As always, I have spent some of my leisure time recently in the company of audio books. My last two selections from audible.com discuss politics and provide very gloomy visions for the future. One, from the centrist Kevin Phillips, “American Theocracy” describes how the United states has entered its period of decline because of the peek oil theory, the overwhelming influence of evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal religions on the White House and that the nation, its citizens and businesses carry so much debt that the economy can no longer handle the burden. The second book, “Failed States,” by Noam Chomsky, a leftist, one of my all-time heroes and, according to two recent international surveys, the world’s leading intellectual, describes, using mostly government documents as source material, how the US due to its arrogant foreign policy and economical hegemony has lost the following it once had outside our borders and, like many empires before, will soon crumble.
From the religious right, we have the “Left Behind” series which have been described by no less than the influential Reverend Jerry Falwell himself as, “The most important books published since the Bible.” These novels, very popular among the Pentecostal, evangelical and fundamentalist community have sold more than 65 million copies in the US alone. Their author takes the relatively difficult and cryptic reading of the Bible out of its ancient and arcane language, moves the prophecies (as he interprets them) to our current era and, in a manner watered down so Wal-Mart shoppers can understand him, describes Armageddon and the Rapture set in the 21st century United States. I haven’t read any of these novels, not due to lack of interest but because the handful of passages I have seen didn’t approach the literary standard I require as a minimum.
So, are there any optimists left? While I will sometimes use Blind Confidential as a forum to describe problems we blinks endure, I also suggest things like rallies, leadership and organization and, hopefully, don’t project too much of a dark future. I understand that the people who believe in the rapture concept actually see the End Times as a positive but, as the prophecy suggests, no one can know if they appear in God’s book and will, therefore, rise into heaven to join Jesus as the war between good and evil takes its toll on those left behind.
Garrison Keeler, a practicing Lutheran, once ponder the question, “What if the rapture comes and God only lifts up the Unitarians?” He answers his own question, “Well, there will be piles of organic clothing, Birkenstock sandals, coffee pots and Volvos and a lot of very angry Christians left behind.”
At least the apocalyptical descriptions professed by the fundamentalist, evangelical and Pentecostal faithful affords a possibility of escape and also tells us that the war between good and evil will end in a decade after which Jesus will return to Earth to rule the world in peace and happiness for the next millennium. I don’t adhere to any of these religions but I do have many friends who do and respect the commitment they have for their belief system, faith and spirituality.
Kevin Phillips, if you don’t know of him, started his career as a political advisor to Richard Nixon. Phillips invented the Republican southern strategy by correctly recognizing that the secular humanist liberals, in the fifties and sixties, had completely underestimated the average Americans’ commitment to their religion. In the 1968 election, he could use George Wallace as the foil for the hard-line, racist, segregationists throughout the south and by appealing to the more traditional values of the church going faithful and traditionally Democratic preachers who felt the Civil War had yet to end, that Nixon could wrench a few southern states and win the election against the very liberal, northern liberal Hubert Humphrey.
In “American Theocracy,” a seventeen hour talking book that, due to Phillip’s excellent scholarship and citation of references, is choppy and goes beyond “dry” into downright “arid,” he seems to apologize for his version of “Prometheus Unbound” without going so far as accepting blame for the economic and strategic mess he feels that our nation is in. Phillips states the thesis that the downfall of the American “empire” will result from the same kinds of events that brought down the British just after World War I and the Dutch a century or so earlier. He assembles the three factors, citing many events from the historical record, as: the loss of a dominance over the primary source of energy, the financial transition from building and selling actual goods and a philosophic drifting from scientific, fact based, empirical, enlightened thought to one based in religion.
The Dutch dominated the trade in whale oil, and the use of hydro and wind power for energy. Whale oil cost far more per gram than petroleum has ever been and when coal became the fuel of choice and factories run by air and water power could no longer compete with the more efficient fossil fuel, a major portion of their economy collapsed. Simultaneously, the Dutch economic system moved from one based upon trade and manufacturing to one centered in finance, they became the bankers to the world as the empire crumbled and the majority of their nation fell into a long period of poverty. Finally, as their empire crumbled, the Dutch turned toward their version of nationalist Protestantism which ensured them of their superiority and, therefore, permanent dominance of the world’s economy.
Then, with the advent of coal burning machines and their ample supply of coal mines, the British, bent on rising to primacy in the global economy and unhappy with their dependency on foreign sources for many of the goods they enjoyed, started the first fossil fuel based economy, built countless factories, kicked off the industrial revolution, dominated the oceans and global trade and rose to the position of most powerful empire in the world. The Brits, according to Phillips, rode this success for quite a long time but, as they grew fat and happy, they lost their manufacturing sector to the hard working, immigrant filled United States who, slowly but surely, had taken the lead and, by 1900, housed the worlds largest economy. Meanwhile, the British financial services industry grew in size and wealth beyond its manufacturing sector and London became the paper shuffling capital of the world. Finally, like their Dutch cousins, the English moved to an increasingly nationalist form of Christianity and, from the pulpits of the Church of England, congregations throughout their land learned that God would save the king and that there would always be an England.
With this religious fueled assumption that the hegemony of the British Empire could not be challenged, “”Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, for God is on our side,” became a popular hymn as the young soldiers marched into the greatest destruction the world would have witnessed in its previous history.
When WWI came to a virtual stalemate and God’s chosen British military could do no more than kill, be killed and never move in either direction, they called upon their cousins from across the pond and the now oil fueled, manufacturing based United States came to the rescue.
Thus, Phillips shows us two very distinct examples from history and then describes the current state of our nation. He demonstrates that, following Dr. Humphrey’s theory of “peak oil” that the US based oil supply peaked in the 1970s and production has dropped ever since. He shows , citing oil company reports that the untapped oil in US held territory is actually very small and will be very expensive to extract. Finally, he cites geologists from oil companies and academia as saying that the Saudi oil fields are depleting rapidly and that Iraq probably sits atop the largest untapped oil supply remaining on Earth. Coincidence, Phillips thinks not.
Phillips then brings us to the language used by leaders of the religious right in the US. Saddam Hussein, a bad guy in everybody’s book, has appeared in widely distributed Christian publications as the antichrist and, in some, if he isn’t the actual antichrist, he’s on his payroll. They continue with Biblical references to ancient Babylon and Saddam’s intention of building a resort for himself and his inner circle on the spot of the ancient city. Finally, he cites references to the constant war between Israel and its neighbors as they appear in fundamentalist literature as being the kick off to Armageddon.
Finally, Phillips shows us that the year 2004, for the first time in American history, the financial services industry had become the largest in America, passing both manufacturing and technology. He also demonstrates that in 2005, the financial sector’s lead grew faster than ever before and now outpaces all others in both size and growth as percentage of GDP. His last real stab at American civilization as we know it comes in the form of a little publicized fact that appeared in a report issued by Alan Greenspan and the Fed, in 2005, also for the first time in our nation’s history, our citizens spent more than we saved.
Phillips, through a very well researched and detailed text, doesn’t see much of a light at the end of the tunnel that doesn’t require radical action and the collapse of the American global hegemony. Near the conclusion, Phillips reminds us of the old Harry Truman quote, “The only new things are the history we haven’t learned.”
Having lived through the malaise of the seventies and emerged pretty well, I have difficulty accepting that all is doom and gloom.
Then, of course, I went ahead and read Chomsky’s latest, “Failed States.” Phillips, having come out of that whacko liberal Richard Nixon’s shadow, tends toward the center much more than the leftist linguist from MIT. People who love Chomsky, People who hate Chomsky and the few that fall between the two poles, agree that his scholarship and intellect are beyond question. For those who don’t know of Noam Chomsky, he first entered the eye of the academic world when, as a graduate student, he published the short but profoundly influential, “Semantic Transformations.” This little book changed the life of the intellectual community and, by proxy, almost everyone else nearly overnight. Virtually everything humans understood about linguistics and how language and our brains work went away. Chomsky had handed us the keys to the future. When he is not working as the world’s most influential linguist at MIT, he writes and speaks on topics of social criticism and his latest book falls into this category. [Author’s Note: Although I respect Chomsky and place him on the short list of my intellectual heroes, I cannot read any of his books on linguistics published after the ground breaking first entry in the fifties. I’m sure that linguists and other scholars who work in closely related fields can understand them but I simply do not have the education in that field and cannot, therefore, grasp those works.]
In an interview on Amy Goodman’s very left wing “Democracy Now!” Radio program, Chomsky said that “failed Nations” was one of the simplest writing endeavors he ever sought to do. He explained that virtually all of his citations came from Bush Administration, US Federal Government documents. Some of the others came from official publications of the British government during the Blair regime and recent official publications released by the Israeli government.
While also somewhat dry and choppy (due to all of its citations) “Failed States,” seems like a romp in the park after reading Phillips’ long and arduously detailed text. Chomsky, who makes no secret of his leftist leanings, comes to conclusions nearly identical to those of Kevin Phillips.
To me, one who has spent his life following politics the same way others follow sports, one who has read most of the important texts on political economy of historical significance ranging from Marx to Smith and Weber to Keynes to Friedman, one who has read many important works of religious significance from the Bible to the Gita to Lao Tse and students of the Buddha Gauthama (I admit, my knowledge of the Koran is sorely lacking), to works of political and military philosophy from the ancients to Gandhi to Malcolm to Martin to Mandela to Abbie Hoffman to Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Malcolm Forbes, various generals, civil war historians, Russian Revolution historians (from works like, “100 Days That Shook the World,” to “Gulag Archipelago”) and all sorts of other works from this category, I still cannot claim to be an expert in the humanities or social sciences. I am a very well read dilettante with a blog where I express my opinions.
This morning my opinion is one of shock, Kevin Phillips, architect of the Republican Southern strategy that has led the GOP to its dominance of all three branches of government and Noam Chomsky, the outspoken, white tower citizen of the People’s Republic of Cambridge, anti-war, left wing activist and philosopher have published books within a few weeks of each other that reach the same conclusion. Nixon philosophy and Chomsky agree? Dare to think the unthinkable.
Intellectually, taking this train of thought a step further, we have the liberal Nixon people siding with the leftist Chomsky and Howard Zinn types in agreement and, from the Christian right, we see stories of end times, Armageddon, Apocalypse and rapture. Am I the only person who finds that it feels pretty weird hearing the left, center and right, all with radically divergent sources (Phillips draws heavily on history and financial information, Chomsky draws on many official documents published by governments around the world and the “Left Behind” series draws from the Bible, faith and theology), coming to the same conclusion?
Whether socialist like Chomsky, center/right like Phillips and far right like Falwell, Robertson, et al, all of our leaders seem to agree that the end is approaching fast. They, of course, have different conclusions on how to prepare for such an inevitability but they all seem to agree that the poop will hit the fan any day now and there is little other than divine intervention or extremely radical action that can offer a way out.
So, where have the optimists gone? Where is the Clinton “Bridge to the Future,” the feel great to be an Americanism of the Reagan years, Carter’s certainty that good would prevail, Ford’s belief that we could whip inflation now, Nixon’s courage to support the “silent majority” and, when his time came, to resign rather than disgrace the nation, Johnson’s hope for a “Great Society,” Kennedy’s near legendary presidency of hope, youth and future, Eisenhower’s baby boom never say die America of the fifties, Harry Truman’s courage to say , “I would rather be right than president,” FDR’s belief that, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and Hoover’s “chicken in every pot.” I stop my walk backward through history as I don’t think I can think of anything Calvin Coolidge did other than be born in Vermont, Warren Harding only seems famous for his scandals and I know little of his message. But, before them, Presidents like Wilson with is dream of world peace and a League of Nations, Teddy Roosevelt’s continuous optimism and certainty that Americans could go where others have failed (Panama Canal for instance) and the general optimism of his youthful presidency. Going back to our founding fathers, great intellects like John Adams, Samuel Adams and John Hancock actually participated in acts like the Boston Tea Party and were present and holding fire arms when the “shot heard around the world” was fired. These patriot founding fathers had the confidence and optimism to take on the most powerful military on Earth with a band of untrained farmers with guns, a band of pirates as their navy and the philosophy of the enlightenment.
I must have been asleep or working too hard the day that America lost its optimism somewhere since Y2K. All of the presidents I mention above felt that America could and should be fearless. Now, as I said above, our leaders, from every wing of the socio-political spectrum, describe doom and gloom. I have tickets to hear Chick Corea play live tomorrow night, maybe his piano will play a hopeful message.
What does this have to do with blindness? Well, two thirds of it comes from audio books. Hell, it’s my blog and I can cry if I want to.
Also, in the text above, I state that Noam Chomsky is a citizen of the “people’s Republic of Cambridge,” perhaps, the most liberal/left city in the nation and certainly the capital of the intellectual world. This is not, in fact, true. Chomsky works in Cambridge at MIT and, unlike Alan Dershowitz, his Harvard, cross-town, less smart rival, he doesn’t actually live there. Noam lives in a lovely neighborhood in Brookline, Massachusetts (which tries to go as far to the left as Cambridge but never seems to succeed), often opens his home for fundraising events for all sorts of causes and rides the Green Line to Park Street where he switches to the Red Line to get to work.
I think the “leftier than thou race” between Cambridge and Brookline ended about ten years ago. Brookline was first with a woman mayor, Cambridge was first with a black woman mayor, Brookline was first with a gay mayor and Cambridge pulled out the trump card, a gay, black mayor. Cambridge was also first to require that all bar rooms open to the public must have coin operated vending machines that sell latex condoms in the rest rooms. Brookline would follow a couple of years later with its own condom ordinance but, by then, they had fallen too far behind to truly catch up.
One night, while in a drunken stupor, my friend Steve and I stole the condom machine from the men’s room at the Cambridge Brewing Company. We brought it to my house. My wife looked at it with wonder. I returned it the following day as I couldn’t come up with a reason for having such a device in my living room.