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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Our Opinion

The Twilight of Empire


The Lord Jesus Christ is going to come on time, if we just wait.
—Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, quoted in The New York Times, September 5
I’m 84 years old. I've been around a long time, but I’ve never seen anything like this.
—David Herbert Donald, Charles Warren Professor of American History emeritus, Harvard University, and native Mississippian, on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, quoted in The New York Times, September 3

None of us have. What is truly painful, however, is the thought that, as the coming years fall on one another like the massing rockpile of a chain gang, we will all still have so much to bear witness to that we never thought we’d ever live to see.

America is ending. That much is obvious. What is not (yet) apparent is what exactly will replace it, or how. But the America all of us above a certain age were born into and grew up in is clearly over. Finished. The problem is that while it is now plainly moribund, it is not yet completely dead, which means, above all, that the road from here to there, from manifest degradation to final expiry, might still be long and, worst of all, littered with countless corpses.

Just as they are never built in a day, empires never collapse in one. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, all that was essentially left of the Byzantines was their capital. For hundreds of years before that fateful Tuesday of May 29, the Byzantine imperium had been shrinking continually, while its “authority” had increasingly degenerated into elaborate court theatricals as it ceased to reflect any genuine worldly power. Five hundred years later, in 1945, Winston Churchill still believed—how could he not, intractable reactionary that he was—that he was fighting the Second World War to “save” the British empire (and only secondarily “against” fascism). Unfortunately, it was clear to nearly everyone else, from Roosevelt to Stalin to most Britons themselves—who voted Churchill out of office later that year—that the sun had set on imperial Britain over a quarter of a century earlier, at the end of the previous global conflict, when Woodrow Wilson messianically (albeit with crystalline political vision) arrogated the leadership of the world to himself and, more to the point, his country.

It’s impossible not to observe in the two examples above that, along with every other aspect of material production and cultural evolution, modernity has vastly accelerated the processes of imperial decline. What was China even a generation ago, and what is it now—and what will it be a generation hence? Who could have imagined, even a decade (let alone a generation) ago, the kinds of images daily broadcast on the world’s television screens from (what was once) New Orleans? In our attempt to reflect on the devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina, we have been left, as so many times before in the last few years, not merely speechless but morally stunned, as if history is no longer a wellspring of hope but of panic.

What is there left to say, in any case, that all of us don’t already know—don’t already feel, in the pits of our stomachs. Anyone who’s ever been by the bedside of a dying parent recognizes that sinking feeling: the beginning of the end. Categorical, inexorable, merciless. We can ape the American media in their now truly pathological emptyheadedness and blather on about “healing” and “coming together” and “facing the future as one people,” or we can be honest, with ourselves above all and—if we still have any touch of belief left in the more fundamental truth of community—with each other. For the facts are not what media tell us they are, and certainly not the utterly misshapen fabrications of the current US government—if one can use such a term to describe the most pernicious maladministration of the country in anyone’s memory. No, the truth is different—very different—and in stark opposition to the aggressive know-nothingism that has now effectively become the suicidal form of the bipartisan American consensus. And what is that truth? Simply that, the barren triumphalism since 1989 notwithstanding, history is not at an end, but has only just gotten its second breath, and it is about to overwhelm the United States of America.

***

In a couple of days we will commemorate, once again, the attacks on September 11, 2001. It has now been four years, the tenure of a presidential administration, since that truly black day that sealed the fate of the United States. But what do we see when we scan this deeply insecure homeland’s borders, from sea to shining sea, and then move on to the rest of a world that is increasingly horrified by what it finally understands to be the dreadful, and steady, dissolution of the “indispensable nation”?

In America, obviously and first of all, we see New Orleans, a city of less than half a million people in the richest, most powerful society in the history of human history that could neither be safely protected nor safely evacuated from a storm—from a natural occurrence of weather—although it had almost a week’s warning to do so in an age of instantaneous communication and almost equally instantaneous transport. We also see, days later, as reported by Dan Barry in the New York Times (“Macabre Reminder: The Corpse on Union Street,” September 8), a body lying in the street of the city’s central business district, a few feet away from an ATM, with a soldier—sent ostensibly to shield and succor the living and honor the integrity of the dead—taking “a parting snapshot” of the corpse, “like some visiting conventioneer.” Barry continues:

On Sunday…several soldiers on Jefferson Highway had guns aimed at the heads of several prostrate men suspected of breaking into an electronics store.
A car pulled right up to this tense scene and the driver leaned out his window to ask a soldier a question: “Hey, how do you get to the interstate?”
…Maybe the concerns of the living far outweigh the dignity of a corpse on Union Street. Or maybe the nation is numb with post-traumatic shock.

Or maybe the nation has just become indecent. It happens to nations, sadly, invariably when they are allowed to fall into the hands of indecent leaders. From Germany (and half of Europe) in the Thirties, to the Soviet Union after Stalin’s rise, to most of Latin America (aided and abetted by the US) in the Seventies and Eighties, to Israel today (again aided and abetted by the US), indecent governments lead to indecent societies (and, of course, although it is not politically correct to say so, especially about democracies, vice versa). That is what we mean when we say that a society is “hardening.” We’ve all seen it. The French hardened during Algeria’s independence struggle; Tony Blair is hardening now, after July 7. Israelis have been hardening without interruption since 1967. We call it “hardening” because we’re afraid to say what we know it really is: coarsening, regressing, desocializing and de-democratizing, seeking fearful refuge in the primitive sanctuary of a Hobbesian redefinition of our lives. How do you get to the interstate? Just turn right, and follow the Humvees.

Those of us born into another time and polity in America have, however, gone from a constitutional swamp into a geographical morass. We don’t even recognize our country any longer: Are the pictures we see televised every day really coming from where we grew up? But they look like Haiti, or Somalia, or Rwanda. How can this be? How did it happen? When did it happen? Who’s responsible?

But that last question is the one we’re no longer allowed to ask. As “unity” is the last refuge of the wretched, please—please!—no “blame game” here. That’s what we call responsibility now in morally lobotomized America: the blame game. Never mind that a democratic government is by definition accountable for everything that occurs during its administration (from the Latin, “administrare,” to manage); never mind that the constitution of the United States fully anticipates, and endorses, “blame,” which it calls impeachment; never mind that Herbert Hoover was blamed for the Great Depression, LBJ for Vietnam, Jimmy Carter for the American hostages in Iran. Never mind that Harry Truman famously defined the Oval Office as the terminal of buckstopping or that Richard Nixon was so thoroughly blamed for what happened during his presidency that he was forced to resign it. No, the strangely ungoverning—degoverning—government of George W. Bush will not accept any blame, nor give any explanations, nor be held as a hostage to the fortune of its fellow citizens.

And its fellow citizens concur, and validate, and ratify. From September 11, 2001, to September 11, 2005, George W. Bush has proven that he is the master of abandonment (and disorientation). As the only president of the United States to go AWOL while doing his military service, he has also become the commander-in-chief of dereliction of duty. And yet, his fellow citizens approve, and apparently would not have it otherwise. When American GIs allowed Baghdad to be looted of its cultural and historical presence, the world wondered what had gone wrong. We now see an American president sitting idly by, in an indifference verging on psychosis, as one of the most culturally profound, and vital and irreplaceable, cities of America is devastated. But that’s what happens when a society slowly descends into barbarism. It is only a matter of time before the “other” becomes its own (albeit former) self.

Meanwhile, South Korea has pledged $30 million, Afghanistan a million, and even tsunami-recovering Sri Lanka $25,000 in aid to the nation that used to provide aid to South Korea, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. For their part, Europeans have agreed to draw on their own oil reserves to “help” Americans get through their oil “shortfall”—although Americans, with their artificially low prices and criminal consumption, are singularly responsible, not only for their own shortfall but for the global energy crisis in general. As for Iraq, over 1,800 US military, 91 civilian contractors, and—an irrelevant point to most Americans—at least 25,000 (and probably vastly more) Iraqi civilians have been killed in “liberating” the country, at a cost to date of $204 billion, and climbing, billion by billion, every day, with no end in sight. Moreover, as each week passes, Iraq seems closer, not to self-government and legitimate independence, but to multiple, and permanent, fracture.

Finally, at “Ground Zero,” in Manhattan, work continues apace on the “Freedom Tower,” which, at this point, is not so much a replacement for the World Trade Center—let alone a memorial to the human beings killed there—as a testament to…itself and, mostly, to the regime of lies and complicity that has made it possible. But Americans are a patient people. And, like their secretary of state, they know that the Lord Jesus Christ is going to come, if they will only wait.

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