Furthermore, writes Canadian journalist Doug Saunders, the basis of European “paradise” may be loosely analogous to that of ancient Athens, where a vibrant democracy rested on a huge slave population at work in the silver mines. The European equivalent of the Athenian slave population, he claims, is a large number of migrant workers who constitute a shadow economy but who are themselves excluded from the good life. (Sounds a lot like the US) Beggars in Seville, he discovered, are rounded up at night and trucked out to an internment camp at the edge of town. Anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of Europe’s economy, he asserts, is derived from the work of those who live unprotected lives on the outskirts of the major cities. It is the auslander population, in other words, that enables the middle class to enjoy the life that it does.
What about the sense of community in the EU countries? I have no idea how representative this is, but I was rather depressed by the story of Giorgio Angelozzi, a retired classics professor living in Rome, who was so lonely that he finally placed an ad offering 500 Euros to any family willing to adopt him as their grandfather. To Italy’s credit, he was deluged with letters from his fellow countrymen willing to take him up on his offer, but I can’t help wondering how many others there are across Europe in the same position.
And are Europeans still on the cutting edge, intellectually speaking? “Don’t have too many illusions about France,” a French friend wrote me recently; “ a lot of what you deplore about American culture...is more and more true in France too.” She goes on to describe the “vacuum of thought” in French universities, the lock - step thinking that is prevalent there, the pervasive negativity and cynicism of the culture in general. “It’s the twilight of France as well,” she concludes. New York Times Paris correspondent Alan Riding corroborates this, noting that the tradition of the public intellectual is pretty much dead, replaced by a handful of media celebrities (Bernard-Henri Levy being the most famous). Newspapers that serve as intellectual vehicles are starting to lose circulation, and the tradition of knowledge as an end, rather than a means, is starting to die out.
Finally, are the villages of Europe still the epitome of medieval rural life? When I first visited Provence in 1973, this did seem to be the case. Upon my return in 1988, I discovered that entire towns had been “boutiqued.” Everything had the feel of being on display, wrapped in plastic. In 2004, the village of Charence, an hour west of Paris (population 146), made a deal with France Telecom: FT would spend $150,000 to restore the town’s eleventh-century Romanesque church, and in return the town agreed to let FT install an antenna in the steeple to allow for cell phone reception. America has come to Charence, then: inhabitants shop at a supermarket, and in nearby towns the butcher and baker have shut their doors. Village camaraderie, if not a thing of the past, has dropped off dramatically.
In Benoit Duteurtre’s prizewinning novel, Le voyage en France, the author offers his readers a send up of the American view of Europe as some sort of paradise. David, the central character, lives in New York and dreams of the France of Monet and the cafe des artistes. Wearing a straw hat, he arrives in the old country, ready to embrace the nineteenth century. Instead, he finds that consumers in shopping malls dress like adolescents in Brooklyn; visits a medieval abbey where the monks are all on cell phones, make a living assembling personal computers, and shop in the nearby supermarket; and generally keeps meeting people who dream of living like Americans! He realizes that provincial America has been grafted onto a provincial Europe, in which beauty is preserved as a “cultural product.” He finally has an imaginary encounter with Charles de Gaulle, who tells him, “You are chasing after chimeras, mon vieux; go back to New York.” Which he does; whereupon he is caught up in the “vertical intoxication” of the place. He revels in the chaos, the uncertainty, the free-floating energy, sees “ a population gathered by the urgency of being at the center of the world.” In Manhattan, “everything is mixed in an urgent tumult”; the place crackles, this city of day and night. On the roof of his hotel, he feels like he is embracing all of space, all of history. Below, he tells himself, is an existence that endlessly destroys and reconstructs itself.
I too have felt this energy; as the T-shirt says, I Heart New York. In fact, I adore New York. But we have to be careful about the meaning of this energy. David reflects that the world of towns and countrysides, voyages and lost time, new fashions in art, quality and elegance - all of this has been overwhelmed by America, occupied as it is with the rational and the technical, with profit and production. In this sense, David muses:
“America truly constituted the center of the world, since it had spread this mode of thinking everywhere. Like the Europe of yesterday, it invented its own history, becoming the history of the world...for which it wound up serving as a model...this is the beauty of the American shambles: its narrow-minded pretension, but especially its inability to control itself”
And this is the heart of it, n’est-ce pas? The problem with the “vertical intoxication” Duteurtre describes is that it has no particular purpose. The world of infinite possibilities is a universal solvent, in effect - 100 percent negative freedom. But then what? Endless shopping, endless novelty, and ruling the world in the name of democracy just don’t cut it, finally. The central question remains: Under which way of life are human needs best served? Clearly, some of them - individualism, negative freedom, material aquisition - are best served by the American one...but at what cost? Europe is no paradise, but its value system and the EU experiment do point in a different direction, one that at least is aware of the neglected “inner frontier.” Ultimately, that dimension of life is not just a luxury for a privileged few; without it, we all become variations on a theme by Bush - stuffed dolls, morons in denial, people living lives of substitute satisfaction while much of what we are doing is destructive. The New York Times’ Bob Herbert writes of the situation in America:
I look at the catastrophe in Iraq, the fiscal debacle at home, the extent to which loyalty trumps competence at the highest levels of government, the abscence of a coherent vision of the future for the United States and the world, and I wonder, with a sense of deep sadness, where the adults have gone.
As the American empire rolls mindlessly on, attempting to convert the entire world to its way of life, the loss of what is truly human is going to be pretty heavy. I would like to say that things can be turned around, that the nation will wake up, but all the signs indicate just the reverse. Europe may indeed be the likely candidate to replace us, but it is too soon to tell; nor will this renaissance be one of perfection, if and when it arrives. We’ll never have a truly “inner frontier” society, so to speak; Lewis Mumford, with his insistence that technology be servant rather than master, and his understanding that relationship and reflection lie at the heart of being human, will always be an oddball in the modern industrial world. The issue, in any case, is not utopia, but something that supports a more authentic way of life.
Liberal versus Radical:
Tikkun olam: the repair of the world. It may be the case that in order for the world to be healed or restored, the United States may have to be pushed off center stage; and this may be a good thing, from the viewpoint of the entire world. Of course, there will be a downside to this; of that, I have no doubt. But the upside is that too many of America’s values in the early twenty - first century are corrosive, and unless the nation can do some elaborate soul searching, it needs to lose influence in the rest of the world. A world awash in suburbs and shopping malls, television and sensationalism, cell phones and Burger King, Prozac and violence, fundamentalist Christianity and sink - or - swim ethics, is no vision for the future. In addition, our foreign policy, the Cold War mentality that ran parallel to these developments, was a big mistake - even George Kennan saw that pretty soon after penning his famous “X” article. That we now persist in it goes back to the Hegelian theme of negative identity; and as aberrant as this Manichean imperial framework is, it has penetrated far too deeply into the American psyche for us to be able to suddenly (or even gradually) shift gears. Not only economically, but also psychologically, domestic and foreign policy reflect and reinforce each other, and this is a big part of why we cannot escape our fate. Thus former Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Ybarra, in Washington Gone Crazy, demonstrates quite clearly that the anti - Communist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s was not really a response to espionage or an external threat, but more fundamentally “a conservative reaction to the New Deal.” a long standing series of resentments that included “rural rancor toward urban elites, nativist dread of encroaching minorities, fundamentalist anxieties over the spread of secular values,” and the like. When you add to these the contemporary hatred of knowledge and Enlightenment thinking, and the subliminal awareness that we have become unmoored and are basically failing as a nation, you have a rather potent brew on your hands.
So “ terrorism” now replaces communism as the enemy, since this involves only a change of content, not of form, and we are now set to rerun the old scenario at higher stakes - that is, at a rather precarious point in our history. This will mean vastly exaggerating the threat, never looking within ourselves or at our role in the overall scheme of things, persecuting many people at home and probably killing huge numbers abroad, living in an illusion, and in general doing ourselves irreparable harm. “ The whole aim of practical politics” wrote H.L. Mencken many decades ago, “ is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” It’s a pretty foolish way to live, but because it endows our lives with “ meaning,” it’s not something we are going to be able to give up. As the saying goes, some alcoholics “ hit bottom” the other side of death.
And what about the very small percentage of Americans who see through this charade? I’m referring to those of us who feel, along with say, Dennis Kucinich, or Albert Borgmann, or perhaps the readership of The Nation (with a circulation of 150,000 at best), that we are strangers in a strange land? From our vantage point, the distinction between red and blue states doesn’t mean very much, because John Kerry’s election would not have altered the nation’s course. Clearly, the support for a non - frontier - chasing, nonimperialist America is quite miniscule in this country. But if the United States at large isn’t going to be doing any soul searching, writes Thomas de Zengotita, perhaps it is time that we did, in lieu of being able to alter the imperial trajectory. It may be, he points out, that our pretensions to radicalism, all along, were not real; that our political efforts were really about reform, never intending to go beyond bourgeois democracy. If your politics is “ global new deal meets respect for diversity,” then you are a liberal, he says, and “ that means you basically accept a world system of private enterprise and technological innovation and consumer culture, and you want to see it managed so that no one is excluded, the environment is protected, free expression flourishes, and so on.” If you really are a radical, on the other hand, you are aiming for something else - but what? Time, perhaps, to find out. My own belief is that there is no warding off the Dark Age; all the evidence points in that direction. But you can certainly do your best to keep it out of your head, which is a contribution of a sort. What is thus called for is long- term study and thought, in an effort to come up with a serious alternative to global bourgeois democracy - blueprints for a better time, perhaps, and for another place. “ What radicals need right now,” says de Zengotita, “ isn’t action but theory.”
That may indeed be the place to start, the more so in that sometimes theory constitutes a type of action (one can never be sure). Garrison Keillor tells the story of a town situated on a river that was rising, threatening to overflow its banks and destroy the town. One man began hauling sandbags down to the river, hoping to hold it back. It was slow work, and it seemed pretty futile. Keillor’s comment on this effort is that when you’re dealing with a river, there’s only so much you can do. But, he adds, you do that much. Speaking for myself, at this point in time this book is the “ that much” I can do, whether it counts for a little or a lot. I don’t know exactly who’s out there, but as they say on late - night radio: thanks for listening.
Nevertheless, America is now, what once it was not....