Whither Next, America?
About America's future, its division, and the daunting risk of civil war
So, we've had the mis-election of George Bush, then 9/11, then the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. We now head toward the great American presidential election again, and many Americans now believe that the big question is the felling of Bush and his coterie by, presumably, John Kerry. Alternatively, we get Bush for a second term. No serious third alternatives are available, for some reason. Meanwhile, the rest of us - the world's vast non-American majority - sit on our hands feeling helpless and victims of the process. That's mainly our problem.
As I write, it's 50-50 and things could go either way in the presidential election. But there's a bigger problem, certainly for non-Americans but also for Americans themselves. That is, Bush and comparable past presidents such as Reagan and Nixon might be harmful to ordinary people by dint of the sheer scale by which they promote the interests of the rich and powerful few, and the extent to which they can convince large swathes of the American public to believe they're on the side of the small guy.
But it's also true that America constitutes a problem for the world even when there's a Clinton, Carter or Kennedy in power. Why? Because it is the American system, and the rather aged and highly-modified constitution that supports and reinforces it, that constitutes the problem. Even amongst enlightened, far-sighted Americans, the constitution and the office of the president remain sacred entities, as if the system would be unquestionably fault-free if only the right person sat in the Oval Office.
But power in USA is not defined by the constitution. Precisely that same constitution, nominally democratic, where citizens are apparently endowed clear, stated rights, gave rise to a non-constitutional background layer of power and influence which has nothing at all to do with democracy, merit or societal appropriateness. The reason Kerry now is a Democratic front-runner is simply that he has the credentials to be accepted by these background powers that be, with their media, capital, arms and other mechanisms of influence and control. Without this, Kerry would be no force to contend with at all and Bush, despite his questionable competence, would have a clear run. As well-paid puppets and despite their faults, American presidents do very well maintaining the illusion that they control things. Except they don't.
This background influence is not as simple and clear-cut as many 'Big Brother' fanatics would have it. Two major riders come into play here. First, there is division at the top, so that we're talking, actually, of lobbies of background power with a variety of perspectives and approaches. Broadly they now resolve into two main components: southern, quasi-Christian right-wing, old-economy, unilateralist magnates and east-west coast, liberal, internationalist, new-tech liberals. Second, the American public has been so intensely manipulated for so long that its understanding of the political landscape is seriously topsy-turvy.
In this landscape of mirrors, glitz and technicolor fog, many Americans believe their oppressors are their saviours - rich Texans are believed to save poor Americans from the liberal East Coast power-elite. The greatest dangers to Americans are believed to be redeeming assets - paunchy, debt-ridden affluence, resource-overconsumption, gun possession, a splintered, unsafe society, religious domination and military power are all, strangely, associated with freedom.
The American Dream seems to have become a nightmare, and no US president or alliance of billionaire magnates can change that. We are watching a great country destroy itself from within. Osama and his boys have only a small influence in this deterioration, a slippery slide which began around the time of the Vietnam War but showed itself more visibly only by the end of the Reagan period. In the 1990s, the technological, corporate and 'new economy' boom of the Clinton years was really a ruse, a shiny veneer covering an internally shaky situation.
Then came the enemies of American greatness, with their bombs and hijackings, partially real and partially a paranoiac projection by bellicose American polarisation-addicts. These addicts' ancestry includes McCarthy, Teller and so many other generals, politicians, evangelists and interest-groups who have sought to pitch America's destiny as a crusade against foreign evil, once of a Soviet kind, now of terrorist kind with a little French dressing added for flavour. The real threat to America is distorted by a self-created sense of uniqueness and greatness which means that one American in a body-bag equals a thousand dead souls of most other nationalities.
This article isn't yet another tirade against all things American. It is precisely because USA is part of the same world as ours, and Americans are part of the same humanity as us, that these matters are so worrying. True, non-Americans, supine as we have been to Yanqui influence over the last six to ten decades, have allowed this to happen and have bought into it. American superpower dominance has arisen because no other global network of power has evolved to supplement or supplant it - though the Commies did try. Put another way, despite all the pious talk about 'the international community', this community is pretty dysfunctional, incapable of making global-scale decisions, up to its eyeballs in corruption, perversity, divisive agendas, racism and environmental destruction too, and is pretty non-communal in its approach to the world's great problems.
Perversely, American predominance is nowadays financed by non-Americans. Bizarrely, apart from native Americans, all Americans originate from foreigners like us, from our own parts of the world. Yet today non-Americans appear to have little power to change things, since American power-politics impinge on the wider world while playing mainly to a home audience. America sometimes talks to itself as if the rest of us were freelance extras in a big-dollar epic movie.
Seen from the outside, USA looks dangerously polarised. Polarisation works alright when two sides interact, as if two sides of the same coin. But if it grows to proportions where two sides believe their world to be the only valid world, with zero tolerance toward all alternatives, and where both sides are stocked not only with guns but also with beliefs in which gun-use is a factor of freedom and legitimate self-protection, we have war. Civil war. A second American civil war.
I don't see civil war in USA as inevitable but, the way things are going, it looks increasingly likely. There is an alternative, but this would require a miracle. Not impossible, especially in USA, but the miracle would follow an epiphany, an enormous new perception of life and the state of the world. Such an awakening needs not only to unite Americans, bringing them back into domestic dialogue, but to bring them closer to the wider world, back into dialogue with its inhabitants. This is tricky because, even when Americans get benign global-scale visions, they still tend to see USA as the centre and origin of freedom and all things good. The rest of the world then becomes a congregation for conversion to that cause. Which brings us back to square one: no-win situations where someone must be right and someone else wrong.
Yet USA has a good measure of true saints, genuine Christians and wise people. It has its fair share of good-hearted, down-home people with feet on the ground. The rest of the world may be forgiven for forgetting that they exist, since American image-projection does not encompass them. These people are rarely seen in corporate boardrooms or 'inside the Beltway' (the political community of Washington DC). Even when we are deluged with e-mails exhorting us to meditate for good causes or fight against American-defined evils, their pleas are still very American, often overlooking other, wider realities. So, while relatively enlightened Americans indeed are there and do represent hope, only a proportion seem really squared with the rest of the world.
Civil war, of course, is impossible, in the views of many Americans. They've been there and done that. Like slavery, it's over. But the last civil war left wounds which have not been healed, and new issues rub salt in them. USA goes through its shifts and changes - the West Coast now maturing and gaining increasing commonality with the old East Coast, in contrast to the up-coming growth and values of the South. This separation is exacerbated by Americans' mobility - unlike much of the world, where most live near to where they grew up, Americans move where their preferences and beliefs are reinforced, thus distorting their social perceptions and causing exacerbated regional polarisation. The upcoming presidential election has noticeable regional affiliations with a potentially crucial impact on national life.
For USA, a civil war would be disastrous but, for the world it could be worse. One of the first questions to fight over would be control over the US military arsenal. The consequences of this, of course, go into fantasy and horror levels none of us would wish to consider - rather like the idea of destroying skyscrapers with hijacked airliners before 9/11 happened. But this potential conflict affects the whole of the world. It's all about WMD, not just guns. Y'know, the reason they invaded Iraq.
I do not like to paint 'negative' future scenarios. Many Americans might just choose to believe that I'm another anti-American with an axe to grind. Some rest-of-the-worlders might secretly rub their hands in quiet glee, since such a prospect would justify their anti-American prejudices. Each would be seriously mistaken, since the consequences even simply of the threat of civil war can be major - yet again it could hit the world's pause button, slowing world evolution largely for American reasons. It could destroy life on Earth, all for the preservation of the interests of elites in Texas, Florida or a closely-guarded underground control centre in Montana.
This is dead serious. The way things now stand, the possible extremes of some sort of civil war or some sort of national epiphany seem to have not much in between. This is due to a third important factor: USA, more than any nation, has become so deeply addicted to material wealth that a loss of wealth could be socially catastrophic. It's a mass addiction and cold-turkey issue in which despair and need for a fix risk becoming the top priorities. Things can go out of control for silly reasons when national tempers get frayed.
Yet there's a wonderful family streak amongst Americans, demonstrated in the streets of New York City in the days following 9/11. It's a social spirit that makes Americans warm, cuddly, welcoming and loveable. But 9/11 demonstrated how easily this is exploited, how easily a paranoiac, insular, nationalist, compliant, downtrodden streak in American society can be reactivated by the flimsiest, most incompetently staged-managed excuses imaginable. It took but days to destroy American's familial solidarity as well as foreigners' sympathy, in favour of yet another war against posited evils. Sure, terror is a real problem, but a widened family ethic, not another crusade against evil, will ultimately remove this problem.
USA is in structural decline. Its time of greatness is over and its energy, initiative, creativity and inventiveness are now relocating to what once was the Third World. This is not America's century - it's the world's century. America has become unfree, undemocratic, unconstitutional, systemically illegal, godlessly totemistic, nepotistic, gridlocked and terribly stuck. This is not a transfer of superpower dominance to Beijing or anywhere else. It's a century of 'the international community', such as it is, and the survival and transformation of planet Earth, however this will come about. For Americans this is a terrible prospect, even though, in the days of Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan and Bucky Fuller, a substantial set of alternatives were presented, pointing in such a direction.
For Britain, the superpower of a century ago, it took two devastating world wars to cut it down to size and make safe its pride and self-regard - a prospect which needs no repetition now. Sadly, USA today fails to learn from its geopolitical parent's history, in which even Grand Master Winston Churchill failed in the 1940s to see the end of the imperial road. Even today, some Brits relate to others only in a dominance mode, but they, sad to say, diminish themselves, pants already down, walking backwards into the future.
American fellows, do hear this. You have a new future ahead. The deepest part of the American Dream is yet to be realised. You are heading for an equalisation process in which your prosperity and power will unfortunately reduce. Temporarily this will hurt your self-esteem, and many waistlines will shrink. This will make life easier in the longterm. Sometimes others will know better than you or come before you in the queue. It's just that the pendulum swings.
The wind has been in your sails for some time, and now it's others' turn. Europeans are in a similar situation, except they don't have so far to fall, and they've been through a round of this before. Everywhere, all privileged people are likely to experience this. It is the democracy and globalisation game that Americans and Europeans themselves started, unfolding to its logical conclusion. It's a new agenda, and the beneficiaries of the past are least able to see it.
There's a third way, between a disaster such as civil war or a miracle such as a big American awakening. At present it looks improbable, or it's a quiet possibility. It's a moderate, middle-way kind of national reconciliation and social healing, an outbreak of national good sense fostered particularly by moderation and tolerance in all things. I'm not talking about a soft liberal world steered by gay bishops or preppie inheritors of old money from Connecticut. I'm talking of a new collective heroism and power, a new frontier that has nothing to do with reaching Mars. Greatness and the pursuit of happiness are not material conditions, and do not set themselves against others. They are conditions of the heart.
We don't need you to take the lead or liberate the world, neither to build walls to protect yourselves. We need you join a world process in which justice and freedom in all of their varying manifestations may flourish. This involves stepping off a pedestal - yet standing on it you just get shot at anyway. Take note of the world's support for you when the Twin Towers came down: we love you when you show that you're just like us.
We do love you, but no more than we love everyone else. We respect what you did with the Twentieth Century, but we're now in the Twenty-First. We don't want you on your knees begging forgiveness, and we don't want a shoot-out either. We don't want you rich, neither poor. Peacekeeping and disaster-relief missions to USA would be a failure for all of us. We want to see you use those resources, brains and hearty American values to come out cleaner from a tainted past. We want to see a great nation that declined well, reaching its own true level with the minimum of drama or adverse consequences for others. If, from 1920, the British had owned up, planned well for withdrawal and set things up properly, the chances are that conflicts in South Africa, Palestine, Kashmir, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Ireland, Jamaica, Cyprus and Iraq might never have happened.
Non-Americans are severely challenged too. It's on us to set the global pace through collaboration, making good on our own faults, since USA has withdrawn from many international conventions. We must address our petty nationalisms, cultural claptrap, corrupt hierarchies, set ways, arms trades, environmental practices and other insidious habits. In particular, we need to master world cooperation - not just appearances, declarations and treaties but genuine forgiving, collaborative, peaceable ways. We're all in trouble and all 6.3 billion of us are in one little boat.
We don't expect USA to solve this for us - that chance has gone. So the initiative lies for now with non-Americans to take the new agenda forward. It lies particularly with the world's former subject, victim, client and dependent nations and peoples. But the onus is on Americans to quit blocking it and tying up the world in legal and military knots. More importantly, the onus is on you to sort out your internal affairs, bringing your nation back together, or splitting peaceably into separated nations. Your former enemy, the Soviet Union, has a little experience in this. That wasn't expected either.
It sure does help if we all work together. Which means, yes, the United Nations. We have to give it more muscle and teeth, quit using it as a stadium for our own conflicts, sign on the line and, all of us, dish up the money. Living in community means sharing space with and accepting people we wouldn't otherwise choose to be with. It involves making sound agreements and building international transparency. Now, America, we don't expect much of you in the foreseeable future. We realise how fed up you must be with us lot around you, and you feel you've had a bad deal. We understand but cannot greatly sympathise until we see you stopping being part of our problem. You're welcome when you're ready.
This isn't about the next presidential election. As Tony Blair has proven, liberals can be mad on war, and as Ronald Reagan proved, second-term right-wingers can be peacemakers too. So supporting or opposing Bush is fine, and may the best Yale graduate win, but keep things in perspective. The next president will wave no magic wands. Things are fundamentally not well. The key issue is the whole power-structure of USA, not just the president. It's society, stupid.
Behind this lies something else, a global historical shift demonstrating the law of 'what goes up must come down'. America's day has sadly passed. As a Brit, I can empathise - during my lifetime, our people have gone through one long slow goodbye to a grand past, but we're still here, still alive. In fact, our worst moments have brought society together. Globalisation involves much more than corporate interests and British, American or any dominance. Democracy really does mean 'power of the people' and, as an historical trend, it is now majorities, not minorities, that prevail.
Yet, in another sense, we are all minorities, even Chinese, even Americans, and we need to join with all other minorities in mutually assuring our shared security. Mutually caring. This isn't idealism - it's the most practical way forward for the next hundred years. It's gonna be a tough century, with many wonderful moments. Our first objectives are to establish peace and do something fundamental about our relations with nature - each a mammoth task.
These put the war on terror into a different perspective: both terrorism and the war against it are an agenda of warmongers, supported by those who profit from war, acquiesced in by the people. Warmongers have a key capacity to block the main agenda, diverting things their way. Whether intentionally or unconsciously, they keep the world divided and insecure. Sad to say, since no viable candidate in the forthcoming US presidential election will survive without the support of the military, intelligence and corporate sectors, no president is likely seriously to address this global blockage. The president being the world's greatest commander-in-chief, this matters, especially to the rest of us.
So we ask you, American fellow world-residents, to moderate your American way of life. This is a tough thing to say, and easier said than done. It's a European and global issue too, but if you did it, this would make a big difference to all of us. It could be that economic subsidence rather than moral choice brings about this change but, either way, it's due. It would remove a blockage, set a good tone and spread resources around more fairly. We know a lot of you know this and work for it, and many of you are poor and cornered like the rest of us. We support you in doing this. And we hope we too can clean up our own acts so that you can trust we'll fulfil our side of the deal.
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2004.
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