MUSINGS ON AMERICA AND EMPIRES

Hockey is the greatest sport ever. And I mean ever. No offense pankration (although what other sport required referees to be armed with sticks to enforce the rules?). I grew up watching Wayne Gretzky play. I loved the guy, but he was no greatest ambassador of hockey where I come from. You see, I grew up in Calgary. For a good part of the mid-80’s, a few years after the Flames first arrived from Atlanta, the Calgary Flames were incredible. They were contenders to win the Stanley Cup year after year. And they would have, if it wasn’t for those pesky Edmonton Oilers led by Gretzky.

As an academic with a Kinesiology degree, I have often thought about my love of hockey. On one hand it is a skillfully elegant game, where players must be coordinated enough to handle a puck, skate around competitors, and if they are to be good at the game, have an ability to anticipate the positions of teammates. It is a game that involves great timing and physical strength. On the other hand, there is the brutality of the sport. Fighting in baseball, basketball, or football leads directly to suspension for the offending players. In hockey, the penalty is five minutes. Afterwards the players simply rejoin the play. Think about that. Where else can you fight someone and get 5 minutes to cool down, just to resume what you were doing before, or maybe even start another fight? Punched your boss in the face a few times? That’s okay, take five and everything is cool again. I guess it wouldn’t really be your boss, it would be more like beating a coworker. You know, the real annoying one with the high pitched voice, who asks, or am I wrong? after every sentence. As in: “Is it raining outside or am I wrong?” or “Did you do this for me or am I wrong?” or “Isn’t she supposed to be taking a one hour lunch break or am I wrong?” But I digress…Fighting is wrong.

One night after watching a hockey game, which may have involved alcohol, I was watching a PBS show about the Bataan Death March and suddenly the two concepts of hockey and America combined in my head. Violent hockey is entertaining but I know that it is not acceptable. The love-hate relationship that I have with hockey and its glorification of violence, is a lot like my feelings on America: there are the beautiful and elegant ideas and then there are the rough, torturous practicalities. On one hand there are human rights and freedoms and on the other, there is slavery, the Trail of Tears, and the Japanese Internment. Sarah Vowell, author of many books on the American experience, who is best known for her role as Violet in The Incredibles, once said that her relationship to her country “feels like that of a battered wife; ‘Yeah, he knocks me around, but he sure can dance.’” In some ways I feel the same.

I worry about America. There has been a lot of talk about the death of the American empire lately. Some see this as a good thing. They want to see America fall from its great throne. I don’t. I think the universality of American ideas is too important to allow it to die so quickly. After all, freedom is supposed to be this thing desired by all humans or is that just American propaganda? As with hockey, where people can be deterred from the beauty of the game because of the violence, I feel uncomfortable abandoning America due to its policies that I disagree with. In this future reliant on sustainability, one must ask whether these American ideals can be sustained in the future. I believe that this is only possible if America can adapt by doing a few things differently.

Some people have a problem with the term empire. Probably because it implies that America is imperialistic. A term which is often reserved for territorial conquest. However, the facts tend to describe something similar to an empire, if not an empire. The US has unrivaled cultural, economic, political, and military influence around the world. They have 860 military bases in 130 foreign countries. Think about where the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp is located as an example of their pervasive power. Despite the fact that Cuba and the US do not have formal diplomatic relations, the US has still maintained the territory on Cuban soil. Some have only begun to think of the US as an empire in recent years. Due to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the principles put forth by the Project for the New American Century. However, this ‘imperialistic’ influence of America has existed for much longer.

To be entirely candid, I have never taken a course on American history. I have formally taken courses on Europe and Asia but never America. But not because I didn’t want to. I have often thought about why I care so much about America, after all I am Canadian. It may be due to their influence on our media. Entertainment Tonight Canada? Really? Come on now. Their influence as the world’s only superpower means that decisions that they make send ripples that affect my life. I am reminded of November 7th, 2000, when my sister and I were glued to the television awaiting the results of the American Presidential election. My mom walked by and asked us why we were so interested in an election that did not affect us. I’m sure she doesn’t believe that now. My knowledge of America comes from watching documentaries, reading books, and following the news. It’s remarkable how pervasive this knowledge can be. I can barely name ten Canadian Prime Ministers, but I can easily name all of the American Presidents from the 20th century (except William Harding, poor old William Harding). How many Canadians can name the PMs during WWI and WWII?

Experts believe that the new world order will be shaped by China. In a report from the National Intelligence Council on the future of America, it is thought that the US will remain important in establishing international order, but the magnitude of its power will be diminished. The greatest fear of Americans is that a foreign entity will be able to dominate American policy. Imagine a future where China or India or Brazil is capable of determining the policies of America, whether economic or political. This might seem ironic to Canadians, but it would be catastrophic to Americans. If only it weren’t already happening. In the chess match between China and the US, China is owning the US. Think about the outsourcing of American jobs to China. This could easily destroy American economic dominance in the next few decades. But besides the staggering growth of China’s economy, it is gathering substantial political influence in America’s backyard.

Imagine if your neighbor had an awesome garden. With corn, ficuses, all species of Brassica, and valuable spices, like pepper. Oh, and a pile of gold. Like really blingy stuff. Now, he keeps getting robbed by people interested in his gold. Then they learn that he also has peppers, which can also make a bunch of money. Since you are the ninja martial artist that you are, you decide to lend him a hand in defending his property. You put up a sign declaring your ninja prowess, and soon after he stops getting robbed. But now you have substantial influence over your neighbor. You may in the future, choose to steal his gold, his peppers, his Brassica plants, or even his home. These were the issues surrounding the Monroe Doctrine (1823). The US felt that the newly independent Latin American countries should remain independent. Or did they mean only independent of Europe? In the years since the doctrine, the US has continually acted to influence Latin America with its own policies. Think Noriega, Cuba, United Fruit, Chavez, and Panama. Is it any surprise that communism has been particularly influential in these countries? In recent years China has offered millions in trade and development to Latin American countries, including Cuba. A move that encroaches on America’s sphere of influence.

China has had a trying last two-hundred years. But prior to then, the land known as the middle kingdom, was arguably the most powerful civilization in the world. Their influence over Asia was impressive, and if the world were as small as it is today, it would have influenced Europe with more than just gunpowder, printing, compasses, and pasta. The Chinese empire (a real empire, with an actual Emperor) fell behind the western powers in military strength in the 19th century, and thus began China’s hundred years of shame. The British empire assisted by the Americans forced the Chinese to open up to trade. Eventually, the British became addicted to Chinese tea, but China did not require anything in return. This led to a growing trade deficit that had to be resolved. Through the illegal importation of Indian opium, Britain gained the trade advantage one addiction at a time. Over the next decades China would struggle to regain control of its nation. When the Imperial government collapsed (refer to The Last Emperor starring Peter O’Toole) there were thoughts of carving up China by the Western powers. The power struggle led to civil war and the eventual rise of Communist China. I bring up this short history of China because, not only do I find it fascinating, I feel that there are important parallels to our current condition. Plus, it is history that is relevant to our lives. Yeah, that’s right: relevant history!

On the relevancy of history Sarah Vowell once wrote:

On the first day of school when I was a kid, the guy teaching history — and it was almost always a guy, wearing a lot of brown — would cough up the pompous same old about how if we kids failed to learn the lessons of history then we would be doomed to repeat them. Which is true if you’re one of the people who grow up to run things, but not as practical if your destiny is a nice small life. For example, thanks to my tenth-grade world history textbook’s chapter on the Napoleonic Wars, I know not to invade Russia in the wintertime. This information would have been good for an I-told-you-so-toast at Hitler’s New Year’s party in 1943, but for me, knowing not to trudge my troops through the snow to Moscow is not so handy day-to-day.

These policy decisions do, however, influence ‘small lives’. China is rising in a similar fashion to their western counterparts. The only problem with this is that they can’t. It is unsustainable. At some point (some say now) the world will not be able to produce enough oil per day to fuel China’s economic growth. Something will have to give. The Chinese feel that their modern history is an excuse to beat the western world at their game. It’s like the little kid who was bullied in school by older kids. He can either always be inferior, or he can better himself to shove it in their faces. For China, this involves economic growth at the expense of the environment and human health. The west can’t say a thing, because this is how they developed their industries.

In the meantime, America continues to fall behind in many important categories, including education. Particularly math and science education. The fall of the American empire seems imminent, so why am I so bothered by it? Because, fundamentally, I see the birth of America as one of the crowning achievements of humankind. The inspiring words of Thomas Jefferson in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence are the defining reasons I believe the US should dominate world policy and not China.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Despite all the grim realities of America that contradict the beauty of this simple sentence: the fact that slavery persisted for as long as it did; the fact that Jefferson himself owned slaves; the Trail of Tears; and the fact that all Americans are not yet equal, I still believe that the dream exists. There are fundamental elements that must be changed in America for it to retain its influence, or at least mitigate its fall from world supremacy. Because if America is not involved in developing the policies of the future, the concepts of rights and liberties will not be upheld. A country like China, with no formal policy on rights and liberties (and a bad track record), is more likely to give in to dictatorial tyranny.

So what can America do to change course? The solutions that I offer are rather straightforward, but will be difficult to implement. First, Americans need to become more actively involved in government. This is a requirement of democracy. This directly involves the middle class, which over the years has had less say in government than the powerful and proportionately smaller upper class. Activism and liberalism have been given a bad rap in recent years, but they are inherent American values. Think of the War of Independence. Americans must be involved in their government because in a democracy, government policies are policies of the people. It’s not enough to merely say that the government doesn’t speak for me…you are the government! Second, there must be a return to the values of the republic. Governing for the important matters of foreign policy, the environment, health care, and education; not the fear of terrorism, the fear of homosexuality, and the special interests of the upper class. The power of the President must be reduced. The senate and the President should be regarded as equals so that they can be critical of one another, to maintain the balance of power. This will prevent dictatorial tyranny in America. These changes will require great leadership and an anti-groupthink mentality (hopefully, America is still a meritocracy). Third, in terms of foreign policy, policies must be consistent to American values. For instance, prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have no legal rights. There is something inherently wrong with this situation because they are prisoners of a democracy. To paraphrase the situation: all men are created equal…if they are American. This is an unacceptable violation of the idea of America. How can there be people without rights as prisoners of a democracy, while the same democracy claims to be fighting for rights and liberties for the Iraqi people? Inconsistency, breeds resentment and anti-Americanism, which will only make the empire crumble faster. Fourth, there must be change in the financial system. The boundless profiteering in American capitalism is destroying the empire from within and without. Few are becoming richer and many are becoming poorer. War is a ridiculously profitable business, which can lead to a disturbing trend of militarism. The almighty invisible hand is not correcting for these problems.

My fear is that it is too late for the American empire. That it has grown too large militarily and too set in its ways to change. And it may be that the idea of America was corrupt from the beginning. After all they were fighting about money (taxation without representation). The American Dream is almost always equated with money. This grand dream of capitalism may spell the end for America. As nation-less corporations move to other countries to make larger profits they are also destroying the environment, the American economy, and leading the American government into war and obsolescence. On the bright side, at least there will always be hockey. Go, Sens go.

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terryman

Leslie Chin is a graduate student in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of British Columbia. When he is not "doing science" he enjoys ranting about America, reading about history, contemplating the success of Phil Collins, and listening to people complain about foamy soap. He has been told that he is a fast walker with a funny bounce in his step. He has a delicate relationship with a little bird named Stewie. To get in his good books, he has spent money on bright chew toys and learned to whistle like a bird. He hopes that all of this hard work will allow him to trick Stewie into wearing a top hat and harness, with the ultimate goal of world domination using a bird army. For more insight into Leslie, his likes and dislikes and a classy photo, visit: http://www.hiddeninsanity.com/leslie.htm.

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