10 July 2011

All the Confidence of the World

Civilizations, it seems to me, may go on for centuries and even millennia before they finally die or peter out. But nations' powers and pre-eminences can come and go with astounding rapidity. Including those nations whose influence seems endlessly popular or fashionable, or capable of infinite self-renewal. Whatever may be the future of American civilization, there remains yet, I think, one big sticking problem with American power in the post-Cold War era. On the one hand, we've grown far too full of all the glorious things we've accomplished - particularly in the realms of economics, and technology, and just plain getting-stuff-done. On the other hand, we've grown far too empty of any sense of how indebted we are, for whatever good there is in those accomplishments, to anyone or anything either before, or besides, or even beyond ourselves.

In short, we've grown royally stuck on ourselves over the past 20-odd years. And even where the original causes and inducements for it are long gone, conceitedness is a hard frame of mind to get unstuck from. Amazing, too, how it can filter down imperceptibly into every tissue and pore of a society, and into all manner and kind of individual and community (rap, anyone?), even as there's less and less of real accomplishment to justify it in one's country or civilization as a whole. And frankly I fear that, at the rate we're going, this attitude may be the ruin of our American country, even as it seems - for now - to have extended the "relevance" and popularity of our American civilization. In any case, isn't history full of sideliners who are happy to admire and applaud your bravado - until, that is, such a time as the whole charade blows up irrevocably in your face?

I mean all this particularly, though not exclusively, in light of a fast-ascendant China. What a miserable thing it is to have seemingly nothing with which to reply to a competitor's mounting arrogance. Other than more of your own, I mean. Especially when your own has likely played no small part in provoking or fueling your competitor's worst arrogance in the first place. But even with no overconfident mainland China to contend with, I think it still would have been only a very short time before we'd found ourselves stuck between inevitable rock and hard place. Nor is it a matter of us Yanks being vainer or more vicious than other folks. It simply stands both to reason and to human nature as we know it: Whether you're a civilization, a country, a company or an individual - the more you think you have to be proud of, and the less you think you need to be grateful for, the more brutally disregarding you're apt to become of the needs of others. And then eventually - as this climate of brutal mutual disregard spreads - how much more wary, and distrustful, and pre-emptive shall we all need to become, of each other?

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