Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Not that I Haven’t Written it Before

Whoever gets the Democratic presidential nomination, we can be sure that the television talking heads will line up behind McCain once the issue is settled. Unfortunately, their obvious prejudice will matter because the vast majority of Americans get their news and from a mass media that is owned by six corporations. There is no monopoly on the dissemination of information and ideas in the United States, but there is a monopoly of the means of propaganda. While our press is not completely unfree, it is just not the case that we have a free press, which is to say, we don’t have a press free enough to maintain a decent country.

The problem is structural. While the television personalities surely bear a moral responsibility for what they have inflicted on the country and the world, our journalism is not mediocre because its personnel are mediocre. The causation runs the other way around. The plum jobs are straight up trades of self-respect for money and airtime. Who else but a contemptible person would be willing to front a gossip hour and call it news? Only dubious characters need apply; and when, as happens once in a while, somebody shows a little integrity and rebels, they end up with a teaching job.

If Jack McCoy were a real person, I expect he’d want to indict several TV anchors on 250,000 counts of second-degree murder for their guilty complicity in electing Bush. It was a clear-cut case of depraved indifference homicide since putting a person like that in charge of a nation had foreseeable consequences. From a policy point of view, however, what’s needed is political action to break up an intolerable concentration of media power in irresponsible hands so that honorable and intelligent people can again find an audience. We need to break up G.E., Time Warner, CBS, Clear Channel, Fox, and the rest and to do what ever else is necessary to ensure that all points of view have access to mass markets.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Translatio Imperii

Chalmers Johnson, echoing an old theme of political philosophy, points out that a nation clings to empire at the cost of eroding the domestic liberties of its own people. He praises the British for giving up their empire and thereby preserving a liberal form of government. As a general proposition, I agree with Johnson; but I think he gives the British rather too much credit because their renunciation was made entirely more palatable because they ceded dominion to a kindred people who spoke their language and shared many of their values and institutions. The translation of empire was a family affair. If the United States ever brings itself to forgo hegemony, this consolation will not be available.

The really alarming thing is not that the next imperial power will not be Anglo-Saxon or even Western, but that there is no obvious heir to the throne of any kind. India and China are obviously rising powers, but it is rather hard to imagine them attaining anything like the pre-eminence the British enjoyed in the 19th Century and we’ve had since World War II. It will be a tremendous accomplishment for them to maintain their own unity and prosperity in the face of exhausted resources and environmental degradation. Projecting power globally is probably beyond their capabilities and, aside from attaining specific purposes such as securing oil, wouldn’t be in their national interests. In any case, the Chinese and the Indians simply don’t have the Messianic ideologies necessary to aspire to universal domination. Marxism is out of gas, and Indian cultural nationalism is intrinsically parochial. We’re willing to blow foreigners to smithereens in the name of Democracy. What would the Indians kill for? Ahimsa?

Imagining a world without a master requires more imagination than most of us can muster, and it is far from clear whether international commissions and regional condominiums can keep maintain order for very long. Chalmers Johnson is famously unhappy about the hundreds of bases that the United States maintains throughout the world, but what would actually happen if we gave up all those imperial outposts? I take it that’s anything but a rhetorical question, and it’s not a question for Americans only.

Old and decaying empires last as long as they do because the surrounding powers find it safer to preserve them than to deal with the chaos that would follow their destruction. The U.S. is not yet the sick old man of North America, but it is remarkable how willing the other countries have been to indulge our national vanity while underwriting our national debt. Apparently the legacy hunters want the geezer to survive, at least until they get to sneak a look at the will and assure themselves that they’ll inherit something valuable and not just a bunch of bills.
So Who’s Bitter?

The rural/working class population of the United States is hardly homogeneous. To a considerable degree, what we're really talking about here is the culture and politics of one big slice of the pie: Southern whites, whether in the South or in their diaspora. For them, as it was for Jackson, Polk, or Jefferson Davis, freedom just is the right of white men to do what they want, no matter the foreseeable consequences to other people or the health of the planet. Minorities and women can go hang or be hanged, as the case may be; and aggressive military adventures are automatically justified and enthusiastically promoted because they enlarge the domain of the real America. This group tends to gestures of adolescent rebellion combined with de facto cringing subservience to their betters, heroic levels of substance abuse, and an absurd glorification of noise, ignorance, and violence. The sentimental or hysterical worship of an idol named Jesus doesn't do much to moderate this bad behavior. Indeed, the Fundamentalist strain of Protestantism actually excuses pathological folkways by blaming avoidable failings on original sin. The continuing problem of American history is how to civilize this bunch or, failing that, how to limit the damage they do to themselves and the rest of us. For more than 200 years, the South has punched above its weight in American politics. To Hell with their purported bitterness and the cynical interests that incite and exploit it