June 5, 2000
Many foreigners have written books about American culture, life, politics, foreign policy, and the like. Many of these works have been rather awful and, therefore, rudely received this side of the water. The exceptions would include those of Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Bryce, writing in the early and late 19th century, respectively.
There is a more recent tradition that of writers who come not to bury the Americans, but to praise them. Generally, these writers want the rich and powerful US super-state to do something for them, and generally manage to say even more absurd things about America and American life than even the forthright America-haters do. Hatred leads, at least, to a certain clarity and we can learn from writers who don't like us. But where's the gain from books which exalt precisely those aspects of American life and policy which many of us despise?
Older readers will recall the fuss over M. J. J. Servan-Schreiber's The American Challenge (1967), which told the Euro-business community to shape up and manage right before the Americans took all their markets. Der Spiegel gave a cover-story to the furor and interviewed its maker.
Amaury DeRiencourt had already weighed in with The Coming Caesars (1957), a neo-Spenglerian meditation wherein the Americans played a pragmatic, successful, imperial Rome to the Europeans' bickering, divided, but more cultured Greece. There was enough truth there to call up an angry denial from Frank Meyer, libertarian conservative and cold warrior.1 Thirty years on, Meyer's brave answer looks a bit thin.
And who could ever forget M. Jean-Francois Revel's Without Marx or Jesus? about the Americans' looming post-Christian and non-socialist society, which rested on a firm foundation of mass consumption by newly liberated individuals detached from all tradition. At least that's how I remember it. It made some us wonder if there might be more than one kind of "individualism." Fortunately, Revel took up writing Cold War devotionals for a while.
Today's candidate in the praise-America-for-all-the-wrong-reasons sweepstakes is Senhor Alfredo G. A. Valladao. The writer is said to be a Brazilian political scientist working and writing in Paris. His The Twenty-first Century Will Be American (1996) spreads the happy news that US imperialism rules and is a good thing, too.2
The first problem is that the book is far too pro-American that is, slavishly devoted to the American state to have been written by anyone who wasn't paid truckloads of paper dollars by unknown (but guessable) agencies of influence. Perhaps the good work which made the Congress for Cultural Freedom possible still goes on. But I am being unkind. If the Greek Polybius and the Celt Virgil could sing the glories of Rome, why can't some foreign fellow honestly proclaim Uncle Sam the Savior of Mankind Soter tou kosmou, or something like that? It's just possible.
Still, I hate to think that I, or anyone else who reads this book, might be the victim of an elaborate hoax. Some people are still feeling burned by The Report from Iron Mountain (1962). Let us, nevertheless, take things at face value, and stride forward.
America must rule because it alone "possesses the three pillars of power: military, economic and cultural" (p. xi). Here, Valladao reinvents the wheel. Anyway, it is "pointless to fret" about the inevitable or "withdraw into a nostalgic cult of the national past." No, America is "a democratic empire with a vocation to merge with the entire planet, even at the expense of American domestic interests" (p. xii). Bill Clinton is an ideal leader, who knows that "the distinction between internal and foreign policy is becoming increasingly blurred" (p. xvi). I think we can reserve judgment, since with the Prez all distinctions are blurred.
As Americans enter their "final frontier"[!], their traditional "piety" finds new outlet in a "Saviour"-President, who blathers on about new "covenants." Once, we were so decentralized that the Second Amendment allowed individuals to bear arms and "gave the states the right to raise their own militias" (p. 6, my emphasis). But, moving along, the covenant shifted to the "national civic level." Unfortunately, the poor federal government became "the tool of private interests" since it had "no vocation of its own." Actually, it did, Senhor the common defense and two or three other things mentioned in the Constitution but our politicians found that vocation too boring and got themselves new ones.
According to Valladao, government "showered gifts on industry" after the War of 1861-1865, which to his mind constitutes "a virtually unlimited economic laissez faire." (p. 9) Such conceptual confusion does not augur well. He quickly takes us through the Social Gospel and Progressivism, which saved us from all that laissez faire, and on to "mass culture" (recorded music, radio, television). Between mass culture and the Great Depression, we were soon blessed with Saviour FDR, in whose reign Washington got its "hands on a large, permanent military machine" (p. 15). With the Good War, Korea, and NATO, "isolationism" (my quotation marks) became "impossible" (p. 16).
Valladao sees baby boomers as "grave," by which he means that they are morally serious. My generation could be called many things most of them deserved but never mind. Any how, alongside NUKES, which furthered the cult of national security and a "technocratic conception of the presidency" (p. 19), the kids invented the New Age, whose "god is a rational principle of unity, bringing humanity together with nature" (p. 23). Gee, I thought we were already in nature, which is why we had to invent clothing, roofs, central heating, chainsaws, etc. And you people laughed at those conservatives who went on and on about Gnosticism .
Valladao somehow pulls the new political activism of American Catholic Bishops into this framework, alongside the decline of Protestant fundamentalism. Absent the old WASP religion, then, "the only sentiments shared unanimously by all Americans are love and respect for the supreme magistrate" (p. 28)! Has the man ever lived here? It's been years since I saw many people who "love and respect" the president (of either party), but then I try to stay out of bad neighborhoods.
So the Prez mediates between us and the divine, as the "main factor of cohesion" in US society. Elections become "cyclical refoundations" of the state (p. 29). In an interesting insight, Valladao notes that Reagan was "crucial" in this by repeating ritualistically the rhetoric of the 1780s while strengthening The Office. The empire allows "a radical separation between public religion and private religions" (p. 30) to the good of both, I suppose. My copy of the Constitution doesn't mention a public religion. Odd.
Two chapters tell the happy tale of how immigrant masses thronged in, undermining our wicked original arrangements which were "Protestant, white, oligarchic, republican, powerful and isolationist" (p. 34). Could more EVIL be packed into one sentence? I ask the jury. Dear me. Any how, by letting it happen, the original political nation signed its own apparently well-deserved death warrant.
Outsiders Cold War refugees, post-1965 ethnic immigrants, and Southern Blacks who moved north could count on the Prez, and he found them politically useful. These pressures melted all the Old Ethnics into mere white folks. Uncle Sam built up a new "federal aristocracy" of professional world-meddlers while espousing "multiracial centralism." Everything worked out, proving "the great vitality of American institutions" such that World-America (his term) can "absorb any culture or belief" (p. 53) and believe them all simultaneously, I guess. Good job we have a Constitution so flexible it can be pulled around the world with no loss of legitimacy.
In chapter five we are entertained with some Jazz determinism. Interwar cosmopolitanism what with all the American writers living in Paris prepared the way of Universal Pop Art from America. We got Kurt Weil and bad social theory from the Frankfurt School. Weren't we lucky? The world got bebop and rock music. My joy cannot be told.
JFK and later Washington big-shots developed European tastes. How nice. American film and TV conquered the planet with images of "detached" individuals solving their individual problems in a cultural vacuum. As TV advertised the rising US empire, federal elites "blurred the distinction between business and politics" (p. 64). Pssst, Senhor, they've been blurring that distinction for a long time. We call it mercantilism or corporatism and, overseas, Open Door empire.
Multiculturalism and political correctness are necessary parts of the happy process under way.
The BOMB changed everything, Valladao says. Armed with this unprecedented power of life and death, supported by a permanent standing army, the Great Executive swept away the "local oligarchies" and "local freedoms" of the American Republic. Much of this was FDR's doing, and his "achievement" was consolidated by the Cold War. While Congress abdicated, the executive won new friends and created new dependents, wielding his colossal budget. These dependents included the states, localities, and sections of the people. Reagan's "pretext of a 'new federalism'" (p. 78) sped the process along. TV democracy and PACs did their bit.
The Supreme Court's "reapportionment" decisions helped kill off the old politics based on genuine local interests (the ones derided as "oligarchical"). State and local officials "acquir[ed] a business mentality" by which he means they wanted a share of the loot gathered in Washington. The president sat in the middle of "this immense spider's web" (p. 89). This phrase calling to mind Edmund Burke's comment on Jeremy Bentham's social engineering schemes gives me hope that Valladao is actually a very gifted satirist .
Global democratic empire needs "a new nobility" to run things. Valladao (writing in 1996, remember) sees hope in Bill Clinton's and Vaclav Havel's gaseous rhetoric about new civic virtues. (Again: is he doing satire?) With or without a proper ruling elite, the US government has gone global, and is "emancipated from its territorial limits" (p. 98).
America has developed overseas operatives, bureaucrats and capitalists, well versed in global management. US control of the world monetary system allows the US to export inflation and live on debt. Reagan's "miracle on credit" is noted (p. 118). Are you gonna ask Goliath to pay up?
Washington is now the world capital. (I suggest renaming it Worldville.) America has, since 1945, avoided "mercantilist temptations" (p. 117). Nγo, Senhor, Uncle won! He's the most successful mercantilist competitor. That's what the Open Door was all about. The fact that it worked for these people does not make it a species of "free trade" or "universalism."
Valladao now discusses US economic "leadership" and new information technologies. Throughout, he fails to unpack disaggregate his abstractions, so that "America," "Americans," etc. remain indistinguishable from the US state apparatus, and this undifferentiated blob "America" takes collective credit. I like to think that America's private sector did some of these things on its own. Not to worry, Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's heartfelt love for information technology assures Valladao that all will be properly managed soon.
Writing lovingly of the US policy of "muscular free trade," which is "forcing the doors" of reluctant traders in an "attack on everything" outside the system (p. 159), Valladao almost makes me sympathize with protectionists. I do support their right to adopt bad policies without immediate threat of aerial bombardment or "economic" blockade. Fortunately for everyone, Uncle has called the Europeans' bluff and brought them into his big tent. Only Russia and China remain to be jollied along.
Valladao gives much credit to G. H. W. Bush and James Baker for "creatively" building their New World Order, on the collapse of communism. Under Bush, NATO "gave itself permission" to go out-of-area, which if nothing else, is interesting commentary on what passes for international law these days. Various US operations/invasions under the UN fig-leaf also get Valladao's endorsement.
He is very keen on Secretary Baker's announcement of a "new Atlanticism" "from Vancouver to Vladivostok" (p. 176). This is very odd, as it only takes in the Bering Sea. Oh, I'm sorry, he meant it the other way round. I'm glad Hitler never said that; we'd never hear the end of it.
America itself is merely the base of operations for all these armed philanthropies. This fellow almost maketh me accept the full thesis about the new international elite as set out by Samuel Francis and Justin Raimondo. No matter. With his satellites, missiles, bombs so smart they write their own moral theory, and his new, mobile praetorian armies, World-America Sam can deal with "any threat" he chooses to imagine.
This is all good, because the new empire is "not autocratic" (p. 185) and thank God for that. World-America is, however, "corrosive" to all other states the narrow ones, you know and all those backward cultures out there. Fresh from his successful experiments in managing his own multicultural children, whom he has made to love one another, World-Sam and his "neo-Stoical elite" will bring order and peace to the planet. And Brotherhood/Sisterhood. Or else.
Everyone will clamor to "enter the service" of this wonderful overlord. This imperial drama will succeed if World-Sam fosters "sexual freedom, respect for the State and the networks of personal bonds that nurture devotion and channel the interplay of purely individual interest" (p. 196). This is the state-directed "individualism" of which Robert Nisbet so eloquently wrote and which Tocqueville opposed. No wonder we are living in an era of Late Hellenistic despair.
I had thought that no writer could outperform Francis Fukuyama in these matters. Unless Senhor Valladao is the cleverest kidder since Jonathan Swift, I stand corrected.
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