Monday, February 02, 2009

If . . . Post America

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 2/2/09

The pioneering New York psychiatrist Edward F. Edinger suggested that sports form the primal matrix of a people. In our case, the Super Bowl will form a template image in time of who we were and what we wished to become back then. And that is why the ads are so important. They are the organic and unpretentious poetry telling of the moment between winter’s end and rebirth; last night’s costing $100,000 a second.

I find it thrilling and spooky; an utterly zen revealing of who we are instead of whom we intend to be which never is, or never has been, what we actually did become. The spooky part last night was seeing the images of Bob Dylan; thin and dynamic in classic sunglasses, dancing off a concert stage. It was spooky because anyone who happened to be sitting a hundred feet or so in front of him when the pictures were taken, as I was, understood that the pictures were taken 40 years ago. The gods take the great ones young – John Lennon and Kurt Cobain – before they end up playing bar mitzvahs and selling bras and Pepsi at Super Bowls, as Dylan makes his way today; a kind of hippie Norma Desmond, still waiting for her close-up as the age runs out, selling postcard pictures of himself when he used to be pretty – he is actually about 70 years old today and ugly.

But those were the days. Still free, childlike and innocent, but a changin’ fast. When I headed east for Tan Son Nhut air force base, only one or two of the adventurous kids we had known in Newport until then had ever smoked a joint. When I got back a year later, everyone was stoned.

That moment is this moment. That was the point of the Super Bowl ad/poem. Dylan’s voice, though only his 1965 and 1967 selves, shared in a duet with the 2009 self of, who’s elegant and biblical chant rendition of a political speech first brought Barack Obama to prominence.

There was a movie back then called If . . ., directed by Lindsay Anderson, a political satire about a glitch in election laws which created circumstances that sent a boy radical like Bill Ayers to be President at a time, 1968, when leisure class white kids were rioting in Paris and blowing up banks and university buildings and rampaging across the United States armed and on acid; almost, as Henry Kissinger said back then, bringing the country to the point of civil war. In a time when media is heavily laundering the zeitgeist to be like 1968 again, it should be reviewed. Because probably half of the 40 million born directly at post-war have been holding their breath from that moment to this moment. And the leisure class is rioting again in Paris. And that moment could once again well be this moment.

These times could even be a better fit for 1968 than Bob Dylan was. The meeting at Davos this past week will be remembered by its negative space – the empty seats of the American delegation. Since Adam Smith and the rise of global capitalism, Davos has evolved as the top of the mountain; a vision of globalization in which Americans set the tone; called the shots; made dimes out of nickels on a global scale. Nothing represents Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a singular global economic state with one center more than Davos.

But Elvis has left the building. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman put it, “To put it crudely: everyone is looking for the guy — the guy who can tell you exactly what ails the world’s financial system, exactly how we get out of this mess and exactly what you should be doing to protect your savings. But here’s what’s really scary: the guy isn’t here. He’s left the building.”

Then this week in returning, David Ignatius, the Washington Post commentator, inadvertently perhaps, coined a new phrase: “The Obama administration's absence gave a post-American feel to the session, but that's deceiving. Barack-o-mania is as strong among the global titans as it is everywhere else.”

That may not be so good because titans are notoriously cagey and deceptive and often like for themselves what hampers America. They also like weak or malleable presidents because it hampers our efforts and advances theirs; if one’s enemy is weak it is as good as a strength and talent of your own. And that phrase, “post American” like post-colonial or post-modern, is something they have been earnestly waiting for and something they will dance around in a circle with at the academy over the next decade or so.

Two pictures come about since Davos, and one is a memory of the early 1950s: It is the resonant, dark, paternal voices, narrating the propaganda documentaries about the very large men in very bad suits of the Soviet Union, teamed us with Mao’s minions in surplus military overcoats, as red pours over the world map, surrounding us from every side. Here they are together again; all grown up this time, Russia and China, in Bottega Veneta, Armani and Ralph Lauren, so vast a binary colossus it would squish Rome in a day.

And the patronizing rhetoric of Mr. Putin today calling for multiple reserve currencies or just something – anything - other than the dollar would resonate to the engagingly earthy, folkloric style of Classic Communism and Nikita Khrushchev’s famous statements like, “We will bury you,” punctuated by beating his shoe on the table at the UN. Economically, he explained later – we will bury you economically. Phew. It came as a relief to us plain folk, because we thought they were planning to nuke us.

The second picture emerging resonates increasingly and seems to make sense; it is suggested by commentary and views of Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian, who sees America as a rapidly receding empire which would do well to look across the Pacific to China for new best friend. England at one point toward the end of Victoria’s reign quickly let by gones be by gones and bonded with its English-speaking step child across the Atlantic and so survived long enough to get to The Beatles. There could be no question when the big ships flocked to Victoria’s Diamond Julilee in 1897 that America had the most proles, the most iron and the most coal; certainly more than the Germans, and would take the day for the next 60 or 80 years of so. America’s future ahead would likewise wisely look to China in partnership or some kind – and so Mitt Romney has already suggested.

Unfortunately, when Democrats today look across the Pacific they tend to see India instead.

It seems almost arbitrary when the new Secretary of State, married to a cash cow, can barely sustain her contempt for those “elitists” – economists – that she consider cash flow and balance sheets even an issue of national security. In ten days relations have gotten so bad with China that President Obama finally had to place a call to President Hu Jintao just to say hey. If they keep going in this direction things could unravel to the point where we have to go back to the old ways and start using actual diplomats again like Condi Rice or Winston and Betty Bao Lord instead of the relatives of celebrity politicians.

We are at a major cultural and historical turning and one that goes well beyond politics and economy; a churning really - we are experiencing a change in what Peggy Noonan has recently and correctly called the “collective unconscious.” It is the year when people finally give up trying to predict the year ahead, says Ferguson in an imaginary retrospective. That is, as Bob Dylan said when he was thin and beautiful at a similar churning: You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones? And if Obama doesn’t master it here at the birth of the cool all this could all well get away from us.