Summer Of Drummers
Here's a must read essay by Harold Meyerson in today's Washington Post. It puts the Russia-Georgia-China Olympics events of this week into the proper perspective, I think, which is a huge relief since I keep reading different views from people I respect (and don't respect) and this issue seems to have turned the intellectual world into ideological hamburger.
This captures the big picture, anyway:
The summer of '08, historians will most likely tell us, signaled the rise of a multi-power, non-Western-dominated planet. It also was the time when it became clear that the American Century would not lap over from the 20th into the 21st.
Russia's invasion is surely the most shocking of these developments but also the least ground-breaking. It fits perfectly into that most ancient of great-power traditions -- asserting semi-sovereignty over its immediate neighbors.
The United States even has a name for its right to intervene in its neighbors' affairs: the Monroe Doctrine. And just as Russia moved to undermine a militantly pro-American government on its borders, so the United States moved to overthrow Castro at the Bay of Pigs and depose the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and green-lighted an attempted coup against Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in 2002. None of these interventions brought any credit to either the United States or Russia, but neither were they something new under the sun.
Russia today is a mix of neo-czarist authoritarianism domestically and pan-Slavic belligerence internationally. Its clout resides not in its political beliefs and practices -- unlike Leninism, pan-Slavism is not likely to win any non-Slavic adherents -- or in its economic model but in its reserves of oil and natural gas, on which Europe in particular is dependent. It is not our proto-democratic buddy, but neither is it the kind of threat that requires ginning up the Cold War again, as John McCain and his neoconservative brethren seem to believe.
China is something else again. If ever there was a display of affable collectivism, it was filmmaker Zhang Yimou's opening ceremonies, which in their reduction of humans to a mass precision abstraction seemed to derive in equal measure from Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl. (Much of Berlin's 1936 Olympics, we should recall, was choreographed by Riefenstahl to fit the fascist aesthetics of her film "Olympiad.") The subject of Zhang's ceremonies was a celebration of Chinese achievement and power, at all times stressing China's harmonious relations with the rest of the world.
The great irony, of course, is that this was supposed to be the epoch of the Pax Americana. Ooops.
But that was never a realistic course. Americans have the world's largest military and the most advanced economy, but we, as a nation, are not Spartans --- we are fat mall shoppers who will rise to the occasion and fight when necessary but really have no desire to rule the world as a military empire. Indeed, as Meyerson suggests, the real problem is that our true calling as an international power --- as rapacious global capitalists --- is where the biggest challenge lies.
Meyerson calls attention to what he calls the masterstroke of the opening Olympic ceremonies; the decision to feature the little hero of the earthquake, the boy who went back to save his schoolmates because he was hall monitor and it was his duty. Meyerson points out that this "cuddly capitalist-Leninism, already much beloved by our major banks and corporations for its low-wage efficiency, poses a genuine economic challenge to the messier, unsynchronized workings of democracies. A nation that can assemble 2,000 perfectly synchronized drummers has clearly staked its claim as the world's assembly line."
Once again, I'm struck by how much the neocons and their fellow travelers are similar to those they purport to hate. They too are nationalists, who would be proud to have Americans marching in lockstep to the tune of a (properly conservative) government on the world stage. (The Randians would naturally prefer that the ceremony be sponsored by a multi-national corporation, for "freedom's" sake.)
John McCain and the boys are always ready to go marching into wherever the current crisis spot is, and as this article demonstrates, the Bush Administration has been busily preparing the military for just such events. There was a time when I might have believed that there was no chance that any administration of any political persuasion could be stupid or reckless enough to do something as rash as to drop into hot spots like Georgia with a military presence. Obviously, after the last few years, I've been schooled. These people are definitely capable of such things.
In fact, they yearn to do it (and clearly believe that any place that has access to the precious commodity is fair game.) And that's the rub. These two things are not unrelated. The knee jerk bellicosity isn't just ideological, although it certainly is. It's also a lack of imagination about how to deal with this growing economic challenge. One of the prevailing beliefs on the right seems to be that we should simply take what we need, and that means controlling (or at least presiding over) the world's oil supply.
But Americans just aren't good at synchronized drumming or military imperialism and for most people even our days of being content on the assembly line are behind us. I suppose we could learn,and we may have to if things go bad, but it's not really our nature. Neither mythic rugged individualism or soft BestBuyGAP-style conformity lend themselves to such things.
Meyerson's right. If that kid had been an American we would have expected him to go into the school because th trapped kids were his friends or to do for Jesus or do it without thinking because he's a good kid. It would be wholly out of character for an American kid to save his friends out of "duty" to his school. We just don't think that way. It's entirely possible that for all of our glib talk about spreadin' democracy 'n freedom, China is the one that is going to be the model for success in this new world, as unpleasant as we may think that is.
Meanwhile, McCain is milking this for all he's got and it looks like we're about to see if he can persuade the American people that we are a proud warrior race who will smite evil and darkness wherever we see it (while eating Big Macs and watching TV, naturally.)
Be sure to read all of Meyerson's column.