Tuesday Evening, February 28, 2005
Smiley-Face Evil. To take care of every objection that might arise in response to what I wrote the other day about "groupthink" would take a book. The point about the corruption of language is not particularly original, but I've been struggling to understand better this creepy phenomenon by which language seems to have been emptied out of its real meaning and filled with an alien force that gives it a zombie quality. The more I live with this particular metaphor the more apt it seems. At the very least it points to why this phenomenon gives me the shivers. If it doesn't give you the shivers, then probably nothing I've been saying about it makes much sense. For me it all starts with getting the shivers and then trying to figure out why.
I think the other thing that is useful about this idea is that it gives a plausible explanation for a phenomenon we recognize in our everyday experience: that the nice, decent people support policies that have horrific consequences. They are incapable of seeing these consequences for what they are because they believe in the idealistic language the policymakers use to disguise their horror. These decent people are in their own minds idealists.They would never support horror, and the policy makers do their best to shield them from it and when they can't hide it, explain it away.
For me it always comes back to how it could have been even remotely possible for the Christian churches to have supported slavery and after it Jim Crow. It's not as if they could have remained in denial about the moral arguments against it. It was fiercely debated in the churches. Denominations split over the issue. We're not talking here about Christians who all thought it was evil but disagreed about how to remedy it. We're talking about Christians who defended slavery and segregation root and branch.
It's simply not possible to say, "Well, that's just their sincere belief," as if it's the moral equivalent of any one else's belief so long as it is sincerely held. Their sincerity doesn't make the consequences of their beliefs any less reprehensible.The only explanation for me is that the words in the Gospel, the very substance of the Gospel, had for them been replaced by something else, an alien substance that disguised itself in the words of Scripture. And that "something else" is evil, and it has to be called what it is. It was evil then, and there's a similar dynamic at work in these right-wing churches now, and it has to be recognized as such. It may be smiley-face evil, but it is evil nonetheless.
It's a phenomenon that is similar to what we more easily recognize in cults. Sincere, idealistic, naive seekers are set upon by spiritual predators, con men who know their marks. It's a sad thing to see under any circumstances, but it's a frightening force when it is being manipulated by people who use it to promote their political agenda. The naive idealists are not evil; they are being manipulated by others who are. That's why this is so hard to recognize for what it is. The decent, ordinary, sincere Americans who have bought into this program are the facade behind which the real actors hide.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Competing Groupthinks. I've been thinking for the last couple of days about how groups develop their own minds. All of us to a certain extent have slid into groupthink at one point or another. So what is doing the thinking in groupthink? Before coming back around to this question, let me digress for a bit on the difference between calculation and judgment.
It doesn't require judgment to determine that 2 + 2 = 4. You just need a mind that operates in a mechanically logical way. And in our day-to-day life a lot of what passes for judgment is really calculation in this sense--it's automatic and mechanical. If I need gas for my car, and the gas station on the right is selling for $1.90 and the one on the left is selling for $2.10, it's not judgment but calculation that inclines me to turn right. Now obviously some calculations are more complicated than others because more factors than price may enter into consideration. But what I mean by judgment comes into view in situations that require a weighing of alternatives for which no calculus offers an answer. It requires something else--wisdom.
I'm not going to digress here about what wisdom is and how you get it, but clearly some people have it and most don't. But the people who do have it make consistently good judgments when there is no calculus to ensure an obvious outcome. But because most of us are not wise and we cannot rely on our own judgments, we rely on what is commonly known as conventional wisdom, which is groupthink.
Now some forms of groupthink are lifegiving and some are deadly. The tribal wisdom handed down from generation to generation in traditional societies is the lifegiving kind. In such societies there is an experience of the living presence of the wisdom of the ancestors. And one could say that the life of the tradition is the soul of a culture, and it's that soul or ancestral mind that thinks in the people in a living traditional culture. That's beneficial groupthink, but it's rare in modern pluralistic, choice-centered societies in which any sense of living tradition is a distant memory.
And since the time of Socrates, we've learned in the West never to take the groupthink at face value. We've learned the importance of not blindly accepting the groupthink, and so there is a qualitative difference between an unconscious or naive acceptance of the groupthink, as we all do as children, and a mature acceptance of what's valid in the conventional wisdom once it has been subjected to examination in the Socratic sense. Socrates was pushing his students to move from naive, unconscious acceptance of conventional wisdom to a deeper cognitive apprehension of the life that originally gave shape to the traditonal forms. And Plato later developed a theory about the nature of that cognitive apprehension, which he called anamnesis, or remembering.
So acceptance requires a cognitive moment in which one understands why the traditional wisdom has stood the test of time rather than just accepting it because that's what the authorities require. And it requires having had an experience of the life that the traditional wisdom points to. The "cognitive moment" is much harder to come by in modern, pluralistic, tradition-dead societies because we no longer have any living memory of the ancestral wisdom. It used to be the goal of a liberal education to help us "remember" it, but even that is rare for most students these days. And as a result wisdom is in short supply. We have lots of people who are good calculators, but relatiavely few who have good judgment.
Now the people who subject all traditional wisdom to the Socratic test and find it completely unacceptable are called skeptics. Skeptics are either disappointed idealists embittered by the failure of the world to live up to their expectations: The loving God of the tradition cannot exist because such a being is inconsistent with the reality of innocent suffering. Or they are extreme rationalists for whom everything is calculation. For the latter group, if an assertion cannot meet the standard of 2 + 2 = 4, then it is mere subjective opinion, and so most traditional wisdom falls into that category. 'Cognitive moment' as I speak of it here is for such people a meaningless combination of two words.
I see either kind of skepticism as a form of arrested development. It's a first step toward wisdom, but it's a refusal or inability to take the next step, which requires the acknowledgement of the logic of the heart, which is the logic of the suprarational. Heart logic is an innate capacity in all of us to think in a non-calculative way, but it remains dormant in many, a seed waiting to germinate, a cognitive moment waiting to happen. It is no longer available to us in the way it was in living traditional societies. And that's a problem because if such moments occur, they happen to individuals not groups. And so the kind of groupthink that arises in tradition-dead societies is an empty, lifeless form and as such vulnerable to a kind of possession. And like a vacant house on a rundown city block, it often finds itself occupied by squatters that make a bad situation worse.
Now the predominant groupthink of the secular liberalism that dominates the Democratic Party is rooted in a utopian, future-oriented idealism that is skeptical about traditional wisdom, and the secular skeptics perceive traditionalists to be like naive children who have not subjected their traditional beliefs to the Socratic test. If there is a demon that possesses its groupthink, its name is Arrogance. The predominant groupthink of traditionalist Republicans is rooted in a religious formalism that is extremely defensive in the face of the assault upon it that they see as having been mounted by the skeptical, secular liberal elites in the Democratic Party. Their demon's name is Resentment.
A conversation is not possible between two people who are possessed by the "demons" animating contemporary groupthink. It's not possible even if only one is. Such people only make calculations about whether what the other says meets their litmus test for orthodoxy. A conversation is possible only between two people who have the mutual intent to have a cognitive moment with the Other. The culture wars, as we have experienced them in this country at least since the time of the Scopes trial, are like two crazy people trying to have conversation. Neither is in his right mind. Neither is capable of true judgment. All they can do is shout at one another.
Now the groupthink of the left and the right, insofar as either is unconsciously assimilated, infect individuals as naive idealism. And insofar as it is naive, i.e., lacking the "cognitive moment' described above, it is empty. And insofar as it is empty, it is a vacuum ready to suck in anything that will enliven it. Demagogues are con men who understand how this process works, and they are masters who feed off of the naive idealism of either the left or the right. They don't care about traditional values and they don't care about utopian ideals; they only care about concentrating power under their control. And they understand that their ability to consolidate power requires that they manipulate the groupthink of a majority of the public. If they can control the majority groupthink, they can simply dismiss the concerns of the minority.
Maintaining power by manipulating groupthink was Orwell's great theme. The demagogue drapes everything he does in idealistic or obfuscating language, and those for whom those words have no living cognitive content simply accept the new content that the demagogues fill them with. And the next thing you know, the words have no relationship to their original meanings. They are old wineskins filled with new wine, wine whose purpose is to addle the minds of the cognitively naive. What thinks in the Orwellian groupthink is the mind of Big Brother, which is the mind of the demagogue.
Now in the period leading up to the Revolution in Russia Lenin was at the vanguard of a group of oligarchs who manipulated the naive idealism of people who were inclined to the groupthink of the utopian secular left. 1917 initiated a chain of events that led to the increased concentrations of power culminating during the Stalin period with its purges, mass murders, and gulags. In the 1930s Hitler was at the vanguard of a group of oligarchs who manipulated the naive idealism of traditionalist Germans who longed for nationalist glory and who thought that God was with them in their quest. 1933 initiated a chain of events that led to all the horrors we all know too well.
The point is this: Those who long to acquire power feed off naive idealistic groupthink, which they are very skilled at manipulating. It doesn't matter if it's the utopian idealism of the left or the traditionalist idealism of the right. Power hungry demagogues care only about manipulating whichever naive groupthink will best serve their purposes. This is Orwell's big insight. Left, right--it doesn't matter. But in this country, at this time, they are working the naive idealism of the traditionalist right big time. And their basic strategy is to incite their traditionalist resentment toward the secular liberal elites, who think all traditionalists are childish fools.
Well some of them, like Zell Miller, are fools, and they are fools to the degree that they allow themselves to be manipulated. But in another time and in another place, you could say the same for the fools on the left.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
If It Walks like a Duck. . .Thom Hartmann has an interesting piece today that draws some interesting parallels between events here in the last few years and Germany 72 years ago:
February 27, 2005, is the 72nd anniversary of Dutch terrorist Marinus van der Lubbe's successful firebombing of the German Parliament (Reichstag) building, the terrorist act that catapulted Hitler to legitimacy and reshaped the German constitution. By the time of his successful and brief action to seize Austria, in which almost no German blood was shed, Hitler was the most beloved and popular leader in the history of his nation. Hailed around the world, he was later Time magazine's "Man Of The Year."
Most Americans remember his office for the security of the homeland, known as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and its SchutzStaffel, simply by its most famous agency's initials: the SS.
We also remember that the Germans developed a new form of highly violent warfare they named "lightning war" or blitzkrieg, which, while generating devastating civilian losses, also produced a highly desirable "shock and awe" among the nation's leadership according to the authors of the 1996 book "Shock And Awe" published by the National Defense University Press.
Reflecting on that time, The American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983) left us this definition of the form of government the German democracy had become through Hitler's close alliance with the largest German corporations and his policy of using religion and war as tools to keep power: "fas-cism (fâsh'iz'em) n. A system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism."
Today, as we face financial and political crises, it's useful to remember that the ravages of the Great Depression hit Germany and the United States alike. Through the 1930s, however, Hitler and Roosevelt chose very different courses to bring their nations back to power and prosperity.
Germany's response was to use government to empower corporations and reward the society's richest individuals, privatize much of the commons, stifle dissent, strip people of constitutional rights, bust up unions, and create an illusion of prosperity through government debt and continual and ever-expanding war spending.
America passed minimum wage laws to raise the middle class, enforced anti-trust laws to diminish the power of corporations, increased taxes on corporations and the wealthiest individuals, created Social Security, and became the employer of last resort through programs to build national infrastructure, promote the arts, and replant forests.
To the extent that our Constitution is still intact, the choice is again ours.
Read the entire article here if you want to get into the depressing details that support this parallel. Is all of this overblown? If what I've been saying about the logic that drives power to concentrate itself isn't convincing to you, what does your gut tell you? There is at the very least something very, very creepy going on here. I'm still hopeful tht there will be enough moral ballast in the American population to prevent the worst from happening. But we are more vulnerable than we want to believe. Vigilance.
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Why Liberalism Can't Get It Done. I have some important differences with Christopher Lasch, and at some point I'll lay out what they are, but I'm 95% in agreement with his basic understanding about what's happening to us as a society. I know of no one else who is more eloquent or insightful. The following passage from The True and Only Heaven (1991) summarizes very effectively the basic premise upon which this website is based:
But if humanity thrives on peace and prosperity, it also needs an occasional taste of battle. Men and women need to believe that "life is a critical affair," in Richard Niebuhr's words. They cannot be satisfied merely with the opportunity to choose their goals and "life-styles," in the current jargon; they need to believe that their choices carry serious consequence. In the Christian cosmos, the forces of good and evil wage a mighty struggle for man's soul, and every action had to be weighed in the scales of eternity. Communism endowed everyday actions with the same kind of cosmic significance, as Keynes and many others understood. In 1940, George Orwell made the same point abut fascism. The Western democracies, he observed, had come to think that "human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, the avoidance of pain." Whatever else could be said about it, fascism was "psychologically far sounder than any hedonist conception of life." Hitler knew that men and women wanted more than "comfort, safety, short working hours, hygiene, birth control." "Whereas socialism and even capitalism . . . have said to people, 'I offer you a good time,' Hitler has said to them, 'I offer you struggle, danger, and death,' and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet."
I've been talking a lot about fascism lately, and I know that in doing so I risk falling into the category of the stereotypical 'man of the left' who uses the term as an insult for anyone whose views are to the right of his own. But if I've also gone to great lengths to show that I am not a Liberal. That I am closer to a Burkean conservative than I am to the kind of Liberalism that is at the secular-left heart of the Democratic Party, and that it is from this Burkean standpoint that I criticize the "Jacobinism" driving current GOP policy.
And I have said repeatedly that I do not believe that whatever hope we have for a better future lies with the secular left. But it is for that reason that I fear the seductions of the extremist right--there is a psychological soundness to their seductions. Fascism in some form is our future unless an effective, psychologically sound counterbalance can be found for it, and Liberalism simply cannot provide that counterbalance. Lasch goes on:
In the same year, Lewis Mumford offered an analysis of the "sleek progressive mind" that could easily have been written by Orwell himself. Progressives, according to Mumford, believed that human nature is deflected from its natural goodness only by external conditions beyond the individual's control. Having no sense of sin, they discounted inherent obstacles to moral development and therefore could not grasp the need for a "form-giving discipline of the personality." They scorned the discipline gained through manual labor, the endurance of discomfort, and the nurture of the young. They sought to free mankind from all manner of hardship and adversity, from the boredom of domestic drudgery, and from natural processes in general. Societies based on progressive principles, Mumford wrote, renounced every larger goal in favor of the "private enjoyment of life." They had created a race of men and women who "deny because of their lack of experience that life has any other meanings or values or possibilities." Such people "eat, drink, marry, bear children and go to their grave in a state that is at best hilarious anesthesia, and at its worst is anxiety, fear, and envy, for lack of the necessary means to achieve the fashionable minimum of sensation."
A loathing of this view of life is precisely what animates principled conservatives in this country--and I quite understand why they loathe it. Such liberal societies are good only for producing "last men."
Confronted with this kind of indictment, progressives usually reply that discipline and adversity are all very well for those who can take a certain level of material security for granted, but that impoverished masses can hardly be expected to listen to such appeals. Until everyone enjoys a decent standard of living, material improvement will therefore remain the overriding objective of democratic societies. The trouble with this argument is that the political pressure for a more equitable distribution of wealth can come only from movements fired with religious purpose and a lofty conception of life. Without popular initiative, even the limited goal of democratization of comfort cannot be realized. The favored few cannot be expected to consult the needs of the many, even if their own interests may be served, at least in the long run, by raising the general level of consumption. If the many now enjoy some of the comforts formerly restricted to the few, it is because they have won them through their own political efforts, not because the wealthy have freely surrendered their privileges or because the market automatically assures abundance for all.
Popular initiative, however, has been declining for some time--in part because the democratization of consumption is an insufficiently demanding ideal, which fails to call up the moral energy necessary to sustain popular movements in the face of adversity. The history of popular movements, including the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties--the last such uprising in American history--shows that only an arduous, even tragic, understanding of life can justify the sacrifices imposed on those who seek to challenge the status quo.
The idea of progress alone, we are told, can move men and women to sacrifice immediate pleasures to some larger purpose. On the contrary progressive ideology weakens the spirit of sacrifice. Nor does it give us an effective antidote to despair, even though it owes much of its residual appeal to the fear that its collapse would leave us utterly without hope. Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice. [excerpts from pp. 79-80]
This is why I say that hope does not lie within the political sphere. Politics is the sphere of power, and if left to its own internal logic, the political drive is about the acquisition of greater levels of power. Those who seek power can never have enough of it, and the only check on their "natural" tendency to get what they want is for a countervailing power to oppose them. Politics is therefore the battle of countervailing powers to achieve domination, and a countervailing power inspired by suprarational ideals is the only kind that if victorious can put a stop the otherwise endless process of one strong man toppling another.
I believe the founding of the American republic was one such victory, but such victories are never permanent. The republic has been slowly corrupted for over a century now by the seductions of power. The original ideals have slowly been emptied of their meaning to a point now when I hear politicians speaking the words freedom and democracy I cringe rather than feel the force of the ideals that used to stand behind them. They are zombie words now.
If there has been a note of pessimism in my posts since the election, it's because it has confirmed my worst fears about where the country is going. I didn't see the election of a Democratic administration as a solution. I saw it merely as a slowing down of this movement toward the consolidation of power in the hands of fewer and fewer right-wing elites. Whatever their rhetoric about traditional values, the bottom line for them is power acquisition, and they have not shown that they have any compunctions about its abuse if it serves their goals. It's very, very disturbing.
The only counterbalance to this natural trend of the powerful seeking ever greater levels of power can come from popular movements, and it is very discouraging to me that whatever opposition there is right now to this very dangerous trend toward power concentration comes only from Liberalism, which for the reasons explained in the excerpts above, simply does not have the moral resources to put up much of a fight. Sooner or later a spirited opposition will arise, but, if I'm right, it won't be effective unless it is motivated by a "loftier conception of life" than the materialism the secular left proposes.
I am pessimistic, but not without hope. As Lasch points out, optimism and hope are not the same thing. I think that in the long run human beings will figure it out, but the story of our doing so will be, as it has been to this point, fraught with struggle and tragedy.
Saturday, February 19, 2005
More on Brownshirting. Bush supporters, don't you find this at least a little disturbing? From today's Salon:
The crowd at CPAC's [Conservative Political Action Committee] Thursday night banquet, held at D.C.'s Ronald Reagan Building, was full of right-wing stars. Among those seated at the long presidential table at the head of the room were Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, Dore Gold, foreign policy advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and NRA president Kayne Robinson. Vice President Dick Cheney, a regular CPAC speaker, gave the keynote address. California Rep. Chris Cox had the honor of introducing him, and he took the opportunity to mock the Democrats whose hatred of America led them to get Iraq so horribly wrong.
"America's Operation Iraqi Freedom is still producing shock and awe, this time among the blame-America-first crowd," he crowed. Then he said, "We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq." Apparently, most of the hundreds of people in attendance already knew about these remarkable, hitherto-unreported discoveries, because no one gasped at this startling revelation.
And why would they? Like comrades celebrating the success of Mao's Great Leap Forward, attendees at CPAC, the oldest and largest right-wing conference in the country, invest their leaders with the power to defy mere reality through force of insistent rhetoric. The triumphant recent election is all the proof they need that everything George W. Bush says is true. Sure, there's skepticism of the president's wonder-working power among some of the old movement hands -- including the leaders of the American Conservative Union, which puts CPAC on. For much of the rank and file, though, the thousands of blue-blazered students and local activists who come to CPAC each year to celebrate the völkisch virtues of nationalism, capitalism and heterosexuality, Bush is truth. They don rhinestone W brooches and buy mouse pads, posters and T-shirts showing the president as a kind of beefcake Uncle Sam, with flowing white hair and bulging muscles threatening to rend his red, white and blue garments.
It's not only liberals who have noticed that Bush's most committed followers are caught up in the fact-filtering force field of a personality cult. In January, Paul Craig Roberts, assistant secretary of the treasury during the Reagan administration and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal's far-right editorial page, published a damning column in the progressive Z Magazine about fascist tendencies in the conservative movement. "In the ranks of the new conservatives, however, I see and experience much hate. It comes to me in violently worded, ignorant and irrational emails from self-professed conservatives who literally worship George Bush," he wrote. "Even Christians have fallen into idolatry. There appears to be a large number of Americans who are prepared to kill anyone for George Bush … Like Brownshirts, the new conservatives take personally any criticism of their leader and his policies. To be a critic is to be an enemy."
This kind of ground-level devotion was key to the volunteer-driven get-out-the-vote campaign, and the administration sent important emissaries to convey the president's gratitude. Although the Republicans always have high-powered representatives at CPAC, this year the lineup at the three-day conference is particularly impressive. On the first day alone, attendees heard from Karl Rove and Sen. Rick Santorum as well as Cheney. Tonight, there will be a speech by Zell Miller, the former Democratic senator who delivered the vein-popping keynote address at this year's Republican National Convention. He'll be delivering a "Courage Under Fire" award to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Tomorrow, we'll hear from Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman and Newt Gingrich
I know. It's just the way liberals demonize the right. Zell Miller's speech at the convention didn't mean anything. It was just harmless pep rally stuff, right? Well let's hope that the principled conservatives like Roberts play an increasingly prominent role in waking up conservatively inclined Americans. I believe that significant number of people who voted for Bush endorsed the power conservative program of the neocons because they could not bring themselves to vote for the Democrats. Believe me I sympathize with their aversion for Democrats, but these power conservatives are taking us down a road that that no sensible American wants to travel.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
When Did We Stop Being a Republic? We started out as one, but some how we wound up being an empire. It didn't happen all at once, we just kind of slid into it while we convinced ourselves we were doing something else, like saving the slaves from their plantation owners or the native Americans from Hell or the Cubans from the corrupt Spanish or Chileans from Allende or the Nicaraguans from the Sandinistas or the Iraqis from Saddam. "Hey," Americans want to think, "We're the good guys here. Everything we do is high minded and altruistic." But Negroponte and Gonzales represent what we're really all about.
It began innocently enough with he high idealism of the Civil War, and then the conquest of the Indian nations in the West. You can understand that part of it; it was about building a geographically cohesive nation. But if there was any hope of our turning back from the seductions of empire, it was lost at the time of the Spanish-American War in the 1890s. Even then there was a strong opposition to the war on the basis that it meant the abandonment of our small 'r' republican ideals. But has a nation given the choice between republican modesty and the grandeur of imperial power ever chosen republican modesty?
It's the implacable, predictable inevitability of it all that is so disheartening. It's clear that there is not enough moral ballast or moral imagination in the country's ruling class (and those who aspire to belong to it) to do anything but give way to the logic of power. It's just too seductive, and we no longer have a 'republican' constituency to remind us of our older ideals. We shouldn't delude ourselves that American politics is now about anything else but a process of concentrating power within a smaller and smaller group.
That's simply how the logic of power works in human affairs--unless it's opposed. But it's pretty clear that it's too late for effective opposition. I guess that's what this last election brought into clearer focus for me. My concerns in the political sphere are now simply to limit the damage, and to elect the people who won't break as many things, who show less recklessness about the use of U.S. power. There is nothing more I see as realistic to hope for in our political leadership. The whole thing is too big now and too complex. It has a mind of its own. There's no stopping it; it has to run its course.
Hope for the eventual counterbalance lies not in politics but in the cultural sphere--the sphere of the human spirit.
Wednesday, February 17, 2005
Who's in the Driver's Seat? If bigness and centralization are the problem, what is the solution? I may have ideas about what my ideal world would look like, but I would never dream of engineering such a world into existence. It would have to be something that we would gradually evolve into, and we would evolve into it because that's the kind of world--or some other one--that most people would want to live in and work to achieve and maintain. Right now most Americans are unclear about the kind of world they want to live in. They have been persuaded that because they live in America, they live in the best of all possible worlds.
I am not a proponent of social engineering projects in the political sphere, but rather the advocate for certain basic principles. And the first and most basic principle is that governments are instituted to restrain predators from infringing on the life and liberty of its citizens. And this necessarily requires that the government has to be powerful enough to restrain the powerful who would infringe on those rights.
We accept this principle without a question when it means developing a military power that protects us from powerful predators abroad. We accept this principle without question when it means developing the police power to protect us from criminals at home. But for some reason we are deeply ambivalent about corporate predators and using our police powers to restrain the growth of their power and influence in shaping our national life. We have trouble seeing how they in subtle but profound ways infringe on our life and liberty. Or to the extent we do, we're not all that bothered by it. We shrug, and say, "Hey, what are you gonna do?"
Maybe because so many of our livelihoods are dependent on them. The good life as one leads it or has hopes to lead it is profoundly linked to the flourishing and future success of American corporations. It's impossible to imagine a prosperous America without them. Corporate life has come to define what we understand as "normal"; they define the real world as it is. We may not like a lot about how corporations operate, but that's the price we pay for the great lives we lead. Complainers like me will never be satisfied.
Sure, there are bad actors like the guys at Enron and MCI, but we have laws to take care of them, and they'll get what they deserve. Most of the people who who work in and manage American corporations are decent, honest Americans who play by the rules and who work hard to make their company the best that it can be and to provide a good life for their families.
I wish it were that simple. I don't have much time this morning, so I just want to leave it with these questions to be explored later: Who has the power in our country? Who is running things? Who is in the driver's seat? Do you really believe that it is our elected representatives? Do you really think that ordinary citizens like you and me have any collective power anymore? Are our votes anything more than a ratification of someone else's agenda that we've been duped into thinking is in America's best interest? Do we have a real democracy anymore, or just the appearance of one?
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
I came across this Fall 1991 interview with the late Christopher Lasch, and thought this excerpt was worth sharing:
BM - Where have we gone wrong in our thinking about education?
CL - I think we took two wrong turns. At a certain point we began to think of education as the path to upward social mobility, a way of climbing the ladder of success, storming the doors of opportunity. This provided the key to middle class hegemony. More recently, we have taken an even narrower view of education and come to see it as exposure to and the imposition of the culture of dominant groups like white European males. As a result we have lost to all intents and purposes any concept of liberal education.
BM - What would liberal education be for you?
CL - I would harken back to an older tradition that thought of education as a common achievement of humanity that is multicultural in the best sense of the word. Far from enclosing the mind in class bound dogmas and ideologies, liberal education opens the mind to new horizons and calls every kind of dogma and ideology into criticism. It offers a critical perspective on every position. Liberal education is power and freedom, cogent analysis, orderly exposition, logical argumentation, the discipline of study and thought, the rich experience of the past as well as the assimilation of past culture and the common sense of modern civilization. This is education conceived neither as upward mobility nor assimilation to regnant ideologies but the acquisition of intellectual resources that make us free. I would want to argue that the notion of upward social mobility is pretty much what we mean by freedom today.
BM - How does that argument go?
CL - Take the example of affirmative action. Social mobility is the cornerstone of liberal thinking on the issue of race. The gist of this thinking is that an educated, professional, upwardly mobile class of blacks will serve as role model for other blacks. But this is wrong-headed thinking because it assumes that the mobility of the few will benefit black people as whole. It is now all too clear that it won't. Even as more and more blacks are assimilated to the money getting classes, black neighborhoods and the cities in general tend to deteriorate. Enterprise and ambition emigrate to the suburbs, leadership is drained away, communities weaken. We are accustomed to thinking that the suburbs are the solution to the problem of the cities. We need to recognize that in the deepest sense they are the cause of the problem and not the solution. Suburbs institutionalize a false idea of freedom as social mobility, as climbing out of one's class. They dramatize the dangerous freedom that drains talent and wealth and imagination away. To say that our ideal of freedom is above all a suburban ideal is to give it palpable shape; it helps us understand more explicitly than any other image what's wrong with it. It is not only the underclass that is impoverished by this flight to the suburbs. In one way or another it diminishes all of us. The suburb organized around the shopping mall rather than the neighborhood eradicates the last vestiges of reciprocal obligation. It underscores the illusion that the good life consists of unlimited choices unconstrained by any sense that others are in the picture. No less than the drug culture of the ghetto, suburban culture rests on the phantasy of escape. So it is no accident that the suburbs have a drug problem too, or that young people in the suburbs find that nothing holds their attention, that sustained effort is beyond their powers and that nothing seems to justify sustained effort anyway. Read more.
Before you can frame a solution, you've got to understand the problem and its causes. This is what makes most of our political discourse so hard to bear. The solutions people on the left and the right are proposing in my opinion are not based on a correct understanding about of what is ailing us. Until there is a consensus about that, its hard to imagine anything really productive happening.
Monday, February 14, 2005
The Great Centralizer. In yesterday's post I spoke about the mixed blessing that came with the North's victory in the Civil War. I've written about this before in a post I did about The Last Samurai, which was the story of the destruction of a vibrant traditional culture by the soulless industrial state. I'm aware that there is quite a bit of romantic idealization in the depiction of Samurai society in that film. But it's the same romantic idealization that many have felt for ante-bellum Dixie, and lots of people romanticize Tibet these days for the same reason. But they were all feudal societies. And the defenders of feudal societies, including the defenders of Dixie, have always argued that whatever their shortcomings, they were more soulful and human than the dehumanizing, machine- and capital-driven societies created by the industrial state. And I think that there is some validity to their argument.
But it's a moot point because those feudal societies were doomed to extinction. The new power released by the industrial state insured that. So rather than see the American Civil War as a moral crusade to free the slaves, it is better understood as driven by this larger historical trend toward centralization. And all the talk from the South about states' rights is simply an echoing of that older argument. I say echoing because it is an old argument that has hardly anything to do with reality these days. It's actually used as a smokescreen to hide ever more intense efforts to centralize power in the hands of fewer and fewer oligarchs. This is our dilemma, and it's mostly invisible to us.
Lincoln was our Bismarck, whether or not we like to think of him that way. He was the Great Liberator, but he was also the Great Centralizer. His talk about preserving the Union was really talk about centralizing. In the period after the Civil War, the federal government was still rather small, especially by today's standards, but the basic infrastructure was laid. The federal government for the most part over the last decades of the 19th Century played a rather passive role, and that role was primarily the handmaiden to the burgeoning industrial sector. The Robber Barons romped with impunity in the heyday of bare-knuckled capitalism. They thhrived in an era where Social Darwinism was the justifying ideology for a new barbarism that the defenders of the old south argued was much worse than anything its feudal system produced.
And it became clear that the only possible counterbalance to the new power of the corporation was the federal state. Big government was created as a counterbalance to Big Business. If corporate capitalism hadn't developed in the way it had, there would have been no need for a strong central regulatory power. Teddy Roosevelt, an elite with some sense of what was required to prevent the country from devolving into an industrial oligarchy promoted the trust-busting legislation that sought to restrain the otherwise uncontrollable growing power of the corporate octopus.
And for most of the 20th Century, through the New Deal and the Great Society, the federal government played the role of restraining the most predatory impulses of corporate capitalism, and of providing a safety net for those whose lives and communities were upended by the swath of "creative destruction" corporate capitalism left in its tracks as it pursued the rigid logic of the highest ROI for its investors. Once again it's important to emphasize that Big Government was made necessary by the excesses of corporate capitalism--the two are joined at the hip.
The problem isn't ownership. The problem isn't capitalism. The problem isn't markets. The problem is bigness and concentrations of power. In an ideal world, as I described it in my post yesterday, small-business capitalism would be optimal. The tricky part is how to keep power diffused rather than concentrated in the hands of those who can never get enough of it. And that's where we failed, and that's why I think our democracy is doomed unless we can find a way of diffusing power again.
But the trend is in the opposite direction. With the current administration we have a group of people who are ideologically committed to the promotion of corporate capitalism and as the post Civil War administrations were, has become its handmaiden. It is no longer offering the counterbalance, and so now we have a situation where a much stronger centralized government with all its police powers and military power is allied with the predators in the private sector, and who is to offer the counterbalance? Certainly not the Democrats, whose leadership is only slightly less coopted by Big Money than the Republicans.
The only counterbalance is an aroused citizenry, and that's what was so discouraging about the last election. No one emerged who could credibly sound the alarm. Howard Dean came the closest, and I doubt that he would have been the answer, but someone like him has no chance to be taken seriously anymore because the power system has become allergic to voices like his. A callow, mediocre man like Bush is easily accepted by the system. A smart, independent-minded, truth-telling citizen, rough around the edges though Dean was, is rejected, never taken seriously.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Ideal vs. Real. In my ideal world, I'd be a small government democrat. Such a world would always maintain a human scale in which small is beautiful. In such a world everyone would be middle class. Everyone would own his own business, whether he be farmer, butcher, baker, lawyer, doctor, gardener, candlestick maker. Partnerships would be ok, but corporations forbidden. Workers in larger enterprises would therefore be owners and partners. There would be no wage slavery. In my ideal world every worker would be self-reliant and everyone would be a hard worker who profited from his work and was able to provide a good life for himself and his family. In my ideal world some would be perceived as more successful than others, but the difference between the richest and poorest would not exceed a factor of two or three.
In my ideal world there would be no correlation between wealth and political power. There would only be local governments to which people felt some sense of connection and ownership. They would be governments that would do little, and be convened only when it was necessary to deal with issues that demanded community discussion and decision making. In my ideal world we'd all live in towns or neighborhoods in which it would be impossible to be anonymous. Those who were ill or handicapped would be treated with dignity and would be taken care of and continue to participate in community life.
In my ideal world there would be traditions, festivals, and games that everyone looked forward to as occasions of joy and conviviality. There would be sacred traditions and rituals that united the entire community in a meaning framework that gave their work and their life together purpose. In my ideal world there would be beauty and learning and music. There would be artists, and scholars, and mystics. There would be a never-ending quest to explore the depths of things and to understand their connections. There would be clever people always finding a better way of doing something, and their motivation would not be personal profit but the joy of invention and the longing to make life better for everyone.
But that's not the world we live in or really can be more than a fantasy world. Instead we live in a world that has lost any sense of human scale. We live in a world that is driven by giant corporate agendas and giant government bureaucracies in which the individual counts for almost nothing. We live in a world where wealth has become the primary measure of one's personal worth, where excessive wealth is perceived to be the highest obtainable good, and where money drives politics and the political process. We're living in a world where most people feel that for all their purported freedom of choice, they have little real control over their lives. We're living in a world in which the pressures to break apart traditional communities and families are enormous and in so many cases insuperable. We're living in a fragmented social world where there are only cliche culture-wide rituals that celebrate zombie traditions that we settle for because nothing better is available. We live in a world where more and more people are feeling anxious and confused and find the only solution is to medicate themselves legally or illegally to be able to cope. We live in a world in which art is all about what's trendy and at best is clever. Where new music is either on the one hand so abstract as to be incomprehensible or on the other nauseously crude or insipidly trite.
How did we get here? Tomorrow, if I have the time, I want to talk about the irony of how the Jeffersonian model lost out to the Hamiltonian model. Ironic, at least for people like me whose ideals are more Jeffersonian than Hamiltonian, and yet who stand against what Jefferson Davis, the Jeffersonian stood for, and admired what Lincoln, the Hamiltonian, stood for. For ultimately while we think of the Civil War as the righteous war to liberate the slaves, it was really the war in which Hamilton defeated Jefferson and inaugurated the era of the huge centralized industrial state. And that more than anything is the enemy of my ideal world.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Brown-Shirting of American Conservatism. It's not Noam Chomski's phrase but that of a conservative former Wall Street Journal editor writing in The American Conservative Magazine. Many traditional Conservatives, as contrasted with Neoconservatives, have opposed the war in Iraq and are consistent in their concern for preserving American liberty and rights by restraining the power of the centralized state. Scott McConnell, the editor of The American Conservative, elaborates:
Students of history inevitably think in terms of periods: the New Deal, McCarthyism, “the Sixties” (1964-1973), the NEP, the purge trials—all have their dates. Weimar, whose cultural excesses made effective propaganda for the Nazis, now seems like the antechamber to Nazism, though surely no Weimar figures perceived their time that way as they were living it. We may pretend to know what lies ahead, feigning certainty to score polemical points, but we never do.
Nonetheless, there are foreshadowings well worth noting. The last weeks of 2004 saw several explicit warnings from the antiwar Right about the coming of an American fascism. Paul Craig Roberts in these pages wrote of the “brownshirting” of American conservatism—a word that might not have surprised had it come from Michael Moore or Michael Lerner. But from a Hoover Institution senior fellow, former assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, and one-time Wall Street Journal editor, it was striking.
Several weeks later, Justin Raimondo, editor of the popular Antiwar.com website, wrote a column headlined, “Today’s Conservatives are Fascists.” Pointing to the justification of torture by conservative legal theorists, widespread support for a militaristic foreign policy, and a retrospective backing of Japanese internment during World War II, Raimondo raised the prospect of “fascism with a democratic face.” His fellow libertarian, Mises Institute president Lew Rockwell, wrote a year-end piece called “The Reality of Red State Fascism,” which claimed that “the most significant socio-political shift in our time has gone almost completely unremarked, and even unnoticed. It is the dramatic shift of the red-state bourgeoisie from leave-us-alone libertarianism, manifested in the Congressional elections of 1994, to almost totalitarian statist nationalism. Whereas the conservative middle class once cheered the circumscribing of the federal government, it now celebrates power and adores the central state, particularly its military wing.” Read More.
I don't want to believe that the country is trending toward fascism. I still have hope that there's enough ballast in the national character to prevent that. But it's not unthinkable, and it's clearly something that we have to be vigilant about. I respect principled conservatives like McConnell, but the power conservatism of the Neocons and Theocons is not principled conservatism; it's something else, and it feeds off proto or latent fascism. And it is disturbing.
What at first was a small tropical disturbance can gain strength to become a hurricane. Most storms don't become hurricanes, but some do, and when they come, there's not much you can do except deal with them and try to minimize the damage. I see what's going on among the extremists on the American right as like a small tropical disturbance. As hurricanes feed on warm, moist air, this disturbance feeds on fear and resentment. It's raining now and the winds are brisk. But if conditions change in such a way that the fear intensifies, so does it become more likely that the small storm can become a big one.
In the long run hurricanes peter out, and things return to normal, but they wreak havoc before they do. I'd rather not have to go through that if it can be avoided.
Read the rest of the McConnell article. Also check out my earlier post on The End of History.
Friday, February 11, 2005
Everybody Loves a Winner (Not). If the U.S. government continues to pursue policies based on the assumption that its power legitimates its doing whatever it wants, there will be significant repercussions in the long term. We seek greater levels of power and prestige in the world political arena and mistakenly think that with it will come greater levels of peace and security, but the opposite is more likely. If you’re the fastest gun in the West, most ordinary people fear you, but there is always some punk looking to knock you off. And if we continue in the arrogance we have shown to our allies, we shouldn't’t be surprised if one day we find that they conspire to ambush us. Julius Caesar was the most powerful man in the world the day he died at the hands of those he thought were his friends.
Americans can find ways to justify what their government has done in Iraq. There are always good reasons for doing the wrong thing. The Middle East is a mess. It is profoundly conflicted about how to maintain its traditions and culture in a rapidly globalizing world. But American impatience about what appears to them to be the Arab world’s inability to solve its own problems is just going to prolong their making a workable adjustment. This is messy, painful process, but every nation has to find its own way. The U.S. cannot write the script.
The U.S. simply needs to be more imaginative in finding a way to use its power and prestige so that it earns the world’s respect and not its fear. And for that we're going to have to wait at least another four years even to make the attempt. Right now our government looks with contempt on the international system, which it sees as a messy, weak, ineffective nuisance. But there will come a day, perhaps for our children’s children, when Americans will wish that their grandparents worked harder to make it strong. We are powerful enough now to stand alone without the protection of law, but we will not always be. If we refuse to submit to the rule of international law now, why should we expect the great powers of the future to do so?
You live by the sword, you die by the sword. The U.S. is playing a raw power game now on its most primitive terms and it doesn't’t have to. In order to earn world respect and to mollify the world's quite understandable fears, the U.S. needs to show the world that it is willing to live in accordance with international law. Americans are so preoccupied with their own fears that they have no idea about how much fear American policies are causing in others. Right now the U.S. is understandably perceived by much of the rest of the world as a renegade state, and right now there are many around the world who have good reason to think that U.S. aggression is a greater long-term threat to world peace and order than the short-term threat of a relatively small group of Muslim terrorists.
Everybody likes a winner—every one except the losers. The U.S. is pursuing an international policy that is making more and more people feel like losers. And what goes around comes around.
Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Loss of Place. I've been reading about Ray Oldenburg's 1991 book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Got You through the Day. It's a book that chronicles the loss of our public life as these institutions have evaporated from the American landscape. He talks about the importance of a "third place", a place that is neither home nor work where you can gather not just with the likeminded, but with a broader cross-section of people with whom you enter into conversation. A place where you learn give and take in a public forum, a place where one can display one's wit or opinion and have it challenged and discussed by competing wits and opinions.
He talks about how these third-place institutions are essential for a thriving democracy and of how their loss has put too much pressure on marriage and the family which cannot and should not bear the full weight of any one individual's social framework. It's bears some similarities to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone thesis, but Bowling Alone was more about chosen communities, not given communities, and there is a big difference--the older chosen communities are just being replaced by new ones. The given communities are lost forever.
I don't know about where you live, but there is no place in my life that functions as a third place. I've had temporary ones that are connected to book groups or to my son's school or sports, but they pretty much evaporate as soon as that context is no longer there. I've maintained connections with individuals, but that's not the point.
The point is to have a "third place." In Seattle, there is a place called Third Place Books which was inspired by Oldenburg's ideas, but while I don't fault them for trying, I don't think you can manufacture third places. It can't work if people don't know how to use it--or have the time to. You need a functioning neighborhood to have a neighborhood third place that works in a really satisfying way, and neighborhoods are what we no longer seem to have. So much in the American lifestyle militates against them these days. I'm sure there are some real neighborhoods out there, and maybe some of you are lucky enough to live in one. But except where the old ethnic communities still linger, they're more the exception than the rule.
We've gotten out of the habit of being neighbors, and so we don't know how to do it any more. Somebody in my old neighborhood organizes a block party every year. Most people don't come, and the few that do, it's pretty much the only time you see them. You chat awkwardly for awhile, move on to chat with someone else, and quite frankly it's boring. It's a duty rather than a pleasure. And it's not a pleasure because there's no lively sense of connection between the people. There's no sense of belonging to something bigger. There's no shared continuum that provides a context for easy conviviality. There's no shared experience, nothing that serves as common ground to cultivate and grow something except for the fact that we all happen to live on the same block. and nothing happens on our block.
This goes back to what I was saying last week about the difference between 'given' and 'chosen'. It also goes back to what I was saying about living tradition and zombie traditionalism. Neighborhoods are no longer for most of us 'given' forms of community, and they are no longer carriers of tradition. Neighborhoods no longer have a memory.
I went back to the place where my family lived for over twenty years and where the seven kids in my family grew up, lived, and played. One family was still there whom I knew when I was growing up. I moved away, and so did almost everyone else. But who was there to hold the memories of our growing up in that place? It was as if we were never there. And I bet most people reading this today would have the same experience if they were to return to the neighborhood in which they grew up.
My parents left our Long Island home in 1984 around the time I came to Seattle, and they went first to Savannah, GA, and then recently moved again to Charlotte, NC. They had their reasons for doing so, as do we all. But none of us can complain about no longer having neighborhoods or communities because, when push comes to shove, we really don't care about them. We want to do what we want to do, and that means participating in groups on our terms, or not participating at all.
If we have communities they are communities we have chosen, and the ones we chose are the ones we connect with because of some common interest. And as soon as we're no longer interested, we drop out. Sometimes deeper bonds can form within these communities of interest, but once you drop out, you're out. That's the whole point of chosen communities--you choose to join them and you choose to leave them. That's not possible in 'given' communities, and that's why we have allowed them to be destroyed. We don't want to be restricted by anything that we can't opt out of once we get sick of it.
Sunday, February 6, 2005
The System. Has it ever struck you that in the stereotyped imaginations that the left has of the right and the right of the left that both see the other as enemies of freedom? The left tends to see the right as "almost" fascists who are bent on establishing as much control as they can over individuals lives in the name of security. The right looks at the left as the "almost" communist purveyors of big-government programs that keep its citizens in a state of childlike dependence on paternalist government programs. Both see the other as proponents of government as "Big Daddy," that in their different ways is out to destroy the American citizen's personal freedom.
Maybe they're both right. Maybe both the left and the right are looking at the same elephant; it's just that one's looking at the tail and the other at the trunk, and both are failing to see the beast whole. Maybe the one side is so interested in seeing how the other is so wrong, that it fails to see how its own worldview has exactly the problems its political opponents are able to see, but which it is blind to.
What we all hate, whether we are left, right or center, is the growing loss of control over our lives. Hardly any of us is pleased with the way things are going. Hardly any of us thinks that we have any real power to make the system work for what's in the best interest of the majority of America's citizens. Cultural conservatives thought they had a president sympathetic to their concerns in Ronald Reagan, and yet after eight years they were sorely disappointed at how little of their agenda was acted upon. They now have a similarly sympathetic figure in George Bush, and they will be similarly disappointed.
The system is indifferent to what the cultural right wants or what the cultural left wants.The system has its own internal logic, and if the interests of the either the left or the right coincides with the interests of the system, the rhetoric of the right or the left is adopted to promote it. The system gives us citizens the illusion of control by allowing us to vote from time to time, but the system would never allow a candidate to emerge who had any real chance of threatening its fundamental interests.
By the system I do not mean that there is a secret room somewhere in which a few powerbrokers make all the decisions about what happens or does not happen in American life. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I think of the System as more of a transpersonal creation or projection of the will to power. It's basically the same transpersonal phenomenon that organizes status and power hierarchies in middle school or high school; it's just that the scale and the resources available to the social bullies on that level are so much smaller than they are for adults, and the bullying that adults do is much more sophisticated.
It's as though middle school and high school are where our instinct for power blossoms and where we learn how to play its game, and those who are most successful at it are the ones who tend to rise in media, political, academic, and corporate hierarchies. They are the ones who are least free, because they know the System will spit them out as soon as they show the least sign of going against its program.You don't rise in the System unless you show a talent for playing by the rules, mostly unwritten, that define how the system works. It's something natural to us to learn them--we do it unconsciously-- but as with all talents some of us have more to work with than others. Some people rise more quickly and some rise not at all.
And some, usually people with some level of spiritual sensibility, see the system for what it is and have refused to participate in it. Some were the Old Testament prophets from Jeremiah to John the Baptist who railed against the System as it was in place in their day. The early Desert Fathers refused to participate by leaving the System and going out into the Egyptian wilderness. The monastic tradition that followed was essentially driven by the same impulse. They believed that the System was unredeemable and that the only path to personal redemption was to get out of the System by establishing self-sufficient communities that lay outside of it.
But such experiments are only partially successful because the will to power is never something you leave completely behind. And the monasteries became infected with it in their social organization as much as any other part of society. Some more than others. Not always and everywhere. No one is immune. But there was enough success from time to time to prove that it was a possibility. Are such possibilities behind us forever? Is it possible for people to confront the will to power in themselves and transform it into a will for something else? What would that something else be? Is it necessary to leave the System, or can the System itself be transformed?
Wednesday, February 2, 2005
America the Isolated. American arrogance has angered almost everybody in the world. Should we care? We should because we will find ourselves left out of the party except where we force our way in. Nobody likes a belligerent party crasher. Here's Michael Lind's take.
A decade ago, American triumphalists mocked those who argued that the world was becoming multipolar rather than unipolar. Where was the evidence of balancing against the US? they asked. Today the evidence of foreign cooperation to reduce American primacy is everywhere - from the increasing importance of regional trade blocs that exclude the US to international space projects and military exercises in which the US is conspicuous by its absence.
It is true that the US remains the only country capable of projecting military power throughout the world. But unipolarity in the military sphere, narrowly defined, is not preventing the rapid development of multipolarity in the geopolitical and economic arenas - far from it. And the other great powers, with the exception of the UK, are content to let the US waste blood and treasure on its doomed attempt at hegemony in the Middle East.
That the rest of the world is building institutions and alliances that shut out the US should come as no surprise. The view that American leaders can be trusted to use a monopoly of military and economic power for the good of humanity has never been widely shared outside the US. The trend toward multipolarity has probably been accelerated by the truculent unilateralism of the Bush administration, whose motto seems to be that of the Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn: "Include me out." In recent memory, nothing could be done without the US. But today, most international institution-building of any long-term importance in global diplomacy and trade occurs without American participation.
In 1998 Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, said of the US: "We are the indispensable nation." By backfiring, the unilateralism of Mr Bush has proved her wrong. The US, it turns out, is a dispensable nation. Europe, China, Russia, Latin America and other regions and nations are quietly taking measures whose effect, if not sole purpose, will be to cut America down to size.
Ironically, the US, having won the cold war, is adopting the strategy that led the Soviet Union to lose it: hoping that raw military power will be sufficient to intimidate other great powers alienated by its belligerence. To compound the irony, these other great powers are drafting the blueprints for new international institutions and alliances. That is what the US did during and after the second world war.
But that was a different America, led by wise and constructive statesmen such as Dean Acheson, the secretary of state who wrote of being "present at the creation". The bullying approach of the Bush administration has ensured that the US will not be invited to take part in designing the international architecture of Europe and Asia in the 21st century. This time, the US is absent at the creation.