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Random Thoughts About Whatever Comes to Mind

We Are Now The World's Biggest Banana Republic

On the face of it, Wordsworth and O. Henry would appear to have little in common, yet this morning-after-the-end of the U.S.'s international leadership role it's hard not to think of both of them.

It was O. Henry who, back in 1904 in a short story inspired by his time in Honduras, coined the term "banana republic", which was subsequently picked up by political scientists to describe politically volatile countries in Latin America whose economy was dependent on a physical asset - fruit, minerals, whatever - controlled by a combination of foreign corporations and a local elite dependent on them. Through subsidies and bribes, combined with tactics designed to destabilize legitimate national interests, the foreign commercial entities gained and retained access to the desired resource.

The result was a highly stratified society in which most of the local population was poor and survived at the mercy of a small ruling class that controlled all activities. Typically, the poor fed themselves and their families by some combination of subsistence farming and/or manual labor in the service of the foreign commercial interests. The foreigners dictated all the terms of that employment, and workers had no rights. As for the now-wealthy elite that comprised the ruling class - military leaders, businessmen, and politicians - they retained their status by protecting and enabling unfettered exploitation of natural resources by the foreign commercial interests. As long as the foreigners got what they wanted and were paying for, no suppression of the working class was too cruel, no ruination of the environment too catastrophic. The local elite profited hugely by this arrangement, amassing incredible wealth. The foreign commercial interests, unhindered by regulation or - in some cases - even basic law enforcement, literally made out like bandits. The workers who produced the wealth saw only minimal gains that had to be expended at once to pay for a barebones existence.

This is the type of world to which the present U.S. administration aspires. The resources of the planet - its population, its natural wealth, and its environment - are to be employed in the service of a handful of powerful corporations whose interests are short-term and serve no public good apart from the relative handful of jobs they create (fewer and fewer these days due to robotics) and the profits they generate for those who own them. These profits are used by the plutocrats to stay in power. The big difference between Honduras a century ago and the U.S. of today is that nowadays we call the dispensation of money, power, and control by different names. Bribery is out of style, but uncontrolled lobbying and political contributions are all the rage, not to mention billionaires financing the election of captive politicians who will protect their interests even as the politicians themselves are being rewarded through access at the highest levels here and abroad in order to pimp their personal financial interests.

As for Wordsworth, he was a moralist who loved the environment, both natural and manmade. He'd hate to see his beloved Lake District threatened by indifference to the impact that our actions have upon the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Even more, I think, he'd hate to see the deliberate, ultimately pointless destruction of the delicate international balance so laboriously constructed over the past three-quarters of a century. It is this balance, admittedly imperfect at times, that has meant there has been no World War III, that has resulted in international cooperation to end epidemics with the potential to threaten all residents of the planet, that has allowed the fruitful exchange of ideas capable of improving life for more people than ever before in history. Air, after all, is no respecter of boundaries. Nor is water. Nor is disease. Ideas have no nationality.

By abandoning U.S. leadership in international affairs, by rejecting diplomacy, by ignoring science, by undermining research, by discouraging the international movement of brain power, the bully boys in Washington have left our country with only three realistic alternatives for ultimate survival: (1) turn increasingly inward, live for a while on the economic momentum already developed, exploit to extinction the finite resources for which we are giving up everything else, and then turn to eating our seed corn; (2) dedicate all resources to building up a military so fearsome that we feel safe in attempting to scare the rest of the world into supporting our willful backwardness in other spheres of activity; or (3) throw the rascals out. I know which I'd prefer.

Meanwhile, what of the grand vision that was the underpinning of American exceptionalism, the concept that our beliefs and values made us fit to carry the torch that would light the way to a better world? This was the role that has given us so much influence in the international sphere, the role, also, that helped us prosper, that spared us from many of the vicissitudes besetting other nations. Now, ignorance and short-term thinking have steamrolled not only progress but also self-preservation.

Wordsworth would weep at the loss of our sense of purpose, at the extinction of our great idea. Lacking his first-hand observation in this moment of crisis, it is perhaps fitting to quote what he wrote following the invasion of Italy by Napoleon and the fall in 1797 of the 1300-year-old Venetian Republic, a one-time symbol of progress and freedom in a generally backward world:

Men are we and must grieve when even the shade of that which once was great is passed away.

America survives for the moment, but the animating force that made us the face of the future is in mortal peril. A talentless, would-be Napoleon rams our defenses from within even as his backers, domestic and foreign, begin to reap the benefits to which their support (and the absence of an effective opposition) has entitled them.