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America at Bay -- Evading Destiny

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 22/02/2016 Michael Brenner
AMERICA © Vstock LLC via Getty Images AMERICA

Americans are struggling to draw into focus their exalted image of themselves and reality. They are not doing a very good job of it. The gap is wide and growing. That is due in good measure to what has been happening beyond the country's shores, and over which it lacks the means to exercise decisive influence. Our response has been one of avoidance and evasion. We seem to fear that if we stare at reality squarely, we will find reality staring back at us in a discomforting way.

Fading prowess is one of the most difficult things for humans to cope with - whether it be an individual or a nation. By nature, we prize our strength and competence; we dread decline and its intimations of extinction. This is especially so in the United States where for many the individual and the collective are inseparable. Today, events are occurring that contradict the national narrative of a nation with a unique destiny. That creates cognitive dissonance.

Our thoughts and actions in response to that deeply unsettling reality conform to the classic behavioral pattern of those suffering from acute cognitive dissonance. Denial is its cardinal feature. That is to say, denial of those things that cause stress and anxiety. Sublimation methods of various kinds are deployed to keep them below the threshold of conscious awareness. We all do that, to some degree, on a personal level. Collectivities can do it as well.

The crudest denial mechanism is literal avoidance. If you don't travel abroad, you don't see; or you don't observe when you do travel abroad. You don't inform yourself about any of the above mentioned matters by abstaining from following the news; by reading only reassuring reports and talking only to equally ignorant/sublimating people; by excluding all contradictory sources as 'alien" or "subversive;" by declaring the world as too complex to decipher; by appraising serious issues of national policy as "above my pay grade" while ignoring the core democratic precept that as the citizen of a republic, nothing is above your pay grade.

Avoidance is greatly facilitated by the strategies of those who aim to keep your attention off of troubling matters. Suppression of disturbing or negative news (imposed or voluntary); dissimulating public officials; the sowing of fear that critical debate will be harmful; and the fostering of narratives that either render everything in anodyne terms or cast reality in an unnaturally rosy light. Thus, most Americans' conception of their government's actions in the Global War On Terror is composed of what they take from films such as American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, TV programs such as Homeland, and similarly confected "news" stories.

Another avoidance mechanism is to stress systematically those features of other nations, or situations, that conform to the requirements of the American national narrative while neglecting or downplaying opposite features. Currently, we are witnessing the unfolding of an almost clinical example in the treatment of China. The emergence of the PRC as a great power with the potential to surpass or eclipse the United States poses a direct threat to the foundation myth of American superiority and exceptionalism. The very existence of that threat is emotionally difficult to come to terms with. Psychologically, the most simple way to cope is to define it out of existence - to deny it. One would think that doing so is anything but easy. After all, China's economy has been growing at double digit rates for almost 30 years. The concrete evidence of its stunning achievements is visible to the naked eye.

Necessity, though, is the mother of invention. Our compelling emotional need at the moment is to have China's strength and implicit threat subjectively diminished. So what we see is a rather extraordinary campaign to highlight everything that is wrong with China, to exaggerate those weaknesses, to project them into the future, and - thereby - to reassure ourselves. Coverage of Chinese affairs by the United States' newspaper of record, The New York Times, has taken a leading role in this project. For the past year or two, we have been treated to an endless series of stories focusing on what's wrong with China. Seemingly nothing is too inconsequential to escape front page, lengthy coverage.

We read of new satellite cities that remain largely uninhabited due to faulty demographic assessments, of jaded consumers who are turning away from luxury products, or a widespread epidemic of stress among children exposed to the rigors of a Confucian style testing regime, of rural communities losing their sense of solidarity and common identity as people move to the cities and the stay-at-homes spend hours watching newly acquired televisions, of the uprooting of Beijing's traditional narrow lanes and houses squeezed out by real estate development. Of course, there is voluminous coverage of the much publicized corruption scandals - indeed, coverage that exceeds what the papers devote to recurrent financial scandals in the U.S. These latter are treated as a sign that the regime itself may be endangered. So, too, the recent turn toward a crackdown on political dissidents is presented as an omen of underlying contradictions in the Chinese system that jeopardizes the viability of national institutions. "Can China's hybrid autocratic Communism survive?" is a theme that crops up repeatedly and frequently - either boldly stated or sotto voce.

The current signs of economic weakness and financial fragility have generated a spate of dire commentary that China's great era of growth may be grinding to a halt - not to be restarted until its leaders have seen the error of their ways and taken the path marked out by America and other Western capitalist countries. Editorials go so far as to lambast Beijing for failing to meet in its responsibilities to the global economy as a whole by being so obtuse in its economic management. These judgments are passed without reference to an eight year world slowdown produced by the recklessness of American authorities in creating conditions that led to the financial collapse of 2008; without reference to the lethargic performance of the American economy whose growth rate barely exceeds population increase (and which in Europe and Japan rates that have left GDP still below the 2008 level); without reference to the Chinese leaders' skillful following of Keynesian logic that maintained robust growth rates; and the exceptional benefits that the United States enjoys from having the dollar accepted as an international reserve and transaction currency - something that allows it to run massive trade deficits without resorting to harsh austerity medicine as does every other country. As Richard Fischer, who recently stepped down as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, pointedly has noted: turbulence in the world's financial markets should be traced to Washington; "it is not China" - yet, everyone else relishes blaming China,

This latest burst of China-bashing could well serve as a clinical exhibit of avoidance behavior. For it goes beyond sublimation and simple denial. It also reveals the extreme vulnerability of the American psyche to the perceived China "threat," and the compelling psychological need to neutralize it - if only by verbal denigration. There is not the smallest sign of inhibition about ignoring the weaknesses and failings of the American experience according to the criteria so rigorously applied to China. Implicitly, the point of comparative reference is some idealized standard derived from no historical record - much less present realities in the United States. Indeed, if we are to speak of feckless economic policies with deleterious effects on the world economy, it is those of the United States and its partners that stand out in bold relief. Here, we may be seeing a classical example of "projection" behavior.

The "demean China" project is becoming cartoonish. The NYT capped a week of daily stories on the theme of "it's all over for the Chinese economy" with a splashy story, "China's Factories Fading" illustrated by a Detroit-like photo of abandoned steel mills. Doubtless, we'll soon be treated to graphic images of emaciated coolies pulling rickshaws. What's happening is simple: the creators of propaganda begin to assimilate their own fabrications and editors come to believe that the audience is so fully indoctrinated that subtlety can be dispensed with.

To return to China, the same tendency to respond to the rise of a new power by instinctively reducing the challenge to a conveniently one-dimensional one is manifest in the Obama administration stress on the military aspect. It increasingly concentrates on the expansion of China's military forces - especially its navy, the steps that Beijing has taken in the dispute over tiny islands in the South China Sea, and the tensions generated by a similar dispute with Japan. These issues are genuine, but they are being played up out of all proportion to their intrinsic significance in shaping the long term Sino-American relationship. China undoubtedly aims to become the dominant power in East Asia while exerting more and more influence world-wide. It is not in the business of military conquest, though. Historically, it almost never has been. The goal has been to extract deference from rather than to rule other peoples. That is exactly what it now is doing, in Asia as well as in other regions, through the use of its economic strength and vast financial reserves.

The American response has been to replace a calibrated, well-balanced strategy with one that increasingly gives precedence to containment. Thus, we see Washington forging an array of alliances with other countries in Asia, and establishing new bases, in tacit emulation of SEATO in the 1950s when the enemy to be contained was the Sino-Soviet bloc. We have gone so far as to 'send a message" by deploying a Marine brigade on the North Coast of Australia whose practical value is nil. These steps might make some sense in the light of anxieties felt in regional capitals were they simply secondary elements in a sophisticated long-term strategy designed to fashion a viable relationship with China. They increasingly, though, look like stand-alone measures that accord with a security focused view of the challenge.

At the psychological level, this approach is understandable since it plays to the United States' strength - thereby perpetuating the national myths of being destined to remain the world's No. 1 forever, and of being in a position to shape the world system according to American principles and interests. President Obama declaimed: "Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close. Period. It's not even close. It's not even close!" So? Is this meant as a revelation? What is the message? To whom? Is it any different than someone shouting ; "ALLAH AKBAR!" Words that are neither a prelude to action nor inspire others to act - nor even impart information - are just puffs of wind. As such, they are yet another avoidance device.

We are close to a condition that approximates what the psychologists call "dissociation." It is marked by an inability to see and to accept reality as it is for deep seated emotional reasons. Those you are dissociating are not aware that they are sublimating on a systematic basis. "Dissociation is commonly displayed on a continuum. In mild cases, dissociation can be regarded as a coping mechanism or defense mechanisms in seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress - including conflict. Conflicts of purpose, conflict of aims, conflict of ideas, conflict between idealized reality and actual truth. Dissociation can involve dissociative disorders. Dissociative disorders are sometimes triggered by trauma (9/11?).

Depersonalization is one variant: I am completely disconnected from all of these actions and their consequences. Therefore, it makes no difference whether I remember any of this; whether I swallow the illogic that 5 - 2 = 8; that I'm all confused between virtual reality and what actually is. Anyway, it's all above my pay grade. Where's my flag - I'm going to watch the Olympics.


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