Good Riddance to the Devil's Decade
Well, That Sure Sucked

December 28, 2009

As I understand it, certain pundits are struggling with finding an appropriate name for the decade now mercifully coming to an end.

What’s the problem, I wonder? Are their word processor dictionaries redacted of all four-letter words? I mean, I could think of a few dandies, right of the top of my head.

Short of the 1860s or 1930s, this was perhaps the most disastrous decade in American history, and it deserves a good goddamed label to celebrate that fine achievement.

More on that below. Meanwhile, whatever the appropriate term, it’s important to keep things in perspective. I think the most crucial notion to understand about our time – and perhaps the only way to make sense of it – is to see it as the point where the process of imperial decline shifted into third gear. That explains a lot. I like to think that even Americans wouldn’t be capable of the sick stupidity we’ve witnessed over these harrowing years without the effects of rapid altitude decline and the loss of cabin pressure that the ship of state has been experiencing during this era.

Perhaps I’m too generous toward a people who don’t deserve a lot of that sentiment, either because of their diminished intelligence, generosity, compassion, sophistication or all of the above. I imagine that would be the feeling on the streets of, say, Fallujah, where the attitude might well be confined to a lovely blend of schadenfreude and indifference, were it not for the fact that the paroxysms of the flailing elephant send so many fruit stands flying as the mortally wounded beast goes careening down the main street of the global village, toward inevitable defeat in its struggle with unforgiving gravity.

America probably must come down to earth again, its abortive ‘century’ of world dominance having anyhow been artificially fabricated from a toxic combination of circumstance and theft right from the beginning. I can even say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it is, of course, all relative to what replaces Pax Americana. Anyone who assumes that it can only get better on the international front isn’t thinking real clearly or real historically. Indeed, in all fairness, the US may well have run the most benign and least imperial empire in history – though not for lack of trying by the likes of, say, Paul Wolfowitz or John Bolton.

Thus it may well be that the next big thing is even less pretty. Watching the Chinese government in action at home, where they are unfettered, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in what a Pax Sinica would bring once they are also unfettered abroad. If the same cats who brought us Tiananmen Square and Tibet are next gonna be seeking planetary domination, for once in my life I may actually come to appreciate the value of nuclear weapons...

But I digress. As I was saying before those proverbially inscrutable Asian aspiring hegemons so rudely interrupted me, the fall of American global dominance was only ever a matter of time in the coming. What is most lamentable, however, is the way in which we’ve handled that transition, and most especially, the degree to which we’ve exacerbated it. In short, it didn’t have to be like this. If the post-war French and the British represent two rather caricatured but nevertheless illuminative models of how to grapple with the end of empire, we have unfortunately elected to adopt the violent and undignified Gaulist approach. We even went with a actual full-scale replication of the draining Vietnam experience. At this rate, we’ll be invading Algeria next. Heck, maybe that’s just what Bush meant to do, but he pushed the wrong button, mixing up, as he was wont to do, those Islamic countries whose names start with the letter ‘A’ (watch out Albania!).

Probably we’ll just settle for repeating the French experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of actually attacking Algeria. What seems more assured is that we will replicate the catastrophic domestic meltdowns France experienced in 1958 and 1968, as the lunacies of reactionary politics and the realities of tectonic change met on the French battlefield, and the state nearly took on the role of the slaughtered innocent civilian bystander, or what the military nowadays likes to call collateral damage.

If that happens, few will bear more responsibility than Barack Obama, who in less than a year’s time has managed to revive a comatose Republican Party that – like Jimi Hendrix, was dying from asphyxiation of its own vomit – whilst simultaneously flushing away the good will that he and his own party enjoyed down into the overflowing sewers of failed American presidencies. Miraculously, he even managed to do all of this without any serious ‘mistake’, epic blunder, or fresh crisis on his watch. About the lamest positive act Obama did all year was the decidedly inartful and astonishingly unnecessary comment he made about the Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Department. If all you’re counting is the proactive mistakes made, Obama had fewer in a year than many presidents do in a typical week.

On the other hand, if you include blown opportunities into the mix, perhaps only Herbert Hoover can equal this president’s record. If you look at what he didn’t do, in short, it’s hard to imagine a more prolific record of non-achievement. Does he know this? Sometimes – especially when I watched his Afghanistan speech about getting in so that we could turn right around and get back out – I wondered if it could be possible that he has taken it as his task to quietly and heroically direct the managed decline of the American empire, even at the cost of his own presidency.

That, of course, is pretty hard to imagine, but more to the point it is really unnecessary to do it this way, anyhow. We can be a lot better than that, even if decline is inevitable. (And it may not be, at least in an absolute sense. Relative decline cannot be escaped, however, if for no other reasons than that China has other plans. As does India, Europe and Latin America.) A forward-thinking set of politics could really advance the nation and its economy in a hugely positive way, if only the accretionary shackles of predatory rentier pretend-capitalism could be busted off, freeing American society to realize its potential.

To choose but the most proximate example, we could have had real healthcare reform, I believe, if Obama had fought for it like George W. Bush or Lyndon Johnson fought for their respective legislative agendas. To see what I mean, think of Bush hawking the manifestly idiotic idea of invading Iraq. When he first began his marketing campaign for the war, most Americans wanted no more part of that imperial folly than they were hankering for a good dose of the clap. But Bush and his people were as relentless as they were ubiquitous, and in a few months time they turned public opinion, managing to get about two-thirds of the country lined up behind their plans for a most excellent adventure in Mesopotamia. Obama, on the other hand, is possessed of rhetorical skills that drive someone like W – who couldn’t have conjugated his way (in English!) out of tenth grade, even after his grandpa paid for the new school gymnasium – nearly apoplectic just thinking about them. And yet the bloodless current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can’t be bothered to work up either a passion or a sweat to sell his policy wares. Or is it that he just realizes, as so many progressives now have, that what he’s selling just isn’t worth getting excited about?

These two presidencies really do illustrate all too nicely the pathos that is twenty-first century America. Consider their respective situations, and what each did with those circumstances. Bush came into office after marketing himself as a moderate, after one of the most contentious election meltdowns in American history, with a Congress almost exactly evenly divided (and the Senate soon to fall into the hands of the Democrats), with no particular crisis going on short of a mild recession, and with really no mandate of any sort, apart from hopefully not acting as ill-suited and unprepared for the job as he seemed to be during the campaign (no worries there, though – Cheney and Rumsfeld and Powell would be keeping him on the right path – remember?). So what does he do under these circumstances? He adopts a radical regressive agenda. He polarizes the country. He lets loose a marketing campaign of epic intensity, he hammers Congress, he aggrandizes to himself probably more unilateral power than any president in history. And he gets virtually everything he wants. If you can hold your nose long enough to get past the results of his policies, it’s quite an amazing story of boldness and presidential success, made all the more remarkable because of how astonishingly bad his ideas were for the country, and how transparent that fact was even at the time. This guy was selling melted poisonous ice-cubes to Eskimos in wintertime, and he not only made the sale, he got them to want the purchase.

Obama, on the other hand, is dealt almost the opposite hand when he comes to office. He is elected in a clear and compelling victory. He gets a Congress with his party controlling both houses by lopsided 60-40 margins. He receives a clear mandate for change, and he is backed by a stunning outpouring of goodwill, both at home and abroad. He’s got crises that everyone agrees need some serious tending to. In short, you could hardly come up with a better set of circumstances for presidential success if you sat down and created them yourself. So what does he do with this gift? Again, the opposite of Bush. He demands nothing. He fights for nothing. He negotiates with everyone, including those who have zero intention of voting for a bill that he is nevertheless allowing them to dilute, and those (generally the same folks) explicitly trying to ruin his presidency.

And what does he have to show for it? More looting of the public fisc by the already fantastically wealthy. Policies that would be heartily applauded by the far right if enacted by Bush and a Republican Congress. But, since they aren’t, he is hated by those same people anyhow. And, as an extra added bonus, he’s managed to alienate millions of progressives and young first-time enthusiasts in the political system who rallied to his cause – thinking it was their cause – in 2008. This is an astonishing act of cynicism for the history books, and one which will come back to haunt both Obama and his party in a huge way. For which I, personally, am delighted.

However, Obama’s abuse of real people who really care about their country, and who for precisely that reason rolled up their sleeves and worked their butts off to get him into the White House, will also have grave repercussions for what’s left of the republic – and those consequences I do happen to care about. There is huge anger out there, huge antipathy to politics as usual, and huge reluctance to get fooled again. The situation is ripe, the moment pregnant. My guess is the next stop is some form of radical demagoguery (can you say “Palin