Thursday, July 05, 2007

Imaginary Countries

You might not expect it from a college town where public nudity is legal and the Republican Party hasn’t had a significant presence in thirty years, but the Fourth of July is a big deal in the small Northwest town where I live. This year’s parade was grand as always, with enough marching bands and colorful floats to satisfy anyone’s taste for pageantry, and a couple of jet fighters from the local Air National Guard base added an unexpected note of realism to this celebration of a revolutionary war by carrying out mock strafing runs over the crowd. As I type these words, barbecue smoke is rising from backyards all over town, and a few blocks east of my home the technicians are putting finishing touches on the evening’s fireworks display.

There’s a certain comforting solidity in a festival that’s been celebrated in the same way since well before I was born. If this year’s celebration is shot through with worries about the future and a bitter ambivalence about martial symbolism during an unpopular war, the same things were true of the Julys of my childhood, when the undeclared war du jour was in Vietnam rather than Iraq and a different generation of demagogues mouthed the same slogans that fill the talk shows today. Still, with the ten volumes of Toynbee’s A Study of History weighing down the shelf above me like the headstones of dead civilizations, it’s hard not to remember that the apparent solidity of old customs in a changing world can turn out to be as deceptively fragile as lake ice in the springtime.

In last week’s Archdruid Report post I suggested that from the point of view of history, nations are fluid and fragile things, and plans for the future that take their stability for granted are likely to end up in history’s recycling bin sooner than most. In many parts of the world this observation would not even have to be made, since borders have changed and nations have appeared and disappeared within living memory. Here in America, by contrast, it hasn’t even begun to find its way into the national conversation about the future.

The closest thing you’ll find to it is the suggestion, kept alive by the memory of our nation’s only civil war so far, and trotted out now and again for shock value, that the United States might someday split up into two or more still recognizably American nations. The possibility that the current borders of the United States might be the high water mark of an American continental empire, one whose tide is already turning from flow to ebb, remains all but unnoticed. The possibility that a century from now the United States might be a much smaller nation with no bigger role in international affairs than, say, Italy, is practically unthinkable. History shows that this sort of change happens all the time, but it seems very hard for Americans to apply a historical perspective of this kind to their own national community.

There’s a complex history behind this notion of American exceptionalism. Before the Mayflower brought the first shipload of Puritan refugees across the Atlantic, the idea that European settlement in the New World might be exempt from the sordid details of the Old World’s history was already in the air. The first Rosicrucian manifesto, which ignited a continent-wide furore on its publication in 1614, promised cryptically that “there shall be a door opened to Europe” and that “Europe is with child and will bring forth a strong child;” the German Rosicrucian sects who settled in Pennsylvania in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were far from the only people to apply these prophecies to the newly discovered lands across the ocean.

These habits of thought were sealed into place when the revolutionaries of 1776 chose to define their struggle for self-determination against English colonialism in the radical language of the Declaration of Independence. The ideals enshrined in the document whose signing we celebrate today had already been put into circulation during the English revolution more than a century before, and went nowhere; the restoration of Charles II to the British throne in 1660 drew a line beneath Britain’s brief experiment with Republican government. When those same ideals became the foundation of a lasting political settlement on American soil, the idea that America might go its own way, unburdened by the Old World’s troubles, became an article of faith for many Americans.

The problem with this comforting faith, of course, was that history failed to play along with it. It’s one thing to talk of westward expansion and manifest destiny, and quite another to come to terms with the wars of conquest and extermination that cleared the continent for America’s growth. Equally, it’s one thing to discuss the Monroe Doctrine as a matter of guaranteeing the freedom of the New World against the Old, and another to notice that in practice, too often, this amounted to a guarantee that the United States and not some other power would force its will on the nations of Latin America. Like every other country on earth, the United States faced its share of conflicts between its own ideals, on the one hand, and the demands of power, prosperity, and survival in the brutal world of international politics, and like every other country on earth, the United States made its share of wretchedly bad decisions in response.

When a gap opens up between ideals and reality, the result is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, and America has a very bad case of it. A great deal of American political debate over the last half century or so has accordingly focused on trying to relieve the cognitive dissonance of America’s inevitable failure to live up to the high ideals on which it was founded. On the one hand, mostly but not exclusively on the political and social right, you can find loud claims that America’s moral failures either didn’t happen or don’t count, and that the ideals ought to be taken as an description of the way the United States actually behaves in the world. On the other hand, mostly but not exclusively on the political and social left, you can find equally loud claims that America’s moral failures not only cancel out anything worthwhile our nation has done, but prove that the ideals themselves are a sham.

These two claims, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of American political rhetoric, have become so pervasive these days that very few people seem to notice either the bankrupt logic that drives them both, or the disastrous disconnection from reality that they both foster. The reasoning they share in common is the logic of Utopia, the claim that the right political, economic, or social system can make people behave like angels, and that anything less is therefore unacceptable. Conservatives who want to say that the American system works well thus end up arguing that it’s perfect, and radicals who want to point out that it has problems thus end up denouncing it as evil incarnate. Once the logic of Utopia enters the picture, the possibility of middle ground vanishes, and with it goes the potential for the compromise and cooperation that the founders of the American political system, pragmatists that they were, saw as essential.

This is disastrous enough, but to my way of thinking, the second consequence of the flight from cognitive dissonance may prove to be much worse as America stumbles into an age in which cheap fossil fuels become a thing of the past. To insist that America is by definition the world’s best society, inevitably destined to triumph in its disinterested pursuit of democracy around the globe, is to give up citizenship in the real world and move to a country as imaginary as Oz. To insist on the precise opposite of these claims is to do exactly the same thing. Neither set of beliefs would provide anything in the way of useful guidance even if America and the world could count on relative stability over the next century or so. In a world facing a long and difficult transition to sustainability on the far side of Hubbert’s peak, trying to impose the geography of imaginary countries on the real world will most likely prove suicidal.

It probably needs to be said that worshiping America as Utopia is not the same thing as patriotism. It’s not even a useful substitute. Apply the same logic to marriage – which is, after all, simply another form of social organization – and the fallacy becomes plain. Insist that your own marriage is already the best possible marriage, that its problems either don’t exist or don’t matter, and that for that reason there’s no need to discuss making changes, and drastic marital problems are pretty much a given. Respond to social troubles in the same way and you make an explosion inevitable. Equally, though, if you insist that your own marriage is so uniquely bad that marrying anybody else at all would be an improvement, your chances at marital bliss are no better, and the same is just as true in the world of politics; those who insist that American empire is the worst of all worlds might want to consider what would have happened if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War.

What makes all this pursuit of imaginary countries embarrassing from the historical point of view is that of all the revolutionary ideologies of the last few centuries, the one that shaped America’s institutions is one of the least congenial to extreme claims. You’ll find few political documents in all of history as riddled with caution, compromise, and wiggle room for necessary change as the American constitution, precisely because the unlikely radicals in Philadelphia whose act we celebrate today were profoundly aware of the power of political passions and the fallibility of institutions. That very fact makes their handiwork all the more relevant in a future when caution, compromise, and wiggle room will be desperately needed. The fact that the system they designed was also crafted to fit the measured pace of transport and communications in an age before fossil fuels points to another reason why the old pragmatic rules of the founding fathers may just turn out to be more relevant to the real world of tomorrow than to the imaginary worlds of today’s political rhetoric.

28 comments:

Sabretache said...

Jean Michael

Thank you for yet another thoughtful, absorbing, insightful post.

I don't comment much but this blog remains one of my 'must reads'

Loveandlight said...

With regard to the USSR winning the Cold War: I very much doubt that could have happened barring some event such as a huge iron-and-nickel asteroid impacting somewhere in the center of the North American continent. Far too many people have no idea what a joke and a failure statist Communism, at least on the level of industrial society, truly was. Yes, China is doing pretty well for itself, but they developed their industrial infrastructure in a way that allows for some real market activity. If they hadn't, stuff made there would be about as desirable to buy in the developed world as the junk churned out by the USSR's "socialist industry" was. (But even so, China's central planners are showing the same Communist reckless disregard for ecological health that turned Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, and Eastern Europe into a virtual toxic-waste dump.)

Jim said...

Technology is another major aspect of the utopian vision of the USA. See for example Carolyn Merchant's _Reinventing Eden_. Planning for lower levels of resource consumption is often seen as un-American.

While the USA is often imagined as utopia, the exact utopian vision varies significantly. Maybe the biggest split is between the Puritans and the Locke-Voltaire-Paine Enlightenment thinkers. But even this isn't right. Somehow William Penn did not create a Quaker utopia as totalitarian as the Massachusetts of the Puritans.

There is also the liberal environment of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague. This seemed not to be anti-religious like Voltaire or Paine. I think the Amish come to the USA out of the collapse of the diversity supported by Rudolph.

Even if many fundamentalists are against Darwin and thus against science at some level, this hardly makes them against technology. For example, there are the folks that promote nuclear weapons and their use as a way to help bring about the apocalypse.

Anyway, the utopian vision of what the USA is or stands for is not just political, but also technological. "We are the most advanced country on earth." True or not, it seems to be dogma.

awlknottedup said...

It must be remembered that all of what we know of our culture, nation, and civilization is very new to the history of human kind. We have existed more or less in our present form for maybe 250,000 years. Extensive agriculture as we now know it is at most 10,000 years old. The first civilizations as we define them date from only about 6000 years ago. The substitution of fossil energy for animal muscle occurred about 300 years ago and cheap easy to transport and use fossil energy came along about 150 years ago.

Our physical nation as we like to think of ourselves is not over two hundred years old but not much more that 150. Our political nation is less than 100 years old. It is highly presumptuous of us to assume that we as a culture, nation, civilization will last even past our own lifetimes.

John Michael Greer said...

Sabretache, you're welcome!

Loveandlight, history always looks inevitable in hindsight, and I'm always at least a little skeptical of claims that dovetail too closely with popular ideology. I'm glad that the USSR lost the cold war, but if the US had made a few more mistakes at a few worse times, I think they might have won.

Jim, there's room for entire books on the extent to which American culture conceives itself as Utopia made manifest, and of course you're right that technology is an important part of that. One of the eye-openers when I visited Britain in 2003 was the extent to which the US is a technologically backward country; the household technologies I encountered in the homes of British friends were a generation or so in advance of ours. It's a bit humbling when you have to ask somebody to help you use a washing machine!

Awlknottedup, precisely - it's only our culture's current ideology (and its habit of hubris) that makes the US look like the wave of the future.

RJ said...

Thanks once again Mr. Greer. Yes Awlknotted up, very good point. In fact, although my family arrived in what was considered essentially a wilderness in 1638, "Savages" had existed in "New England" for thousands of years. Were they any less human than the English? I would submit that they could rightly be called more so. What we are witness to here and now is unprecedented in the history of our planet. Nature abhors arrogance, and we're full of it.

Ahavah bat Sarah said...

Orthodox Judaism is a case-in-point. The rabbinate is so convinced (deluded, many would say) that their "brand" of Judaism is the only authentic one, the only one that offers real spiritual fulfillment, that no change in their tradition (not the same as the Bible) is acceptable - that the attrition rate of young persons raised orthodox who walk away is now about 40% and growing. The Rabbinate refuses to deal with their problems, or in many cases even acknowledge a problem exists. So we leave.

Loveandlight said...

Here's one perspective on the collapse of the USSR. It's sponsored on the website of a neo-con thinktank, but it was written by a Russian who lived through most of the events about which he writes.

Colin Wright said...

Interesting essay. But I don't see a big difference between America's "high ideals" and "utopian thinking". Without utopian thinking (from Plato onwards) I think we'd still be stuck in caves (or with a Canadian-style government, god forbid!), until a few people decided to imagine something different. That's a dialectic that will always be with us, no?

Maybe in your view, I've swallowed the "progress" myth that we can make things better over time (or in terms of Peak Oil preparation, at least less bad)?

I think a more apt target for your essay would focus on "authoritarian utopianism" (from the Republic to Stalinism and shades in between). That is, on imagining a "better" world and then forcing it on other people.

That way, we could focus on keeping alive the best aspects of the democratic tradition, in which I include utopianism -- "imagining something better" -- as I understand the term, but without the "forcing it on others".

Robin said...

If the Soviet Union had won the Cold War, not much good might have come of it. One thing might have been different, though.

In the Red Army a Central Asian Muslim would not have to make a formation in which the heresy of worshipping a human being was promoted; a Central Asian Buddhist would not have had to make formation in which the worship of a God was promoted, and a Russian Jew would not have to make formation in which the First Commandment was violated by worshipping a human being albeit another Jew.

I can say from personal experience that I had to make formation in both the United States Army and the Unided States Navy in which a deity was worshipped, and the First Commandment was violated.

But the end to Communist economics, while most salutary, assumes a sinister specter when not accompanied by an end to Communist politics and governance.
That is the course taken in China, as was the course in the Fuhrer's Germany and Il Duce's Italy.

yooper said...

I can imagine a "utopian" world with no countries..............

John Michael Greer said...

RJ, I don't see our current predicament - or for that matter the arrogance that drives it - as unprecedented in anything but geographical scale, just as the atrocious treatment meted out to the native people of this continent has countless parallels elsewhere in history. The ancient Greeks described the whole pattern flawlessly: hubris, the overweening pride of the doomed, becoming its own nemesis.

Ahavah, the same sort of false Utopianism crops up all through contemporary culture - not surprised to find it in your faith as well.

Colin, we're using the word "utopian" in different ways. To me, the difference between high ideals and Utopian fantasies is the difference between trying to make a better society and believing you can make a perfect one. The former is adaptive, to use a bit of ecological jargon; the latter isn't.

Yooper, yes, and I can imagine pigs with wings...

dZed said...

"Improvement cannot be brought about by any Bolshevist revolution, or socialistic redistributions of property. We are not so desirous of an earthly paradise as to approve revolutionary and violent means of attaining it. What we want is simply the privilege of going on -- not perfection but the privilege of striving."

- Joseph R. Taylor

dZed said...

Another fascinating post, as per usual.

I'm with you a hundred percent on the equally awful dualistic viewpoints offered by the utopians, so to speak, of American politics.

I enjoy the completeness of much of what you say, John. These comments you've made about the fluidity of countries translate so nicely to the language of communities. I've thought, now and again, that America was such a large piece of land to manage, no matter the size of the bureaucracy, but should it fall to pieces, the strong, local communities will have the support system to continue.

John Michael Greer said...

A note to all -- another blog has started a fictional narrative on peak oil, this one set in the Northeast. A distinctive vision with a very edgy tone. Fans of peak oil fiction might want to give it a look.

divelly said...

The clarity of your non fiction is exemplary.
When Quebec separatism was at its zenith,some speculated on a dissolution of Canada along the following lines-Quebec independent,Ontario a remnant of the status quo,the Maratimes independent,Yukon and NW territories an independent First Peoples'Nation and the western provinces applying for statehood.
Also,about this time was the publication of "Ecotopia" which had the USA dividing along more natural lines-if I remember it was something along the lines of the Pacific NW,the intermontane plateau,the agricultural midwest,etc.,based on common cultural,economic and geographical interests.
All this now sounds less fantastic.

eboy said...

J.M.G.

A keeper post, enjoyed thoroughly.

If per Matt Simmons projections of 20 million barrels per day in 2030 down from our current 70 m.b.d. And an unsuccessful replacement strategy-tar sands etc.
It makes me wonder what mitigating effects of a varied downward supply have on the various futures. Reflecting on these future scenarios is why p.o. fiction is so interesting.

Obviously a very fast decline bodes much less favorably.

A radically different political structure could afford a much better future by radically altering demand. An organized demand destruction (ODD)if you will.

If people suddenly were able to telecommute for ex. And then didn't have to drive to work, this would extend supplies dramatically.

There would be a point where people realiazed that energy directed towards local food production for ex. would be on a higher priority than say fuel for papparrazi(?).

Altering demand should be one of 3 priorities/strategy's (If I were boss). 1) Support for local food and requisite infrastructures (wheel wrights -Rubber tires are probably a thing of the past Root cellars/ice houses) 2)Re- invigorating use of trains and ships because of their great efficiency's)And 3 a massive investment into insulation and sustainable well designed housing
Clearly the degree to which remaining oil supplies are directed towards building up an nfrastructure conducive to our restrictive future will be key.

Since governments seem to be interested in business as usual. I
doubt that they will be of any use.
And since they would not institigate an ODD then there would be probably a day where they would turn off the tap to secure the police state.

The 2nd world war prompted individuals to realize that a response was necessary (of course government played a role). It is my belief that the call of this generation is to the support of the environment and to building an infrastructure that recognizes this future.

Should it turn out that there is a major oil find then we just have more time to get ready for what is a proper understanding of our finite energy future.

Time to act.

Cheers

Dalriada said...

Altering demand should be one of 3 priorities/strategy's (If I were boss). 1) Support for local food and requisite infrastructures (wheel wrights -Rubber tires are probably a thing of the past Root cellars/ice houses) 2)Re- invigorating use of trains and ships because of their great efficiency's)And 3 a massive investment into insulation and sustainable well designed housing
Clearly the degree to which remaining oil supplies are directed towards building up an nfrastructure conducive to our restrictive future will be key.


Good plan. I wish I could say that I believed the majority of our fellow citizens were capable of handling that sort of change. Heck, I don't even know how *I* would do with it, and I'm somewhat more self reliant and far less invested in the modern US culture than many folks my age.

I'm afraid that if any of these changes were to be seriously implemented by those in charge, we would see panic, economic collapse and major social unrest. And the people who dared speak out would be out of office post haste, replaced by people who won't rock the oil-guzzling party boat. Which is perhaps a good part of the reason why...

...governments seem to be interested in business as usual.

What I see already coming our way are more subtle efforts to effect changes - but nothing too overt. Stuff that will more or less fly under everyone's radars for a while. If the predictions come true that will change, but to expect anything more courageous than that at this juncture it would be necessary to believe that we are currently being governed by some of our country's best and brightest - and I don't know about you, but my credulity simply won't stretch that far. ;-)

eboy said...

Great Dalriada

Ironically last night while I was writing my post cbc was replaying the movie 'Jaws'. There's a scene where the officer (Roy Sheider)is advised by Richard Dreyfuss's character that they have spotted the shark. And the advice is 'Don't cause any panic' because this frenzy will excite the shark. So of course the 1st thing that the life guard does is to start blowing his whistle and screaming....

I'm afraid that if any of these changes were to be seriously implemented by those in charge, we would see panic, economic collapse and major social unrest.

I don't see an organized demand destruction happening probably for many of the reasons you cite. But if the writings on the wall.
And consequences are very real not enough oil and energy then big problems. So if you don't see a o.d.d. then anticipate them trying to secure fort knox and impose martial law.

If Katrina is the best example of how government functions in a crisie. Need I elaborate?

So its back to those individuals who look out and think that they see this as being the future. To put their 2 cents together and spend money and labour towards that end of increased self sufficiency.
Root cellars don't build themselves, gardens don't improve without labor.

In sci-fi stories there are rules layed out as to what is and what is not allowed in the fictional world. You can only use the transporter if you're within 2 sectors of a black hole for example. Well if we start hitting negative feedback loops or other nasty environmental consequences because we have failed to address our war on nature. (and we know who will win this battle)
Then this may severely alter the very real constraints on what is possible.

Local food means vulnerability to crop failure. Which was in the past onveniently downloaded onto to the backs of farmers with the advent of refridgerated trucking. Now that big agricorporations are involved how many times do you think they'll invest thousands of dollars in seed and fuel and labor to see certain failure? Others have pointed out that the current screw the grandkids agricultural model that confers disease by way of nutritional deficiency does not handle weather extremes well. And the only way we are going to get organic matter levels high enough is with time and proper farm practice. But that luxury does not exist in the b.a.u. (business as usual) world.

Similarly deciding that we need more trees to sequester carbon/ filter air/ shade the ground/ provide wind diversion etc. Won't mean a hill of beans if you plant some saplings that need 50 years growth in order to provide the now necessary benefits of those trees.

To end on a positive note. If you can't get all that junk food trucked from timbucktoo and pharmaceutical drugs and you get lots of exercise working for your food. Then your lifespan will no doubt increase.

auntiegrav said...

Good stuff, Sir.
Yooper: I can imagine it also. It's called 'U.P.', isn't it? What would they do if Martial Law was declared in da U.P.? Close the road? Ha!

eboy: Partly, I think you are correct, only the "altering demand should be 1 of 3 priorities" should be changed to "altering demand should be the ONLY priority". Everything else is just rearranging the deck chairs. We WILL be altering demand, it's just a matter of whether we do it without conscious choice. Drivers are already altering demand for the types of vehicles they drive. They are driving like it's the last gas on Earth, and it is.

JMG: Great stuff. Keep it up. Keep your powder dry. Have you read this? http://www.dieoff.org/page150.htm

I think the framers of the Constitution did well in their time frame, but the only natural right we have is the right to Try to Live. Everything else is statutory and we need to remember that civilization and society are just an agreement between the individual and the group to behave according to the group's structure. When the group fails to uphold its part of the bargain (the most good for the most members for the LONGEST TIME), then the individuals have to rebel. This can take the form of new groups or anarchy.
Did the USSR actually lose the Cold War? OR did they simply move into Descent before us? In the very long term view, Russia is in a much better position with fewer people, fewer promises that cannot be fulfilled, and less dependence on technological overhead. Most of the 'work' and 'production' done in this country is for useless reasons.

loveandlight: We see the junk turned out in the Soviet Union as the inevitable result of Communism, but what if they had simply used their scientists from the space and weapons programs to build computers, cars, and social infrastructure for themselves, instead of to compete with our ludicrous military machine? Competition isn't all it's cracked up to be in our blind faith view of Capitalism. The desire to reach a goal is what produces better products. Competition by multiple producers simply wastes resources. We all know how things can be made better, but we let the accountants decide. In the USSR, those accountants worked for the Politboro. Here, they work for the IRS and the tax cheats.

Dalriada said...

"To end on a positive note. If you can't get all that junk food trucked from timbucktoo..."

Synchronicity! I was perusing the grocery store ads today, and had some of the same thoughts. It's amazing how much of the stuff sold as food in the typical grocery store is really just overpriced, over-processed junk. But I'm sure that as much as it's been handled, it's got a really high profit margin by the time it gets to those grocery store shelves. And with most folks' susceptibility to marketing blandishments, I'm sure they sell a lot of it. I pity the families that live off that crud, tho.

But what this means is that you could probably eliminate 80% of the so-called food stuffs from your typical grocery store and still have enough variety to eat like a king compared to most of the rest of the world. Or would the "real food" be what disappears while the junk is what ends up staying on the shelves? Real food probably has a lower profit margin and a higher turnover rate due to spoilage. So who knows. More good reasons to grow at least some of your own and set up a local supply chain, imo.

Thomas said...

Thank you very much for pointing out that the framers of the American constitution were radicals.

This fact is far too often ignored in the celebration of our independence.

eboy said...

Dalriada said:Or would the "real food" be what disappears while the junk is what ends up staying on the shelves?

Great point, we know the answer to this. It is junk as the industrial agribusiness nutritional profile is very poor.

They can not produce high quality food as they count on commercial fertilizers. Which places an upward limit on the achievable brix score.
see highbrixgardens.com
You can test the nutritional quality of your food with a refractometer. (measures %sucrose by weight) turns out that there is a correlation co-efficient of 1 when comparing the natural sweetness of food and its nutritional profile. With the caveat that g.m.o.'s may be able to bypass this natural corelation and some mineral profiles in the soil for example the sweet vidalia onions are so because of low sulfur content of the soil where they are grown.

So plant the garden also for your health and ammend the soil to achieve high brix values.
Now there's a concept investing in the future quality of your land!

yooper said...

auntiegrav, ha! suppose you're right. Some people refer to this place as,"God's Country".

John, following you're thoughts about migration....Do you think the so called, "white race" will survive, say 100 years after collaspe? Or due to this migration, new races will be formed? Not that I give a damn about race, one way or another.

Thanks, yooper

Dalriada said...

"Great point, we know the answer to this. It is junk as the industrial agribusiness nutritional profile is very poor."

Well, that's not exactly what I was getting at. What I am wondering is, will flour, beans, pasta, rice, meat, milk, fruits and veggies be what stays on the supermarket shelves if (when) the increasingly high cost of transportation starts to interfere with the supply chains? Or will it be the "Super Improved BBQ Flavor Artificial Nacho Cheese Curly Crisps In A Can" that ends up commanding that space because it has a twenty year shelf life due to the fact that it is so far removed from "real food" that even the bugs won't eat it?

Of course, this all presupposes that supermarkets will actually make it through the first round of supply chain collapses.

Asturchale y Chulo said...

Archdruid, I think I have noticed a flaw in your entry of today. Whether you are referring to US rooters or US bashers, I think the gist of the issue is to keep in mind the basic difference between the American Revolution, the ideals that Jefferson & co. embraced, and today US empire. I don`t know if you have ever surfed www.antiwar.com, a libertarian site which often works on this matter. They draw a fascinating parallel between the US and ancient Rome. Basically they claim that your republic was founded on the same fear of tyranny, and the same delicate balance of powers, that the Roman republic was, and that the Congress was devoid of real power after WWII, just as the Roman senate became a meaningless chamber in the days of Augustus. I guess it is simply impossible to keep true democracy alive when a country grows too succesful.
I hope you don`t mind if I mention a different topic here. Have you ever read "De Re Military", "On the Army" by Flavius Vegetius? It is a strange book, written in the days of Theodosius. The author is concerned about the decline of the Empire and writes a handbook where he pathetically compiles the old recipes for military success that worked in the days of Julius Caesar, in a vain attempt to reverse time. What I mean is, Romans actually noticed that their empire was in decline, it is only that not the sack of Rome was the turning point, but the battle of Adrianopolis instead.

tRB said...

Yooper:

I can't speak for JMG, but I would answer your question by saying that "whiteness" has already changed much in the last century, so I personally expect the definition to change over the next century. This is with or without a "decline" or a "collapse" of industrialism.

Hardly anyone in the U.S. today would question the idea that Italians and Irish (for example) are "white", but they didn't used to be considered so. Since racial categories are based on perception and cultural constructions they will continue to be malleable. In fact, race as we know it was only invented in the 17th century.

More to your point, I heard an interview with Tim Wise and Damali Ayo in which they suggested that in the future more groups -- including Latinos -- will eventually be included in "whiteness". But they expected that blacks will still not be let in to the definition of this "norm". (See episode 1 at; http://www.lipmagazine.org/looselip/ )

Since this blog talks about myths and stories, I would say that one of the primary myths of the United States is the notion that (1) there is a scientific and objective way to classify humans according to a quality called "race", (2) that this distinction *essential* (in the sense of a true, core "essence") differences between groups of people, and (3) that these categories are ancient and unchanging. None of these things is true, but as we all know, the stories we tell ourselves still shape our behavior even if those stories are completely at odds with reality. And this is why racist attitudes and behaviors are still with us even after people should know better.

John Michael Greer said...

Thank you all for your comments! A good discussion, to which I'll add only two brief notes.

Yooper, since there's no such thing as a "white race" now, I don't see any way to discuss the future of this nonexistent thing! If you want to know whether some people in the future will still have skins on the pinkish end of the human spectrum, good question. I don't pretend to know enough about genetics to answer it.

Asturchale, there are various ways to talk about the way the US has run off the rails in the last half century or so; my own take is that it's been the collapse of civil society, the networks of voluntary social organization that made democracy work, that pushed us over the edge. As for Vegetius, I've read him but not recently -- thanks for the reminder! In later posts here I want to start talking about how civilizations fall in somewhat more general terms, and he's a useful resource.