Friday, June 22, 2007

this historic moment: life preservers advised

American exceptionalism—or the fact that I hail from the most powerful and important nation on earth— is always in sharper focus when I’m living abroad. Granted, I may be a bit Europeanized and thus not the 'typical American', but (1) I am American (hell yeah!) and (2) what is the typical American, anyway, in a country as diverse and unique as ours? (A question for another time.) 

 Three articles this morning have me thinking along these lines. First, Azar Gat writes about the return of Authoritarian Capitalists, in the form of China and Russia, as giants on the world stage. He invites us to wonder where the world would be today without the leadership and perseverance of liberal democratic America. (Touche', mon ami, but I do hate having to define our greatness through contradistinction to countries that suck.)

 Second, also in the IHT, Margarita Mathiopoulos writes about the European (and worldwide) need for a strong US and an improved transatlantic alliance. In short, we need to get over our much-ballyhooed but relatively insubstantial differences and think in terms of global hegemony (as any global hegemon should). This means working together in containing long term threats such as int'l terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and China & Russia's rise to power (though hopefully that will become a huge rivalry that we can exploit!). We've cooperated in the first area, but the other two have been overlooked, possibly to our great detriment.

 Finally, on a well-timed lighter note, Paul Krugman writes in the NYT that American stature is diminishing—literally, we are getting shorter and have ceded our title as world's tallest people to all the other advanced industrial countries. I’m serious. We also have a significantly shorter life expectancy. This could be because we are becoming what we eat-- i.e. crappy fast food--and/or because we don't take care of our children as well as we used to, and/or because we sit in front of the telly/laptop too much. One could call this quintessentially "American", but I prefer to think of it more as a universally human response to living an 'easier', more sedentary post-industrial lifestyle. This is the lifestyle we are exporting to the rest of the world, via Europe, which is now having to deal with its  own obesity epidemics. It'll be interesting to see if this trend develops as strongly in Asia, which has increasingly higher standards of living but hasn't yet seen a comparable health deterioration.

 Taken together, these articles reinstill a sense of the historic moment I believe we are living. It is not the best of historic moments for our great nation. If the world were a sports league and countries the players, we would continue to be the ten-time MVP. But one can't help but worry we've become the aging veteran, clinging to our last days of glory, before younger, more ambitious superstars take over the reins. Or perhaps we are the big-time rock star of the world who, at the very peak of his popularity and potential, pisses away his talent and money and, like, ODs.

 Put simply, there are more and more signs that we are a decadent society weaving our own destruction through a combination of quick-fix, entertainment culture and short-sighted, hyperpoliticized policy. So obvious now are these signs that we (or our children) will gape with wonder at how we could have been so willfully ignorant for so long, until it developed into a full fledged, undeniable crisis (I'll save the signs and the reaction for a separate post).

 We’re surrounded by a cacophony of voices from countless media outlets, so I suppose one could find opinion pieces like these 3 pretty much every day. The problem with this info overload is that the messages are reduced to so much white noise in the background of our lives: real and true but so unapproachable that we take for granted the disconnect between the two. There’s the endless stream of news and talking heads, and there’s today’s to-do list. Except for a minority of lucky (or cursed) people, there’s hardly any overlap between the two. Maybe that’s the way it’s always been, but it seems like the infamous postmodern claim that explosion of information leads to implosion of meaning has real merit in our time. To echo Mathiopoulis, the creation of a global village and global solidarity movements doesn’t necessarily bring us all together. It might bring many micro-groups together, say video game players, Portuguese language enthusiasts, Sopranos viewers, mountain climbers. But I still feel that, in this moment of the information society where distance and time are nullified, the world both comes together in new ways yet remains as fractured as ever--or even more so. Especially for well-educated young people with many career options, it's so easy to get caught like a dear in the headlights: a chaos of causes, effects, opinions and sources (blogs are great for this!) which leaves you wanting to crawl into your own shell of safety and comfort.

 Leave it to ye old pessimist to dismiss the utopian promise of the internets. But all this new tech supporting a realignment toward a new world order hasn’t changed politics as usual in the US (or the world, if we look at the G8/WTO crew)—at least not yet. The Netroots seem to be our best hope for challenging the dominant paradigm, and their organizational capacity and cultural influence are growing (though they're mostly a negligible group of people talking to/at  each other). Whether they’ll pull the Democratic Party leftward or otherwise trip up the GOP is another question. Movements take time: I'm not about to write off the digital underground.

 But for now, the US ship of state, a historical giant and the single most important hope for the future of liberal democracy, seems to be sinking. This at a time when urgent global challenges require our fullest attention and leadership. I truly hope we do not pull a Titanic. Boy oh boy is the next president going to have his/her work cut out for him/her!

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