In this excellent column in the International Herald Tribune, Roger Cohen says what I think every time I visit America: the place is falling apart.
Compared to much of the developed world, America is increasingly looking like a broken down, impoverished, corrupt banana republic, with a collapsing infrastructure and flimsy, outdated and undemocratic politics. For a few generations now, America has squandered much of its wealth on Imperial swaggering, ever-expanding militarism and an insatiable, crooked corporate plutocracy. The Soviet Union weren't the only ones bankrupted by the Cold War; America's economy was slowly crippled, while its democracy was hollowed out by the National Security state.
Sure, America is home to many of the richest and most powerful corporations. But much of the population is poor; poorer by far than in many European countries. And while America certainly has the largest and most expensive military in the world, that doesn't mean its soldiers have the equipment they need, or the leadership they require, or the professionalism we'd hope. Hollywood (in close collaboration with the Pentagon) has spent decades building a myth about American military power (and also, of course, the CIA, FBI and every other branch of U.S. state power) – a mythical picture of highly-trained, high-tech invincibility and omniscience. But it's a myth. The reality is far shabbier and corrupt and inept. We all learned that from the Vietnam War. Now we're learning it again in Iraq.
All this was made painfully, tragically obvious in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina three years ago. The disaster in New Orleans exposed the reality of modern America more clearly than anything else in the eight terrible years of the Bush regime. The decayed infrastructure, the lack of a genuine civil government, the corruption and racism and deep inequality; the whole rotting edifice of American society was ripped wide open – and it stank.
But this is not just about Bush. I remember being struck by this 16 years ago, when I visited San Francisco. I got home to New Zealand just as Los Angeles was burning in the wake of the Rodney King verdicts. Hell – cities were burning in the sixties, too; soldiers marched through American streets with bayonets fixed, dissidents were spied on, and black activists were shot in cold blood by police or strung up by God-fearing christians and "f—ing rednecks."
What's wrong with America has been wrong for a long time; but for many people, it's been obscured by the great delusional Myth of America – Land of the Free, Defender of Liberty, the Greatest Nation on Earth…
Of course, now that the myth is falling apart and the empire collapsing, things could get really ugly…