an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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some thoughts on the importance of nations

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America – the most important country in the world (Fareed Zacharia)

There have been many most important countries in the world throughout human history. Usually self-styled. They become important through economic and military success. And they think, everyone of them, that this success gives them moral authority. This is the fundamental error of every powerful state in history, so tedious to relate. The fact is that Americans are no way morally superior to Mexicans, Australians or Koreans, or whoever. Every country, or state, or tribe, is full of individual humans striving equally to thrive – like every other life form.

If you believe, however, that you’re a member of the most important country in the world, that may play on your mind a little. It may move you, just a little, to believe, just a little, that you’re just a little more important than people from less important countries.

What does it mean though, to be more important? Is it about power? We can think of an elephant being a more powerful animal than a squirrel, but does that make her more important?

Maybe importance can be measured by imagining the country, or animal, not existing. If the USA, and all its people, disappeared tomorrow, that would have a much bigger impact than if, say, Fiji and all its people disappeared, and presumably not just because this compares 325 million with less than one million. A better comparison would be between the USA and China or India. Both these countries have more people than the USA but are less important, according to Zacharia. 

I’m guessing that Zacharia’s presumably offhand description of US importance has mostly to do with that country’s impact on the world. This surely gets to the nub of the matter. But this surely has no moral dimension. I’m not sure whether Zacharia meant to suggest a moral dimension to the USA’s importance. 

My view is that nations are like animals. Large animals tend to leave a larger footprint, metaphorically speaking. The main focus of any animal or nation is to sustain itself, and more. Other nations, or animals, are seen as a means to that end. So nations will see other nations as either exploitable (prey), helpful in the exploitation of others, dangerous (predators), or simply irrelevant. True, there are symbiotic relationships, and exploitation is perhaps a loaded word, but the world of the living goes on living by consuming other living beings. At least, that’s how it has gone on so far. 

Important countries consume more. Maybe that’s a negative, but they may do so by being smarter, or by hitting upon some clever and effective ruses before anyone else. So size isn’t everything, though it helps. Also, their cleverness or effectiveness teaches others – their prey as well as interested observers. They make the world wise up, quicken up. Remember the Mongols, an important nation of the past, or Hannibal, an important general. 

But I feel I’m being too male, thinking too much on destruction and aggression. The importance of nations today should be, and generally is, based on a different kind of cleverness, ingenuity, innovation. Yet we find this everywhere, as ideas spread more quickly than ever before. A young African boy generates wind energy for his village through internet-based DIY. This is important, and a great leveller. 

The internet is still largely American, and so on that basis alone, the USA should rightly view itself as the most important nation in the information age. Or is it simply the English language that has become most important? Science and technology are international, of course, but must be translated into English, if required, for best effect. This has been so for some time – think Mendel’s 1865 paper on the laws of segregation and independent assortment. It didn’t appear in English until 1901, years after Mendel’s death, as a result of some pioneers finally lighting upon it. English is surely an important language. 

So what would happen if the USA suddenly disappeared under the waves, with all its people, its weaponry and other technology, its industry? This would be a terrible tragedy, of course, for those loved and loving ones left behind. And yet, in the information age, surprisingly little, if any, of the technology and industry would be lost. The internet would survive, and with it the means for making bombs, multiple examples of beautiful or other people having orgiastic fun for the tutelage of our youth, the Khan Academy’s video lessons on physics, chemistry and assorted other subjects, and an endless variety of examples of dog, cat, bird, elephant, octopus and other cleverness, or silliness. In short, the human world would certainly progress, or continue, more or less unabated, proving that, however important the USA is, it isn’t indispensable.

But surely, if the USA disappeared, another country would take its turn as the most important country in the world. And what then, and which? 

That’s a very interesting question. The USA won’t, of course, disappear below the waves, and many if not most Americans firmly believe that their country must remain the most important for a long long time into the future. As did the British in their heyday, and the Romans, and the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, no doubt. And yet, our human world goes on, and seems to progress, with all its rises and declines.

They say that China will be the next most important country. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of it happening as long as China retains its current political form. The age of major military conquest is over, I believe, so conquest will have to be of a different type, a much more subtle type, perhaps more subtle than I’m capable of foreseeing at present. Too many nations have sampled, for too long, the flavour of freedom, participation and dissent to be guiled by China’s top-down, controlling approach to administration. China will become more and more of an outlier. In any case, I don’t see the USA relinquishing its prominent position ‘any time soon’, as the Americans like to say. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that the USA will bounce back from the Trump debacle with a much-reformed political system (especially with respect to presidential power and accountability), a renewed commitment to international relations, and a chastened sense of its failings and fragility, and the limits of its democracy.. 

But it’s important, always, to remember that nations are not people, and that people are always more important than nations. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm

the real story of American exceptionalism

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Sorry, God, I haven’t read your book but I’m sure you agree, haha

Canto: So while listening to the commentariat buzzing about the latest Trumpian debacle (you can take your pick), I’ve noticed the term ‘American exceptionalism’ being tossed about, whether in jest or earnest I’m not sure. What do you think it means?

Jacinta: Well we’ve already highlighted American jingoism, which is an across-the-spectrum problem, though more common among those who haven’t travelled much. It worries me more when I hear it from pundits who should know better, because people who think they’re exceptional tend not to be too self-critical. And Americans need to be more critical than ever, of their political system, which has brought them to this pass.

Canto: Yes, we’ve talked about this before but I recall a pundit saying, a few months ago, that America’s founding as a nation was in response to a tyrant – whom he named as the British monarch, George III – so why were they apparently descending into a tyranny now? But this wasn’t quite the story was it?

Jacinta: That’s right. The Brits had executed one of their monarchs a century and a half before the formation of the American state, precisely for being overly intransigent and tyrannical. Then a half-century later they threw out another one for similar reasons. George III was a constitutional monarch, and it was parliament that was making decisions about the American colony. Of course Britain wasn’t a fully representative democracy at the time, but then neither was the new American state – only 6% of the population was allowed to vote in their first Presidential election. It has taken centuries for western countries, including the US, to arrive at full adult suffrage. There are no exceptions in this.

Canto: There’s an article here by a presumably American professor of international relations at Harvard which punctures the American exceptionalism myth, and it says much that we already know, that powerful nations, regardless of their internal politics, are always keen to maintain and expand their sphere of power and influence, and that tends to be the basis of their foreign policy. That explains Britain’s behaviour in the ‘new world’ as much as it explains US behaviour in the Philippines and the Pacific, and in Vietnam and Iraq. The US has been expansionist since the get-go, and it shouldn’t take that much self-critical analysis to understand why so many regions of the world despise the very term “American’. This doesn’t make Americans exceptionally bad, but we should surely have reached a point in our progressive development to realise that foreign lives matter as much as those of our own nation.

Jacinta: Yet again and again, amongst even the liberal commentariat, we get comments like ‘leader of the free world’, ‘the checks and balances that make us stand apart from other nations’, ‘the nation that others look to’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and other thought-free shibboleths. And now more than ever, as their nation has been brought down through allowing a clearly unqualified and inadequate boy-king to become their head of state, with powers far beyond his capacities, Americans need to take a good hard look at themselves and their political system rather than simply moaning about the boy-king and hoping that the system can withstand him. A better system would have dealt with him long before he ever got to this position.

Canto: But really, can you prove this? Can you give examples?

Jacinta: Well no system is perfect but let’s look at the recent meeting of Trump and Putin. Of course it would be silly to compare Australia with the USA in this regard – Putin would have no interest in a meeting with our PM – but any country under the Westminster system – say the UK – would have much the same checks and balances. And this is the thing – a Prime Minister under that system would see her role in very different terms, generally, from the President under the US system. She is first and foremost the leader of her party in Parliament, and is present in Parliament every day that it sits, leading the arguments and being informed, whether she likes it or not, of the dissension and divisions within her own party as well as the contrary views of the opposition. So a meeting with a major and adversarial head of state would inevitably be a matter thrashed out in Parliament, with the PM taking part in the debate. And of course, being closeted together in Parliament House with the Foreign Minister and other relevant ministers is a very different situation for the national leader than being completely separated from Congress and surrounded by mostly hand-picked underlings who are simply paid to do her (or I should now say, his) bidding. A recipe for disaster, if not dictatorship. Not to mention, as I already have elsewhere, the host of privileges and responsibilities vested in the ‘commander-in-chief’ and accorded to no other national leader in a democratic country. The fact that this sort of system is seen, by far too many Americans, as a shining example to all nations is surely proof that the US is exceptional only in its jingoism and its hubris.

Canto: Well that’s pretty strong stuff, and I’m not sure I entirely agree with you, and I’m not sure you answered my question. What’s to prevent a Trump-like figure becoming Prime Minister of Australia?

Jacinta:  I thought I’d explained. Our national elections are not fought out between Mr Conservative and Ms Liberal, one or other to be head of state. They’re fought on a mixture of local and national interests, essentially in the manner of the US mid-terms. We’re voting, essentially, for the party we want in power, as well as a local member we like (for those few who keenly follow politics) and we give due consideration to the leader of that party, always knowing that if that leader underperforms or is found to be corrupt or whatever, there are other elected representatives that can replace him, as quite often happens…

Canto: But even in Australia a situation could occur that a, shall we say unconventional, but very popular figure emerges, with a populist false-promises agenda that appeals to the masses (in a manner largely incomprehensible, if not reprehensible, to the elites), so the party – and surely it would be the Right – might batten on to her as its principle means of gaining and holding onto power – a Faustian bargain and all that – and vote her into the PM position…

Jacinta: Well everything’s possible in the worst of all possible worlds, but it’s far more unlikely. When Trump first started his bid, his candidacy was hugely unpopular within the Republican Party, so he took his message, such as it was, to the people. That’s to say, he worked out as he went along what his people lapped up most voraciously and he fed it to them. As many pundits over there are saying, he’s transformed most of the Republican party, and even more of the voters, into his lapdogs and willing enablers – ‘the party of Lincoln!’ as the Republican never-Trumpers moan. There’s really no opportunity for that to happen within the Westminster system. We have elections between two established parties, in the main, and they often have two established leaders, who owe their positions to party discipline. They’re not in a position to go rogue like Trump has done. And if one of the parties has a shiny new leader she’ll be more likely to toe the party line because she’s not yet established and because she knows the election is about far more than just her. We don’t have any simple person v person elections, except in small by-elections, and hopefully never will.

Canto: Well, I think you’re right, but it’s notable that, in all the noise from the free press from over there, there’s precious little soul-searching about the political system that has permitted someone so obviously inappropriate to hold an office that gives him so much power. Everyone knows that great power should come with great responsibility. Every sensible person in the USA is raging about Trump’s irresponsibility, but virtually nobody is raging about a political system that enables someone of his type to gain this enormous power without sufficient checking, and nobody seems to have anticipated how he could find means, in his blustering way, to extend a power that is already massive to an almost ridiculous degree.

Jacinta: So yes, that’s the real exceptionalism. The US bangs on about being the greatest democracy, but democracy by itself isn’t enough. Most people who vote – no matter what country they’re in – know precious little about how their government works, about foreign relations and trade, about history, about developments in science and technology, even about systems that protect their own welfare, so they’re susceptible to false-promising demagogues, especially if they feel they’re struggling more than they should. Concerns about democracy and demagoguery have been voiced loudly since the days of Plato and Aristotle. The US seems to have been exceptionally deaf about them. The bulwarks against demagoguery are not, as pundits keeps saying, institutions of democracy, they’re institutions of an open society. The free press is a meritocracy, owing its duty to the facts and the evidence, not to ‘the people’. The same goes for the judiciary, which owe its duty to the law and its judicious interpretation according to precedent and the given facts and evidence. The science and technology sector should be at arm’s length from the government, owing its credibility to the independent interpretation of data and confirmation of hypotheses, always subject to peer review. Now, to some extent, I’m talking about an ideal here – I’m sure no government is perfectly open in this way. But Trump has, in his blunderingly self-serving style, corrupted the free press and the judiciary in the minds of ‘his’ people, turned his nation’s formidable foes into his nation’s friends and vice versa, and made America a kind of monstrous laughing-stock worldwide. And there’s another problem – he will not give up his Presidency. He will not. And it will certainly get worse. So that’s a problem for their country’s responsible adults to deal with. I wish them well.

Written by stewart henderson

July 21, 2018 at 9:46 am