Thursday, August 14, 2008

on the genealogy of superpowers (the rules have changed again)

DISCLAIMER: i know nothing about anything. except pickles and british comedies. consider yourself warned.

thinking about russia and china gives me the feeling that there are a lot of things that just aren't right about the current risk-game-status of our world today.

i think the ebb and flow of world powers is quite a bit like climate change -- things take much longer than we anticipate, and the difficult thing to discern is whether or not the up or down-swing we're currently on is only a micro-swing, or indeed part of the larger shifting of power.

but it's quite obvious to me that america is currently on a downswing (in terms of real power) -- it's just not clear how worried we should be.

for a number of reasons, our military just isn't nearly as scary anymore. i'm not sure how much this has to do with its actual effectiveness or power (in a vacuum/the old-world), and i think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the rules have changed*-- but i don't feel it. we're also worn thin from current engagements. i also think military leadership has been compromised, bureaucratized to death, and ... in some cases, just plain stupid. i think rumsfield's attachment to small special ops groups was overstressed in iraq. it applies now, perhaps, but not when a 'real' government and 'army' was in place. kick the goddamned door down and get it over with.

we've also become too popular for our own good, and this is perhaps the beginning of america's downfall. popular seems like a silly word, but let's make an analogy:

think about people who were ultra-popular in high school. once they reached a certain status, there was bound to be a certain amount of quiet, (jealous?), spiteful hatred growing in the black jeanshorts wearing, greasy haired community (wow, that sounds incredibly like europe[eans] now that i think of it), and piled on top of the normal spotlight scrutiny for football chucking, spirit-filled greek gods and goddesses, and you've got the beginning of a tragedy -- depending on your point of view i suppose. some of the europeans leave their hometown, find out that their spite and intelligence actually get them somewhere in the new world they've discovered, and all of the sudden, there's a new set of standards to apply. financial success. artistic acceptance. career advancement. whatever. these things become the gold standard. now think of the guy at the office who has a strange sense of confidence about himself and his success, even though he has horrible people skills, and wears black jean shorts on the weekends. he's probably your boss. and at your 20th high school reunion, he'll be smiling a smarmy smile and show up in one of his many fancypants cars, and the starting quarterback will show up in a flannel shirt that stinks of parliment lights, a clip-on tie, a thick mustache, and permanent hometown-beerbreath. perhaps the most important part of this though -- is my insistence that the fancypants with all his spite isn't necessarily any more right than the lumberjack with all his beergut.

there's a powerful philosophical term to describe this phenomenon (well, not really, but my analogy inches toward the bigger idea from a humble place). -- everyone should read 'on a genealogy of morals' and some scheler at some point -- not because they're necessarily right, but because they write with such skill about an idea (ressentiment) that we should all think about more often.

in nietzsche's view/world -- christianity was wearing the black jean shorts. in my view/world, it's, well... most everyone but america. they've teamed up with the insider support of americans who've followed the political fashion lead of the fancypanters, and created a world where double standardheads and mediafaces have come up with a new set of proposed rules/truths. some of the more unfortunate ones:

- china and russia can do whatever they want. tibet. human wrongs. georgia. gulag 2.0, etc.

- islam needs not ever stand up or speak out against it's 'radical minority,' who bomb, and recruit, and bomb, and 'homophobe' (i made it a verb, yes), and 'elect' governments whose main tenent is the total destruction of the jewish people and israel, and bomb, and strut, and kill journalists, and kill politicians who voice opposition, and can't handle a cartoon about alah without killing and recruiting and bombing some more, and sit firmly and stubbornly in all ways possible in the 12th century. i mean, mormons freak out when one of 'their own' marries two wives and says it's part of the religion. and trust me, i have no soft spot for mormons, but there are not that many conclusions to be drawn from the silence. the rest of 'mainstream' islam is either afraid, mute, or they quietly condone the behavior. i can only reasonably rule out one of those possibilities. scary.

- america must conduct just wars, but no one else needs to.

- scowling and waving a judgmental finger at an evil is punishment enough.

- history has no instructive value, and most of it was made up by the winners anyhow.

- black jean shorts are acceptable apparel.

- the u.n. is an effective governing body.

SO WHERE DOES THIS PUT US? my gut feeling is that it's finally starting to take a toll we can't overwhelm with biceps -- a situation that none of us alive can wholly appreciate as americans. the difficult thing, of course, is how to find the middle ground between mindless ass-kicking and ass-kickingless pondering. it's also unfortunate that we've kept stirring the bees nest of islamofacism to the point where isolationism won't really have any calming effect for quite a long time. and even if it did, we don't live in a world where a country like ours can 'step aside' long enough to really focus on our own citizens' issues properly. and those issues are unpaid bills and a growing descrepancy between middle america and comfortable living. all the unfair new rules posed by the fancypantsers can't excuse us blame for our own growing idiocy.

9/11's contribution to our current economic status is often underappreciated, although the lack of oversight of banks on the part of the federal government has been just as damning. it's hard to say, especially as someone who believes in as little government involvement as possible, but when the companies involved are in the business of money - it seems like our corporations need more and more wrist-slapping when every week brings a new fraud investigation, or bailout, or bankruptcy.

and all of this weakens our ass-kicking. and it weakens our identity. we have less room for brilliant nuts and innovation. you'd hope that difficult times would bring important change, but i have little faith that real change can happen in today's landscape without a complete, fuck-all catastrophic collapse. like alternative energy - we will not get there until we have to. and when we have to, we will, because we're still a beacon for brilliant nuts, albeit diminished.

but the nuts who aren't so brilliant - those who fight for the right to ride motorcycles without helmets, and for the right to stockpile automatic weapons, and for the right to deny specific healthcare because of personal beliefs, and against the right to marry someone you can't make babies with -- they make change difficult. those who lead their people to play the victim because they can, those who buy things they can't afford and don't need, those who build the houses in connecticut (that i drive by every day) that could fit seven families for their trophy wives and spoiled children, those who drive escalades to work in the city every day, and those who won't pay their employees any more because they can find someone else who'll do it for half -- they make change impossible.

so perhaps we're on the way out. perhaps not -- it's a little blip in a grander history of influence and positive change in the world. but right now, at this moment, we're balding, and no one likes our jokes about gays and hippies anymore (they shouldn't). as our beergut and mustache grow, we become less lovable. and the fact is, you can kick more ass with the rest of the world as your posse. black jeanshorts aren't any more reasonable, but when the ex-quarterback starts cussing out brain usage and pissing the bed every night, it's hard to know just where to stand. what do you do when none of your leaders is admirable -- because the ones that mean it are pissing our bed, and the ones that talk big about clean sheets are destined to continue a trend of nothingness?

we're losing sleep either way, and there's not enough redbull to give us the wings we need.