Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Collapsing Behemoth

This was the week that news analyst Juan Williams was fired by his NPR employer because of an allegedly politically-incorrect comment he made (on Fox television), in which he admitted that the sight of Muslims garbed in full Muslim regalia in an airport made him feel nervous. (Who among us has honestly never had a feeling like that? And weren't we encouraged by our government to keep an eye out for any suspicious behavior?) But this was also, coincidentally, the same week that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a recent speech before the youth wing of her conservative political party, declared that multiculturalism--the idea that disparate peoples can live side by side with each other--had "utterly failed." And then, in a historical instant, one of the linchpins of democracy--the whole ornate system that has successfully ordered the lives of millions--sighed, split apart, and died.

In Germany, Merkel went on to explain, "we feel bound to the Christian image of humanity--that is what defines us. Those who do not accept this are in the wrong place here." Germany is now home to 3.5 million Muslims, and to an accompanying fear that Germany's very "German-ness" is under assault and being "overrun" by foreigners. Does anything about this sound familiar? The crisis of scrabbling to "take our country back" seems to have become pandemic, a kind of mass delerium.

An unsettling example of anti-multiculturalist fervor has even struck my favorite Indian restaurant in Blacksburg--which has been stripped, like a defrocked priest, of all its previous Indian accouterments. Only the menu still remains Indian. Everything else--the mellow yellow walls, the majestic painting of the Taj Mahal with its beautiful pools, the female hostesses in gauzy silk saris, who would float like angels from table to table: all are gone. Only one of them remains; she now wears black slacks, white shirt, and a black vest, probably procured from Wal-Mart. The once mellifluous ochre walls have been repainted shit brown, the lighting is dim to dark, and one entire wall houses a gargantuan sports bar with the requisite TVs arrayed overhead. This former oasis, where you could actually have a civilized conversation over dinner, has been occupied by new customers: barfly footballers mostly, who emit an unending stream of painfully loud guffaws and howls from their perches at the bar. Heil there, Angela! We are all taking our countries back. You betcha!

In politics, America's fledgling Tea Party Patriots are hard at work. If their congressional and gubernatorial candidates succeed in November, they will do their best to eliminate not just mosques and saris and paintings of the Taj, but also income taxes, departments of education and the environment, the minimum wage law, unemployment insurance, the new health-care reform act (substituting instead private accounts for Social Security, voucher programs for Medicare). They will do away with financial regulation of banks and corporations, and ultimately, they will try to eliminate the government itself. Nothing will interfere ever again with individual liberty, as provided for according to the U.S. Constitution. And, as the effects of financial fear, changing demographics, and ideology kick in, we will squarely face the awful fact that democracy, along with its multicultural proclivities, might not, as we all somewhat mistakenly presumed, be able to outlive both rust and larvae.

I've been reading a book about how granular effects can produce big collapses like the end of the USSR, and that historical forces do not necessarily work in ways we thought we could predict. Called "The Age of the Unthinkable," it is written by Joshua Cooper Ramo, and everyone who wants to better understand the perilous condition of our world today would do well to read this book.

The author cites a study by David Kotz and Fred Weir in their own book, "Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System," which sets out to answer the question of what brought the USSR down. "Great powers have declined in history," they write, "but never so rapidly and unexpectedly." They conclude, rather stunningly, that the USSR didn't collapse because of popular pressure upward from the grass roots of Soviet life, but because of the ruthlessness of Soviet elites--and some terrible miscalculations by Gorbachev. The "nomenklatura"--a term which refers to the elites of army officers and officials who actually ran the country but were a very small percentage of the Soviet population--decided, once Gorbachev began reforming a system that had protected their rights and privileges, that they had more to gain by letting the USSR fracture than by holding it together. The ultimate explanation for the sudden demise of the Soviet system, according to Weir and Kotz, "was that it was abandoned by most of its own elites." The similarity to what is happening in our own country today is, well, quite chilling.

Ramo comments further on the idea that the nomenklatura sold out their own system: "If you were sitting on top of the empire when it fell down, the nomenklatura logic went, you would surely be in the best place to pick up the pieces. This was a cold, selfish decision. It was also, fatally, one that Gorbachev hadn't anticipated in full."

It seems as if our own beleaguered president, Barack Obama, much like Gorbachev, also failed to anticipate the extreme depths of betrayal and viciousness that have been visited on his presidency. Republicans have deliberately broken the system, so that they will be in the best position to pick up the pieces. If Russia today seems like it has survived the ordeal of being deliberately broken, I have to wonder, at this point, if America will be so lucky.


Brian said...

An unrelated comment but had to write and say want a big fan I am of your writing. It's had a big impact on my artistic practice. I spoke about it in an interview here:

All the best,

Hakuin Rose said...

I went off into a spiral of checking comments on Merkel's speech, to YOUTH!, and found this quote from Robert Marquand, the Christian Science Monitor's European Burea Chief:
An uncertain economy, a gap between elite and ordinary Europeans and fraying of a traditional sense of national unity has just in the past month brought on more hardline policies and speech, often aimed at Islam or immigrants - into a political mainstream where it had been absent or considered politically taboo."
It isn't just cultures that are struggling to live together as we flow in our groups across the continent. We can no longer stand our neighbor, period.