Fears of Empire and Decadence

On Thursday evening I attended a philosophical discussion group at my local library. The topic for debate was why we censor violence more than we censor sex in America? It resulted in a number of interesting discussions but concluded with an interesting opposition between meliorists and deteriorists, those who think humans can become better than they are and those who think we will always remain animalistic.

One of the debaters, and a regular attender at the cafe, made an argument for the cyclic nature of human history. In particular he compared America to the Roman Empire, moving from the republic into the empire. I’m no expert on Roman history and when I’ve heard this argument in the past I’ve usually dismissed it as being a bit too easy and pat. But then I come home, fire up my computer and come across this interesting essay by Sydney H. Schanberg at the Village Voice, The Widening Crusade.

If some wishful Americans are still hoping President Bush will acknowledge that his imperial foreign policy has stumbled in Iraq and needs fixing or reining in, they should put aside those reveries. He’s going all the way, and taking us with him.
The Israeli bombing raid on Syria October 5 was an expansion of the Bush policy, carried out by the Sharon government but with the implicit approval of Washington. The government in Iran, said to be seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, reportedly expects to be the next target.

In his new book, Winning Modern Wars, retired general Wesley Clark, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, offered a window into the Bush serial-war planning. He writes that serious planning for the Iraq war had already begun only two months after the 9-11 attack, and adds:
“As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff officers had time for a chat. Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said. But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan… . I left the Pentagon that afternoon deeply concerned.”

And suddenly the whole Roman empire connection seems a little less unlikely. In between the opening and concluding paragraphs Schanberg raises the usual questions about Bush’s war but the most telling is one I’ve often wondered about before: why doesn’t the President ask the American people to make a real sacrifice for this all consuming war.

But beyond all the distortions and exaggerations and falsehoods the Bush people engaged in to rally public support for the Iraq war, what I have never understood, from the 9-11 day of tragedy onward, is why this White House has not called on the American people to be part of the war effort, to make the sacrifices civilians have always made when this country is at war.
There has been no call for rationing or conservation of critical supplies, such as gasoline. There has been no call for obligatory national service in community aid projects or emergency services. As he sent 150,000 soldiers into battle and now asks them to remain in harm’s way longer than expected, the president never raised even the possibility of reinstating the military draft, perhaps the most democratizing influence in the nation’s history. Instead, he has cut taxes hugely, mostly for affluent Americans, saying this would put money into circulation and create jobs. Since Bush began the tax cutting two and a half years ago, 2.7 million jobs have disappeared.

My personal feeling about the battle between the meliorists and the deteriorists is that we are going to have both in abundance. We are going to have improvements in human nature made via psychopharmacology and genomics, while at the same time other parts of the world fall further behind economically. Wars will rage on one continent while on another continent people will use technology to safely comment on the issues from the comfort of their homes. It has already happened.

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