It was inevitable, I think, that the deathblow to the American Idyll would be self-inflicted. What possible enemy, aside from ourselves, was big, brutal and just-plain bad enough to kill the Planet-Wide Empire, the Corporation Without Borders, the Omnivorous Boygg, rich, sly and adaptable enough to take on any foe and not destroy it but turn it into a part of its poisonous self, like a metastasizing cancer on the rampage?
No barbarian hordes, no invading armies bearing inscrutable banners, ever showed up at the magnificently ugly walls we had constructed to protect ourselves; but inside the walls, life grew progressively emptier, shabbier, unhappier, for a fortress is also a prison, for those cowering within. Our fate was written in our own stars, foreordained, inexorable, and utterly inescapable. We were born to die, to fall on our own sword, and there never was a thing we could do about it.
And when we finally noticed, it was far too late. We were already dead, or dying. 9/11 and our insane responses to it (Attacked by Saudi Arabians trained by Pakistanis? Retaliate against Iraq.); the catastrophe of the New Orleans hurricane; the insoluble, unjust immigration imbroglio; the corruption that now permeates every facet of our society (not one of the contractors sent to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan has done a decent job or billed the taxpayers honestly). These are all just symptoms of a disease that’s been eating away at our body politic at least since the end of the Second World War.
Perhaps that’s when our downhill slide really began: when we found we were the war’s only true victors, with both our defeated enemies and our allies ravaged, bankrupted. The old cliché about absolute power corrupting absolutely began to operate. It wasn’t that we were evil. As soon as the fighting ended, we began to rebuild the countries we had been warring against, helped our European allies return to normalcy, and made at least a small effort to finish off the colonial system in Africa and Asia.
Our vices were carelessness and willful ignorance. My father, who served with the 14th Air Force in Asia during the war, used to tell of an incident he witnessed in the Philippines shortly after VJ Day. American troops were preparing to go home, and as they did, U.S. authorities decided to destroy tens of millions of dollars worth of unwanted government property rather than transport it back to the U.S. As he watched, a team of bulldozers smashed, crushed and buried mountains of radio gear, medical equipment, furniture, food, construction material, tools and machinery, appliances, and clothing. GIs armed with 50-caliber machine guns and M1s held back a huge crowd of poor Filipinos, people who had fought alongside us throughout the war, sheltered hundreds of U.S. soldiers when the Japanese occupied their country, endured tens of thousands of civilian casualties at the hands of the occupiers, and had most of their cities and towns damaged or destroyed in the fighting. When my father asked the officers in charge why they were destroying this invaluable treasure, worth its weight in gold to the people of the Philippines, instead of simply giving it away on the spot or leaving it behind for the local population to use, he received the classic reply: a shrug, a sneer and that single word used throughout history by monsters, killers and war criminals: “Orders.”
My father, who later worked for the OSS and CIA and had an innate talent for spotting key ideas and events, used to say that at that moment he knew that everything we had fought for in the war was already lost, and that America, the lynchpin of the war against fascism for the past four or five years, had already begun a slow, sure descent from youthful courage, audacity and idealism toward a slothful, selfish senility.
Today, in the lunar Year of the Pig and with the Madness of King George showing no sign of abating, we’re living in the thick of it, surrounded by our own failure. London was bombed into dust and rubble by the Nazis, but the British never even considered abandoning their humanitarianism and democratic traditions in the face of the crisis; terrorists knock two buildings down in America today, and within days self-described “liberal” commentators are calling for the torture of suspects, laws are passed voiding the rights of privacy and free speech, and we ignore the two nations behind the attacks on us, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and declare war on Syria, Iraq, Iran, and any Moslems anywhere in the world who dare to think Palestinians should have a homeland,
It didn’t take much, the merest nudge, to topple this ex-Republic, Empire-Wannabe, Dope Crib for Crooks, Knaves and Idiot Non-Savants. And now we’re stuck with living in the consequences, trying to find something fine and decent to build our lives around… “Waiting for the world to change,” as the feckless lyrics of Generation Yecchh put it…. Poor, poor pitiful us.