Good Morning, Everyone –
And welcome back to the seminar, particularly you folks from IC-7, who fell off the Link during our last two meetings. I’m sure we’ll perfect instant communication with all the Ionian colonies one of these lifetimes but, alas, it just doesn’t appear that it’s going to during be this one...
Anyhow, it’s good to see you all, and I trust you’ve used the recreation interval since last we met to good effect, but not too good! Believe it or not, you’re not the first class and I’m not the first professor to struggle with students nodding off during an amazingly fascinating lecture. Supposedly, this has been going on ever since there have been students and professors! Imagine that.
I hope today will be an exception, however, and not because of the brilliance of your instructor, but rather because of the exceptional relevance, significance and just plain interesting nature of our subject.
When last we left off in our survey of the history of Later Earth Civilization (using the term ‘civilization’, as always, loosely), we had finished slogging through the horrors of the twentieth century, a time when the nexus of a globalized scope of interaction, industrialized violence, high technology and religions – both secular and not – brought a planet several times to the edge of the abyss. By the combination of good fortune and exceedingly large down payments in blood and agony, the human race managed to end the century having narrowly avoided catastrophe, and finding itself with a new and rare opportunity to forge a different and better planetary consensus around appropriate values and behaviors.
Which brings us to today’s story, the pivotal turn-of-the-century period three centuries ago, lasting from about 1990 to 2010, a drama of Shakespearean quality during which everything changed and then changed again, a time when conditions truly added up to constitute one of those rare genuine linchpins of history.
You might be tempted to think that some of those who survived the horrors of the twentieth century would have learned much from that sobering experience and acted accordingly. And, despite the predominant disdain in which we typically hold our ancestors from this time, you’d be actually be quite correct. It’s just that they were the wrong people. Europeans, who had hosted centuries of calamitous fratricidal wars finally got a enough wisdom together after the devastation of the Second World War to be able to discriminate between wars that were both just and necessary, and those that were not. Unfortunately, however, Europe in 1945 was largely a heap of rubble, and while the continent later grew economically prosperous, it remained by the turn of the century still somewhat peripheral to the major tributaries of international politics.
Not so, unfortunately, on either score for Europe’s errant child across the Atlantic. I’m afraid that the newly ascendant American hyperpower was neither chastened by war nor peripheral to power. It was, in fact, a highly arrogant and belligerent nation that, by 2000, was also the world’s only superpower by a long shot. Bad combination.
America had already been bellicose enough as it was feeling its oats throughout the twentieth century, but then what one historian has aptly named the Most Narcissistic Generation in History came to power. These were, of course, the so-called Baby Boomers, the highly indulged progeny of the so-called Greatest Generation, who weren’t so great, after all, when it came to child-rearing. The latter-day Napoleons they raised were the walking personification of what used to be described as the ‘id’, the part of human psychology that wants what it wants when it wants it.
This ascension of the ids produced all sorts of consequences domestically, of course, such as the absurd belief that you could have both public services and no taxes at the same time, with the resulting rapid deterioration of the country’s intellectual, moral and physical infrastructure, as education and bridges crumbled just as assuredly as had the US’s social safety net, already quite minimal to start with. These, of course, were America’s problems, arguably richly deserved by an undeserving rich (though not necessarily their children), and thus are less of our concern today, strictly speaking, to the extent that they didn’t impact others.
Unfortunately, however, the country’s relations with the rest of the world were, if can be imagined, even more infantile in character than its self-indulgences at home, to the point where the US wound up imperiling an entire planet.
The first Baby Boomer president was a cipher long forgotten to history by the name of William Clinton. Scholars struggled for years trying to decode his ideological commitments until one rather clever analyst pointed out that there weren’t any. "The ideology of Bill Clinton is Bill Clinton", he noted, and he showed how this explained both Clinton’s perpetual pandering to whatever nothingburger idea du jour that polls showed was currently in the winds as well as the near complete irrelevance to which history has rightly consigned his presidency. Clinton is often reduced down to the absurd impeachment proceedings that were levied against him, but even that gives him too much credit. If there is one thing that best personifies this presidency it is the acts for which he was nominally impeached. His version of sex with his young intern was as non-committal and self-reverential as was the rest of his eight years in office: He couldn’t quite bring himself to do the actual deed with her, but instead played around the edges then went into the Oval Office bathroom and finished the matter on autopilot, in the sink. [Boisterous laughter] I know, I know... Well, don’t forget that the sexual mores of the time were as primitive as the sexual technology! [More laughter]
But I digress, and Clinton did have one important legacy, after all. He both personified the Democratic Party in America in its multi-decade descent through treasonous abandonment of its constituents and ultimately into ideological irrelevance, and he also gave it the greatest push in that direction of anyone outside of Wall Street. By the time later that half of America would come to completely lose its senses, the party representing Clinton’s half could hardly figure out anymore what it stood for, apart from avoiding controversy, that is, which it inevitably got slapped with anyhow.
Which brings us, of course, to the infamous era of the second Bush presidency and the rise of the rabid right in America. Historians still love to debate which historical figure better combined callous destructiveness, sheer personal absurdity and amoral sociopathic degeneracy – was it Caligula of Rome or America’s Bush the Younger? Hard to say, hard to say. Of course, neither figure was as outright murderous as Stalin or Hitler. But then neither of those two thugs were responsible for wrecking a relatively thriving democratic tradition in their respective countries, as did our boy Bush. And neither Stalin nor Hitler injected the embarrassing levels of moronic immaturity into their depredations that young W did, leaving Bush in a class by himself as the Clown Prince of American politics. Just listening to him speak – with his slurred pronunciations, his breathtaking malapropisms, his embarrassing over-emphasis of terms he had obviously just learned, and his substitution of smirking plaintiveness for persuasive argument – this is an experience I simultaneously both wish for you as historians, and would hope that you could avoid as decent human beings. It boggles the mind that twenty-first century humans could actually listen to this caterwauling for eight years without requiring medical intervention.
Bush was the at the apex of a remarkably malignant movement which was prevalent in the United States during his time. No people – not even the Romans – had ever experienced the global power, prosperity and influence America had in the late twentieth century. And yet, astonishingly, neither has anybody ever matched Americans at that time for their fear, paranoia and insularity, and their willingness to indulge those emotions in the most shameless behaviors abroad. Bush’s movement – the Regressive Right – mobilized these sentiments into the most crass and bellicose foreign policy America had ever known, with domestic policies to match. Of course, the great irony in all this was that throughout, the elites of this movement secretly laughed at the religious patsies whose fears of their own precarious masculinity made them prime fodder to be enlisted as shock troops in what was ultimately actually a kleptocratic campaign of pure class warfare.
Americans eventually caught on – or at least as much as late-period Americans could ever be said to have understood anything – but by then enormous damage had been done, both to the republic, and by the (now former) republic, abroad. Years of political dumbing-down paid off handsomely for conservatives, as the American body politic gladly participated in the dismantling of its own democratic traditions with hardly a peep of protest. No other president was as fiscally irresponsible as Bush. None damaged America’s military and its reputation more than he. None of his predecessors managed to lose two wars through sheer incompetence, let alone against relatively defeatable ‘enemies’. None exacerbated a known environmental holocaust rather than preventing it. None fiddled as a major city drowned. None remained on vacation while threats of a major attack were ringing alarm bells. None so politicized the government to the extent that even political opponents were arrested and tried simply because of their party affiliation. None stole two elections, or so radically cheapened the currency of American political discourse. No president so thoroughly dismantled the major provisions of the American Constitution, such as separation of powers, Congressional oversight, respect for treaty obligations, search and seizure restraint, due process, habeas corpus, and more. And, astonishingly, no president ever did all these things simultaneously.