1. I try not to talk politics much here. I don’t have the background or knowledge as yet to say anything really worthwhile about it. So don’t ask me for a rundown of how the past twenty years have gone and what we as a nation have to show for it all, though I don’t think anyone would deny that we’re worse off than we were in just about every way. It looks to me like America’s entered a full-on decline, which is accelerating fast, but where that will lead, I haven’t the foggiest.
2. That day twenty years ago marked the end of the heady, hopeful interval of the 1990s following the end of the Cold War: the time where, for many people at least, it seemed we’d reached the happy ending of history, a golden age born of the triumph of the Baby Boomers. It was always an illusion, of course; merely the penumbra of a sin, between the commission and the consequence, when it looks like you’ve gotten away with it after all.
I’m speaking generally. The consequences were already being felt on an individual level, but hadn’t yet penetrated enough into the public conscience to cause the sense of unease and disaffection that they do now. At least, that’s my impression of the era.
In any case, that time came to an end on September 11, 2001.
3. Hard to believe it’s been that long. I remember it quite well. I was in sixth or seventh grade at the time. We were kept in at recess for no reason whatsoever, then at the end of the day there was an announcement: “We in this country sometimes forget how much more fortunate we are than some other people….” That’s how it began. Which, in retrospect, is a kind of disgusting way to break the news that thousands of your fellow citizens have been murdered: rather like beginning the news that a family member was killed in a drive-by with a comment on racial injustice. Bit of a herald of things to come.
As I recall, rumors were beginning among the students even before the announcement. Then I remember going home and turning on the news and seeing a big hole in the side of the building. At first I thought ‘oh, that’s not too bad.’ Then I found out that was footage from earlier in the day. It was a process of realizing what actually had happened: big holes in the building. One building’s partially collapsed. One’s collapsed entirely, the other damaged. Both are completely destroyed. It was odd to my twelve-year-old brain to realize that a great landmark like that was actually gone for good.
4. I also remember footage of people dancing and cheering in the streets in…I think the Palestinian parts of Israel it might have been? Somewhere in that area. I never forgot that over the next few years as ‘tolerance’ and ‘oh, how sad it was that Middle Easterners are being profiled’ replaced outrage and patriotic zeal. I remember how quickly that happened, by the way, and how little there was to go on. I may have missed something, of course, but I only ever heard of a few minor incidents of that sort of thing actually happening. Though it was common enough in TV shows.
5. I was a pretty enthusiastic supporter of the subsequent wars, of Bush, and so on for a long time. I wanted something to be done. I wanted America to reassert its dominance in the world, and I was then still fully onboard with the American creed. Quite a bit has changed since then, and I’m not entirely sure how.
Looking back, I’m still not completely against the wars, at least in principle. But then, I’m not against imperialism. But modern America is not cut out to be an empire. To be an Empire, you have to truly believe in your right to rule. That was true when Americans saw themselves as the shining city on the hill, the beacon of freedom to the world. Conquering large swathes of Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii, and so on were, therefore, a way of spreading freedom to more people.
We don’t believe in that anymore, at least the majority of the population doesn’t. We’ve been raised on tales of Vietnam and the movements of the 1960s and 70s, conditioned to regard imperialism as an insult, something that bad people and bad countries do out of greed and arrogance. So we had the ridiculous spectacle of America trying to do an empire’s job while insisting that it wasn’t an empire: that we weren’t ruling Iraq and Afghanistan, we were liberating them, and that they would be eager to accept democracy and so forth once it was offered to them, because who doesn’t want to be free?
I rather think that if we had acted as an empire, if we’d put down in these places and simply said “we’re in charge now, deal with it,” and claimed them as territories, that may have gone off better. A fait accompli is generally accepted better than a patronizingly half-hearted ‘we’re just going to rearrange the furniture a bit and make things better for you and then we’ll let you alone’. Because for most people, stability is far more important than the specifics of law or government. A settled and enforced rule as the new status quo is easier to accept, whoever the rulers are, than an indefinite and hazy promise of improvement.
But all that’s academic, and I may be completely wrong. I haven’t studied the situations either Iraq or Afghanistan, so I don’t know.
6. For me, the past twenty years, especially the past few, have brought considerable disillusionment. I don’t believe in the American creed anymore, for one thing: the notion of ‘the last best hope of mankind’, the ‘shining city on the hill’ and the rest of it. I view it in much the same way that I see classical mythology: beautiful as a story, but false and dangerous to believe in. But that doesn’t mean I’m no longer invested in my nation. I feel towards it much the same way that, say, a Catholic Jacobite in 18th England or a Christian in Japan might feel: precisely insomuch that I want it to survive, thrive, and be great, I see that it needs conversion.
7. A rather grim and downbeat retrospective, I’m afraid. Here’s an Mst3k short to lighten things up:
4 thoughts on “Flotsam: Twenty Years Later”
To add a little additional levity to this topic, want to play a game? Unless you happen to have already come across the passage, I bet you can’t guess, without looking it up, what famous Briton said this:
“It is a terrible element of weakness that now we are not well provided with the name and ideal which would recommend and justify our Empire. ‘Freedom’: it is perfectly true that British freedom is the best, the only successful freedom, but that is because, with whatever drawbacks, those who have developed that freedom have done so with the aid of law and obedience to law. The cry then should be ‘Law and Freedom, Freedom and Law’. But that does not please: it must be ‘Freedom’ only. And to that cry there is the telling answer: ‘No freedom you can give us is equal to the freedom of letting us alone; take yourselves out of India, let us first be free of you.'”
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Hm…a very nice passage. I can think of several possibilities: the subject matter suggests inter-war period to me. ‘Freedom and Law’ and the notion that the Empire might be recommended suggests a non-leftist writer. Part of me wants to say C.S. Lewis or even Prof. Tolkien, another part Agatha Christie. Still another George Orwell (who was left-leaning, but also clear-sighted). Of course, that’s just sticking to the literary world: branching out into politics…no, apart from Churchill, I’m not familiar with anyone’s writings enough to say, and I don’t think it’s Churchill.
I confess I do not know.
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Actually, it was Gerard Manley Hopkins, in an 1886 letter to Coventry Patmore. (The context was that Patmore’s poems were “a good deed done… for the British Empire”, since England, though unwilling to properly promote freedom and unable to promote the Faith – “That is the great end of Empires before God, to be Catholic and draw nations into their Catholicism” – could at least offer her culture as “an attraction and a thing of value” to other nations, provided that that culture demonstrated its vitality by continuing to produce things of such worth as Patmore’s writings.)
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As a veteran who’s seen Afghanistan (not in or around combat, but involved in the NATO “nation-building” prop-up of their “democratic” government), and followed the news out of both fronts of this late “war,” I think you drilled the bull’s-eye with this one. Worse than acting like an Empire is acting halfway like an Empire and not owning it.
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