August 24th, 2006

Voted for Dean

I read dull books so you don't have to!

Back in 1990, obscure college professor Camille Paglia became instantly famous upon the publication of her controversial book Sexual Personae. The book was a literal overnight sensation, skyrocketing to the top of the best-seller lists. It was reviewed in every magazine and newspaper in the world, practically, even in places that don't do book reviews. It was featured on every TV news show, sometimes more than once. It was discussed endlessly in every venue from university classrooms and Internet chat rooms to truckstops and bowling alleys. Everybody and their dog had an opinion about Sexual Personae. So of course, I eventually succumbed and bought a copy too. I found it more tendentious than controversial, but even more than that, I found the vast majority of it deathly dull; warmed-over Foucalt "spiced" up with literary and historical gossip. But along about chapter 3, I began to suspect something, and by chapter 6, I was absolutely sure of it. I am 100% confident that nobody I heard discussing the book, nor any critic I read in any outlet, read past chapter 2. The closer she moved towards modern times, the more incendiary the bombshells became, but nobody ever mentioned anything she said after chapter 2. Most of them rather obviously never got past the end of chapter 1. I don't blame them; it took me an act of will to get as far as chapter 6, which is where I gave up.

And that is why I had an overpowering sense of deja vu when I was force-feeding myself Kevin Phillips' latest book, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. When this book came out, it climbed the best-seller chart almost as quickly (if not for as long) as Paglia's first book did. It was also reviewed almost as widely, mostly because of the "the biter bit" angle. To most reviewers, the simplest way to tell the story of this book is to point out that Phillips' 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, was the blueprint for the Reagan Revolution, the original plan for how to create vast numbers of "Reagan Democrats" in the South and eventually peel them off of the Democratic Party entirely, creating a lasting Republican coalition; now he's written a book in which he argues that his own strategy is wrecking the country and will lead to our downfall in at most another decade or two. Based on all the glowing reviews (and sucked in, myself, by the "biter bit" angle), I grabbed a copy myself. I found it unbearably tedious, mostly because Phillips repeats himself over and over again. I'm firmly convinced that a decent editor who made him take out all of the redundancy could have thinned this book by at least half, maybe as much as 2/3rds. (And you thought it was obvious that Charles Dickens was paid by the word.) So, just as with a prior book that made controversial claims about western civilization but was hopelessly tedious to read, I'm not even vaguely surprised that I didn't see a single sentence reviewed in any source that could be found any later than about chapter 1 or 2; most reviewers seem to have stopped at the end of the Introduction. But I kept slogging through, because once you cut through all the fog, Phillips has an interesting narrative buried in there that the reviewers all missed, an interesting theory of history leading to some plausible and interesting predictions for the future.

Phillips occasionally refers as far back as the Roman Empire, but his narrative really begins (as does much of history) in 1492. Or, more precisely, in 1493 and the years immediately afterwards, when Spain got a huge infusion of raw cash because the western hemisphere's smallpox epidemic and their own military superiority enabled them to cart home roughly six centuries' worth of the accumulated gold, silver, and jewels from two whole empires, either one of which the size of any European empire of the time. Spain used that money to further enlarge their army and to spread the Spanish Empire over a vast area. But not long thereafter, they concluded that it was much more profitable to make money by lending out that money to others, and applying the relevant financial expertise, than it was to actually grow or make anything. It ended up being their break-away former conquest, the Netherlands, that received the lion's share of Spain's pillaged gold. Why? Because the Netherlands, for reasons of geography and history, was uniquely suited to master the second generation of wind energy technology, through their famously superior cargo ships and their iconic, omnipresent windmills. Spain loaned them the money to build all those mills and the factories they powered. But when the flow of western gold and silver eventually ran out, Spain went from being a net creditor to the Netherlands to a net debtor. Rather than blame the financialization of their own economy and the death of their own manufacturing industries, the Spanish interpreted this as a sign of the literal apocalypse, that the end of the world was coming and God was punishing them for not being religious enough. So the crown borrowed yet more money and funneled it into missionary expeditions, religious extravagance, and decades of religiously-motivated wars. But they turned out not to be God's chosen people, no Protestant leader turned out to be the prophesied final Anti-Christ, and the religious wars it fought in the 16th century exhausted the last of its strength. The Dutch were the ones who ended up with all the money, all the jobs, and all the influence, and the Spanish never really amounted to anything ever again.

Having laid out that life cycle of an empire, Phillips (in his own sloppy and disorganized fashion) lays out the case that the Dutch repeated the same mistake, and by the mid 18th century they had exported all of their non-finance jobs to the rising, coal-powered industrial power in England. That as they saw their wealth slipping away, they also went through a phase of extreme religiosity, and it didn't help them; Amsterdam never again became a major world power. The English took their coal-powered wealth and used it to fuel their expansion into the famous Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets ... and let all the non-financial-services jobs go elsewhere, especially to the nation that was most efficiently exploiting the next big fuel and technology, oil, America. As they felt it all slipping away, they went through their own wave of missionary fervor and Victorian puritanism at home, but once again, God didn't step in and halt the decline, leading to their recurring embarrassing defeats at German hands followed by American rescues between 1914 and 1945. After that, their empire disintegrated; as Robert Anton Wilson twitted, the Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets had shrunk to a tiny island off the coast of Argentina and a couple of counties in northern Ireland. They never again became any kind of significant world power. Instead, America's new-found oil wealth fueled the American Century. But by the end of the American Century, he argues, we were already repeating the same mistakes the Spanish, Dutch, and English made; we exported all of our manufacturing jobs, thinking that we'd be better off just keeping the more profitable financial-services jobs. And as we slid deeper and deeper into debt and became increasingly vulnerable to other countries' threats of boycotts (or worse, the calling in of our debts and the dumping of our currency), we continued repeating the prior mistakes by pouring our national energies into religious puritan furor and concomitant enthusiasms over the apocalypse we believed must be imminent in hopes that God would make us great again, instead of redirecting that energy into reviving our manufacturing sector and developing the next big technology, the one that will come after oil. Perhaps, given that none of the other vastly powerful nations avoided this mistake, there's a degree of inevitability to it.

In any case, Phillips intends to leave the reader convinced that it is probably too late. The "global war on terror," a religiously-entangled war that (like the Hapsburg wars, the Counter-Reformation, and the Great Crusades of WWI and WWII) was all too often preached from the pulpits under the name of crusade and sung by the masses to the tune of Christian hymns, and the rising political power of today's generation of puritans in the Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, Missouri Synod Lutheran, and Latter Day Saints denominations, are a repeat of the last acts in a cycle that will inevitably lead to the nation that we're increasingly indebted to and to whom we've increasingly out-sourced our manufacturing, China, being the nation best positioned to develop whatever the next big energy and manufacturing technology is, the one that will render oil strategically unimportant and make them the lone superpower of the 21st century. That we're in for a very bumpy ride for the next couple of decades, and after that the best we can hope for after that is to be not too desperately poor even if we are a weak, irrelevant, near-colony of China.

I don't know if I'm convinced or not, but it is an interesting theory. And now you've heard it, without the tedium of having to slog through Phillips' book like I did.
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