Friday, September 11, 2009

The Culture of "No We Can't"

It took less than 48 hours after the president's health-care speech for even the liberal media outlets like NPR and The New York Times to point out the obvious problems of White House numbers for health-care options that were simply unworkable, and the additional problems faced in planning for a surge in Afghanistan that the Democratic Party is loath to approve. It's not just that Obama is being shot by both sides, with the left now taking the place of Joe Wilson. It's that Obama still longs for the days of a 1962 Camelot, and those days ain't comin' back.

I give Obama endless credit for being frank about global warming, the financial meltdown, etc. at times when few in either party (almost none in the Republican) show such ability for forthrightness. The problem is, massive Keynesianism is unlikely to be paid down in an era of declining resources.

Let's face it: the United States is a declining global empire at a time when most capitalist goods-and-service flows will be moving to Asia, but when all nations will face limits to market expansion they have never faced in past decades. U.S. citizens need to start thinking of themselves as UK post-1956 or Germany post-1945. Is there anyone in the political leadership willing to steer citizens in such directions? Are citizens themselves capable of associating American exceptionalism with something other than continuous territorial expansion? I doubt it.

I'm usually bashing exceptionalism as a philosophy, particularly when tied to that "city on a hill" crap. But we can indeed be exceptionalist in an era of decline. In culture, for example, the world is likely to continue to look to the U.S. for most arts ideas and capitalist innovation, unless China manages to make great leaps forward in making Asian consciousness cool. As the Brits discovered in the early 1990s, the UK could still be considered "coolest country in the world" long after its empire collapsed. (Of course, it had to work its way through dark 70s and Thatcherist 80s to get there.) But to come to terms with that, U.S. citizens need to start accepting concepts of financial limits, territorial limits, even consciousness limits (What's that? We can't afford another trip to the moon, let alone Mars?) that politicians will avoid like a Bill O'Reilly appearance.

The Republicans show no tendencies to drop the caveman clubs and the attitude that we can keep our imperial position through might and fight. The Democrats show no willingness to admit that deficits incurred now may be impossible to pay down by mid-century. An effective president might have to be the kind of school marm that preaches austerity and humble spirit to a public that is not going to listen. The leaders we need right about now are the ones we'll never get.

I'm glad Obama infused optimism in a jaded public in 2008, but I'm worried that his supporters don't recognize that Camelot will never be resurrected. (And truth be told, the Kennedy brothers engaged in some pretty nasty covert foreign business behind the scenes during those years.) Does Obama work on health care for six months, re-work the numbers, and say, Hillary-style, "Oh, never mind"? Does he reject a troop surge and approve an exponential increase in armed UAV flights over Afghanistan, thereby limiting body bags but buying into a moral argument that says standoff warfare with massive collateral damage is OK?

I empathize with Obama for the tough choices he will have to make over the next three years. But I feel even more sorrow for the American people, who live by many fairy tales and few facts. They are totally unwilling to recognize the reality that the superpower they grew up with has reached its limits, and that the next 50 years will represent an inevitable decline in political influence and purchasing power.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

My father-in-law remembers when JFK heard explicitly from Congress that they would stop him at every turn. He was Catholic, after all, and we can't have none of them. So I wonder what Camelot really was.

It's time for Americans to wake up, for sure. But I am skeptical that Republican induced terror here at home (hey, they're terrorists!) will do anything but keep that group from evolving gracefully into the next American age of "post-ness."