Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Looking Down the Road

In a dictate of 24 Chinese characters Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader of China into the 1990s, spelled out the wisdom of the East and the course of the future: "Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; never claim leadership.”

Four more characters were added later: “and make some contribution."

If the United States had such wisdom to match its power, the recently enjoyed new millennium would be a Millennium indeed. Not this same wisdom, since different circumstances require different responses, but analogous.

Alas, the bright American spirit has its dull side, in a fundamental unseriousness and irrational optimism. The pragmatism of the hard-scrabble Yankee farmer has in large measure given way to the self-indulgence of the ballroom popinjay -- if not utterly, than certainly publicly. I remember a Greek who once told me, “All American students want to do, is dance.” Yes -- not all, but enough to give the impression of all.

America is first among nations. It’s like having a teenager make all the important family decisions. Part of the problem is that we have so few real leaders. Popularity polls select our politicians, and if you recall back to high school days, the popular kids were not generally the smart ones. Again, while eight years as president may seem like a long time, there have been ten presidents in my lifetime, and I’m not 80. There is no ruling body of wisemen, vested with promoting the interests not of some contributors lists, but of the next generation, and the one after that. The wrongly-named Senate, one might suppose, ought to fill that function, but on the other hand everyone ought to be happy and healthy. Reality is not in harmony with this sentiment.

There is the old fashioned idea of public office as a public trust -- an almost sacred position that requires self-sacrifice. The idea is obsolete, fallen into disfavor, and I certainly will not lament the passing of this passenger pigeon, given that it is not tears that could bring it back. But there is no cause for pessimism in this. I have long held the view that societal trends move like a pendulum, back and forth. Whether the trend also has vertical movement, of progress or decadence, I shan’t opine. But it may be that an idealist spirit takes hold in American governance, and a generation that knows not Pharaoh will rise up and, oh, say, cast down the idols in the groves. It’s happened before.

All that is mere wishing, though. The hard fact is that the hand at the tiller does not long remain, and the one replacing it pilots a different course -- the result being that we sail not so much in circles, as aimlessly. And that is unbefitting the first of nations. We are in a position of leadership, and we do indeed lead, after a manner of speaking. But following only short-term goals is like the dog that chases its tail. If it weren’t tragic, it would be funny. But it’s tragic. Short term energy policies. Feckless international polices. A foolish faith in marginal allies. A refusal to deal effectively with generational blood enemies. It is all too ugly for me to enumerate -- I am too delicate.

It may be that there is an irreparable and fatal flaw in our character. Maybe we are teens who are in charge of the family but who only want to dance. Could be. We are a great people not because of what we are, but because of what we have been. We may still be great, the star on history's stage, but only the future will unveil this fact. In the meantime we most certainly are powerful, and this power must be exercised with wisdom. A tautology, I know -- it’s great to use power wisely. There is, you see, an understudy standing in the wings. China has an ambition larger than only controlling Taiwan. What is the Chinese character, that might spread itself across the world as the American character has done already? I don’t know. But of all national characters, I know that the American is most benevolent, and for all its fundament unseriousness, the world should fall on its face and thank whatever god it worships for the fact that kindly old Uncle Sam, after a fashion, leads.

But these are serious times, and it is time not merely for serious thought but serious action. We are at yet another hinge of fate, and history could swing almost any way -- opening like a trap door into a fatal pit, or revealing a road to a Pax Americana that would be the blessing of generations. There is a check list that will determine which -- a list of serious problems that need to be resolved.

The historian Arnold Toynbee wrote of challenges and responses. Well? Here we are. The challenge of Islamism cannot be met by outspending the Moslems. It cannot be met by building up a larger army than Islamists have. Such terms don’t even have meaning in this context. Old solutions do not apply. What then? Wisdom, of course. A paradigm shift, whatever it will be. What will it be? I’ve spoken only in the very broadest of generalities, you will have noticed, for I am no prophet. I am a guy whom experience has taught that, if you see a stranger with his hand behind his back, he may be holding a club. I guess I’m not a teenager anymore, to mistake it for a baseball bat. I’d like the USA to learn this lesson, once and for all, and without having to go through any more 9/11s.

We have very few friends. I guess that’s my point. Very few indeed. Being the jolly fat guy at the party doesn’t make us loved. Love has nothing to do with it. China gets it right. Plan, plan, plan. And then plan again, and again, and once more. Then some more. Mao called us a paper tiger. He was wrong. We are a real tiger, but a tame one. Doesn't mean we can't pull a Siegfried and Roy, though. Mao, like every tyrant we've met, wasn't capable of understanding America. Too bad for him, and all tyrants. Tojo got it right. We are the sleeping giant, now stirring restlessly. In any case, in our slumber we don't seem to be exercising any higher cognitive functions. We might dream, but we don't seem, frankly, to be planning.

What then? Wisdom learns and adapts. So. Observe calmly -- let other people be distracted by emotion. Secure our position -- whether or not the ice is thin, it is slippery. Cope with affairs calmly -- we’ve been here before. These are precepts we should hold. As for hiding our capabilities or biding our time or keeping a low profile or never claiming leadership -- these apply to someone else, who is very serious about following them, and who will gain, perhaps, the whole world for doing so. We shall see. But remember, oh do remember, that Mao was a venomous serpent, a child of lies, and anything he ever uttered of truth he did so only by coincidence. Paper tiger? Perhaps someday. But not this day.

As for that final precept, of always making a contribution? Well, that’s what tiggers do best.


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