Friday, September 8, 2017

Reflections on a road-trip into southwest U.S.

Having spent the last two weeks on a motor trip to the southwest part of the United States, I am a little taken aback at the gap between the attitudes and responses of ordinary people to the machinations of the current administration in Washington and the realities of the issues facing the world.

 Coming from Canada, where the president is widely reviled, where the level of angst and fear he has generated runs quite high on the anxiety scale, I found the notion, “many people seem to be panicking, but the storm will blow over,” a little disconcerting. Perhaps the historic proportions of both hurricanes Harvey and Irma have put the political windstorm in Washington into a perspective that most Canadians would find hard to recognize. Lives are being lost, disrupted, gutted and overturned by forces that, by most responsible accounts, have at least a partial (some would say a ‘major’) connection to the global warming and climate change effluent that human activity is sloughing off into the atmosphere. We seem to be “drowning in our own insouciant indifference” not to mention the torrent of winds and the flood of rains.

Adding to the vortex of current political winds, of course, is the intractable Kim Jung Un, and his relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons attached to and potentially fired from ballistic missiles. Mimicking Putin, in his determination to insert himself and his ‘nation’ onto the world stage, as a “player” who must not be taken for granted, ignored or dismissed, Kim is playing what many consider the only card in his deck, the potential to hold the world hostage to his threat of nuclear bombs dropped on….wherever, Seoul, Tokyo, San Francisco, or wherever the imagination leads. And fear can and does lead the imagination to places dark and nightmarish.

In Vladivostok, Putin hosts North Korean leaders while playing the role of a sombre, mature and moderate sedative, a kind of political Zoloft or Prozac,  (perhaps more like a magnum of Russian vodka), positioning himself as the “king” on a chessboard of pawns, knowing that both Yi Jing Ping and trump are also on the same board. Japan’s Abe, however, is also a serious actor in this scene in a political drama whose denouement is yet to be written. Based on the attempts of three previous American administrations to rein in the North Koreans, and considering the kind of international hostage-taking to which Kim seems committed (and is there really much difference between the attitudes and actions of the North Korean leader and the ‘leaders of Al Qaeda or ISIS, given only a difference in political philosophy and ideology, and in range of command?) the world’s degree of confidence and trust that current world’s geopolitical leadership can and will bring about a resolution of this crisis is running at a low ebb.

Of course, all “experts” agree, a negotiated and peaceful resolution to the Korean threat is the only “reasonable” outcome. And yet, decades have come and gone, while considerable brain and political power have been dedicated to such an outcome, without success. And serious American observers, like James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, now voice publicly that the world will have to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea, a position that has been unspoken in public by American leadership for decades. Needless to say, trump’s pontificating that perhaps both South Korea and Japan should also acquire nuclear weapons is not a note of calm maturity in an already swirling wind among the world’s powerful leaders.

Offering more and more sophisticated weapons to both countries, (South Korea and Japan) as he continues to do in Saudi Arabia and in Poland (and wherever else we might not have heard about yet), demonstrates trump’s one-note “diplomacy” of selling American weapons, (while providing jobs to Americans) and turning the world’s diplomatic theatre, language and modus operandi into another arms race. (“If we’ve got nuclear weapons, why not use them!” echoes from his campaign podium.)

Underlying the American trumpstorm is a historic and unyielding commitment among a majority of Americans to competing, producing, selling and distributing “whatever” for profit, both individually and corporately. Preoccupation of Americans with this pursuit tends to put all issues, including and perhaps especially, “foreign affairs,” into a file of considerably less significance. “make America great again” simply echoes the sentiment of aggressive, unilateral, parochial and selfish narcissism that lies at the heart of the American culture. Of course, the opposite compassionate, generous, empathic and muscular kindness comes out in spades, in places like Houston, and in New Orleans, as it undoubtedly  will in Miami should Irma take a course that strikes that city directly, when disaster strikes. A similar pecuniary generosity extends from many American quarters to other countries like Haiti, when a natural disaster strikes.

Yet, crises like the one posed by Pyongyang, are not resolved by throwing either money or bombs at them. And to pretend that such simplistic and hard-powered answers will suffice only exacerbates an already boiling cauldron, perhaps even igniting a match in a room already filled with combustible political gas. Personal ambition, carving one’s name in the history books for eternity, putting one’s stamp on history….this the singular (and of course blinding) ambition of the leader of North Korea, Russia, and now the United States of  America. (Perhaps a similar motive drives the leader of China; however, the state imposes considerable limits on that ambition.) The world, however, has never had to face such driving, blinding and overweening personal narcissistic ambition from the Oval Office, at least in recent memory. Even Nixon, in his drive to open China to the world, while attempting to put his signature on history, had a significant impulse to serve the broad and deeper interests of the global community.

Chaos, especially relentless and unleashed chaos, of the kind we are currently witnessing in so many quarters, breeds fear and anxiety among serious and conscientious leaders, many of whom seem no longer to hold public office in the United States. An indifferent public, fed by an aggressive and ideologically-driven, and profit-sustained (through ratings) media, in such a situation will often, and now seems to have, shoved their heads into the sand of either denial or minimizing, as their perceived route to continuing their normal lives. Kids need to be fed, taken to their games and practices, groceries need to be bought and jobs need to be done, in order to generate the income that sustains ordinary human lives, in thousands of neighbourhoods across the country. And having driven through a few of the more “leafy” and gentile and even humble neighbourhoods, in small and medium towns and cities, one takes note of the gap between the political and media “rhetoric” and the apparent cultural atmosphere in the coffee shops and the sandwich shoppes.

There is a cacophony about the political rhetoric that both exhibits and exacerbates a complex divide, as if this division is integral to the political process. And if the “divide” at home is the best the American political class can offer to its citizens, and if a national election burps a ‘leader’ like the current occupant of the Oval Office who merely takes advantage of and enhances the chaos, and if the home climate and political culture is defined by division and denial and the language of over-powering bullying, and me-first narcissism, what hope does that culture and leadership offer to the world in the midst of shared and seemingly intractable threats starved for a collaborative, international and sustainable resolution.

Withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, selling sophisticated weapons around  the world (under the guise of creating jobs at home), deporting “dreamers” again under the deception of freeing jobs for Americans, lowering taxes on the rich, once again as a “trickle-down” deception to generate jobs, gutting both Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency while privatizing Education, banning transgenders from serving in the military (currently blocked by the military establishment)…..these are not the signals either to Americans or to the world community, of an administration that is willing and interested in resolving problems in the public interest. (Not to mention lying about 'no connection or collusion with Russia' !)

They are exhibits in the court of public opinion that demonstrate to any jurer who is still awake, that the current administration has defined what is reality for themselves and for the rest of the world, and has determined a political course that will steer the ship of state straight into the eye of any political hurricane it can either find or generate, merely to magnetize the adoration, the nihilistic and adolescent rock-star anaesthetic of swooning so desperately needed by an empty and dangerous and hollow (national) ego, as epitomized by the man with the orange hair and the groping hands.

One observer commenting on the 2016 election, said that both coasts forgot there is a hinterland of farmers who refuse to be forgotten and ignored, and that is the result we now have, a voice from the angry, forgotten and ignored that will drain the swamp in Washington. Apparently, those alienated voters also really don’t care that the world outside the U.S. borders impacts much of the life within…and the relationship between America and the rest of the world could easily and predictably leave that hinterland gasping for clean air, clean water, and a world-view of collaboration and empathy, without which we all could implode.

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