It’s just before the mid-term elections in America, and the mood is moribund. Right-wing Republicans, with help from weak-kneed Democrats, have successfully made it a referendum on President Obama. America is in decline, and cannot lead at this crucial juncture in human history. What is the way ahead?
American power and influence, which was a mixed bag since World War II, became a blatantly perpetrated and propagated evil under Bush-Cheney, and immaterial under Obama-Biden.
About a year after 9.11, I met an old man who was a teenager in Germany before World War II. We had one of those pivotal conversations you never forget. I asked him whether he remembered the atmosphere in Germany as the Nazis rose to power.
He said yes, he was 17 in 1937. Then I asked if the atmosphere in America resembled that of pre-war Germany. He gave me a long look, and said it did. How, I asked?
He said that the trauma of World War I warped the German people, and that there was a palpable deadness in the land that gave rise to Hitler and the Nazis.
A Nazi hanged in Nuremburg for complicity in war crimes, Hans Frank, said shortly before his execution, “The Führer was a man who was possible in Germany only at that very moment.”
Recently it was revealed by a historian and member of a declassification team, Norman Goda, “U.S. agencies directly or indirectly hired numerous ex-Nazi police officials and East European collaborators who were manifestly guilty of war crimes.”
The tendency, especially in a culture as individualistic as America’s, is to personalize evil, to believe that it resides in one man, or one group of men. But that attitude invites its re-eruption.
Evil is not supernatural, and does not originate and reside in the ether somewhere. It originates in humans, dwells in collective consciousness, and flows through the living dead.
After all, as a recent piece entitled, “History Without Hitler” attests, “some Germans were already speaking of a ‘second world war’ within a year of the armistice that was to have ended ‘the war to end all wars.”’
So did Hitler manifest the zeitgeist of the German people at the time, or did he exploit and expand it?
No doubt both, but the zeitgeist came before the Nazi juggernaut. And that’s what makes the present, deepening atmosphere of apathy, cynicism and numbness in America, as evidenced by the continued fascination with walking dead and zombies, so dangerous.
Compromise, despite right-wing characterizations, remains the central tenet (pardon the pun on former CIA Director George Tenet’s name) of President Obama’s political philosophy. But compromise only works when a body politic and political process are intact. And the body politic in America has become necrotic.
Despite Obama’s utter lack of leadership as the Syrian people were slaughtered, he now belatedly seeks to lance the boil that burst across the borders, spilling the toxins of the Islamic State in the Levant over the region. A new coalition of the swilling has only managed to make the situation worse.
Obama could have employed a genuine humanitarian strategy, and raised a coalition to provide sanctuaries, safe havens and no-fly zones when tens of thousands of Syrians were dying, and millions fleeing their homes, flooding into Jordon, Lebanon, Turkey and even Iraq.
Then again, President Obama was hamstrung by the internal collapse of America. With thousands dying of Ebola in West Africa, the American people and media have been panic-stricken about 9 cases and 1 death in the USA. Lawmakers are threatening to pull up all the drawbridges even as the castle collapses around them, and the rest of us.
The question now is: What will fill the vacuum left by the irreversible decline of American power, influence and leadership?
Despite year after year of rationalizing the use of atom bombs on prostrate Japanese cities to scare Russia at the end of the Second World War, despite enlisting many Nazis guilty of war crimes out of “fear that the Communists were so terribly powerful and we had so few assets,” America was, on balance, a force for good after the war.
But this country, the country of my birth, became a force for darkness after 9.11. I risked everything to go to Russia 25 years ago at a hinge of history, before the internal collapse occurred in America that mirrored the external collapse of the Soviet Union. Is humankind at another hinge of history now, and if so what can be done?
Leadership in the world is no longer a function of economic and military power. No nation-state or group of nation-states, nor even an institution that purports, by is very name, to unify nation-states (the United Nations), can prevent the old order from unraveling.
Until this point in human history, political organization was based on coercive power. But the very meaning of power and leadership has changed, affording new definitions and opportunities for social and political organization.
Technology has both spurred the collapse of the old order, and opened a new space, the global space. But it is as yet inchoate, and will remain so until something fills it, no matter how much politicians and pundits stuck in the old mindset try to make it synonymous with the international order.
So a dangerous vacuum exists, and since nature abhors a vacuum, new forms of fascistic mind control will either fill it, or awakening world citizens will step into the vacuum. Can they do so without creating a new power elite?
They can if a psychological revolution, which means an end to primarily identifying with particular groups, is its wellspring and cornerstone.
Eschewing power in perpetuity, a global polity of world citizens will have great moral suasion, providing strategic guidance in the interests of humankind as whole across the spectrum of issues confronting all of us.
The emergence of an effective global polity is indispensible in renewing and complementing moribund international institutions in the wake of the collapse of American power and influence. Can an effective global polity emerge in Costa Rica, the little country that offered the world another path, away from militarism?
There is great urgency. Timing redounds to tyrants more often than to prophets.