Magazine article The Spectator

America Can Still Save the World

Magazine article The Spectator

America Can Still Save the World

Article excerpt

THE first presidential elections of the new millennium begin in less than a month in New Hampshire. None of the contenders for the White House lifts the spirits or quickens the pulse. It is shameful that a nation of 270 million cannot produce a more impressive gang of presidential hopefuls than George W. Bush and John McCain on the one hand, and Al Gore and Bill Bradley on the other. This time next year, barring a miracle, another people-pleasing mediocrity will become the head of state of the world's last remaining superpower.

Since the end of the Cold War the United States has made new enemies and lost old friends. The American century drew to a close with Washington using the methods of Procrustes to wrench the world into a 'new order' and reshape her victims with blows and bombs. America's entertainments and consumer-trash have tainted other peoples" civilisations. Hometown America hardly j ustifies the country's reputation as a model society. Its sidewalks writhe with triggerhappy weirdos, spooky fundamentalists and a menacing underclass. Political apathy threatens democracy. Purposeless intellectuals talk gobbledegook to a society divided by culture wars, visceral hatreds and the tyranny of the politically correct. The present administration is a disgrace.

Yet America has been misunderstood. She has good qualities enough to atone for a thousand faults. The turn of the last century inspired a great release of American energy in arts, sciences and political morality: America exported pragmatism and pluralism, ragtime and cultural relativism, the democracy of Capitol Hill and Tin Pan Alley. In spite of the empty rhetoric of Bush, Gore and Co., the new millennium might make it happen again. Americans may be on the edge of a new era, if they can recover their traditional idealism and resume a principled world role.

The United States first made a bid for world superpower status in 1917, when the Old World began to receive three million draftees - three million khaki vectors of cultural influence. At almost the same moment America abandoned imperialism. renounced territorial aggrandisement, embraced internationalism and sought a world 'safe for democracy'. When Henry Luce, the visionary journalist, launched the idea of the American century in 1941 he believed. like almost all his fellow-countrymen, in peace, democracy, liberty and equality under the rule of law. He wanted America to spread those values by example, by education. by economic aid and by resolute resistance to violence and tyranny.

Noble war aims, however, rarely survive the conflicts they embolden. America's were carved up at Yalta and incinerated at Hiroshima. In defence of democracy@ most of the world's people were abandoned to dictatorships. The most surprising outcome of war was that Americans got a taste for it. When they realised that 'the arsenal of democracy' could be a bankable asset, they never went back into isolation. They went on fighting wars around the world - sometimes calling them 'peace-keeping missions'. Nice, down-home American boys got so drunk with fear and so drugged with adrenalin that they massacred the villagers of My Lai. Political morality was frozen out by the Cold War. Bill Clinton is a post(@old War president. but he has nevertheless embodied the corruption of American ideals. He has besmirched politics, beslimed the presidency and extinguished public decency with the butt of his cigar.

In place of the programme Henry Luce envisaged. America now seems only to have trash values to offer the world: flash-- capitalism, information trivia, the pop culture of Dumb and Dumber and the business ethics of the Big Mac. In place of Wilsonian idealism, policy seems determined by cheapskate expediency, spin-doctoring and psephological calculation. It is tempting to blame the leaders and moguls and exonerate the American people. But societies get the leaders they deserve and American culture is self-subverted by two genuine heresies, which are responsible for most of America's ills. …

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