May 20, 2013
Waiting for the end
The stakes may be about as high as can be imagined if alarmists are to be believed, they include the fate of the only part of the universe known to be inhabited by sentient beings — but the US election campaign that is now approaching its end has turned out to be an exceptionally dreary affair. Barack Obama and his supporters have limited themselves to making out that Mitt Romney and his are crass devotees of big business who would be more than happy to see most of their compatriots starve to death. In response, Republicans accuse Obama of being a leftist who, with the help of his Muslim friends, is striving to defang the superpower by weakening the military, undermining the economy, and throwing its allies “under the bus”.
This being the case, the campaign should have been an epic contest between the representatives of two starkly contrasting ways of thinking about the future of civilization as we know it, but because both Obama and Romney appreciated that sounding extreme would cost them votes, they decided to stick to the centre ground. According to most polls, they are running neck and neck, with Romney having a chance of winning an overall majority but Obama well placed to keep his job thanks to the electoral-college system that, among other things, means that a handful of voters in places like Ohio could decide who leads what is left of “the West” for the next four years.
This is a matter of some importance. When the Soviet “evil empire” disintegrated back in 1991, many took it for granted that before too long the entire planet would adopt Western ways. Today, barely two decades later, the dominant mood could hardly be more different. Defeatism is ubiquitous. The US, heavily indebted to China, of all countries, is pulling back its legions. Apparently, Obama refused to order the special forces to rescue his country’s ambassador when he was besieged by heavily armed holy warriors in the Benghazi consulate because he feared such an exploit would make him look aggressive. If the US does decide that the time has come to adopt an even more touchy-feely approach to international affairs than the one favoured by the current administration, people with old-fashioned ideas about the use of force will be only too pleased to speed the superpower’s retreat to isolationism. Romney has something like that in mind when he gently goaded Obama in the third debate, but for what may be assumed were tactical reasons, he decided not to press him on the issue.
Much of the gloom prevailing in North America and Europe is attributable to doubts about the economy. By all historical standards, North Americans and most Europeans are still exceptionally well off. Those who wring their hands and tell us that average incomes are about where they were five years ago forget that back then they and their counterparts thought their countries were wallowing in riches. Though for many people times are hard and are likely to remain so, for most they have always been that way. In any event, in comparison with the overwhelming majority of Chinese, Indians and Latin Americans, almost all North Americans and Western Europeans are doing very nicely.
Despite this, and the many advantages Western societies have retained, it is widely assumed that history has just taken a new turn, that after five-hundred years of virtual hegemony the West is about to hand over the torch to China, a view many Chinese must find gratifying. However, impressive though China’s recent performance has been, it is a bit premature to hail it as the next top nation. The demographic challenges China faces are just as daunting as the ones confronting Europe and Japan. So too, for that matter, are the problems many other “emerging” countries, among them Turkey and Iran, will have to overcome to have any hope of fulfilling the optimistic forecasts that are currently being made by people who like to think that, seeing the West has shot its bolt, a host of others are about to take its place.
The crisis of confidence that is sapping the morale of the wealthiest and therefore most productive societies the world has ever seen is due in part to the workings of democracy. Being “self-critical” by nature, the system encourages grievance mongers, the kind of people who, on spotting an example of injustice, dedicate themselves heart and soul to helping the alleged victims of racial, social, cultural or sexual prejudices, as well, of course, as economic inequality. Things being as they are, there will always be far more “losers”, whether they know it or not, than “winners”, so it is not that surprising that, in most Western societies, the malcontents seem to have the upper hand. In many countries, respected members the intellectual elite has grown accustomed to deriding their own civilisation and praising the alleged virtues of others that are radically different. They seem to have persuaded themselves that the time has come to say goodbye to the West because, as Ezra Pound once put it, it is “an old bitch gone in the teeth”, “a botched civilization”. Such a verdict would be fair enough were there anything better available but, unfortunately, there is not. That is something Obama or, if he is denied a second term, Romney, should bear in mind.