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Another Dark Age Descending upon the World?
The author looks at the facts about today's political culture and sees much evidence for American decline due to regressive political leadership.
By David Michael Green
Editor's Note: If the Democrats and the Obama administration are not able to halt the extension of the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy, says Paul Krugman in a recent column, "it will be hard not to lose all faith in America’s future." Even for this economics professor who many feel is too pessimistic, these are serious words about the political culture of the country. Note the term, "political culture." Culture has to do with beliefs of people, which in turn affect economic and political behavior. For several decades now, those who study the culture of the country end up talking about "decline." David Michael Green is a political scientist who takes culture seriously, and focuses on what he calls political "regressives." He is not closing his eyes to the facts of current political culture. Lest you feel he is too negative, think carefully about the points he is making and whether or not he is more right than wrong.
We are the Tiger Woods of nations.
We’ve been very good at a couple of things for some time now. Things like commerce and belligerence. Or, best yet, commerce backed by belligerence. Things that involve a bit of testosterone.
For the better part of a century now, America has stood head and shoulders above its nearest competitors when it comes to the size of our military and the enormity of our economy.
We have also run (although generally far more poorly than our arrogance would allow most of us to recognize) an endless succession of wars over the past half-century, once again far more than has whatever country might be number two on the list. Think of it this way: We were at war for four years in Korea (and have had a huge number of soldiers there since, as well as in Japan and Germany), twenty years (depending on how you count) in Vietnam, nine years now in Afghanistan, eight years in Iraq, and throw in another couple for all the lesser affairs like, Panama, the first Iraq war, Somalia, the Balkans, Lebanon, Grenada, et cetera and et cetera. Even if we leave aside the constant military and covert interventions in Latin American and most of the rest of the world, nor the forty-five years of ‘cold’ war with the Soviets, by my count that leaves the US with roughly forty-three ‘war-years’ out of the last sixty-five since World War II (itself, of course, the granddaddy of them all).
In other words, this country has been at war for basically two of every three years since 1945. Ouch. Of course, there could be a plausible explanation for that. I’m sure that if you ask the likes of Charles Krauthammer or George Will, they would give you some nauseating line of dogma singing the praises of America, the indispensable power, the policeman to the world, the valiant protector of peace and freedom who steps up to the plate when all others cower and free-ride.
That may even have some truth to it when comes to Korea or the first Gulf War, though both of these are far more mixed cases than most Americans are aware. In any case, it is certainly a ludicrous proposition when it applied to the bulk of these wars, not least including our biggest disasters, Vietnam and Iraq (which were of course far bigger disasters for the folks living in those countries). In any case, add it all up and you get the inescapable reality of a country that loves war, its emphatic protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Like the guy at the local bar who’s always getting into fights, there may be a means by which to explain it away the first couple of times, but after awhile the truth is plain for all who will see it. Typically that will mean everyone but members of his own family. Likewise, most of the rest of the world sees who America is, even if we by and large cannot. Similarly, most other folks get that bravado and belligerence are ultimately signs of insecurity, not courage and confidence, even if we delude ourselves otherwise.
But that’s been us, and – like Tiger Woods – we were pretty good at these exhibitions of brute strength for quite some time. And, also like Woods, we wrapped ourselves up in the clothes of the morally pious. America could never fancy itself as yet another great power, just like all the others, crassly seeking the promotion of its own commercial interests throughout the world, constantly willing to subjugate the interests and often the lives of people at home and especially abroad to satisfy that thirsty quest. Similarly, Woods was supposed to be the paragon of the great family man, upstanding and moral, clean and marketable – the perfect image of the wholesome America right out of the 1950s, even if the marketing guys privately lamented what a shame it was that he had to be half black (damn!).
The perfect image, as well, to sell a whole bunch of shit to people. Woods became little more than a marketing machine, a conglomerate of product-pushing, money-metastasizing, steroid-infused ka-ching ka-ching advertising for everything from expensive too-hip watches, to management consulting for fools, to all things Nike. This represents a third parallel between the golfer and the United States. Maybe once Woods was all about the art and prowess of golf. I’m at a bit of a loss as to why spectacular facility at knocking little white balls into faraway holes in the ground merits anywhere near the attention and rewards lavished upon it by our society, but hey, millions of weekend hacks out there love the game, so who am I to say what’s worthy of our attention and what isn’t? Moreover, you don’t have to have a particular jones for golf to appreciate unparalleled skill at any particular endeavor, especially when it is the product of long hours and years of dedicated effort to master one’s craft.
But Woods seems to have become far more the ubiquitous and hollow money machine of late than the dedicated duffer out on the links. Do you think he was some sort of expert on quality timepieces? Nah, me neither. But his face managed to move a whole boatload of Tag Heuers, I’m sure. Do you think he could spot an excellent business consulting firm as well as he could whack a drive off the tee? I sure doubt it. But I can hardly even remember a time when walking through an airport didn’t mean seeing every other billboard there sporting a picture of Woods flacking for Accenture, an outfit which describes itself as “a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company ... Combining unparalleled experience, comprehensive capabilities across all industries and business functions, and extensive research on the world's most successful companies, Accenture collaborates with clients to help them become high-performance businesses and governments.” Ick. Just reading that makes me feel like I need a bath. That smells a whole lot like the folks who help really rich people to get even richer, by turning first-world middle class SOBs into poor folk, and helping third-world governments keep the locals pacified while selling off the country to mansion-dwellers thousands of miles away, in London or New York.
In any case, doesn’t this just seem like America’s story as well? Once, we made stuff. Now, a massive chunk of our economy consists of nothing more than trading shares in things – or worse, lately, bizarre and incomprehensible schemes involving shares in things – an endeavor which creates nothing, which adds little if anything to our national wealth and quality of life on a good day, and which destroys people’s lives and standard of living on bad days (like all the ones we’ve been having for two solid years now). William Blake said, “When nations grow old, the arts grow cold and commerce settles on every tree”. How true of America. We seem to have scarce ambition and less ability at realizing what little ambition we do have these days. Whatever national spirit there once was has turned narrow, ugly and self-aggrandizing today, to the extent that presidents don’t even dare call on us to do anything as a people anymore, even after a cathartic event like 9/11.
Raising taxes in absolutely unthinkable, even for Democrats. Compulsory national service might as well be a project from the Crusades era, as proximate as it is to contemporary consciousness (not that we’ve figured out how to jam a nation of fried chicken inhaling and soda pop swimming grossly obese kids into uniforms, anyhow). Even the slightest notion of sacrifice denting our bloated consumerist ‘standard of living’ (which bears an uncomfortably strong resemblance to what you might get if you sat down and tried to design a standard of dying) cannot be considered, even for the purpose of mitigating the effects of the global warming crisis.
Unless, of course, it can be profitized. Ya wanna know when we’ll really get serious about global warming? When some Wall Street weenie figures out a way to license to your government a carbon reduction gizmo, funded at taxpayer (that is, your) expense. That’s when. Meanwhile, I guess people are just waiting for a proper crisis before they’ll be willing to get up off their sofas and sacrifice even the slightest creature comfort. You know, a challenge far more dire than just the wrecking of the entire planet. (Which also just happens to be the only one we’ve got, by the way.) After all, it’s only the lives of our kids and grandkids that are at stake...
This country has raised the killing off of golden egg laying geese to a high art form. Once we were the economic powerhouse of the world. But then the rich figured out that they could become super-rich if they had their taxes slashed, if they exported work performed by expensive American middle class workers to Thailand, China and India, and if they smashed organized labor. So they went out and bought themselves some Republican politicians like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to do the job, and when that wasn’t enough they bought themselves some Democrats too, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Then they bought off a stupid and greedy and frightened public as well, with bitty (and faux) tax cuts for the middle class, feel-good (until they didn’t) wars against hapless brown people ten thousand miles away, and a whole out-group’s worth of beat-up queers here at home.
Meanwhile, with the combination of massive tax cuts for the wealthy, a complete pig-out on government funds by special interests, military spending beyond the imagination of Curtis LeMay’s angry kid brother, and huge new spending programs designed to benefit corporate bank accounts, the predictable thing has happened: We are broke and rapidly approaching a fiscal nightmare status that would qualify us for an IMF rejection letter. Accordingly, we have a physical infrastructure that is crumbling from neglect, a public political acumen of similar stature (a poll this week shows that two-thirds of Americans don’t know what religion Barack Obama practices, and one-fifth believe he is a Muslim), and a set of national priorities that explain both. Today we’re being told that we have to cut Medicare and Social Security spending, though there seems to be no limit to what we can drop on building the biggest killing machine that has ever existed on the planet. As we speak right now, schools – which we decades ago started funding with state-run lotteries (and if that doesn’t say everything about our national character, I don’t know what could) – have gone from slashing spending on music and arts to now literally just shutting down for part of the week. And when I say literally, I mean literally. Hawaii has just adopted “Furlough Fridays” as the centerpiece of its curriculum. Welcome back to the nineteenth century, folks. Maybe we can even do it better this time, since we had once before to practice. On the other hand, given the political spirit of our time, we’d be more likely to actually do it worse.
What a surprise it must be, then, to find that this country has slipped in ranked percentage of college graduates, from first in the world to twelfth, all in the space of one generation. Which is, coincidentally, the same amount of time that the US has been under the rule of regressive politicians and their radically destructive policies. Forty percent of young Americans have some sort of college degree today, as opposed to fifty-six percent in Russia, for example, meaning that we could all be forgiven for wondering who really won the Cold War. It goes on and on from there. Everything about this country fairly screams out “Decline!!”
And that collapse has been precipitous as well, which is the final respect with which we resemble the Tiger Woods saga. One minute you’re ruling the planet, and the next minute some tawdry car crash scene in your neighborhood begins a process of unraveling your elaborately-crafted facade, revealing the lies beneath. One day you’re unstoppable, and the next you’re knocking over trees and fire hydrants with your Cadillac SUV, while every bimbo pop-tart from here to Kamchatka is claiming to be your mistress, and has phone message tapes to prove it. Your lawyers in Britain are going to court seeking an injunction to block publication of any sexually-themed photos of you (or even public discussion of what the injunction is about), while at the same time you’re claiming not to know that any such photos exist. Your sponsors make clear that – all of yesterday’s happy bearhugs and lovely yacht cruises notwithstanding – that they were only ever in it for the money. And since you’re not money anymore, they are trampling each other in a stampede for the exit door. By the time it’s all over, you can’t even sink a two-foot putt anymore.
So it is with America. In 1945 this country was literally half of global combined GDP. Today we just create global recessions. Yesterday we had the biggest surpluses in our history. Now we are creating staggering sums of debt. We used to arrogantly control governments and peoples across the world, not least in ‘our backyard’ of Latin America. Now they blow us off at every opportunity to do deals with China, which has just topped Japan as the second largest economy in the world, and is rising with a bullet, likely to beat the US a mere twenty years from now. Yesterday we held moral standing in the world as a (flawed yet still appealing) beacon for democracy and human rights. Today we’re the folks who do Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, renditioning, torture and anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives.
Our national fire hydrant moment, of course, was the Bush administration. It was conceived in the shameful stain of a judicial coup, performed by the highest court in the land. But that only turned out to be the high point of the affair. It all went downhill from there, as the Cheneybots wrecked everything of decency they could get their hands on, which ultimately came to include our national reputation. Massive debt, botched wars based on lies, drowned cities, total unpreparedness (at best) for a massive terrorist attack, torture, treaty shredding, civil liberties trampling, and the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression – hey, what’s not to like about all that?
But, of course, our problems are a lot deeper still, remarkable as it is to imagine that eight years of Bush and Cheney are not even the worst thing that can happen to a once-great country. In many ways, the obamanation currently in the White House represents a greater depth of crisis for the national soul. Not just because the guy is so inept, and so completely ill-suited to his historical moment. And not just because his policies are so similar to George W. Bush’s, right down the line. But, ultimately, because Obama and his party of whores represent a complete betrayal of the prospect for transcending our own national nightmare of self-inflicted stupidity. When the guy who runs on “hope” and “change” and “help is on the way” turns out to be absolutely just more of the same, where do you go next?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know in my gut it ain’t pretty. If you’re not picking up an uncomfortably familiar whiff of Weimar Germany in America right now, you must have snorted way too much coke back in your wild youth and blasted out your olfactory senses. Obama’s greatest crimes involve the destruction of viable solutions at a time of national crisis, and the betrayal of what remained of a well-intentioned national spirit when he came to office. It is, in many ways, the worst imaginable scenario – worse even than another four years of the Bush administration would have been. He has succeeded in discrediting progressive policy solutions by implementing regressive ones and allowing himself to be labeled as a liberal and a socialist, effectively defaming those ideologies. He has not only allowed, but in fact abetted the revival of the near-dead Republican Party and its policies of national annihilation. He has promised Americans a better country and a break from the destruction of the prior decade while delivering neither. He has mobilized a whole huge sector of the public – including, especially, hordes of young people – in Kennedyesque fashion, to believe in the power of renewal and the rejuvenation of the democratic process, only to deliver the comatose Eisenhower administration of gray business suits and diminished expectations, instead.
And so here we find ourselves, a country of the politically shallow, offered two choices in the voting booth: the downright satanic versus the über-craven – both of whom ultimately play for the same owners anyhow. And we find ourselves with a total lack of serious solutions to be seen anywhere across the landscape of viable politics, despite the fact that they are so plain and so obvious. Like some sort of desperate death junkies, hopelessly addicted to regressive politics, every time a fresh hit propels us into the inevitable intoxication-driven disaster, we go looking for yet another to help us hide from the results of the last one. And it’s only getting worse, as the Republican Party seemingly seeks to test just how far to the radical and destructive right American politics can go before imploding altogether, and the Democrats hang their sorry heads and waddle along behind, too weak and too bought to even consider pulling the other way, let alone throwing a punch at the bullying thieves from the Pre-Cambrian Era.
It’s so especially disconcerting because our problems are so frequently of our own making, which means the solutions are so transparently obvious, and yet we seem to be quite obsessed as a society these last three decades with making the wrong choice at every possible juncture. Here we go again, about to turn the government back over to the control of the very same monsters who just got done a mere eighteen months ago driving it into a wall at 180 miles per hour. Are Americans really so stupid (don’t answer, please) that they can’t see what that means for the next two years? As crises pile high, absolutely nothing will get done in Washington other than endless congressional investigations of faux Obama administration scandals, one after the other. An already embarrassingly cowardly administration will invent new and shameful ways to tie itself into knots of inertia, constantly trying to play defense against every tawdry new allegation coming from the likes of Orly Taitz or Sharon Angle. What Vince Foster was to the decade of the 1990s, Barack’s birth certificate will be to this one. They’ll have this guy raping white women before they’re done with him, mark my words. And as the gravity of our multiple crises rises precipitously, the pettiness of our national politics will dive to new lows in inverse proportion. The decadence of American politics circa 2010 will come to seem like the golden age by comparison.
Whatever else there is to be noted about this country here and now, history will surely soon apply to us that most withering of condemnations: We are not a serious people.
That would be just fine, thank you very much, if this were a game of golf – even a Master’s tournament round. But it’s not. People’s lives are at stake. Millions of them. And more. Even great ideas like democracy and respect for human rights may be seriously jeopardized if the America we once knew – with all its flaws in these domains – is reduced to a regressive cesspool of unbridled greed, global aggression and the endless debasement from cheap daily politics as practiced by moral midgets. For all of this country’s many great and growing flaws, I don’t want to live in a world where the political system and human rights regime are based on a model under the leadership of an ascendant China, let alone the House of Saud or the Taliban.
More is at stake here than just (just!) the implosion of life opportunities for one or two generations of people living in one country who represent five percent of the world’s population, and who arguably deserve to fully own the product of their own stupidity. If the lights go out on the ideas of democracy and human rights in the country that was in many ways their leading exponent in the world for two centuries now – and especially if this happens in the context of a rising authoritarian China and/or a revival of violent religious fundamentalisms – it is not too much to worry about another dark age descending upon the world for a thousand years, covering it like a suffocating wet blanket. As if the whole planet were being waterboarded. That’s a very heavy price to pay for satisfying Newt Gingrich’s personal insecurities, feeding Sarah Palin’s lust for cash, or ameliorating Glenn Beck’s dry drunkard demons. I mean, there’s only about seven billion of us or so getting the sharp end of that stick.
On the other hand, maybe we’ll be fortunate enough to be put out of our misery first, stomping ourselves to death with our own massive carbon footprint.
Either way, all will not be lost.
We’ll still have gotten our $237 tax cuts.
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