Decline and Fall

by , September 25, 2008

As I read the latest headlines reporting the ongoing implosion of the domestic economy and the ominous signs of a pending explosion in the international sphere, I watch a leaf fall from a very great height. The redwoods out here are like the pillars of a temple built by Titans, and a leaf caught in a distant branch has a long way to fall. I mistake it for a golden butterfly at first, but as it wafts downward, and my tired old eyes come into focus, I see it is a leaf. It’s Indian summer out here in California wine country, the best time of year, and it’s easy to turn away from the news of a collapsing civilization – because what’s really collapsing is my retaining wall, and that ain’t good!

I won’t bore my readers with yet another bloggish first-person account of My New Home in the Country: that’s been done elsewhere and far better than I could. I only bring it up because my reasons for moving out here, from the cosmopolitan highways and byways of Baghdad-by-the-Bay to the little old town of Guerneville, Calif., aren’t the typical Writer Needs to Get Away and Write the Great American Whatever… No, my motives are political, in a sense, and are best expressed in a poem by one of my favorite writers, Robinson Jeffers, in "Shine, Perishing Republic":

"But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.”

Jeffers, who lived and wrote in the interim between two world wars, foresaw this moment, and his advice to his children is – flee! Jeffers himself fled to Carmel-by-the-Sea, which back then was a veritable wilderness, much like the Russian River area, where I live, is today. He moved there with his wife, Una. She was married to a prominent attorney and member of the local gentry when she met Jeffers, and their affair was a scandal. Jeffers moved to Carmel, one imagines, in large part to get away from the thundering herd: he was an isolationist in more than one sense, a very private man and a very political poet. As war clouds gathered on the European horizon, and the "radio-parrots" – as he called them – took up the cry for U.S. intervention, he spoke out against what he clearly saw as inevitable:

"While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.
You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic."

The old republic is perishing in the flames of the Middle Eastern war, dragging down our standard of living and our morals in one fell swoop. Caesarism is the spirit of the moment, perhaps of the age, and the days when constitutional government and the rule of law set America apart from the rest of the world are numbered. We know not how the final crisis will erupt and blow away the last shards of the Founders’ dream; yet the wolves are howling, and the vultures are hovering overhead. They smell blood.

I don’t want to be there when the crowds go wild at discovering that the money they thought they had in the bank wasn’t really there – and the ATM will no longer oblige. A bank run can get ugly, as we are only beginning to discover.

The mentality that brought all this about was epitomized, in my mind at least, by the comments of an anonymous top White House aide, who, in making the case for the Iraq war and the administration’s dream of transforming the Middle East, remarked to journalist Ron Suskind:

"The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’"

Yes, we will study the roots of the disaster, the psychology – or perhaps the correct word is psychopathology – of the men who brought us to this awful moment, who destroyed a civilization that held out such hope for mankind. We will gaze in awe and growing horror at the sheer scope of their terrible hubris, a sin in the eyes of the gods for which we are all being punished. Divine justice can be rather rough.

Power breeds arrogance and quickly becomes an overweening pride. In Washington, they imagine they can legislate their way out of the crisis and once again conjure up a convenient reality: this, they believe, is their prerogative as history’s actors. The rest of us, you see, are only acted upon.

Their failure is inevitable, but there’s a way out for them, if they can manage to pull it off. Yes, you guessed it: another war, another foreign "enemy," a heretofore undetected threat to the Homeland that will divert us – and keep the engines of the economy running.

Of course, it will be a different sort of economy. You can forget all that rhetoric about the "free market" and the joys of "globalization." In the global division of labor, America has chosen the niche of the world’s policeman: the undeveloped world provides agricultural and unfinished goods, the East is the world’s factory, and the U.S. "protects" the whole arrangement, putting down insurgencies when they erupt and toppling "rogue" regimes that don’t go along with the program. Any nation that defies the will of the "benevolent global hegemon" faces an American military colossus, which feeds upon a budget equal to the combined defense budgets of all the other nations on earth, by some measures more than equal.

The problem with this arrangement is that an empire, far from being a benefit, is nothing but a burden. Our $3 trillion war with Iraq is ample testimony to that. And the bill will only get larger. It is a cliché that America no longer produces anything. Yet we do produce something, in these latter days of our perishing republic – wars, and plenty of them.

Ares has replaced Athena as our patron and protector, but there is a reason why the war god was hated by the other Olympians. He was, after all, a vengeful, capricious, and cowardly sort, at least as depicted in the Iliad.

The fight against the acolytes of the war god is going to be a long and hard one. Yet even now their conceit that they are "history’s actors," and we – the hoi polloi – are just bystanders, is being blasted to smithereens. As the crisis of our civilization deepens and the real economic consequences of imperialism are made manifest, those bystanders will become what one political commentator and three-time presidential candidate likened to "peasants with pitchforks" – and then, watch out.

I’ll be watching it all from a respectful distance, far from the center of the corruption, consoling myself with the thought that at least it won’t be boring.

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