Thursday, August 29, 2002

America, Increasingly Isolated by Hate, Virtue, Governance and Power


It's a lonely and unsatisfactory life to be the toughest kid on the block and we as a nation have been that for the twelve years since the fall of communism. Our defense budget exceeds all those of the rest of the world's nations combined and we are not even a power to be reckoned with. When no one can reckon with us, we become more and more isolated to our own rhetoric, without a meaningful voice to caution our world view. Truly a home-grown country, our men of power are world traveled but hardly world wise. Few of them have ever lived abroad and fewer yet have a feel for cultures beyond their own and if ever a criticism cut deeply and cleanly it's the truism that America is a pop culture.

Put in perspective, we have fielded some truly great modern men and women and shouldered the wheel admirably in difficult times. Ed Murrow and Franklin Roosevelt and in more recent times Bill Moyers and Katherine Graham, excusing myself from leaving out your personal favorite but there were many. And yet they lived and were shaped by the need to negotiate, the requirements of complexity in a world of other powers and other voices. The old joke of the last man on earth turning out the lights brings more of a chill than a smile as America becomes that last man. Or am I just having a bad day?

There was a time when American industry competed with rather than bludgeoned the world, yet where I live in central Europe, American movies, music and consumer products are changing the landscape. The planet is in danger not only from warming, but from Microsoftening. It's increasingly possible to travel internationally and never really leave America, relegating the previously valued and culturally powerful nations of the world to tourist sites where one can always get a Coke. We need to be cautious of that, because there are other isolations than military.

The isolation of hate is one. Increasingly, it's becoming unattractive and in some places dangerous to be identified as American. We are too rich, too self assured, too careless and far too dangerous to be loved, and love (or at least a degree of respect) is the necessary precursor to understanding. That respect is undermined by a history of convenience, genocide and racism that undermines our moral authority to criticize and isolate governments practicing as we practiced. We forget our bloody past because we've grown past it, but the world remembers our 18th and 19th century genocide against our native population as we try Milosevic in an international court. The world remembers American slavery, the police dogs and brutalization of the march on Birmingham as we shun China for its civil rights violations. The world knows America cut down all its forests as we point fingers at the Amazon. There are too many Battistas, Sukarnos and Marcos in our past, too many subversions of government by Dulles and Kissinger and the CIA, too many terrorists supported to come to a war on terrorism with clean hands. We veto a World Court for fear that powerful Americans may find themselves among the indicted.



The isolation of virtue is another, thinking of ourselves as gladhearted and generous, sharing our national values with the less advantaged. As an immigrant nation we see ourselves the envy of the poor and downtrodden who came to our shores with hope and ambition. But that denigrates the enormous percentage who stayed home to remain French and German, Chinese and Italian, scores of nationalities whose cultures stretch ten times the length of ours. And they're proud of their cultures, those Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, French, Chinese, Portugese and Brits who fired the iron that became the steel of America. We think of ourselves as good people and we are good people, but our hands have not always been clean and are not yet. We are perhaps the envy of the world, but envy is not respect and envy pays a bitter price in congenial society.



The isolation of the governed has certainly become obvious to even the most unengaged and disinterested citizen. The Senate and House of Representatives are more subject to special interest than ever in their history, the cost of winning and maintaining a seat so punitive as to tie their vote irrevocably to moneyed interests. Unable to detox themselves from the cocaine of money, they legislate against the drug and cigarette habits of a populace long gone to sleep. The Supreme Court decision that gave us an un-elected president is but one case of the depth of the nap, the War on Terrorism, undeclared against an ill defined enemy is but another. Allowing the president to unilaterally nullify a treaty approved by Congress is merely further evidence that our elected representatives have their eyes too closely and constantly on the money to pay attention. Who's running this show? becomes painfully evident with tax codes, accounting procedures and rules of merger-acquisition granted to the foxes for the running of the chicken coop. Enron has everyone running for cover and it's engaging comedy, if only it weren't so painful.



Finally, the isolation of power requires an enormous sense of justice and restraint. It's likely that we have come to the one without the necessary maturity to handle the other. And yet the laws that bring down the powerful have not yet been rescinded. The overreaching arrogance at Enron brought a corporate culture to its knees. The irresistible power of the American military proved useless against the suicide mission of a handful of terrorists. We must come to the realization that Enron and the World Trade Center disaster are not anomalies and are not behind us. They are wake-up calls to weaknesses in American business and political policies, both of which have become captive to short-term profit motives and the temptations of market domination. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" has never been more clearly illustrated than the example of the American political, military, business and congressional communities.