Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Keeping a Third Eye on the Elections

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It’s snowing in Shanghai, and I am locked away in a Norwegian friend’s flat while he is home for break.  The curtains are closed, barricading the cold ceaselessly seeping through single-pane Chinese glass.  A dull yellow lustre hangs in the apartment, an eerie midday gloom.  I am wrapped in a thin blanket, wearing a sweater, basketball shorts, wool socks, and moccasins.  The wireless isn’t working, and the internet cable only reaches to a backless section of the L-couch.  And here I sit, hunkered over, as the couch permanently molds around my sinking posture.

I am poking around the internet.  A little election coverage.  Some sports.  Some grad school research.  Some meaningless chatting.  Vietnam research.  If the apartment was littered with drugs and paraphernalia, perhaps I could channel my inner Hunter S. Thompson.  But it’s not.  And I can’t.
Just baby steps.  Baby steps to a new direction.  Baby steps to the next bright idea.

The NYTimes ran an interesting article, today.  It’s an adapted essay, rather, entitled “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony,” taken from a soon-to-be published book by Parag Khanna.  She(?) discusses– in detail– the shifting of our global order to a more permanent tri-polar system consisting of the US, the EU, and China.  Predominant schools of political thought trumpet theories on the 1990’s collapse of the US-USSR bipolar system rendering a new unipolar, US-controlled global system.  Yet, as the decade passed, those theories were largely proven to be just that, theories.  Not laws.  The Pax Americana, if there ever was one, certainly did not endure.

“Globalization resists centralization of almost any kind,” Khanna writes.  An interesting thought.  Most notions of globalization stem from a bastardized sub-context, that of Americanization, a paradoxical notion of Hollywood ideals and Wall Street morals.  The truly global effect of globalization has been a connection of those entities seeking support for their own mantras, not necessarily in search of adapting new ones.  As Khanna wrote,

“The self-deluding universalism of the American imperium — that the world inherently needs a single leader and that American liberal ideology must be accepted as the basis of global order — has paradoxically resulted in America quickly becoming an ever-lonelier superpower. Just as there is a geopolitical marketplace, there is a marketplace of models of success for the second world to emulate, not least the Chinese model of economic growth without political liberalization (itself an affront to Western modernization theory). As the historian Arnold Toynbee observed half a century ago, Western imperialism united the globe, but it did not assure that the West would dominate forever — materially or morally. Despite the “mirage of immortality” that afflicts global empires, the only reliable rule of history is its cycles of imperial rise and decline, and as Toynbee also pithily noted, the only direction to go from the apogee of power is down.”

This notion of delusion and a slipping grasp on power was factually supported by an article in The NYTimes just days earlier.  This prior article analyzed a recent US poll, finding most Americans believe, regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election, America is facing a slippery slide down the geopolitical order.

People often ask how my time away from the US has impacted me.  Some are genuine.  Others are only seeking a funny story or two.  The latter want to hear how backwards and foolish other cultures are, or how easy the women are to bed, or how dirty something was, or if I eat dog meat.  There is a voyeuristic curiosity, tacitly implying, or subconsciously insisting, that America retains a righteous status.  To the former, those intellectually benign and altruistically curious, I offer a more elaborate explanation.  Yet, it is hard to express the significance of personal soul-searching, moments of solitude and solidarity, and how each correlate to a clarifying description of global citizenry.  Khanna does me one better in writing,

“Karl Marx and Max Weber both chastised Far Eastern cultures for being despotic, agrarian and feudal, lacking the ingredients for organizational success. Oswald Spengler saw it differently, arguing that mankind both lives and thinks in unique cultural systems, with Western ideals neither transferable nor relevant. Today the Asian landscape still features ancient civilizations but also by far the most people and, by certain measures, the most money of any region in the world. With or without America, Asia is shaping the world’s destiny — and exposing the flaws of the grand narrative of Western civilization in the process.”

I love that line: “the grand narrative of Western civilization.”  It reminds me of Manifest Destiny.  It reminds me that all of this is a story, to one day be bound in books, buried in rubble beneath the sands of time.  It reminds me of the millions of Americans who believe in the prophecies of the political pulpit and the paradox of those principles we hold to be “self-evident truths.”

The last section of Khanna’s essay offers solutions, real tangible political opportunities to buoy the American way of life in a shifting geopolitical order.  “We must build a diplomatic-industrial complex,”  he wrote.  The days of bullying are over.  There are too many other kids standing in the corner saying,  “Yeah, I hate that guy too.”  There are new realities that demand new pragmatic principles of polity.

In my time away from home, I have analyzed what it means for me to be an American, how I conceptualize that, how it impacts myself and the world around me.  I have become more aware of what this title means.  And through all of that, I remain loyal to the beliefs in which I was raised, the self-evident truths of a world envisioned by Americans, though never realized.  Through all of it, I have tried to shed my nationalism, to view the world in a more objective manner, to pick out trends, codify cultural collectivism, measure predictions versus practicalities.  I do so not in a Darwinian sense of survival of the fittest, but in the sense of adaptation.  I was raised to believe individuals create a nation, that individuals are the sole vehicle of change.  And while the world punches away on my idealism, I refuse to surrender to the belief that America is not fixable.  Irrespective of all the terrible storms we have unleashed on the world, in the eye of those rests an underlying moral principle of change for the good.  Yes, I too have been brainwashed by the narrative.  But I refuse to believe the last chapter has been written.


Written by Miles

January 28, 2008 at 9:32 am

One Response

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  1. Hey Miles.

    Great blog and really good post. Got me thinking about perspective more than anything else. I’m aware that most westerners are only able to see the world from their perspective. What I hadn’t realised is that we Africans are the same. It hadn’t occured to me that although we have a lot in common, the Asian perspective of the world is very different to that of the African. I had also forgotten about people like you, trying to see as many sides as possible and maybe helping to change the status quo. Respect.


    January 28, 2008 at 3:23 pm

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