The Grouch is back from the U.S., and his tales of our mutual homeland leave me worried for the future of the nation. My three week trip to America Norte last September, driven by a desire to allow my mother to get to know her grandson a bit better, left be with an ill-defined foreboding. Initially, I wrote it off as little more than the disgust – nay despair – of a lifetime Republican who has watched The Party of Lincoln sold off in bits to wildcatters, fundamentalists , and robber barons.
But The Return of the Grouch has confirmed for me that my concerns were more general in nature. This goes deeper than Bush and his cronies and the war in Iraq – it goes to the hubris, the introversion, the moral collapse, the loss of purpose. If I were called upon to describe America today, it would be a nation that from all accounts feels like it has lost its way.
And yet, I remain decidedly optimistic.
Because what I think we might be seeing is the end of an era in America, not the end of America.
Let me explain.
I spent the summer of 1985 in a fourth-floor one-bedroom apartment in an old building at Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley. I was there to take the cram session in Mandarin at Cal (two semesters of Chinese in ten weeks flat), and if that’s all I had taken away from that summer, that would have been enough.
The rigors of the course, long, solitary hours, the immersion in Chinese culture, and a view that took in a vista that included San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay, and Mount Tamalpais from the huge windows behind my Kaypro 4 computer made a combination as remarkable as that of any drug. The whole summer was a bit of a vision quest, three remarkable months that set me on my life’s course and that left me completely changed.
On a late but sunny summer afternoon made cool by the breezes through The Gate across the bay I was struck by a vision of an America remade, a nation wrested out of its slumber by the economic onslaught of Dai Nippon and invigorated by Four Little Tigers and a Waking Dragon. And the clearer I saw this vision, the more I realized that the power structures guiding America, those that C. Wright Mills, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Tom Wolfe described so eloquently, would never, NEVER get it.
I realized at the age of 21 that the foundation upon which American society, power, enterprise, culture, and martial thinking had been built for over two centuries was based fundamentally on the assumption of a world where the decision makers clustered around the North Atlantic ocean.
This is not simply a matter of geography – this, as anyone who has spent any time on both coasts of the United States will agree, is a matter of two radically different cultures.
And the cultural crucible that has produced ten generations of American leaders is no longer relevant to the nation. It has been so for a while, but Japan’s rise from ash-bucket to economic ass-kicker was the first sign that something was wrong.
I have to give it to the Eastern Establishment – they pretended to get it. They wrote and read books. They joined The Asia Society. They made trips to a place they still called “the Orient.” And they mouthed the same platitudes about the rise of the Pacific.
But they never realized that the emergence of Japan, then China, then India, meant that the Rules of the Game they and their families had played since the Mayflower were wrong. Even when their good buddies in Europe flipped them the bird over Iraq, they didn’t get it. Over the last quarter century, everything they knew about America and themselves went from right to wrong. All of the reasons that the people who have led America for 250 years have been allowed to run the show no longer make any difference.
(This is what Tom Barnett calls a “rule-set reset.” Big time.)
The conclusion I reached in this moment of clarity two decades ago was that IF America was going to play any kind of role at all in the New, New World Order, at some point the Eastern Establishment would lose it, and a Western Dynasty would have to rise to displace it.
America could no longer be run from the towers of New York, led from the marble halls of Washington, and taught by the ivy-covered brick of Boston. No way.
San Diego – LA – San Francisco – Portland – Seattle would replace Boston – New York – Philadelphia – Washington as the new axis. I-5 trumps I-95.
Pac-10, not Ivy League.
All those guys back East would slowly fade away. In their place would rise Out West.
Yeah yeah, I KNOW you’ve heard this all before. Lots of people have.
But were they really listening? Were they – are they – tuned into just what this is going to mean?
So I think back to my vision that day in Berkeley, and I think that maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing the ending of the old before the new emerges. This is NOT the decline of the American Empire – it is the fall of The Atlantic Empire. This could mean the end of America as a world power, not so much militarily but socially, economically, culturally. I’m not talking about the end of American socio-econo-cultural hegemony – that’s dead anyway, regardless of what Tom Friedman has to say about McDonalds.
If those of us who GET the new Imperium Pacifica step up and start talking about this, we have a chance to ensure that America as a distinctive, prosperous nation has a chance in the near future. Otherwise, it will go the way of the establishment that has led it.