Friday, February 01, 2008

Lest We Forget, Cohen's Peter Panglossianism, full text

From the Guardian 31 January

In tragedy, hubris, over-reaching pride, is what leads to the fall from fortune of the hero.

Roger Cohen's boosterism in the New York Times on "America's Riveting Democracy" is symptomatic. In Recessional, at the height of the Pax Britannica, Rudyard Kipling could foresee:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Not to mention a special mention for the neocons:

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard -
All valiant dust that builds on dust.

But there are no signs off such maudlin introspection in Cohen, who claims that the Pax Americana is "the unsung success story that gives pessimistic pontificators the time and luxury to postulate its demise". That would of course be a reference to making Iraq an economic and social desert and calling it peace, or practicing interventio interruptus in Afghanistan before pulling out to hunt the Snark in Iraq. Or it could be a reference to the peace that American partisanship has brought about in Gaza and the West Bank.

If he had contented himself with saying that the USA is still the most important superpower in the world, and had great potential for good, he would have had a point. But his exultant tone gives jingoism a bad name. He lacks the foresight even of the neocon and Star War boosters. At least they foresaw the eclipse of American economic power, and want to consolidate military supremacy.

Cohen cheers: "Obamania shows how great America's hold on the planetary imagination remains." Let us consider this. Maybe the rest of the world realises what many Americans seem to have forgotten, that Senator Obama's parents could not legally marry in the 16 states with miscegenation laws. The rest of the world might be seeing Obama's candidacy as a civility test for the superpower: has it exorcised Jim Crow, or is it still waiting for the Republicans (or indeed ex-President Clinton) to wheel it out the closet?

"As this election campaign is demonstrating, the United States remains the most vital, open, self-renewing and democratic society on earth," says Cohen, referring to elections in which the primaries are open only to those who can raise $120 million in campaign contributions. As Will Sutton went to the banks, so candidates go to the plutocrats, because that's where the money is - and that is why the money, in corporate welfare and tax breaks, will continue to go to the rich no matter who is elected. They are nails in the coffin, not rivets, until there is serious reform of election financing.

That is also why his Panglossian analysis of the "wishful thinking" that "the military strains in Iraq and Afghanistan, a credit crunch, spiraling debt and the specter of recession form a picture of American overreach and decline."

The US is running a huge fiscal deficit, a huge balance of payments crisis, and is bogged down in self-inflicted military commitments that it cannot successfully cope with. In doing so, it is dependent on the kindness of strangers, whom it habitually insults, including Chinese and other Asian central banks and Muslim oil producers. Roger really should have a touch of the recessionals.

The usual excuses are offered. "At a piddling 232 years old, the United States is a mere teen in historical terms. Demography, Google and the political fever of these primaries all indicate its vigor."

In fact, at 232 years, the US is old enough to know better. As an independent polity it is older than Italy, Germany, India and probably 180 other members of the United Nations. It is time for it, and Roger Cohen, to grow up and stop making excuses like a self-indulgent aging baby boomer with Peter Panglossian syndrome.

The citizens of Sweden, Holland, Britain, France and Spain can testify that there are positive advantages to giving up on hegemony and empire. Your children are not sent to die in faraway countries. The resources that used to go on military power can stay at home and provide education, health and pensions for your own citizens rather than bombs for denizens of other lands.

Yes, the US could exercise leadership, but it could also do some catching up and join the world community so people will listen. The next president and Congress could sign and ratify the Land Mine and Child Soldiers Conventions, the International Criminal Court, the Test Ban Treaty, the Law of the Sea, the Kyoto Protocols, like all the countries you actually want to lead. The US could actually adhere to the Geneva Conventions and stop kidnapping and torturing people. It would indeed be a small step for the next president, but a giant leap forward for mankind.

Even with your breathless patriotic purple prose, Roger, I bet you can't hold your breath that long.

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe -
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the Law

Rudyard Kipling was a patriot, who also welcomed rising American power even as he regretted what he saw as British decline. The US needs patriots like him, who can welcome a sharing of responsibility.

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