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Tuesday

The greatest nation on earth - philosophy of history, pt 2

What makes America great?

If you are a young Rockefeller or Kennedy or Osbourne, one of the interesting questions you would ask yourself would be, "what makes my family great?"  You want to know how to take advantage of your situation, how to embody Rockefeller-ness as your forebears did so that you, too can be a great Rockefeller - you want to do your part.  There are Rockefellers who paint pictures, who want to be artists, but they fade the way snooty debutantes wither into spinsters; yes, it is probably better for you to seek the Rockefeller way, to try your hand at real Rockefeller things.

Now, if you happen instead to be from one of those lesser families who have a long relationship with the Rockefellers, but aren't hideously wealthy - only rather rich enough - you would be very interested in the activities of your Rockefeller friends who are your potential playmates, business contacts, marriage partners.  Sometimes you ask yourself, "what accident made her a Rockefeller, and me a Dempsey, lateliest scion of that restless man my great grandfather who invented Dempsey Dumpsters?"  You may be priviledged to have an inside line on understanding the historical accidents that make some men financial genius robber-barons, and others scrabbling visionary entrepeneurs who make a splash but fizzle in the big picture.

Ah, it's a well-known fact that even those most vociferous critics of U.S. foreign and domestic policy such as Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich enjoy admitting that the U.S. is nevertheless "the best," they wouldn't want to live anywhere else.  It's not as if you make yourself a better Rockefeller by acting like a Dempsey; there's not much point in moving to Canada.  Our slow-moving, bloated and anti-intellectual democracy is the worst form of government besides all the others, as the saying goes.

But America - the best?  What do we mean, exactly?  It is the beast that has clawed its way to the top (for now), in Darwinian fashion.  In the Renaissance the emerging socio-political nation-states were squabbling children in an orphanage, who heard wonderful talk of antiquity - of Rome and Greece - and these nation-states gained power in knowledge, which was written down in Latin by their robed and tonsured scribes.  They gradually gained the power to attack each other in more concerted and complex ways, and eventually the power to attack far beyond Europe.  And all the time, these growing bodies compared themselves to the father, Greece, and the mother, Rome.  The brain and the soul, the idea and the word, the mysterious seed and the miraculous womb.

This is what we Americans are also measuring our nation against, when we flush with pride in contemplation of its greatness.  We are not building pyramids, though we could: we now could build a church to our god bigger than any oriental power could conceive, of durability to outlast Ozymandias.  Think of what kind of amazing giant pointless monument we could build if we set our minds to it.  We could reshape the moon...  but no, we are content with trinkets like the statue of liberty.  And we are not ruthlessly subjugating or exterminating all of the weaker societies, like a Khanate; we are selective, we show some restraint, we let some Cherokees scurry away.  We seek a Pax Romana, road-building and aquifer-building infrastructure so that we may trade our way up to glory.  The Khans lost their glory because they let their subjects turn them into good Chinese; they were the strongest power on earth, but swallowed up by a greater culture.  The communists replicated the empire of the Khans, but they too lost their way, their ideas dribbled and puddled into the steppe and communism was absorbed into Russianism, Chinese-ism...  American power is smarter, that will not happen to us.

You are an American: a cell working away in the brain of this supreme Rockefeller.  This is the problem of life: how does a cell make the brain stop being evil, make it do good.  It's a terrible puzzle - the cell cannot even perceive the outside world except through the eyes and ears of Rockefeller, interpreted elsewhere in the cortex, and reports that reach you, wherever you are, they are fragmentary.  Of course you do not even know what good really is.

America, the greatest nation on earth right now?  Is Rockefeller the greatest man?  He is charitable, educated to a semblance of witty wisdom, and a man of action.  I would rather be in his house than in Dempsey's, I suppose, if it comes to that.  But the greatest man?  Is such a question even seemly?  It is for him and for Dempsey, come to that.  Hm, interesting.

You are an anonymous cell in the brain.  You may protest on the street with a sign, that's a way of talking to some other cells in a roundabout way.  You talk to those whom you touch.  But unless you are one of the cells in the right place, you're mostly along for the ride.

And this, again, is the problem of bureacracy.  Rockefeller tramples a man, (a Middle Easterner) what does he do?  Can he change his brain cells?  The brain cannot regulate itself.  It cannot see itself.  "Mind commands the body and the body obeys.  The mind commands itself and finds resistance." (Augustine)

Rockefeller's brain with each passing year grows more calcified and accustomed to routine.  There are restless impulses within which perhaps do not grow fainter within the brain, but are less able to affect its course.  This is decadence of bureacracy, the late stage of life, when all is small details to be enjoyed or petulant over.  The decadence of our political system, which has so insulated itself from all change, that only the most superficial questions can ever be addressed: a stifling of bureacracy which precludes any reform beyond the cosmetic, any housecleaning deeper than that of an hour's effort.

In science fiction (the opposite of history) we sometimes think about how humans millenia from now will view us: as we view cavemen, or the Greeks and Romans?  It makes sense to say, "what was the meaning of life for a caveman?  He was a scoundrel, but we are better."  It isn't true, of course - but we are trapped in the great mind of our own culture, and it is grinding to its halt, to be superseded.  The next generation Rockefeller, or his murderer.
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