State of the Union,

Empire Falls

excerpted from the book

Dark Ages America

The Final Phase of Empire

by Morris Berman

WW Norton, 2006, paper


State of the Union

H. L. Mencken, "Bayard vs. Lionheart," Baltimore Evening Sun, 26 July 1920

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

As Fareed Zakaria notes, the sacred cow in the United States is the American people, to which politicians have to pay ritual homage if they value their careers. No matter how manifestly stupid the people's behavior is, American politicians praise their sagacity. Uttering the phrase, "the American people," says Zakaria, is tantamount to announcing a divine visitation; anything has the force of biblical revelation if it is ascribed to this mystical, all-knowing entity. Yet what if "the American people" are, in the words of Nicholas von Hoffman, a collection of "asses, dolts, and blockheads"? Americans, says Hoffman, are living in a glass dome, a kind of terrarium, cut off from both reality and the outside world-"bobbleheads in Bubbleland They shop in bubbled malls, they live in gated communities, and they move from place to place breathing their own, private air in the bubble-mobiles known as SUVs." They unquestioningly take their "truth" from the government, whereas in other countries grown-ups know there is no truth teat to suck on, and if you want it you have to go dig up the information for yourself. If, for example, Americans had wanted to know the truth about our record in the Middle East, there was enough reliable literature on the subject for them to do so. But they have no interest in these sorts of things; instead von Hoffman continues, they are taken up with more important things than war and peace, like pro football and self improvement." The only way out of this destructive American insularity is for "the masses of moron manipulatees to demoronize themselves."

sociologist Philip Slater

"The people are not 'innocent of their rulers' military expeditions."

... in the nations of the developed world, one can have fundamental disagreements with the government or even the dominant value system and it is perfectly all right: one won't be attacked as "un-Italian" or "un-Danish," let say. But America is quite different in this respect: one is immediately branded as being "un-American" if one breaks with the pack, which includes voicing any fundamental criticism at all. This relates to our discussion of America civil religion, wherein the United States and its history are effectively elevated to divine status. The American Dream - basically, shopping, radical individualism, and the "religion" of America (including its God-given mission to democratize the rest of the world - is so fiercely held that it can rightly be characterized as an addiction Hence, the rage that emerges when it is challenged, even slightly.

As sociologist Sharon Zukin notes, "The seduction of shopping is not about buying goods. It about dreaming of a perfect society and a perfect self." We are looking, she says, "for truth with a capital T... In a society where we no longer have contact with nature or beauty in our daily lives, shopping is one of the few ways we have left to create a sense of ultimate value. 'We are", she concludes, "searching for our dreams;' and seek to fulfill them in stores.

... 70 percent of American adults cannot name their senators or congressmen; more than half don't know the actual number of senators, and nearly a quarter cannot name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Sixty-three percent cannot name the three branches of government. Other studies reveal that uninformed or undecided voters often vote for the candidate whose name and packaging (e.g., logo) are the most powerful; color is apparently a major factor in their decision. Only 21 percent of college-age Americans today read a daily newspaper, as compared with 46 percent in 1972. A 2002 study of college students in California found that most freshmen were not able to analyze arguments, synthesize information, or write papers that were free of major language errors. Over the past twenty years, the fraction of Americans age eighteen to twenty-four engaged in literary reading dropped 28 percent, and in general nonreaders now constitute more than half of the American population.

George W. Bush, writes Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, "is a representative figure, who embodies, at this peculiar and scary moment in our history; aspects of the American state of mind and heart that cannot be dismissed as merely his own idiosyncrasies." Several decades ago, playwright Arthur Miller remarked that "Richard Nixon's character is our history," which was true when he said it. Now it is Bush who holds that particular distinction, and it will remain true long after his presidency is over. If the man wound up in the White House by accident or theft in 2000, the same cannot be said of him in 2004. The basic perception of Americans from the outside is that we are children, adolescents at best, and Bush is just such a person. He is an alcoholic who never actually did the spiritual work that Alcoholics Anonymous asks of its members, and as a result no emotional growth ever took place. Switching from alcohol to religion, Bush remains essentially an adolescent, what AA refers to as a "dry drunk." His excitement over being able to wield power, to kill people, as a substitute for dealing with his considerable "inner demons" is quite palpable. Philosopher Peter Singer has mapped his simplistic, Manichaean worldview; psychiatrist Justin Frank shows how early damage left the man-boy unable to empathize, to feel the pain of other human beings. Indeed, says Frank, it left him with a "lifelong streak of sadism," and Christian fundamentalist sadism at that. But the real horror is that the majority of Americans do not see through this, and so mistake what is actually massive dysfunction and insecurity, including emptiness, alienation, violence, and ignorance-for strength. This man is no historical accident, and future presidents, I suspect, are going to be variations on this theme, which is grounded in a widespread cultural pattern."

It is this, above all, that acts as a brake on any possible recovery for American civilization. The day after the 2004 election, a colleague of mine from Ohio, which was the state that put Bush over the top, said to me, after I remarked that Kerry had clearly won the three debates: "You are missing the point. Most folks in Ohio are pretty basic, not very successful, and not particularly happy with their lives. Believe me, I know; I was born and raised there. When they see Bush getting emotional and stumbling over elementary English words, they identify with him, whereas they find Kerry cool and intelligent, and they experience this as threatening, above their heads. To them, Kerry's wife, who speaks several languages, comes off as un-American, a kind of alien being; and his kids, en route to professional careers, make them feel uncomfortable about their own kids, who are in dead-end jobs and perhaps, like the Bush daughters, getting pulled over for drunk driving. In short, Kerry stirs deep anxieties about their selves, whereas Bush, because he is a bungler, soothes those anxieties, reassures these folks that their failure and antiintellectualism is more 'genuine 'down to earth." Bush also, it seems to me, validates their rigidity, their insistence on having simple answers, and their repressed violence. Finally, he tells them that the American Dream is alive and well, and so keeps their undercurrent of panic at arm's length. In a word, Bush is us-or at least, a whole lot of us-and the scariness of this is not easy to digest. Given a population that embraces the collection of ideas, values, and policies that George W. Bush represents, how can a decline be avoided, or arrested? Where will a sane foreign policy come from, given the fact that neither he, nor the American people, as the Los Angeles journalist john Powers observes, are able to grasp the perfectly obvious bottom line, that "they hate us because we don't even know why they hate us"?

This was the glory of America: to be a land of great promise, a refuge from political tyranny, a place of immense creative energy, and the world locus of political freedom. But the glory had a shadow; a set of structural problems that were present quite early on and that eventually landed us in a very different, and inglorious, place. Those of us who now have different values from the country may have to look elsewhere for hope, quality, humanism, and-possibly-freedom, which is not exactly what we had in mind when we were growing up.

Lord Byron, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage"

There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory-when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption,-barbarism at last.

Alasdair Maclntyre, After Virtue
This time . . . the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing for quite some time.

* We are in a state of advanced cultural disintegration, or what might be termed spiritual death. Given the emptiness, alienation, violence, and ignorance that are now pervasive in this country, it is hard to imagine where a recovery would come from. The self-correction theory is at least partly based on the popular reaction of an informed citizenry. In this regard, the nature of the American populace today is not a source of inspiration or hope.

* As far as civil liberties go, the development and proliferation of extremely sophisticated surveillance technologies changes the picture considerably These compromise the privacy of the individual out of existence, and the technology is clearly here to stay. Once in practice, it is very difficult to pull back from its employment; close governmental and even corporate observation of the citizenry, along with the massive collection of data, has now become the norm. All of this makes repression easy and change difficult-

* We seem to have passed, in significant ways, from a nation of laws to a nation of men. This is the first time in our history, for example, that we rewrote the law to make torture legal, or seriously contemplated canceling a presidential election. Nor has there been any widespread objection on the part of the American people to these developments. Indeed, the dust settled on them fairly quickly; they too just became part of the "natural" political landscape.

* As both Lieven and Stone themselves admit, 9/11 may well have damaged the cyclical or self-correcting pattern for good. After all, the "war on terror" is really a permanent state of war, without a clear objective and without a specific enemy. The risk, says Stone, is that so-called emergency restrictions will become a "permanent fixture of American life." It is also very likely that we shall eventually be attacked again, probably with nuclear weapons-in which case, all bets are off. "Tolerant pluralism" will definitely not be the order of the day.

* Changes in quantity eventually turn into changes in quality. Past cyclical alternations may have finally taken their toll and exhausted our ability to rebound. Democrat friends try to reassure me: "Listen, we recovered from right-wing setbacks in the past." Did we? Repression in World War I, as historian Eric Foner observes, destroyed the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist party, and much of the labor movement.' Personally, I don't believe this country ever really recovered from McCarthyism, which dealt a severe blow to movements for social change, or from Ronald Reagan, whose spirit strongly animates the forces dismantling what's left of the New Deal. We didn't survive Vietnam; we didn't survive the repeal of Bretton Woods. The point is that when you look at the larger picture or the long waves, the short-term cycles seem far less impressive. Thus Arnold Toynbee noted that in the process of decline a civilization may, from time to time, rally for a while; but it is the overall trajectory, the structural properties of the situation, that ultimately determine the outcome.

* Immanuel Wallerstein remarks that Europe and Asia see us as much less important on the international scene, that the dollar is weaker, that nuclear proliferation is probably unstoppable, that the US. military is stretched to the limit, and that our national and trade debts are enormous. Our days of hegemony, and probably even leadership, would thus seem to be over. Can America rebound from all this? It depends, he points out, on how one defines "rebound." A genuine rebound would require an internal assessment of values and social structure, and a reversal of the deep social, economic, and political polarization of the last thirty years.' It would also require changing basic American habits and values, the minute particulars of daily life, and this simply isn't going to happen. Jimmy Carter tried something like this and was booted out of office for his efforts, inasmuch as the American people much prefer fantasy to reality. In addition, large-scale foreign and domestic policy is grounded in these minute particulars, making substantive changes terribly unlikely. So while I agree with Wallerstein that there is no hope without an "internal assessment," I very much doubt that such an assessment will come to pass.

Democrats versus Republicans

Since the late 1940s, the United States has been deliberately engaged in an imperial project, and anyone who would hold the office of the presidency has to be willing to serve that end. All presidents have to promote the national security state, both domestically and in American foreign policy, if they wish to attain and hold on to power. This is why nothing really changed after the end of the Cold War, militarily speaking. Our empire expanded after the USSR collapsed, which would suggest that the move toward empire in the decades after World War II was not the result of any external threat. In the post-Cold War era, President Clinton effectively picked up the imperial thread, but from an economic vantage point. NAFTA got passed; American enterprise would, he insisted, have to start operating on a global scale. On the domestic front, the gulf between rich and poor widened dramatically, as Clinton deregulated telecommunications and finance, cut the capital gains tax, and "reformed" welfare. As Chalmers Johnson notes, the rationales of free trade and open markets were used to disguise our hegemonic power during the 1990s, and to make that power seem benign and "natural." The upshot was that the United States would rule the world, but under camouflage-a kinder, gentler imperialism, if you will. But the bottom line is that it, and it alone, would rule.

All of this makes one wonder about the rage that conservatives had for Clinton, who was in effect carrying out their agenda, but with a lot more panache than they could ever hope to muster. Indeed, in a way similar to FDR, Clinton was the ideal capitalist, smoothing over the rough edges, containing the contradictions as best he could, and generally seeing to it that the basic formula was left intact. The result, writes Alexander Cockburn, was that the Democrats and their associated public interest groups rallied around their leader

and marched into the late 1990s arm in arm along the path sign-posted toward the greatest orgy of corporate theft in the history of the planet, deregulation of banking and food safety, NAFTA and the WTO [World Trade Organization], rates of logging six times those achieved in the subsequent Bush years, oil drilling in the Arctic, a war on Yugoslavia, a vast expansion of the death penalty, reaffirmation of racist drug laws, [and] the foundations of the Patriot Act.


Cockburn could also have added that Clinton saw to it that the cruel and murderous sanctions against Iraq were kept in place, and that in June 2004 he declared his support for the U.S. invasion of that country. Not surprisingly, the objection to the new world order finally materialized in the streets of Seattle in 1999, not from within the ranks of the Democratic party.

Would it have been different if John Kerry were now sitting in the Oval Office? The point is that if you don't act as steward and promoter of the national security state, your chances of occupying the White House are less than zero. Even the preelection "debates" of 2004 made this quite clear. It was not permitted, for example, to analyze the invasion of Iraq in terms of neocon influence, to mention the Project for the New American Century, or to state that the war had been in the pipeline for a number of years. You could talk about Israeli suffering, as john Edwards did; but the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, which is ultimately the source of the suffering, was somehow off limits. It was perfectly fine to say Iraq was a strategic error or that it was "mismanaged," but under no circumstances could you point out that it was an illegal and immoral neocolonial adventure, an intervention in someone else's civil war. And of course, absolutely verboten was the one thing everybody in the world seems to understand but us: that 9/11 was the blowback from an interventionist foreign policy. These were debates with 95 percent of the political reality screened out in advance, There was no anti-empire candidate on the podium (nor will there ever be); so what really was being debated? An imperialist rubric mandates a phony discussion, in which the two candidates energetically duke it out over a soft versus hard version of the same agenda, while a compliant press (ever mindful of their careers) reports on the' contrast" to an ignorant and gullible American public, who thinks it is getting the real McCoy. This is part of the deep structure of our decline: the truth of L-our situation won't fly politically, so perforce it must remain invisible.

It may well be that the real agenda of the Bush administration is to create a kind of soft fascism, a presidential dictatorship or one-party system that presides over a de facto Christian plutocracy, and that has managed to squelch all opposing voices.

... it is not likely that United States will be able to recover from eight years of a fundamentalist boy emperor and a cynical, Dr. Strangelove-like vice president who have successfully persuaded the majority of the American people that up is down; and who, in a country in which an elementary understanding of thesis and proof, evidence and logical argumentation, are no longer part of the culture, have been able to get away with it.

... comparisons between the Bush administration and the Third Reich,(which at first glance seem preposterous, really are). Was it an accident that, in the fall of 2004, Philip Roth published The Plot Against America, a novel about fascism come to America that has eerie echoes with our present situation? Or that the eminent historian Fritz Stern referred to Bush's "mission accomplished" landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 as part of the "Leni Riefenstahi-ization of American politics"? Or that philanthropist and author George Soros could say that the statements of John Ashcroft reminded him of similar ones that he heard coming out of the German propaganda ministry when he was a teenager? The truth is that there are creepy parallels, and they may get creepier. All of the social analyses of the "It can happen here" variety; beginning with Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom (1941), are tied to a critique of popular culture that points to the existence of a large mass of people who are unable to think for themselves, operate out of an emotive basis, confuse entertainment with education, and desperately want to be "filled" from the outside. The ascendancy of fascism might be a lot less inexplicable than we think, and its attraction a lot more plausible in certain contexts than we can imagine at this particular moment. Thus Fromm held that a big part of that attraction was the need for a father figure who acted with conviction-someone who, in uncertain times, was perceived (even if unconsciously) as being able to allay widespread anxiety. And what kind of "father" is George W. Bush? Fritz Stern remarked just prior to November 2004 that "if we re-elect Bush, it would be a judgment on all of us." What does it mean, after all, to have an antiEnlightenment president, and an American majority so easily seduced by faith-driven discourse? Obviously, Roth et a!. (and I) could be accused of paranoia here, but I can't help wondering if America may not be drifting toward an ominous situation, with all of it being "willed by God." 15 The opposite of the Enlightenment, of course, is tribalism and groupthink. More and more, this is the direction in which the United States is going. In the world of groupthink, loyalty is everything; and it was just this kind of tribalism, I believe, that got Bush reelected. Harvard University's Simon Scharna notes that although Kerry won the televised debates, the real victory "was one of body language rather than reasoned discourse." Thus Kerry's charge that the Iraq war had actually made America less, not more safe, and had served to recruit more terrorists to the Al Qaeda cause failed to register with the majority of voters. Why, asks Schama, would that be?

Because, the president had "acted," meaning he had killed at least some Middle Eastern bad dudes in response to 9/11. That they might be the wrong ones, in the wrong place-as Kerry said over and over-was simply too complicated a truth to master. Forget the quiz in political geography, the electorate was saying ... it's all sand and towel-heads anyway, right? Just smash "them ... like a ripe cantaloupe." Who them? Who gives a shit? Just make the testosterone tingle all the way to the polls.

But we would be missing the point if we were to conclude that ignorance or stupidity by themselves kept Bush in the White House. They were crucial to his reelection, to be sure, but tribalism is hardly the prerogative of the ignorant and the stupid. In fact, many intelligent people voted for Bush. It's a question of how one defines "intelligence," or perhaps what kind of intelligence one is referring to. This brings to mind the German expression blut und boden ("blood and soil")-the tribal way of relating to the world. When the limbic system takes over, it's about fear, testosterone, and the logic of "either you're with us or you're against us." In such circumstances, a high IQ counts for nothing. One sees this blut und boden reasoning in the writings of the neocons, for example, with their call for "World War IV" Smart people, but not very far removed from the 29 percent of Americans who believe that Muslims teach their children to hate and are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy "to change the American way of life," There is, in short, more than one way of being dumb. The result that the Enlightenment is now skating on very thin ice.

... from 2001 to 2004 the United States went from a $5 trillion budget surplus to a $4 trillion budget deficit ...

Despite all of our vast military resources and our cutting-edge technologies, they are in large part inadequate for fighting a war-a real one, that is. With our decision to act as world policeman, we have, says Chalmers Johnson, bought into a "domino theory" that leads to an endless number of places and commitments to protect, "resulting inevitably in imperial overstretch, bankruptcy, and popular disaffection, precisely the maladies that plagued Edwardian Britain." Note that since World War II, we have avoided taking on an equal power. Our engagement with the Soviet Union itself was a balancing act involving the (often judicious) use of diplomacy. When we actually attacked, it was at the periphery: Korea (a stalemate); Vietnam (a defeat). Otherwise, the engagement consisted of covert operations against virtually defenseless nations or massive attacks on puny countries or tinpot dictators (Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and so on). In situations that really matter, there is a huge gap between America's military power and its ability to shape events according to its will. "Preponderance," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, "should not be confused with omnipotence." By the summer of 2003 it had become clear that the waging of two small "wars" and the occupation of two weak nations-Afghanistan and Iraq-had strained our manpower to the limit."

Meanwhile, serious rivals have better things to do with their time. New York Times reporter Jane Perlez observes that "China has wasted little time in capitalizing on the U.S. preoccupation with the campaign on terror to greatly expand its influence in Asia." In fact, most Asians regard the American obsession with terrorism as tedious, while China, she says, "has the allure of the new." Japan, Australia, and South Korea are all rebounding because of the huge exports being devoured by the Chinese economy, a process the Indonesians call "feeding the dragon." Indeed, in the fall of 2003, former Australian prime minister Paul Keating asserted that the American century was ending and the Asian one dawning, and there is a good bit of data to support this prediction. During the first six months of 2003, the Chinese car manufacturing industry, for example, expanded at a rate of 32 percent. Shopping malls have sprung up along Beijing's Avenue of Everlasting Peace, where tanks once mowed down protesters. In fact, the Chinese economy has been doubling in size every ten years, which is astounding. Thus a 2004 study by the investment firm of Goldman Sachs predicted the Chinese economy would be the world's biggest by the early 2040s. How long before China leverages that economic power into political power? Already, Perlez continues, it is pushing for an East Asian Economic Community "that would cut out the United States and create a global bloc to rival the European Union." If China does manage to replace us, it will do so by becoming us, and by doing that more successfully.

And yet, there's the rub: thinking in terms of quality, and not just geopolitically (that is, who's top banana), this is as much a disappointment as the American experiment finally proved to be, if not more so. Change is always different, but it isn't necessarily better. There is little in the way of an "inner frontier" in China, a concern about civic virtue, civil liberties, or the quality of life-except on the part of dissidents, who are ruthlessly crushed. Leaving its abysmal record on human rights aside, China is beginning to resemble the United States in Mandarin. It seems to have no larger vision, and there is absolutely no indication that its emergence as a superpower will herald a better world. One percent of the Chinese population owns 40 percent of the nation's wealth, while 18 percent lives on less than a dollar a day. In a single generation, the gap between rich and poor there has become one of the largest in the world, with all the attendant problems characteristic of the US.: widespread corruption, huge inequities in health care, gated suburban communities (with names such as Napa Valley, Palm Springs, and Park Avenue), luxury supermarkets, fleets of SUVs and stretch limos, millions of workers laid off, and a candid belief on the part of the new elite that, as Ross Terrill writes in The New Chinese Empire, "the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where ... notions of fairness count for little." A "me first" psychology is very much in evidence in the People Republic no as the old socialist China of thirty years ago is being replaced by a new "money-centered cutthroat society" Meanwhile the number of beggars on the streets of the major cities has risen dramatically, and in the countryside the number of farmers living in poverty went up by eight hundred thousand during 2003 alone.

If one looks at the 140 largest companies in the Global Fortune 500 ratings, 61 of them are European, while only 50 are American. Fourteen of the twenty largest commercial banks in the world are European, including three of the top four.

H. L. Mencken
"The whole purpose of politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Dark Ages America

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