August 16, 2004
"The evils by which a civilization dies are more specific, more complex, more deliberate, sometimes, more difficult to discover or to define. But we have learned to recognize that gigantism which is merely the morbid mimetism of growth, that waste which makes a pretense of wealth in states already bankrupt, that plethora so quickly replaced by dearth at the first crisis, those entertainments for the people provided from the upper levels of the hierarchy, that atmosphere of inertia and panic, of authoritarianism and of anarchy, those pompous reaffirmations of a great past amid present mediocrity and immediate disorder, those reforms which are merely palliatives and those outbursts of virtue which are manifested only by purges, those unacknowledged men of genius lost in the crowd of unscrupulous gangsters, of violent lunatics, of honest men who are inept and wise men who are helpless. The modern reader is at home in the Historia Augusta."
(Swans - August 16, 2004) The Historia Augusta is a compilation of dubious histories that questionably chronicle the Roman Empire in its decline. Most of it is incompetent lies. Yourcenar seems to be saying that this mediocre fumbling just fits the declining empire itself and is a better history of it than a more accurate one would be. In Yourcenar's last section, which I have quoted above, she lists similarities between those times and ours. The comparison is startling. It is hard to avoid the feeling that we are in a similar stage. As with Rome, we have our honest men who are inept and wise men who are helpless. They still think they can cure the beast and set it back up on its feet again. But in its agony it cannot hear their obvious truths and lumbers on to its doom.
Each of the elements in the description is here. How about the recent Reagan extravaganza during the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib as a good example of pompous reaffirmations of a great past amid present mediocrity and immediate disorder? As for the crowd of unscrupulous gangsters, here is the beginning of an article by Anthony Lewis in the July 15 New York Review of Books: (1)
"Reading through the memoranda written by Bush administration lawyers on how prisoners of the 'war on terror' can be treated is a strange experience. The memos read like the advice of a mob lawyer to a mafia don on how to skirt the law and stay out of prison."Orwell showed how political decline followed corruption of language. Lewis continues:
"One remarkable suggestion is that an interrogator who harmed a prisoner could rely on the argument of 'self-defense' as a legal justification -- defense not of himself but of the nation."They have taken Orwell's warnings as prescriptions. Amazingly, the distortions sell at the cost of the law itself. One wonders how these Bush lawyers expect to make their living when the laws cease to have any intelligible interpretation. Perhaps they will continue to grease the slide into totalitarianism with their blather.
The Bush administration worthies are notorious for their blatant disregard for the truth, but they get away with it. Over 40% of the country is deluded enough to believe Bush. No one can disabuse them, for a clack of Limbaughs stuffs their brains with ad hominem arguments against anyone with any evidence contradicting their beliefs. Joe Bageant gives a trenchant description of the right-wing working class's affection for Bush. (2)
"Every customer at Burt's loves George Bush. Worships George Bush. One reason is because George Bush doesn't give a shit. When his detractors point out the complete fraud of WMDs, he doesn't give a shit. When newspapers worldwide suggest Bush may be the biggest international threat today, Bush does not give a shit. This gives him street cred among these people who for better or worse, I must call my own."In other words, Bush doesn't give a shit what the truth is or what others think he and his words mean, and that's what these guys like about him. They feed upon the very corruption of language itself and scorn the liberals and their education. It is tempting to think that all this has gotten much worse in the last fifty years. I myself tend to think that the grandfathers of the denizens of Burt's Bar and Grill did not scorn education, but longed for it and considered it rightfully theirs. Certainly those who embraced the vision of a socialist utopia must have. If so, the working class has fallen into a hole since then.
Bageant zeroes in on the decay of education as the key cause of Bush affection, but blames the working class, at least in part, for this decay. Their lack of effort and interest in education guarantees that they and their children will never have it. These men do not imagine a better world, and rail at those who do. It is hard to not see their politics as the politics of violence Yourcenar identifies in the Historia Augusta. But it is also hard to blame them completely. Bageant knows well that this ignorance is institutionalized. The political right's attack on and evisceration of the budgets of public schools have ruined them, at least in the working class neighborhoods. Higher education is now out of reach for the children of these men, not only because of their poverty, but because their primary education is so crappy. Bageant offers a blunt solution, but also, alas, the reason it won't work.
"What these folks really need is for someone to say out loud: 'Now lookee here dammit! You are dumber than a sack of hammers and should'a got an education so you would have half a notion of what's going on.' Someone once told me that and, along with the advice never to mix Mad Dog 20-20 with whiskey, it is the best I ever received. But no one in America is about to say such a thing out loud because it sounds elitist. It sounds un-American and undemocratic."Of course the fault is not only or even mainly that of the blue-collar workers. The schools have been decaying for some time. In 1983 the Secretary of Education, T. H. Bell, published a report called A NATION AT RISK: The Imperative for Educational Reform. After a huge confab an impressive phalanx of educators determined there was a crisis in American education. They proposed solutions and no doubt somebody took up some of them. All to no avail. As Marguerite Yourcenar put it, these were reforms which are merely palliatives. The situation is far worse today. Our spasmodic attempts to stem educational decline are characteristic of the desultory way we go about everything. Efforts to reduce unemployment, environmental decay, energy dependency, AIDS, and much else are cut from the same moth-eaten pattern. The beast lurches after something biting him, loses interest, and allows himself to be bitten. Thus, little wounds accumulate. And of course politicians, especially on the right, have gleefully abetted this process of farcical reform.
We might try to explain why "pecker-in-the-dirt ignorance" makes working-class men turn to right-wing lunacy, but I suspect the explanation will be unrewarding. I have seen it proposed that the right wing working class male, what with loss of upward mobility and confusion about gender roles, feels he has no place and no identity, and thus, paralyzed, as Nietzsche predicted, has chosen to will nothing rather than not will at all. Nihilism expresses itself as Christian Evangelicalism and its "rapture," or skinhead death-seeking pseudonazism, or Burt's patron's "don't give a shit" attitude. Then again we might look at the Republican Party's clever and shameless appeal to racism in its "southern strategy." The festering sore of the Civil War and the nation's founding racism is still unhealed. Yourcenar's observation of that craving for sensation which ends in the triumph of a politics of violence as a characteristic of the pathology seems apt. We might discuss all this, but our conclusions won't matter.
Of course, the rich also ride on Bush's scooter for obvious reasons. He has lined their pockets. But he has also cost them plenty and has put everything at risk with his Iraq adventure. The so-recent surplus is now huge debt, revealing that waste which makes a pretense of wealth in states already bankrupt, that plethora so quickly replaced by dearth at the first crisis. In the end, I believe, the rich will do no better than the poor. They will be superfluous in the Mad-Max world to come. Now they control everything, but so ineptly that they simply smash things up.
What could reveal that atmosphere of inertia and panic, of authoritarianism and of anarchy more than this Iraq war? What was the rush? Panicked by looming peak oil, the Bush administration jettisoned the Constitution and international law in a grab for the Middle East bonanza. They thought to control the region, but that is quite impossible. In massive denial, we still rattle on about WMDs, al Qaeda, who was to blame and other irrelevancies. No one can even give a plausible real motive for the war because it might reveal too much that we want to hide from.
Let's look at one real problem. The world uses 28 billion barrels of oil a year and rising; we can't get much more than that out of the ground and soon we will get less. China increased its imports by 25% last year. At that rate they will double their demand in three years (exponential growth). Demand is also growing elsewhere. Everybody agrees that supply is going to get tight -- maybe in five years, ten years, maybe it will even take as long as fifteen years. But it's going to get tight. And then it will get tighter and tighter. We'll find a little more, but not enough. What are we going to do?
This is only one of a number of species-threatening political problems that are so far beyond the scope of our political process that I can only gape in wonder. Do you think Bush or Kerry is capable of even addressing this problem? Please! They are not even ready to admit that it exists. Somebody has to own up and we have to prepare to use less. The kind of changes we need to make take time. If we don't prepare we will get into a very nasty conflict with other big countries, some of them our former friends. But of course the solutions proposed are the usual palliatives.
So we have to choose between these two ostriches. Things have reached such a pitch that I would find some comfort in the thought that the imperial counselors had a plan for the United States. But they have long ago lost their way. Let's just note in passing that Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Manuel Noriega were American clients. Our wars are against our own stooges. Now, to use the commentator's crummy cant, "what message does that send?" After advertising such a bad deal, where are our new stooges to come from? Obviously, from the ranks of powerless cronies willing to take something rather than nothing and harboring the delusional hope that they can discern just how the big guy wants them to dance. Lots of luck, bozos. But what good is a stooge if you have to use your own army to prop him up? A quality stooge should supply an indigenous force to relieve you of the trouble and embarrassment. That's the whole point of a stooge. A stooge, a stooge, my Empire for a stooge! This is incompetence to the power of incompetence.
The war in Iraq tipped off China and Europe that the U.S. plans to monopolize all of the oil. Of course, for the time being the oil will be sold on the open market, but the United States would be in control of it. That would enslave the rest of the world. Bummer, but we blew it, and instead of becoming stronger, we are becoming weaker in the Persian Gulf. Iran is talking to China and is ready to trade oil for missiles. Saudi Arabian princes, more stooges betrayed, are now also dealing with China for oil. Iraq won't be pumping much soon, for the war and sanctions have severely damaged their fields. Russia, second in oil exports to Saudi Arabia, met secretly in Moscow with France and Germany just before the war began. They are all not so friendly to us now. And there are rumblings of instability (bad for the oil business) everywhere in the Middle East, including in the territory of our best friend, Kuwait. There's going to be a shortage of oil and we might not be in control. Panic time! We can't withdraw from Iraq. That would be the end of our power in the Middle East. On the other hand, we are bleeding to death there with no possibility of dominating the region. What are we going to do? Any ideas? Mr. Bush? Mr. Kerry? Why do I always see the same old hands? Does anyone else have any ideas?
Mr. Bush? Well, there's Operation Summer Pulse in which the United States sends an unprecedented seven carrier strike groups (CSGs) to threaten China. (3) Never before have we sent more than four anywhere, even to support a war. We usually only send one as a show of force. What does it mean? Apparently, it is just a really big threat, a really really big show of force. China had better...do what?
America has no way to face its real problems and is doomed to lurch around lashing out against phony ones. These are very dangerous games and could backfire, but they will not accomplish anything. In truth, the political class, intent upon its class war, has lost its way and the United States wastes its substance in atrocious adventures its freaky incompetent leaders hatch in darkness. I suspect the end will come swiftly in a permanent oil shock that will awe us with the havoc it wrecks. However, peak oil is just one of a multitude of troubles. Here's another little tidbit: In 2003 the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that it would take $1.6 trillion to repair our decaying infrastructure. That is up from $1.3 trillion in 2001. (4) What is it today? Ladies and Gentlemen, we need somebody who knows what the hell s/he's doing, somebody with no connection to the present hapless political class. Theoretically, a dramatic and remarkable turnabout is still possible, but it would take the most amazing political transformation ever seen. Barring that, there is not much hope except to minimize damage from the crash of the falling behemoth. The rest of the world is already looking on at the death throes and hoping to stay out of the way. Enjoying those entertainments for the people provided from the upper levels of the hierarchy, the American electorate waits for the end.
· · · · · ·
Notes and Resources
1. Anthony Lewis, "Making Torture Legal," The New York Review of Books, Volume 51, Number 12 - July 15, 2004 - http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17230. (back)
2. Joe Bageant, "Sons of a Laboring God: Getting Down and Dumb at Burt's Tavern," Counterpunch, July 3/4, 2004 - http://www.counterpunch.org/bageant07032004.html. (back)
3. Chalmers Johnson, "Sailing Toward a Storm in China: U.S. Maneuvers Could Spark a War," The Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2004. Reposted at http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0715-04.htm. (back)
4. See American Society of Civil Engineers, 2003 Progress Report - http://www.asce.org/reportcard/index.cfm?reaction=full&page=6
See also, Seymour Melman, In The Grip Of A Permanent War Economy, Swans, March 17, 2003. (back)
America the 'beautiful' on Swans
Iraq on Swans
Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number. If we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.
Please, feel free to insert a link to this article on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting a few paragraphs or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work on the Web. © Michael Doliner 2004. All rights reserved.
This Week's Internal Links
God Help Us
Review of Malise Ruthven's A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America - by Tim Keane
The Journey Toward Justice
Review of The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, Conversations with Arundhati Roy. - by Gilles d'Aymery
Courage III - by Richard Macintosh
A Thing That Waits For Lunch - by Phil Rockstroh
Beginning Of The End Or End Of The Beginning? - by Milo Clark
Outline For Revolution - by Manuel García, Jr.
The Debacle At The Hague - by John Steppling
Sharon, Israel, And Anti-Semitism - by Philip Greenspan
God On Our Side - Poem by Gerard Donnelly Smith
The Precision With Which Love Invents - Poem by Robert Rosenberg
Letters to the Editor