Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What's The Big Deal?

So Chomsky has two articles out on the decline of American power. The first piece begins with themes and matters that those familiar with his work should recognize. Indeed, my introduction to Chomsky, via Bill Moyers' A World Of Ideas PBS series from 1988, included Chomsky complaining about the utter failure of anyone in any position of authority - political, academic, cultural - to call what the US did in South Vietnam during the Kennedy Administration "an invasion". I distinctly remember thinking as I heard him, then later read the collection of interviews Moyers published, "What in the world is this guy talking about?"

A quarter century later, and my thinking is only slightly different. Recognizing what Chomsky's goal has always been, as well as his hardly naive understanding of the nature of the rhetoric of the powerful, I now wonder why he claims to be puzzled by our lack of discussion of these matters in the terms that, he is correct to point out, describe them. As the premiere linguist of the previous century - a point no one in the field, or related fields, would dispute - Chomsky has to understand that how we use language is dependent upon our preferences, our social location, those whom we choose to serve, the prevailing boundaries of acceptable discussion policed by those in positions of authority, and the like. To continue to complain aloud that we in the United States not only do not recognize what the United States did in South Vietnam in 1962 as an invasion, but have passed the semicentennial without acknowledging its significance for our own recent history seems less like tenacity in the face of overwhelming opposition than it does simple crankiness, with a dash of pouting.

Of course no one in the US is going to point out that the anniversary has just passed of a major milestone in an evolving policy of failure. Of course no one wishing to hold a position of significant authority, prestige, and power is going to say, "From 1962 to 1965, the United States engaged in a military campaign that resulted in massive population dislocation, near-genocidal violence, creating the demand for military counter-measures that fed the Popular Front movement in South Vietnam." Not because the previous statement is contrary to fact; rather, because the previous statement, while accurate, is only one among many possible description of the event. Not to put too fine a point on it, which description we prefer depends an awful lot on that marvelous Latin phrase, Qui bono? Further complicating matters, as Chomsky notes in the first article, is that many who might well describe events in the former South Vietnam in a completely different set of terms do so because they honestly do not believe "invasion" properly describes those events. Laden with so much baggage, calling what happened "invasion" would, to those so inclined, render comprehension impossible. We need to acknowledge this reality before going too much further: Many in positions of power and authority actually believe their description of events is the only possible one; that this description is value- and agenda-neutral; that any other description, regardless of attention to historical fact, renders the event in question incomprehensible.

So much for a relatively minor quibble.

On the larger point of the two articles, I sit here and wonder: So? The American Imperial Project of the second half of the 20th century, rooted in the lucky contingency of our being the only major belligerent of the Second World War not to be invaded was always understood as temporary.

While the post-war planning conceded this was not a position we would hold in perpetuity, as Chomsky rightly states, there was little important dissent from the main thesis: Our position as the dominant global hegemon after 1945 was to be maintained for the benefit of important industrial and corporate interests, which had been the key players in determining our national policy, foreign and domestic, since the last quarter of the 19th century. Remaking the world for the American corporation is neither surprising, nor even all that interesting; such had been the case since the railroad, mining, sugar, and later oil interests had made many states, the United States Senate, and on several occasions the Presidency, wholly-owned subsidiaries of their interests (Ron Chernow's description of the political machinations among the great industrial and financial barons in the Gilded Age, in his biography of John D. Rockefeller, should be required reading for anyone interested in American political history).

When Karl Rove said that, as an Empire, the United States was in a position to create its own reality, he was stating a rather droll truism that had held since Alexander, limping back through the Khyber Pass after his one and only defeat, knew to be the case. At the same time, events in the world had changed to the point where the ability of the American Imperium to dictate the terms of reality were being impinged upon by rising powers, many of which Chomsky discusses in the articles in question. While much of the anger roused by Rove's statement was rooted in some kind of abstract disgust at the idea that reality is rooted in the dictates of power, little of significance was said about the reality of America as Empire, and what that means for us.

America has always been uneasy with any description of itself as an imperial power, except among those who have constructed the various American Empires (there are several). In a book entitled First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country A World Power, former diplomat and historian Warren Zimmerman makes clear that the first American Empire was only an equivocal success with the American people; our trial run for later counter-insurgency wars, in The Philippines, was both horribly managed as well as unpopular at home (much like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan). Much of the rhetoric of American Empire after the Second World War consciously ignored any use of the term, even as, in all practical terms, the US went about remaking the post-war world in its own interests, as well as those who had invested in its success.

It is hardly surprising that Americans are uneasy with ourselves as an Imperial power. It is also unsurprising that the American people usually voice a far more practical, limited use of our military power in defense of our interests; for just one recent example, American support for on-going military operations in southwest Asia, already low, declined even further once Osama bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces in Pakistan. As a people, we see no contradiction between supporting actions that line up with our interests, but having achieved the most important goal - in this case, removing the threat from the leader of the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks - ending our military operations. The American people, having achieved little of benefit from Empire, see no reason either to support it, or invest any emotional (let alone political, financial, or economic) capital in it. That our political leaders continue to act to shore it up even events around the world make it ever more difficult to sustain is yet another sign of our decline. The habit of dictating reality is far too ingrained in our elites to stop, despite the growing mountain of facts to the contrary.

As the American Empire wanes, we here at home - much like our British counterparts in the last century - can breathe a sigh of relief that the burdens of managing an increasingly unmanageable international system is passing to others. While there are significant transnational, even supranational, structures in place that do and will bear some of the burden during this period of transition, their lack of transparency and accountability may limit their effectiveness. I, for one, am quite happy to see America no longer assume the role of planetary hegemon. We have much work to do here at home, and our role in international affairs would benefit from attention to the rumblings for democratic accountability here at home that have manifested themselves across the political spectrum (and here I part company with many on the Left in defending the practice of the Tea Party; while it is true enough it would never have emerged without significant financial sponsorship, the many supporters of its goals and policy preferences were voicing a time-honored American demand for democratic accountability that ideological opponents ignore at their peril).

One can love this country, yet at the same time breathe a little easier at the thought that we are no longer the determinant power around the globe. The American decline is, by and large, something we all should support, and work toward hastening.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More