Monday, April 20, 2009


In the current issue of ‘The Wilson Quarterly’ (the link is to the contents of the entire current issue available online; many articles are worth the read), Kishore Mahburani has a meaty article entitled “Can America Fail?”.

Imagine that that ‘fail’ is refers not to anything specific, but is a universally defined ‘fail’.

The piece begins acutely by quoting an interview the author had with one of the three ‘founding fathers’ of Singapore, whose voters, in 1981, ejected the founding People’s Action Party: “We failed because we did not even conceive of the possibility of failure”.

Bang. You couldn’t imagine George Bush the Lesser (a purely relative term) saying that. On the other hand We all saw him actually do that. Interesting times indeed.

The author ticks off the most urgent and fundamental shortcomings: First, groupthink. It has been for half-a-century now a key element in the diagnosis of any mass society. It is more or less latent in all groups and all individuals: you want to be in concord with your group so that you are not cast out into the outer darkness; the group wants its members to think as one (so to speak) in order to maximize its unity – though that often turns out to be merely uniformity, a much less useful but far more seductive trait.

But America, even after the ‘freedom’ binge of the later, luv-besotted, Hippie Sixties, is now so frighteningly a groupthink place that it looks to the military for ‘independent’ thinking. Oy. How did this happen? Identity Politics (IP) requires not individuals, but rather members – of the Identity; they must act and speak uniformly because IP is in the politics business: it needs adherents to give it the clout to sway legislators to give it what it demands. And it’s been remarkably successful. Of course it’s had the help of a Democratic Party (and later a complete Beltway) that would provide a police escort for all its demands, and a media that would – to avoid pissing off female ‘consumers’ – report as fact whatever press releases were faxed over.

And of course, as a perfectly predictable consequence of endowing ‘pain’ with the power to trump any rational argument or objection, folks now hear ‘pain’ and no countervailing reason – you try to raise a kid by simply giving in to every squall with no attempt to introduce a little bit of rationality and before very long you will have an uncontrollable and un-self-controlled little dickens on your hands. Which is where Our pols find themselves now: unable to say No to what they have spoiled for decades by giving the ‘pain squall’ trump power over any rational, careful, accurate, and comprehensive deliberation. Consensus is no longer an objective of Our politics; indeed it is classified as an enemy, as ‘obstruction’, as ‘re-victimization’ – by the pain-based lobbies (if I may).

Second, the author asserts, is “the erosion of the notion of individual responsibility”. But again, politics in the IP-era is achieved not by individuals but by the group, the Identity. And the seductive element that lures individuals into such a group is the assurance that ‘you are not at fault’, and more – that it or they are at fault for your pain. A charming two-fer: you need not shoulder the ancient human burden of selfhood nor of responsibility to deal with your life’s assorted challenges because it’s somebody else’s fault and it’s somebody else’s responsibility to fix it for you; and you enjoy a solid status in a powerful group without having to earn it, just because you claim ‘pain’. With an ‘out’ like that, why would anyone exert him/herself to get up and go up on deck to master their vessel against the chill, stormy sea?

Of course, structuralism played a part in all of this: the idea that individual failures don’t cause the trouble in a society, but rather ‘structures’ too large for any individual to ‘handle’, too subtle for any individual to fully comprehend. Where Teddy Roosevelt set the government against corporations and the Robber Barons, the postmodern lobbies want to set the government against ‘structures’ far more subtle and in-woven than a mere corporation or even a network of corporations. The government, in the lobbies’ eyes, is to start pulling apart the very warp and woof of the nation’s culture – to get at the ‘deep structures’. Meanwhile, the ‘less important’ mega-rich and corporations could go play in the sand – which they actually proceeded to do, with catastrophic results.

And, of course, in a culture and economy that now not only invite, but actually need everybody to go into debt so as to consume as much as possible, then any inner prompting to stop and ask yourself ‘Is this trip (or purchase) necessary?’ – that clarion question that framed the lives of the generation that won World War Two – is not only ‘quaint’ but colorably traitorous.

Americans don’t ask if they can afford it – they buy it and then go call the bank or the mortgage and refi folks. Well, right up until a year or so ago, anyway.

The author observes that while America has the world’s most successful democracy, it “may also have the most corrupt governance in the world”. What, Us a banana republic? The author continues quickly with a superb zinger: “The reason most Americans are not aware of this is that most of the corruption is legal”.

Nice. It also used to be a trademark insight of the reportorial philosophy of ‘The New Republic’ before the egregious Peretz took that fine journal down a dark and perhaps fatal path: the most interesting crime isn’t what’s illegal, but what’s legal.

In a Beltway where for almost forty years now the game has been to pander politically to whatever ‘base’ is in ‘pain’, while collecting cash from corporations whose bidding you have guaranteed to do, and while simultaneously re-districting so that you and your pals can never be voted out or – often – even credibly challenged … in a Beltway like that you cannot seriously expect to encounter many persons of integrity. Like albinos, individuals so afflicted would be naturally culled from the gene pool before they spread their weakness among the healthy.

And if one of those PACs and one of those outstretched hands belongs to a foreign nation which has consistently refused to sign a treaty of alliance with the US, but promises to ensure that a chunk of monies sent to its ‘aid’ are returned to the pols that voted it through the PACs – well, the pols are open to that too. Not even the Roman Senate in the decadence of the Empire lowered itself to that level . But the Romans are ‘quaint’ now, certainly in terms of their snotty ‘virtues’ and patriarchal Stoicism. Pained moderns on the make have no time for such obscure and abstract stuff.

Americans don’t see any of this, the article opines, because all of the problems are seen as coming from somewhere else, and America only provides solutions. It’s a great little PR meme for a corporation’s advertising campaign, but it’s no basis for a philosophy of national maturity or international relations.

As the author diagnoses: “The net effect of this corruption is that American governmental institutions and processes are now designed to protect special interests rather than national interests”. Yes, I’d say that’s about it, Beltway-wise. The Telecommunications Act immunity for the telecoms, the Military Commissions Act immunity for all those who aided and abetted the criminal – constitutionally treacherous – skullduggery surrounding the Iraq invasion and torture, the repeal of all the regulatory structures that kept the banking and financial sectors honest (so to speak), the gutting of criminal, civil, and constitutional law and philosophy in order to wage the preferred wars of the Identities against their preferred enemies among the rest of the citizenry … decades of this type of thing. And in the matter of a certain foreign ‘realm’, the assiduous earning of the monies involved something that easily passes for constitutionally-defined ‘treachery’ and may well shade sharply into treason itself. “But they are all honorable men” (generically speaking, of course). And they do it all on national TV, as used to be said.

But they do it all on national TV because they have learned – from the early Nazi era of propaganda and the sustained propaganda successes of the early Soviet Union – that if you can drape your purposes in ‘good’ intentions, then you can get away with … well, ‘murder’ is too small a concept for what you can get away with.

The best way to rob a bank is to own it; the best way to get away with crime is to legislate the criminal law. And maybe distract everybody with a far more visceral class of crimes – the kulaks went to the wall in their hundreds of thousands, while the Five-Year Plans and collectivization were killing millions of citizens through starvation. But the elites who thought it up were never at a loss for vodka and caviar, and without fail their paragons took the salute of the massed divisions in Red Square every October, bundled warmly in fur and driven over in shiny limos.

Are Americans going to be able to compete with foreign workers in the global market?

Generations and age-cohorts have now grown into a mushy adulthood, convinced that they need only express their ‘pain’ and ‘outrage’ to the government in order to make that pain go away, as it were. But while the pandering game worked when it was confined to the domestic arena, the government cannot pander when the causes of the ‘pain’, in their eager billions, live beyond the reach of a friendly court decision or a law passed with elephantine trumpeting that only runs as far as the West Coast and the East Coast and no further.

The author quotes Obama, in his book ‘The Audacity of Hope’, where he recounts ruefully the 96% rate of re-election in the House even when public opinion of “politicians” is low. He thinks the rascals should be thrown out? But how?

In short order any 2nd Lieutenant arriving in-country with an agenda of cleaning up the company would wind up suddenly blown into fractals in his tent or while squatting on the latrine. Any Marshal of less stature than John Wayne who took over Dodge with the express plan of cleaning it up would wind up on Boot Hill forthwith.

In fact, thinking about it, I can’t help but notice the coincidence – in itself not dispositive – that JFK opposed a certain Middle East ‘realm’ in its secret and illegal efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. And then suddenly he was gone. Back then that ‘realm’ was seen as a poor David, merely struggling to make some plants grow on a patch of sand it ‘acquired’ in compensation for the ‘six million’ destroyed by the odious Hitler. We know, now, just how ruthless that ‘realm’ is and always has been, in its determination to ‘do whatever it takes’. When I think of LBJ’s utter horror at upsetting that ‘realm’ a short four years later, even allowing that ‘realm’ to kill US sailors in broad daylight over the course of hours, even calling back jet fighters sent to their rescue, I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t only international political rivalry with the USSR that so agitated him. After all, even after the USSR went into the ICU, never again to emerge into the light, US policy remained as subservient as ever. Did LBJ fear that any opposition to that realm would get him the same nasty surprise as his predecessor?

The curse of interesting times indeed.

The author intones that “American leaders must add an important word when they speak the truth to the American people. The word is sacrifice.” Oh, well, now. You can’t say that in this town any more, stranger. A decade after JFK’s Inaugural Address, the word sacrifice was already passé. Worse, the concept was considered not only ‘quaint’ but downright traitorous: to your self, to your race or gender, to the whole postmodern project. You didn’t ‘suck it up’ and ‘get on with it’; you raised as much hell as a shrewd two-year old when Daddy’s got the boss over for dinner; you sit right down and open up those little lungs and let loose and you don’t stop until you get what you want. Sacrifice is not a word in the two-year old’s vocabulary. And it’s not because it’s polysyllabic. It goes against the whole operational plan.

And in postmodern philosophy there really isn’t anything ‘real’ enough to sacrifice for – not ideals, not tradition, not posterity. There’s you and what you want and what you can manage to get for yourself. That’s all. It sounds eerily like the Flat and shriveled moral world left to the ‘New Soviet Man’ (generically speaking, of course).

Now, in the revolutionary handbook, there is indeed something worth sacrificing for – indeed, there is only the one thing: the revolution. But for that, and about that, and in the service of that – you’d better be ready to sacrifice anything and everything. And show no patience with or mercy to those ‘who just don’t get it’. That’s the only way to make a revolution work.

But any other sacrifice, nope. Nyet. And if you don’t get that, then you’re going to get it for sure.

So if it all hinges on sacrifice, then it’s anybody’s guess how much hope there is to be had.

But if these are interesting times, humans are interesting people, and who knows for sure that We won’t be able to do whatever it takes?

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