Thursday, October 02, 2003

Whittle me this, Batman...

You may enjoy Bill Whittle's newest essay on power. I'm not sure he makes clear what power is in the essay. You can certainly intuit his intention, though, since he's talking primarily about military (and maybe economic) power. But "Power" may be a misleading title for the essay, since he doesn't really discourse much on the nature of power itself.

Just my inner philosopher griping.

Whittle's got an engaging, if occasionally overdramatic, writing style. He certainly has a huge audience (way too many sycophantic comments and timid critiques!), but I think he's built a great base for his soon-to-be-published book. I also think he's not wrong in a lot of what he says; I'm rethinking where I stand on the "unintended consequences" issue re: our invasion of Iraq. But I still don't share Whittle's confidence that, only two years after 9/11, we now have "data" to support the rightness of our "experiment." Some of the folks we're fighting are clever and patient and have resources. If they can take a year to plan something on the order of 9/11, they can hunker down and plan other atrocities, too. The jury is still out on whether we're in more or less danger.

I should also note that Whittle's essay completely glosses the issue of American Indians, though one of the commenters does make a peep about the implications of Manifest Destiny. To his credit, though, Whittle tells us we need to hold a mirror up to our culture and question it constantly and ruthlessly. I doubt he'd disagree with my motives in critiquing him, even if he won't agree with the critique.

Whittle argues that he's never heard a single American fantasize about taking over and ruling another country, including the hawks he hangs out with. He submits this as evidence that the world simply doesn't understand how averse we are to the notion of empire. I agree we're averse to empire, and basically agree with Whittle's essay on the subject. But what Whittle is missing is that the world is capable of subtler definitions of empire. Whittle actually deals with this somewhat: in his essay on empire, he says we are "an empire of the mind," in that we are exporting ideas-- an American meme, a package of values and attitudes and styles that have come to dominate. The world, when it thinks of us as an empire, is very likely thinking in these terms.

On one level, such domination does represent a danger to other cultures. Using Korea as an example, I can say with conviction that Westernization, while it hasn't reached completely into the Korean heart, has nevertheless stripped away much that was precious about Korean art and culture (if Seoul is any indication). You can stand only so much imitative pop music and junk culture before you reach the same conclusion about modern Korea. I'm not saying America is entirely to blame for this; it isn't. People are often complicit in their own fate. All I'm saying is that things do get lost in translation as cultures evolve and interact, and not all that gets cast away in the quest for modernity should be cast away.

What Whittle doesn't recognize openly enough, even in his essay on empire, is that many cultures are extremely sensitive to cultural losses. There is a reason why they perceive America in terms of encroachment and threat. On one level, I agree with Whittle when it's the power-grabbers in these countries who fear what democratic values will bring. A reduction in misogyny, oppression, racism, etc.-- these reductions are to be feared by those with something to lose. But when Korean kids are spending time away from family in PC-bahng for hours at a time, getting plump on fast food and American-style snacks, there's an obvious downside to the empire of the mind. No yang without yin.

I like Whittle because he's earnest, even if I don't completely agree with him. As with his other essays, this one left me agreeing with his major points while disagreeing on particulars. If Whittle does go on that speaking tour, I might actually want to hear him speak (assuming I'm in the States when this happens). He evokes and channels Mark Twain quite often; though I've seen no evidence that he's anything close to Twain in stature (something Whittle has the self-awareness to admit frequently, to his credit), I think he'd be interesting to listen to.

Give him a read.

No comments: