Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

About Utopias....

As fractionated as society is today, there's a tendency on all sides to think, "if we can only do (pick a task, nasty, foolish, necessary or otherwise), things will be great in the future."

Utopian thinking. When the situation gets desperate, people begin to think in bizarre ways--the "if only" routine gets embedded in people's minds. If only Bush were impeached, things would get back to normal. If only the New York Times would go up in flames and everyone there died, we could have a perfect country. If only "..." were President. Etc., etc., etc.

Most everyone wishes for what they imagine will relieve the psychic pressure on their own gray cells. What distinguishes the flaming assholes from the rational types, though, is that the leaping screamers think that the impossible is true, without any evidence at all, while the rational types sit on the sidelines and think, "god, this asshole believes pigs can fly. Has he seen one go by yet at altitude under its own power?" (The closest to the correct answer is, yes, for anyone who has witnessed Air Force Two take off, given a liberal interpretation of what power means).

It's about belief, in so many ways. The right wing believes that George W. Bush is a genius. But, they require no evidence for that dubious assertion. The left thinks Al Gore is a genius, but at least they offer his latest movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," as evidence that his arguments about the future have some scientific backing, and therefore, have merit in the greater argument about _who's right_.

Even though we are caught up in the moment, it's worth remembering history, and its general lessons. The first of those lessons is: there are times when we are going to find ourselves overwhelmingly occupied with and informationally subsumed by the ravings of idiots, because there's no one universally trusted to tell us and the idiots that they are idiots. We are going to be offered snapshots in time in which those ravings seem perfectly plausible and wholly rational, and yet, they are the epitome of pure madness. There have been many such times in the past.

The second of those lessons is: most everyone in authority will lie to you if they have a self-interest impellng them to do so. The corollary to that is that almost everyone in authority has sufficient self-interest to lie. (That can be characterized as the Cynic's Lament. That does not make it any less true.)

The third lesson is: stupid people, and clever people with stupid or wholly self-serving notions, succeed in politics, often for a longer period of time than even irrational people might hope and imagine. Rick Santorum. Tom DeLay. Need I say more on this subject?

The fourth lesson is: It's a peculiarly American trait to have 20/200 political hindsight.

The fifth lesson is: Because of the first four lessons, we are not the country we imagine ourselves to be.

It would be instructive, I think, if there were just one person alive today from 1776 who could explain to us the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, to go on "All Things Considered" and Fox News and talk at length about what in colonial life finally prompted the issuance of that declaration (well, maybe Fox News would be a waste of time--Brit Hume would spend most of the time cutting off that person and correcting him).

Today, it's remarkable how the Declaration of Independence resembles a bill of divorcement. Its language is similar, listing the reasons for "the causes which impel them to the separation." It speaks of "abuses and usurpations," "patient sufferance," "repeated injuries," "circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy," and there are multiple mentions of the tyrannical nature of the relationship.

The object, of course, as in divorce, was to decide one's affairs for one's self. But, that may be where the resemblance ends, because we are, of course, speaking of a large collection of people of varying opinions in opposition to another collection of people with their own set of ideas, one of whom just happened to be a king.

Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation. The various allied factions of the right wing of the country have spent thirty years trying to create divisions among the people--unity today almost seems like a silly word to employ to describe anything in American politics these days--and their success in that endeavor has opened old wounds, invited new partitions along old fault lines, gleefully made enemies of people who previously could accept, however grudgingly, each other's political differences.

What is now taking the place of traditional political infighting are utopian desires for the future--traditional conservatism has been replaced by a neo-conservatism which imagines the
United States riding to absolute world dominance on the back of a pre-eminent military machine. Traditional liberalism, the political implementation of Bertrand Russell's dictum, has been superceded by neo-liberalism, which imagines the United States' large businesses controlling the world economically, with the rest of the world assisting the United States in that goal, in the self-referential belief that the rest of the world will be improved by aiding the United States in its ambitions.

Both camps depend on visions of the future--and perceptions of the present--which are devoid of any acknowledgement of reality, or of those five lessons I mentioned. Perhaps the political system we have created over time has produced this overweening need to be Number One, to see the world only in terms of rankings of our choosing, to have one winner and many losers. Regardless, it's certainly an integral part of our national character today, and it has promoted the sort of winner-take-all partisanship which is all too evident in the Bush administration; governance has become, for the worse, the mimesis of the personal characteristics of its born-on-third-and-thought-he-hit-a-triple leader.

An historical truth: every world power in history, in its public pronouncements, has felt that its actions were always honorable, every war it fought a dire necessity, every imperial gesture a benefit to mankind, and that its hegemony over world affairs would bring everlasting perfection to the world.

Americans began their journey as a separate nation with few such ambitions. In his farewell address, George Washington expressed his desire for the country in this fashion:

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

No imperial ambitions implicit in that. It would be less than forty years from the ratification of the Constitution that those ambitions would be revealed in the Monroe Doctrine, about seventy to the use of Commodore Perry's gunboats to threaten Japan into a trade pact which would wreck its economy in a few years and a little more than a 110 years to the time when President McKinley would use the USS Maine to extend U.S. influence and power well into the Pacific.

This tendentious inclination to world power has been fueled largely by cheap energy. It's probably no accident that U.S. share of world GDP (about 25%) is roughly equal to its share of world energy use (about 25%). As both neo-conservatives and neo-liberals dream of world domination, the conditions which have enabled both its previous military and economic strength are steadily eroding. The United States, in a scant twenty-five or thirty years, has gone from the world's largest creditor nation to the world's biggest debtor. Cheap oil is no longer a certainty, and the country has been unable to meet its energy demand domestically for many decades, nor has the real wealth and income of the largest part of its population kept pace with increases in energy costs. The once-vaunted American educational system has become dissipated by the disinclination of the wealthy of the country to be taxed for support of infrastructure. Military spending supported by debt (along with the interest payments this creates) has come to represent the largest portion of annual national budgets. Defense research further drains the human resources of the colleges and universities devoted to scientific research at a time when much larger problems than actual defense of the nation are looming.

At precisely the time when we are on the cusp of a transitional period in the nation's progress, we are behaving as if nothing has changed, that the perceived world dominance of the country (a belief fostered by post-WWII planners) must be maintained at all costs.

So, on this Fourth of July, 230 years after the independence of the nation was declared, it might be worth asking one's self if the political choices we perceive as possible, neo-conservative or neo-liberal (or some combination of the two), are capable of preventing the sort of collapse which has always occurred with previous overly-ambitious world powers, or are the policies expressed by them as necessary certainties going to ensure that collapse?

We may be fast approaching a time when a failure to ask, and answer, that question honestly might moot future celebrations of the advent of the nation, as our independence may be made moot by forces greater than our ability to control.

When the political discourse and the country's budgets are dominated by politicians with utopian fantasies of world control, when the general populace has had its political power reduced to a point where it is left with wishful thinking, "if only...," it may already be too late. We have, in a few decades, and especially in the last few years, acquiesced in invasions of our privacy and progressive diminutions of our "unalienable rights" which in real terms constitute a diminishment of liberty. We have allowed our taxes to be spent in ways that support those utopian ambitions and which have done little to improve our security, and much to distance control of our government from its citizens and threaten our independence.

On this Fourth of July, it would be well to remember our origins, and to remember that we are no longer the nation we imagine ourselves to be.


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