Obama's Accidental Empire

To all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world ... a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

– From Obama’s acceptance speech

Today, you can bask in the realization that there are billions of people around the planet who loathed our country last week but are now in awe of its capacity to rise above historic fears.

– Gail Collins, The New York Times

Obama’s victory on Tuesday was widely hailed around the planet. Headlines read “The First World President.” Actually Bill Clinton, who thought he was the first black president, thought he was the first world president as well. He wasn’t. Woodrow Wilson was the first; Roosevelt was one as well and so was Eisenhower. But the civilized world was a dead thing in shards back then with only America alive, tall and breathing.

Not anymore. Today the planet is a fully living and breathing economic organism. I checked the Chinese news we get on one of the high-numbered stations. From what I could see, not everyone outside our borders sees Obama as their president. Much of Africa does, but in China the man and woman on the street seemed relatively indifferent. Nor does Russia seem to believe itself to be a peripheral province in Obama’s Planetary America, although much of Europe, especially France, does.

Andre Malraux, who was minister of culture under Charles DeGaulle, once said that America was the only country to become first in the world by circumstances. It was as if by accident. Nevertheless, here we are an empire as large and obtrusive in the world as Rome’s. And there can be no doubt, reading the journals of Adams and Hamilton, that Rome was exactly what they had in mind from the beginning.

Rome was the model of America drawn in elementary schools after Adams and it is still drawn in the schools for my children today. It is a good comparison. When historians William Strauss and Neil Howe created their model of alternating cycles of history, which has had large influence in recent days, they used the model of the Roman Empire and compared it to the rise of England and by extension, America. Empires like Rome’s last up to a millennium, they pointed out, and the contours of the English/American model will as well. If the comparison is accurate, we are today in the 700-year range of a millennial ride, just over the hill and beginning to wiggle.

The Strauss/Howe picture is a convincing model. At its essence is the prospect that cultures break around the 60th postwar year, at the end of the third postwar generation, which is right about now. The model has been adopted by economists and sociologists since. Economist Harry Dent uses a similar model with some accuracy. Recently, he has written that the fiscal crisis we face is the product of postwar generational demographics. It will take awhile to recover, he says, because the fourth generation, which brings recovery and starts the world over again, is yet still in college and high school.

But some of the sociologists I feel are manipulating the data to fit their own desires and initiatives. Obama represents a generational rise as Reagan did, and the fourth generation will rise with Obama, they say. Maybe. But the Reagan movement rose on geographical dynamics as well as generational demographics; that is, it brought the South, the Midwest and the West — Red America — into the electoral process as it had not been included before. And I think they are counting the tail end of the third generation as part of the fourth.

The fourth generation is formed like all fourth generations, by world-shattering crises. These crises have not yet arrived. The fiscal meltdown of October could be a fluke or a response to the election or only the beginning of something that we cannot see. It was not big enough to constitute world-shattering.

Several years ago Gar Alperovitz wrote a thoughtful essay in The New York Times comparing the American empire which Obama has just been handed to the Roman Empire.

Something is happening here, he said. “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to have grasped the essential truth that no nation — not even the United States — can be managed successfully from the center once it reaches a certain scale.”

What is succinct and visionary about Alperovitz’s essay is that it noted that — as Adams and Hamilton learned in elementary school — Rome broke in half and succumbed after it divided in half. As we have seen, there were two capitals and the empire divided between Rome and Constantinople. It got too large and had to divide. Alperovitz saw America dividing as well into Empire East and West, polarizing between Schwarzenegger’s California and Bloomberg’s New York. This division could suggest the same decline as it did in Rome.

“If the scale of a country renders it unmanageable, there are two possible responses. One is a breakup of the nation; the other is a radical decentralization of power.”

The endemic curse of the sensibility of empire is such that the larger it gets — and as Collins claims above, Obama’s accidental empire is into the billions — the narrower the spectrum of light and the duller the life force and imagination of the person. No one seems to have noticed, but this is what the “Star Wars” movies are about: the awakening consciousness of the intimate republic’s holistic citizen in opposition to the generic, passive and submissive denizen of the vast empire, who yields to — who seeks — the authoritarian control of an emperor. At one point the empire reaches a tipping point; it grows so thin that it can be tumbled overnight by a feather (or a Christ).

But something should be added. An empire like Rome’s or Obama’s today can also succumb to the internal growth of a third force.

I am not by any stretch a Roman historian. In fact, all I recall from mandatory Latin in Catholic school is this phrase: “Gaul is divided into three parts …” The Belgae, as I recall, were the bravest of the three. But if I have this right, it was they, the brave Belgae, who survived and awakened when the Roman Empire fell.

There is a third part to the Roman model: France; and not the France of the caustic waiter or the chain-smoking nihilist poet at Les Deux Magot who longs to submit to the new American master, but the France with the heads of its enemies dangling from its saddle horn eons back. France awakened in the heart of Europe like a cosmic egg hatched between Rome and Constantinople as the empire succumbed. Born on the Ile de la Cite with Clovis in the 400s or thereabouts, it lasted a millennium.

If you look today at an electoral map at the end of the campaign you might draw similar conclusions. The American empire today is divided into three parts: Blue East (N.Y.-Bloomberg), Blue West (Schwarzenegger’s California) and Red in the center.

There is a lot of red. The binary blues are in complete denial of the existence and vitality of Red America, with its big-top Assembly of God churches, its barbecues and Moon Pies, its Creationist leanings, its Cabela tree-bark clothing, big trucks, Wal-Marts, Glock 9mms, doublewides and Carhardt digs. But it is there everywhere, and since the 1960s, it has risen organically in opposition to Blue America as an equal and opposite counterforce.

Sarah Palin, the woman in the red dress, has just this election cycle awakened in Red America an idea of itself which has never before been clearly articulated in a presidential election. It is an idea the aftermath of which will linger in the heartland because she was and is one of them. And if you have ever attended a NASCAR race in Wilkesboro, N.C., or ridden a snow machine in Alaska a hundred miles an hour, you might draw the same conclusions that Caesar did: like the Belgae, the Red in the middle are the bravest of the three.

And Red it is not going away. It is the heart and heartland of America, while Africa and France are only distant perimeters at the end of the empire.


Visit Mr. Quigley's website at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com.

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