Saturday, November 21, 2020

Something Wicked This Way Comes?

The United States recently held an election, and results are pending two weeks later. Regardless of the outcome, we must finally admit the American political scene isn’t something others want to emulate—at least not without substantial bribery. No longer confined to smoke-filled rooms with nondescript doors, today’s Pax Americana bribes take place at golf courses, academic institutions, and legislative bodies, culminating in an American national debt of 26 trillion dollars. 

Empire-building requires allies, and allies are apparently becoming more expensive. Though the inscription on the back of U.S. currency states “In God We Trust,” debt appears to be the undisputed binding agent. According to the Institute for International Finance, the coronavirus pandemic increased global debt to 272 trillion American dollars, adding symbiotic ballast to the more honest phrase, “In Debt We Trust.” Like all co-dependent relationships, momentum is key, and any well-traveled American has realized the momentum that made America great after 1991’s fall of the Soviet Union has shifted elsewhere. 

The United States was particularly vulnerable to political slogans due to its inability to recognize propaganda even as groups hardened around selectively-edited truth. (The world would be more decent were recruiting and advertising budgets called by their true name: propaganda.) Future historians will note entrenched divisions but are less apt to recognize its causes—and oh, the causes. Not only are they large, containing multitudes, Walt Whitman’s earlier words ne’er rang truer: “The past and present wilt--I have fill'd them, emptied them…” And for what? Lacking context, the abyss awaits once again, another empire ready to fall. 

My intent is not pessimism, but edification; namely, to show future generations the many-splendored ways a great nation can falter and never recover. Most astoundingly, though sources of political divisions are well-known to many Americans—gerrymandering plus local resistance to unfunded national mandates seeking reform—nothing can be done because once divisions encompass the weight of trillions of units of debt, everyone's interest is to go along. You'd think “going along” would coincide with “getting along,” but as it happens, the inevitable isn’t always certain. That’s our first lesson: knowledge is wonderful, but knowing the right path doesn’t mean anyone will follow you. Knowledge needs credibility to be meaningful in civil society, and credibility’s formula is complex and sometimes impervious to examination. 

We mentioned institutional bribery, but nothing fundamental has changed since at least the 18th century. Samuel Johnson may have said it best: “In civilized society, personal merit will not serve you so much as money will. Sir, you may make the experiment. Go into the street, and give one man a lecture on morality, and another a shilling, and see which will respect you most.” Americans would do well to remember governments can increase debt to win friends and placate enemies, but lasting loyalty is hard to find and even harder to buy. Lesson number two: unless institutions ensure they serve values of infinite duration and are able to reverse course when—not if—they go astray, nation-building and globalization are all for naught. 

If money and knowledge mean little in the long run despite their attraction, on what grounds shall we stake our claim? Locating suitable ground is difficult in every era because the future is always fragile. Money--a universal siren song--increases ego and power even if its possessor lacks wisdom and especially when debt is readily available. In this way, the greater the outward success, the more humility, a crucial element of all progress, cries out: Help!  To mitigate prosperity's unctuous byproducts, note the following: everything is incremental unless abject failure occurs. In other words, if you have succeeded, it is because you and your neighbors learned from others’ failures and benefited from time’s accumulative value. Note also that knowledge is neither good nor bad, neither positive nor negative. Its trajectory of success depends entirely on one’s ability to link personal knowledge to institutional knowledge useful to future generations. You have understood our third lesson when you realize it is the same as our second lesson.

Our fourth lesson is two-pronged: history and incentives. Growing up in the United States, I was inundated with the superiority of the Western capitalist system and believed it true not as an inherent economic matter, but because of its ability to absorb immigrants and thus new ideas. At the time, I had not traveled extensively, and I did not understand world history. I had no way of knowing USA’s most recent immigrants were present as a result of foreign policy mistakes and attempted coups rather than organic openness. A short summary may be useful: 

 White residents with Hispanic last names filled Miami, Florida after a failed CIA coup against Cuba’s Fidel Castro, ironically himself from noble Spanish lineage.

Seen in Sintra, Portugal

 Cupertino, California is home to residents who are Taiwanese and not Chinese because they were on the losing side of the Chinese Revolution, which rejected Western corruption. (Malcolm X called the Chinese who fled "Uncle Tom Chinese," i.e., people who betrayed their culture and country in service to American and European hegemony.)

 In southern California, Iranians live in Beverly Hills, California only because Western governments saw value in Iranian oil and natural gas.

 Meanwhile, in northern California, numerous Vietnamese restaurants exist because the Catholic Church, using Joseph McCarthy and Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, successfully lobbied Congress to split north and south Vietnam into de facto Communist and Catholic countries. The two-state attempt was unsuccessful, forcing the United States to re-settle foreign agents, who were conveniently assisted by Catholic nonprofits receiving both taxpayer funding and tax exemptions.

Even America’s Olympic medals appear immoral when considering American Christians (and others once connected with Catholic Spain) were able to breed the strongest Africans because they were convinced of God-given racial differences within a context of global trade of tobacco, sugar, and cotton.

Now we may discuss incentives. Most people view incentives from the back-end—being nudged in a particular direction—rather than the front-end, i.e., marketing and mandates. In USA, one reason I am certain of near-term decline is because politics has been reduced to another marketing gimmick, a show where governments signal importance by reacting decisively to events while protecting image at the expense of authenticity. Some cauldrons should not mix together, and the aforementioned political dynamic places the witches’ recipe firmly in the hands of unaccountable third-parties, with politicians serving a pre-fabricated brew guaranteed to poison. An attorney might cite Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), as the date marketing received a license to overwhelm sense, but marketing, at its root, is merely a promise based on words and images. W.H. Auden, my favorite poet, aptly summarized the age-old conflict inherent in mammalian speech:

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying 
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme 
Assumed responsibility for time. 

Let them leave language to their lonely betters 
Who count some days and long for certain letters; 
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep: 
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Is a legislator’s time at the podium or media outlet an attempt to effectuate a promise? If so, how can this be possible unless we assume a one-party state or a paradigm lacking checks and balances? 

Is billionaire Warren Buffett an insurance salesman propped up by a banking system further propped up by an unaccountable Federal Reserve? Or has he singlehandedly changed the world by bringing together billionaires in search of the public good? 

Is the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance designed to more easily funnel government funding to Catholic-dominated voting districts, or genuine concern about society’s moral failings? 

Does a black American “welfare queen” represent personal failure or the failings of an economic system unable to correct racial segregation? If over 80% of African-American women are overweight because their ancestors were bred like animals by enterprising slave traders, should companies allow certain groups more gym time, or should some people more readily accept a manual labor position? On the flip side, when an African-American athlete proudly salutes the American flag, is he ignorant of his country’s history, or is he an optimist who believes in progress? 

All of the above questions have objectively correct answers, but none ascertainable in our lifetimes. Each answer begins with one of the two interpretations, and then depending on the time of analysis, ends somewhere at the other end. If we are lucky, we muddle in the middle as long as possible. By way of example, imagine the Alpha and the Omega or al'Awwal (الأول) and al'Akhir (الآخر), but in a quantum computing setting involving collective free will: the answer is ever-present and yet always changing. 

Perhaps a more concrete example would be instructive. Consider the now-unified country of Germany, once known as the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) aka the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). When we discuss Germany, which Germany are we entitled to use for analysis? The future and past are necessarily intertwined, so if we only take today’s Germany, will our analysis be complete? If our analysis is almost always incomplete, then do you now understand the “crucial element” we discussed earlier? 

Yes, the fourth lesson is indeed the same as the second and the third, but you could not see it because marketers and politicians have spent billions of dollars proselytizing the belief everyone can go wherever they like on the al'Awwal (الأول) and al'Akhir (الآخر) timeline—often at a cost exceeding selectively-blind allegiance. In reality, your life involves predetermination as well as free will, a fact evident to those who recognize history was always assigned a seat at your table, whether invited or not. Luckily for Americans, their table may wobble, but it is still vast, it still contains multitudes, and unlike Hong Kong or Singapore, there are many, many empty seats available. 

I will leave the last lesson to baseball player Peter “Yogi” Berra: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” I am uncertain of our specific place in the nation’s timeline, but at this point, whether America’s table continues to wobble until it breaks is an outcome favoring free will over predetermination. In simpler terms, it is, once again, up to the youth, especially the builders, lovers, writers, and artists. Fix the table. There is time still. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (November 2020) 

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me, 
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing, 
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing. 

– Walt Whitman 

And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, 
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own, 
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers, 
And that a kelson of the creation is love... 

– Walt Whitman

The "rise of [American political conservatism in the 1980s] showed that hypocritical nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, more Christian pseudo-past is no less susceptible to manipulation in the interests of corporate commercialism and PR image. Most of us will still take nihilism over neanderthalism." -- David Foster Wallace