Friday, June 25, 2010

Cynical But Necessary

     Crediting the United States with "a great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy.  It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis.  To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. foreign policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.--Andrew J. Bacevich (The Limits of Power, pp.19-20)

Winston Churchill, the iconic face of the European allies in the Second World War, once quipped that "history is written by the victors."  He expressed his personal self-awareness of this truism even more specifically: "history will be kind to me for I intend to write it."  It sometimes takes a cynic to see through such hubris, and this is why cynical observation can be a key component in the necessary correctives to the facile proclamations of our politicians in Washington DC.

It is true that cynicism often goes too far and spoils honest observations about noble human action in history.  However, since it is the victors who write that history--including political victors--we must be grateful to the cynics for calling people back to reality.  Set in the context of modern presidential hubris--where appeals to liberty are assumed to be the unquestioned and self-evident trait of high moral character and purpose--the cynic, for all her/his skeptical and nasty assumptions about human nature, helps humans to step back and embrace Porgy's maxim: "it ain't necessarily so..."

Andrew Bacevich demurs from this positive view of cynicism in The Limits of Power, and then proceeds to play the role of the cynic in reviewing the history of American expansionist foreign policy all the way back to Jefferson.  Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase bestowed upon the young republic a vast treasure trove of land and natural resources.  Too bad about the genocidal relocation--or even elimination--of the indigenous native populations.  James Polk's acquisition of California from Mexico gave new life to the republic's economic engine.  Unfortunately, the US acquisition of California was the result of an aggressive war of conquest against our southern neighbor.  Teddy Roosevelt's Panama Canal assured the country's economic preeminence in our hemisphere.  Too bad this was achieved through the orchestration of an "outrageous swindle" (Bacevich, p. 20).  Woodrow Wilson's "making the world safe for democracy" helped end the bloodbath in Europe and shored up our relations with England.  Though he could not have foreseen it--and didn't support it after the fact--Wilson's military hubris helped make the draconian economic oppression of Germany by the provisions of the Versailles Treaty possible. FDR partnered with Stalin to destroy Nazism, and assured the US a pivotal economic role in global affairs.  Unfortunately, that devil's pact also resulted in the oppressive domination of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, and created an unmitigated global mess for the US to manage with blood and treasure.  Nixon astutely clasped hands with Mao Zedung to open up economic opportunity for the US in China and vice versa and hem in the Soviets at the same time (which factored into the latter's ultimate demise).  Too bad it also strengthened Mao's murderous decimation of human rights for millions of Chinese subjects. We could enumerate much the same for St. Ronald, Bush 41, Clinton,  and W.  For those still predisposed to think the current president motivated by goodwill, high ideals, and making a positive difference for others, history will probably pass much the same judgment upon president Obama as upon his predecessors.

The cynic reminds us that all of the events and leaders above were important factors in the promotion of unprecedented American economic prosperity from very early on in the nation's history.  They then turn around and remind us that often that prosperity came about at the expense of others.  While we enjoy notions of providential uniqueness, the shining city upon the hill, the manifest destiny of hemispheric dominance, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the cynic stubbornly jabs us with the reality of death, bondage, and despair for those who were (and are) sometimes on the receiving end of our imperial benevolence and ambitions.

While I do not wish to overstate the value of cynical political commentary, especially because it is often fatal to the goodwill necessary for citizens to be tolerant of each other, Without the cynic, the rose-colored glasses of patriotic nationalism and utopian fervor would quickly envelop the populace, embolden politicians, and loosen the restraints that reality places upon both.  Cynicism, for all its sacred-cow skewering, at least reflects a realistic understanding of human nature as it is, not as our politicians and therapy gurus tell us it is.   My religious tradition tells me that humans suffer from original sin, and that condition motivates and energizes the human tendency to place self before others.  Cynicism tacitly assumes such a notion in its skeptical derision of the self-proclaimed benevolent actions and policies trumpeted by our politicians and legions of political action committees.  No politician--or political group--should be above the cynic's skeptical scrutiny, even though he were honest Abe himself.  And there is this caveat as well: the cynic is not above partisanship, and so healthy political discourse requires the participation of cynics to scrutinize the cynics.  The healthiest criticism often emerges from within.

Finally, our nation is in desperate need of serious moral analysis (see the Bacevich header).  This cannot be accomplished without an honest examination of the darker side of human motive, even the motives of those who take it upon themselves to "stand up for God, country, and family."  It is this understanding and acknowledgment of human darkness that makes those moments when the "better angels" of human behavior emerge seem so remarkable and desirable.  When the likes of Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, King, Teresa of Calcutta, and Romero come along, jaws drop, heads shake, and we wonder why there aren't more of them around. Most of us would think the world a better place if only everyone would share and prefer the needs of others over and above themselves.  Sign me up.  Until that time, the cynic will play a necessary, if unwelcome role, in reminding humans of their collective tendency to engage in actions that promote their own self-interests, usually at the expense of others.   God help us when such self-enhancement is enshrined in law.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Precipitous Imperial Collapse

The collapse of empires in history is rapid, precipitous, and unpredictably predictable.  So says Niall Ferguson in an essay in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs.  Ferguson, the eminent Oxford/Harvard historian, takes on the conventional perspective of imperial-collapse-as-long-term-decay and argues for a historical view that attempts to pinpoint specific crises that function as tipping points for the sudden dissolution of empires.  His is no abstract, insular, ivory-tower theory.  Rather, it is a substantive attempt to alert the United States of its peril as an imperial power, ripe for such a capricious tipping point of its own.

Feguson's foil is the famous pentaptych The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole; five paintings that capture the long-term-decay historical view of empires, which now hangs in the New-York Historical Society. Cole's working assumption was that just as the rise of an empire is typically slow, so is its fall.  Ferguson cites Gibbon's history of Rome as the quintessential perspective of this cyclic view of empire, but also mentions the Ming dynasty, the Bourbon monarchy of France, the Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov empires, as well as the British empire, and even the Soviet empire as all subject to the traditional view of long-term decay.

Ferguson's Porgy challenges historians' Bess with a resounding "it ain't necessarily so."  In each of Ferguson's examples, specific and unpredictable crises precipitates a rapid decline, even collapse, and they seem to have at least one point in common: "All of the above cases were marked by sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, as well as difficulties with financing public debt." (Foreign Affairs, p. 30)  The specific trigger of collapse in each case was unforeseen, unpredictable, and when fired, unstoppable.  But the fiscal conditions in place in each assured that once the crisis hit, rapid collapse was inevitable.

Ferguson is a watchman on the wall for the United States empire (only the rose-colored blinders on the collective eyes of populist patriotic nationalism prevent acknowledgment of the existence of the US imperium).  The numbers are ominous: a deficit of 1.4 trillion dollars in 2009 (11.2 percent of GDP), a public debt of $5.8 trillion in 2008 which will double--and then some- to $14.3 trillion in 2019, and interest payments on that debt will also more than double from 8 percent to 17 percent of federal revenues.  It is not the numbers themselves that may be the trigger, but the expectations those numbers raise for future power.  To date, the global community believes the US can weather these numbers and maintain its unitary global hegemony (of course, not all in the community think that hegemony is a good thing).  But at some point, according to Ferguson, a random bit of bad news in the headlines could spell a sudden shift in confidence and precipitate a collapse.  The rapid sub-prime mortgage downward spiral in 2008 is harbinger of the potential for this.

Andrew Bacevich concurs in The Limits of Power.  These hard numbers, future expectations, and the highly-leveraged nature of US internal public obligations, combined with its over-reached, militarized foreign-policy commitments, have the country's adversaries patiently awaiting their main goal: the forced contraction of the US empire through fiscal necessity, or its collapse due to our country's refusal to set its own house in order.  They astutely believe that time is on their side.  And that time--if Ferguson is right--may come sooner than later.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Importance of Speaking Truth to Power

If my readers believe I am a bit too obsessive about the writings and reflections of Andrew Bacevich, they might be right.  But sometimes God, providence, or fate calls a person to a unique place, to speak truth to power when few are listening.  Jeremiah wept as he spoke truth to ancient Israel, and few listened.  Dr. Bacevich, the wounds of losing his son in Iraq freshly remembered this past Memorial Day, speaks through pain to ask questions which confront our rulers with truth, and with profound and disturbing clarity.  In addition to his meditation on the meaning of Memorial Day--see my earlier post--he speaks eloquently and with respect about the meaning of the POW/MIA flags displayed in the town center square where he resides.  He also willingly shared personal reflections about his own Memorial Day observance with the listeners of NPR.

I often wonder if anyone is willing to consider Dr. Bacevich's questions?