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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Is the American Empire Spent?



It sounds on the face of it like one of those existentialist conversations that they had in the 1960s: Is the novel dead? Still, on the Jacksonian paleoconservative American right the pessimism is palpable, and the neocons -- in a narrative began by Charles Krauthammer -- are presenting Obama-as-Jimmy-Carter. It is not clear at present to what degree their critiques have merit or whether the paleoconservative response to Obama-and-decline is more based on the racialist elements of their philosophy (white, straight Christian males and all that) and whether neoconservative pessimism is solely a reaction to the President's restoration of realism to the foreign policy discussion. Whatever the case, there is a profound sense of Imperial exhaust, weltshmertz if you will, as if the will to be a global Empire is slipping away (Thank goodness?) -- and moving, according to the Mysterious Laws of History, Eastwards.

Then again, in defense of Empire (can I actually be doing this?), someone has to lead. Someone has to be there to lead the way on Haiti, on Chile, on the Tsunami, on genocide in Sudan. If someone has to be the leader to protect the weak, to stand guard against the worst of human nature (which magnifies, Babel-like, at the level of nations), why not America? America is a nation based, ideally, on ideals, and not merely ethnicity. Constitutionally, America is concerned with the taxonomy of "Man," as opposed to, say china, which is obsessed with the narrower genus of "Chinese." China couldn't really give a fuck about Sudanese genocide except in the sense that it might frustrate its supply of oil. Do we really trust China to be the sole Superpower and first among global citizens? Again: the question of Will.

An interesting conversation is going on in -- of all places -- the NYT Opinionator blog between David Brooks and Dick Cavett concerning -- none dare say its name! -- the American Empire. Cavett, as you know, used to host a highly intellectual proto-American talk show on prime time on PBS and the networks in those heady 1970s. He could probably not do that now (Another sign of Imperial exhaust?). I could not fathom a American conversation on the networks or PBS with, say, Gore Vidal or a literary genius of similar stature on the War on Terror standing up against the Nielsenian scrutiny of the suits. Still, Cavett serves as something of the template for what Charlie Rose now does -- Charlie's overwhelming obsession with power and money, notwithstanding (different hosts for different eras, I suppose).

"Brooksie" -- as we like to call the dear boy -- is the resident amateur conservative social scientist on the NYT op-ed masthead. It is a thankless job, to be sure; it earns him the emnity of his brothers on the right. Such an affirmative action hire allows us blue-staters and inside view of what it's like for someone who believes in the literal word of God to visit playgrounds on the upper West Side (quelle horreur!). Together they have -- mirabile dictu -- an interesting conversation about the American Empire. To wit, from Brooksie:

A few years ago, Arthur Herman wrote a wonderful book called “The Idea of Decline in Western History,” going through the long list of people who have predicted decline — including Herbert Marcuse, Oswald Spengler, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It’s a great way to sell books, look intelligent and feel superior, but the declinist batting average is .000.

Still, I’m beginning to be infected with the pessimism. A friend who lives in India told me the Indians consider the Chinese their rival for top nation this century. They regard us as already buried.


Cavett returns volley, but weakly:

The only person I know who has read every single volume of what Noel Coward, in a lyric, called Gibbon’s divine ‘Decline and Fall’ is Gore Vidal. You doubtless have. Are there lessons for us there? I’d love to know how what was ROME became merely Rome, leaving behind some widely scattered aqueducts and old coins. And in my own lifetime we have seen a colossus tumble: the plucky little Soviet Union.


It is not bad, though clearly Brooksie brings more intellectual firepower to the conversation. Perhaps Brooksie should take up where Cavett left off in the 70s? It is here.

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