Decline of Empire in an Age of ADD

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

My life happens to span the age of nuclear proliferation, as we now refer to it.

It’s not about me, of course, as my chief concern about anything nuclear (as in radioactive materials) involves the location of the nuclear medicine department in a couple of nearby hospitals for reasons that are personal. I also regularly cut out the inedible core of cabbages, artichokes, and fennel, but these are hardly nuclear issues to be concerned about.

I was born oblivious, obviously, to the great events unfolding in the
world, newly released from the frantic focus of a global war that
occupied everyone but the Swiss and Esquimaux. As I gained
consciousness, the U.S. was engaged in a more circumscribed conflict.
We call it the Korean War, but then, as I clearly recall, even as a
four- and five-year-old, there were elements of the press and the
government scrupulous to call it a “police action.” I knew soldiers
were involved, so it was a little confusing.

In those days, it was OK to be the chauvinistic little patriot that I
was. I recall distinctly, whiling away many a play time drawing
meticulously accurate profiles of F-86 Sabre jets—the American
Spitfire, pitted in replays of World War dogfights against the Soviet
and Chinese MiG jets, the Messerschmitts of the dauntless and hated
foe.  It was also an age, of course, when the policeman was your
friend, and every New York beat cop (for these were the only ones we
saw in the Bronx) was called “officer,” out of respect. My parents even
had a cop as a family friend. Good guy. Frank Crai was his name (so
vivid is my memory of those simpler, long ago times).

I remember as well the hullabaloo caused with the discovery that there
was not one, but there were two, nuclear powers. The Soviet Union was
our great Satan, and Uncle Joe, the great purgative, who never met an
ethnic minority he didn’t hate, was our great enemy. In our house, I
recall having a sense of emotional conflict. My father was a liberal of
no mean order, but he bore no love of Stalin, as he knew him to be the
monster he was ultimately revealed to be. On the other hand, my father
was a native Russian, and he imparted enough of a sense of his identity
to me.

Jews of the Great Diaspora had long since learned two things: never
to forget they were Jews (nobody else let them forget, so that part was
easy) and also to assimilate a sense of the identity their
happenstantial citizenship afforded them. With the same sort of pride,
and the twinkle of irony in his eyes, he taught me of the achievements
of Jews and Russians indiscriminately.

My loyalties were divided further. Those were also the days when the
superior public school system of the City of New York still imparted,
entirely for free to the children of taxpayers, a superior education.
Included, even in the earliest grades of primary school, was a huge
dose of American history and what was then called “civics,” of which
there is little enough taught today (which might explain the innate
imbecility of the American electorate on political and social issues
and matters of governance). One could not avoid, but to be very
consciously a patriotic American, just six or seven years after the
triumph of World War II, in the midst of our short lived jingoistic
macho glory as the world’s only atomic power, and with American boys at
peril a full two day’s travel away in the mysterious and inscrutable
East, militarily ham-strung on the 38th parallel. Having only the
nascent logical powers of extreme youth, it was easy enough to allow
these innately hostile loyalties to reside comfortably in my little
tousled head.

It certainly would have been inconceivable to me, as I was too young,
but I believe as well to many an older and wiser head, that an entity
such as Korea would ever have “the bomb,” whether as a single sovereign
whole (and still the largely medieval society it was through the 1940s)
or artificially divided as it ended up after our stalled efforts to aid
the southern armies to fend off the menace of the Chinese.

I’ve always preferred the perspective of the long view. With the
foregoing as prelude, it is with an unavoidable bemusement that I read
of the Bush government’s (and hence the American people’s) current
dilemma. In 250 very short years—brief perspective-giving note: The
Roman Empire, conservatively, lasted in its glory for about five or six
hundred years, before the deposition of the last of the Western
emperors and the first of the Eastern (and the adoption of Christianity
as the “state religion”)—we have passed from being colonies of another
great imperial power, the British, liberating ourselves in part with
the aid of state-of-art weapons: muskets. We are now, nominally, the
world’s sole superpower. Nevertheless, we are enmired in a developing
Middle Eastern country (having contributed to their regression with massive bombing
and other dubious militaristic and political strategies) in such a way
that one might say, in brief, that we are so twisted up in our knickers
that we can’t seem to stop any petty tyranny (the alternative political
model to democracy) from creating a dangerous kind of leverage for
themselves.

I’d suggest that without some significant shift, not only in strategic
thinking, but in political competence in the arena of world affairs, we
are headed in a direction where things will not end with a big bang,
and not with a whimper. They will end with what will seem like an
endless series of little bangs.

The little bangs of suicide bombs, of cluster bomb bomblets embedded in
the soil trod by innocents, of IEDs, fashioned sometimes with
technology not very much more sophisticated than the musket, and
finally, the very little bang, as these things go, of a third-world
atom bomb—the news is, well not amusing, but curious, for its account
of our doubts about the North Korean nuclear capability, because of the
apparent small yield of the device they just tested, at the same time
it reports the gravity of our censure for their setting off anything.

On the one hand, we have Karl Rove, one of the strategic geniuses of
our time, engineering gains and victories, measured in purely domestic
political terms, primarily on behalf of President Bush. And we have the
same President Bush, obviously out-maneuvered on the larger stage of
global matters to the status of boobery, by the likes of rogues and
villains who oversee the fortunes of countries who can’t afford to
carry our lunch, never mind carry a minuscule fraction of our military
weapons budget.

Where this will lead remains to be seen.

I think the conclusion is obvious, and my last best hope is a selfish
one. That is, with any luck, I will benefit from the destiny of genetic
stuff that sustains a longer life, but I will not live to see that
conclusion. Like speculating on whether we’ve gone too far with another
global condition—the condition of Nature itself; so far as not to be
able to reverse the effects of the presence of civilization on the
planet and its atmospere—we can only speculate on the potentialities
for a Rove-like genius to emerge who will undo the effects of equally
inattentive global political machinations.

The only thing I’m sure of, in the midst of all the deficits we contend
with, usually measured in financial, or purely monetary, terms, we are
largely the victims of the deficit of attention of likely every leader
since the world of my childhood. A level of attention that, as near as
I can figure, has only been diminishing at a steady rate, if not an
accelerating one, of decline.

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