Friday, November 22, 2013
Empire and its Discontents
A correspondent writes, regarding my previous post (Russia Takes Over, Nov. 16):
"I don't agree with you on the part about good and evil. You seem to be saying that a nation which does any amount of evil cancels out any good which it may do, and should simply be considered to be part of the shit heap of evil nations. As you state it, there is an assumption that good and evil are easily identifiable, divisible, and quantifiable, in the process of geopolitical power and international score keeping. I'm not sure they are. But assuming we can sort out the good things a nation does, isn't it really more of a net/sum analysis? Who is generally more good than evil... or, at least more good than the alternatives, even if not all good, which is impossible, or even mostly good, or even occasionally good. In a world which is largely evil, even being a little good, or more good than the others, is good, or as good as it gets. I think the US still has that stature, despite the fact that it may be somewhat like winning the world championship in double amputee cross country foot racing."
Well... I don't think "cancels out" is what I had in mind -- at least not directly. I think the good can stand on its own, as can the evil -- but then right away we get the question of intent. Is unintentional good as good as intentional good? If so, then logically, unintentional evil must be as bad as intentional evil. We can't have it both ways. We can't get all the credit for the good we do, but then just mumble "shit happens" when we do evil or when evil results from our actions.
What the good/evil dichotomy really does, IMO, is call into question the basic core premises upon which we established ourselves as a nation. Were those principles, as noble as they sounded at the time, actually a time bomb? I think the Civil War was already ample proof that there was something seriously wrong with our world view as a nation -- not that slavery was not evil, but we didn't fight the Civil War to end slavery, as any honest historian will admit. It was about "preserving the union", which was ideational for some, but which boiled down to political and commercial issues for many, including cynics in the industrial sector. Freeing the slaves was a bonus (or "collateral damage" if you were in the South). Not that some in the North would not have been willing to make the same sacrifice just to free the slaves, but they were a minority, and considered "radicals" by the rest. So, bottom line, the Civil War might have had one positive outcome, but the negative outcomes continue to haunt us right up to today. The South is still treated like a defeated nation, and Southerners are treated like ignorant, backwards bigots... and all the old resentments are still alive and well.
So, I'm willing to give the US full credit for whatever it has done over the years to enhance the quality of life for the human race in general -- and full discredit for whatever it has done that has had the opposite effect. That's not the same as saying that it all balances out, and the net sum is zero. That would be like claiming that some great industrialist -- from Pittsburgh, say -- who oppressed his workers for many decades, but then built fine libraries and museums and concert halls, had a net score of zero. I'm not enough of a Zoroastrian to claim that good and evil are inextricably linked, and you can't have one without the other. I don't put them on an equal metaphysical footing. And besides, one hopes that any good a given nation does will outlast the bad, despite what Shakespeare says about men. One can certainly see this with ancient Rome, and (I will argue) the British Empire, although there is plenty of debate on that count. The French Empire, I'm not so sure... and the Soviet Empire I will count as an overall disaster (but they did field some dynamite Olympic teams). (And yet the worst colonial power was not Russia, but Belgium. Go figure.)
This brings us to the American Empire, and has it been of aggregate benefit to the world, or an overall liability, or too close to call? This depends partly on how much one values democracy (without quotes) as a system, and to what extent our version of democracy -- the kind we export -- is the real thing, and whether it actually does any good. Now, I include under the heading of democracy things like the rule of law, trial by jury, property rights, etc. -- all the Bill of Rights and related concepts that we always hope we're also exporting along with the basic idea. And clearly, the success or failure of this enterprise is more dependent on national character than anything else. I don't claim that some nations or peoples are "not ready" for democracy; this is condescending. They may simply not be interested -- and I don't take this as an automatic sign of primitive ignorance, or tribalism, or religious dogmatism, etc. What it means is that democracy, of any variety, is not a universal value -- and I don't think you have to look far to realize this is the case. Then you add in the aggravating factor that many of the "democracies" we have established around the world are anything but -- thinly-disguised tyrannies, in fact, not a whole lot different from the "people's republics" that the Soviets set up by the score. It is not enough to have a democratic "form" -- one also has to have a democratic mind set, and leaders who agree with that. Heaven knows, we have enough trouble with this even within our own borders.
Does this mean that "exporting democracy" is a farce and a hoax, and we should stop doing it (or trying to)? If you look at the record, it's a mixed bag. It does seem to "take" in some cultures, and provide benefits. In others, it makes little or no difference, and in some it makes things worse. I think Job One of the State Department should be to try and make these determinations ahead of time, so we can cut down on the waste of time and money (and resentment and hostility). (The alternative is to forget the whole project, and I would not oppose that either.) My preference would be that we simply try and set a good example. The problem with this is that, to anyone looking at our political situation from without, it seems like a circus and a farce. (Again, was it designed that way, or is it a a sign of degeneration, or are we just having a bad day, or what?)
But I'm being wildly optimistic even there. The project of the American Empire as it stands has nothing whatsoever to do with exporting democracy, free and fair elections, promoting human rights, property rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech, etc. Those are propaganda buzzwords. What it has everything to do with is economic imperialism, which is supported by political influence (both domestically and internationally). One only has to ask the question, who is in charge and what's their bottom line? If the answer is the international banking and financial cartel (which I believe it is), then the bottom line is money, period. Even political influence and spying are just means to an end. (Ask yourself this question: Which happens more frequently, politicians getting rich or the rich getting into politics? I rest my case.) Now -- there are political goals embedded within this scenario, and I would characterize them as establishing a one-world secular humanist government. But you won't be making a mistake by following the money. (Which is the means and which is the ultimate end may, in fact, be a point of lively discussion when the Regime gets together, e.g. at Bilderburg, Davos, the Bohemian Grove, Mackinac Island, etc. I'd love to get a transcript of some of those discussions!)
Even then our self interest might have some broader benefits. I mean, let's say that someone figured out how to make big bucks from the breakup of the Soviet Union, so they did all they could to make that happen. They wind up rich, but the Soviet Empire goes away, much to the joy and jubilation of all (except for a few million bureaucrats, commissars, police, camp guards, etc.). It's kind of like that "trickle-down effect" that Reagan's people were so fond of citing -- and that the other side lambastes on a regular basis. Just as good can, paradoxically, come from evil, so good can also (unintentionally) come from good. (Our biggest challenge when it comes to military operations is seeing to it that evil does not come from what we consider good -- a task that we've failed on spectacularly of late.)
The ultimate question for future historians will be, was the world better off because the US existed? Again, I say that Rome provides a possible precedent. They did a lot of really bad things, but they also had certain principles of government and law that, in good times, served them (and their subjects) well. We constantly point to Rome as a foundation for our own system -- not forgetting the high-jinks of such as Caligula and Nero, but consigning them to the ash heap... not allowing them to detract from the larger picture. (I imagine much the same will eventually happen with regard to characters like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- but I digress.)
One thing's for sure, the world would have been less interesting if the American Experiment hadn't risen up in the midst of it all. We have at least been a source of ideas, for good or ill -- not to mention technology. I say this fully cognizant of the fact that the political experiment has clearly run out of energy, and that we are self-destructing as a nation/culture/economy at a rapid rate. We are a demoralized people, in that we've lost track of basic principles. We haven't stopped mouthing words about them, but we've lost any comprehension as to what they mean. Now... was this process inevitable? Was it the result of an inexorable historical cycle, the inevitable growth/consolidation/decay process of any empire, nation, or political system? I'm not prepared to say -- only to point out that there have been no exceptions as yet in history, so one is tempted to say yes, it was inevitable. But is that, in turn, an indictment? Again, if one does good while one can, this is not a bad thing. Who would want to judge the worth of a human being based on his last declining days, months, years? It wouldn't seem fair. So we could, if we were feeling charitable, apply the same idea to nations. Even an enterprise that is doomed might nonetheless be worth undertaking; it's a matter of what one values the most.