Sunday, October 30, 2016

Signs of cultural decline

I have previously* made reference to Daniel Kaufman's provocative critique of Western self-improvement fads. His key examples related to Werner Erhard's est program and its successors. Having no direct experience with these movements I can't really comment meaningfully though I've noted that – whilst I personally am averse to these sorts of programs – some of the underlying ideas do look at least interesting and are not obviously misguided.

I am in strong agreement, however, with Kaufman's general remarks about cultural impoverishment.

Cited below are the final two paragraphs of his piece which make a number of telling points. I especially like the bit about "broadcasting the obvious". And the notion of these fads being symptomatic of a "national emptiness or sadness" is also worth taking seriously.

This last point (deriving from a perception of a deep and general malaise; cultural decline, if you like) is hard to put into words that don't sound histrionic or at least very subjective, but that doesn't mean that such judgments have no basis in reality.

"Of course, self improvement, in the ordinary sense, is a part of the human condition, and an inability or unwillingness to change or evolve over the course of our lives is undoubtedly problematic. Marriage and parenthood and middle age have led to my changing and developing in myriad ways, as has my relocation from New York to the Lower Midwest. I’ve had to begin paying more attention to my physical condition; to moderate some of my more reactive tendencies; to let more things go, rather than fight them all out; and to give up who knows how many personal prerogatives that I would have insisted upon, when I was younger, single, and childless, roaming the hedonistic mecca that was 1980’s and 90’s Manhattan. There is nothing special about this – indeed, it is boringly common. It isn’t the result of a program or a project or a plan. It requires no explicit philosophy or discipline. There is no need to meditate or visualize or take special views or whatever the hell the current Self-Improvement crowd would like to suggest is necessary. The result is not “enlightenment,” but growing up and eventually, growing old. This means, alas, that there is nothing to tweet or blog about, no reason to set up a website or to write a book chronicling “the journey”… unless, that is, one wants to broadcast to the world the bloody obvious, and why on earth would anyone want to do that?

"It’s depressing to realize that the American memory is so stunted, so addled, that these fads have to be unmasked every decade or so and the same criticisms made over and over again. EST [the program developed by Werner Erhard] came upon hard times and was repackaged, in subsequent decades, into the “Landmark Forum,” which was even more successful than the original. Guru after guru has been revealed to be a crook, a fraud, or a pervert, but the parade of such characters and their mobs of credulous, adoring fans continues on, unabated. That Americans continue to exhibit an unending thirst for this sort of thing suggests that for all that has changed, we still have not escaped the grip of the malaise that arose in the wake of the 1960’s, the collapse of the counterculture, and the disintegration of America’s families. The retreat into cyberspace is only the latest and most radical manifestation of this national emptiness and sadness, and we can expect that as it deepens, the Cult of the Self will only grow stronger, easily overwhelming the few voices that rise up in opposition to it, and with no obvious end in sight."

* See my Google+ collection Language, Logic, Life. I also maintain the collection The Decline of the West: Observations and reflections (which is more political). You can follow all my Google+ activity via my profile or just follow a particular collection.

Friday, October 28, 2016

American exceptionalism and foreign policy

[This is a shortened version of my latest Electric Agora essay.]

I have previously drawn attention to the neoconservative elements of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy orientation and spoken of the dangers (as I see them) of a resurgence of such policies. At the time I wrote my previous piece on this topic (before the first TV debate), the polls were narrowing and the trend favored Trump. Subsequently, things have not gone well for the Republican campaign.

Assuming Clinton does win, I sincerely hope that she changes tack on foreign policy because – given the epochal changes currently underway in the geopolitical and economic spheres – I just don’t see how neoconservative-style policies, based on an essentially imperial vision of America’s role in the world and coupled with a deeply adversarial approach to Russia and China, could possibly play out in a benign way.

There are different views on this, of course, and I am not entirely sure of my position. On NATO, for example, I tend to the view that it should have been gradually scaled back or unwound after the demise of the USSR and that its expansion eastwards (in spite of assurances given to Gorbachev that this would not happen) and current activities have made the likelihood of large-scale war more rather than less likely. Charles Moore, a British neo-conservative who has a very dark view of Putin’s ultimate intentions, has made a case recently for NATO’s continuing importance in constraining Russia. There is no simple answer here. Perceived weakness and confusion on the part of Western powers will no doubt be exploited by hostile forces. But it is also true that alliances which operate as vehicles for hegemonic powers can be very problematic.

The word ‘realism’ can mean many different things, depending on context. Often it is used rhetorically and lacks substantive meaning. In international affairs, however, it has a generally accepted meaning. It comes in different flavors, but its key defining elements are clear enough. Realism in international relations is associated with strong skepticism about all forms of ideological thinking; an acute awareness of the dangers of the unforeseen consequences of military interventions; and generally modest expectations about what can be achieved on the international front.

As I understand it, there are competing factions within the Obama administration, some (like Obama himself, perhaps) not so committed to neocon-style policies and some more committed to hawkish intervention. I think the election of Hillary Clinton will give comfort to the latter group, and there will be a policy shift in that direction.

Someone asked in the course of the discussion of my earlier piece whether I really thought that the Chiefs of Staff would accept a presidential order to do something likely to trigger war with Russia or China.

It would depend on the circumstances. But it seems obvious enough that to the extent that the US follows neocon-like policies, the prerequisites for a big war (as distinct from more limited, regional conflicts) are more likely to be in place. The worst situations arise when countries fall readily into blocs and particularly if the blocs are very large and very few. We know this from the Cold War. At times we were very close to the brink of a global catastrophe. It would be so, so stupid and reckless to return to such a state of affairs. But many of the neocons seem to want just that.

I happen to think our future is bleak, whatever happens with this election and whatever policies the new administration adopts. But a major nuclear war is by no means inevitable and in my opinion is less likely in a multipolar world in which political leaders see their role more in local and regional than in global and ideological terms.

The Cold War was about power blocs, but it was also about ideology. The old Marxist-Leninist, Maoist and related ideologies have faded from the scene. I say it’s time for all of these overarching narratives to be dropped, including the idea that America has some kind of imperial destiny (or responsibility) to fulfil.

For years I bought into this narrative to some extent. But for a state to fulfil this kind of imperial role effectively, its strength and dominance and underlying economic health must be unquestioned. The state in question must also be widely trusted and respected. Arguably these conditions applied to the United States in the not-too-distant past. But today?

In America – and even to some extent in Britain – both neoconservatism and liberal interventionism are associated with the idea of American exceptionalism: that the United States has a special status amongst the nations, moral as well as military, and that from this status flow certain unique rights and responsibilities relating to global order and governance. In the past this myth has facilitated some very unfortunate actions – and maybe some good ones as well. But in current circumstances it can only be extremely dangerous.