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Friday, June 1, 2018


Well, I have told the NY TIMES and the post office to hold my paper and mail, I have alerted my credit card company that I am going abroad, and my Brussels talk is prepared, so a week from today I can fly off to Paris.  Later today, I should like to write about two subjects I have been turning over in my mind during my morning walks, one of which is clear in my mind, the other of which is quite murky.  But first, an observation about the supposed tribalization of American political discourse.

As I watch cable news discussions, I sometimes wonder idly what I would say if I were invited to be a guest on one of them, but I realize after a bit that it would be hopeless.  I would feel like a modern astrophysicist invited to engage in a discussion with a group of Ptolemaic astronomers having a vigorous debate about the precise arrangement of the epicyclic structure of the heavens.  This morning on Morning Joe the discussion centered on Trump's disastrous undermining of America's leadership of the Free World.  Had I been at the table, I would have raised doubts about the phrase "the Free World" and the others would have looked at me uncomprehendingly and continued with their discussion.  Then, as actually happened, Mike Barnacle would deliver a moving speech about the American Experiment, and when I called that phrase into question, I would have been politely but firmly removed from the table during the next commercial break.

Any useful discussion rests on a set of background or foundational shared understandings about the world.  You can only call those assumptions into question so many times before everyone else gets exasperated and tells you to shut up.  So, if you are a Copernican in astronomy, you start talking only to other Copernicans, because it is exhausting and fruitless to keep saying, "But the sun does not revolve around the earth."  And if you are like me, your eyes glaze over when yet again someone refers in passing to the obvious and unquestionable fact that America is the Leader of the Free World.  Oh, I try, I really try, but you cannot get supposedly serious people to think openly about a set of world-defining assumptions that shape every moment of their deep engagement with the surfaces of American public life.  Nothing short of a Pauline conversion on the road to Damascus is called for, and an argument, no matter how powerful, is not likely to trigger such a bouleversement.

Phooey.  I am going to trim my beard.  I will be back later.


s. wallerstein said...

When I was growing up in the 1950's, everybody talked about the "free world" and I believed in it. By the time I was 17 or 18, I had realized that the "free world" included Franco,
Somoza, the Shah of Iran, the Saudi regime, and various other rightwing dictators, and I eliminated the phrase from my vocabulary.

I don't pay much attention to the U.S. media and so to see that 55 years later they still use the term "free world" is depressing. I was raised with the Whig theory of history, and semi-consciously I still somehow believe that the world is progressing, that people are learning and they aren't. Some people learn of course, but many don't.

David Palmeter said...

I’m not bothered by the term Free World. Ours is a culture given to hyperbolic grandiosity: we call our championship baseball tournament the World Series. The winner of our Super Bowl we call the World Champion.

The term, to me, simply means a group of countries that opposed expansion of the Soviet Union after World War II. The roots of the Cold War are complex, but while there can be no doubt that many US actions contributed to it, Stalin was far from an innocent. I think the fear in the West after WWII with Soviet expansion and subjection of Central and Eastern European countries was justified fear. Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal were not serious parts of the Free World. They were not a problem to us and were pretty much ignored. I don't think that the Saudis are thought by many to be part of the Free World.

The US once did have some moral influence, or “soft power,” with much of the rest of the World. Trump is trashing that right and left. Did you know that, according to Trump, imports of aluminum from Canada--CANADA!--are a threat to our national security?

s. wallerstein said...

The term "free world" wasn't just innocent hyperbole. Lots of innocent U.S. kids died in Viet Nam (not to mention the dead Vietnamese) believing that they were defending freedom against unfreedom. The concept of the "free world" was used for decades to manipulate the U.S. masses into hating and fearing communism and socialism of any sort, even the democratic variety which Professor Wolff and others advocate.

I wouldn't say that Stalin expanded into Central and Eastern Europe after World War 2. The allies divided Europe at Yalta: there is even the story, perhaps apocryphal, that Churchill draw a line on a map. The U.S. and the British liberated and occupied Western Europe; the Soviets occupied Eastern Europe: that was the deal. U.S. opinion molders knew that, but they fabricated the story for mass consumption that Stalin, like Hitler, had conquered the "Iron Curtain" countries. That story was used to increase the anti-communist and anti-socialist hysteria which I refer to above, which suited U.S. big business just fine.

I agree that the U.S. treated their occupied territories more gently (except in Greece where there was a real communist threat and "we" were brutal in repressing it) than did Stalin. In Latin America through the use of "free world" proxy regimes such as Somoza, Trujillo, Pinochet, Stroessner, the U.S. was as brutal and repressive as the Soviets.