Entry from May 8, 2009

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the final lines of Philip Larkin’s poem, “Homage to a Government,” written about the “retreat from empire” under the British Labour government of the 1960s:

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

Now the British, under another Labour government, have brought their soldiers home again, this time from Iraq, but only partly for lack of money. Certainly no one now supposes that, as a result of their retreat, people will have any appreciable amount of additional money to leave to their children. Mostly, I think, it is because once you have decided that (as Larkin put it) “the places are a long way off, not here,/Which is all right,” and that therefore you don’t really have to worry about them all that much, it gets easier to make the same decision every time you have had a lapse and sent your soldiers off somewhere to keep order where (“from what we hear”) they “only made trouble happen.”

But the larger point is that countries do change, and I have been having the feeling that Larkin once had that, today in America, we are also living in a different country. True, we have not yet brought our soldiers home for lack of money, though anyone looking at the rate at which our government is now spending borrowed money — always assuming that we can go on borrowing at the current, ruinous pace — would be a fool to assure himself that that won’t happen here, probably sooner rather than later. The withdrawal from world leadership, if and when it happens, will only be a symptom of a larger change, and one which became apparent last November when we elected Barack Obama.

I find that Ryan Streeter in today’s Weekly Standard online has been thinking along similar lines. The occasion for his meditation on change was the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s accession to the British premiership, which fell this week.

She ushered in an era in which policymakers took for granted their role not as managers not of the economy, but as custodians of the conditions in which economic prosperity could occur. Shortly after her ascendancy to the top spot in British government, she was joined by Ronald Reagan in the United States, and the rest is history. In almost no time at all, however, the Anglosphere has changed dramatically. Two months ago, President Obama and current UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown met in Washington to showcase a united commitment to combat the global economic crisis. Brown spoke of a “global New Deal,” and Obama said the “special relationship” was strong. Since then, the UK has marched in step with Obama’s cadence-call to spend its way out of the crisis. While other European leaders have expressed reservations about increased public spending, Brown has joined Obama in an all-out attempt to redefine how the world views the two historic (and possibly erstwhile) defenders of economic liberalization.

To some extent, as Mr Streeter also recognizes, this is not just a change but a regression. “Before our very eyes, the UK is retreating quickly to 1970s-style policies as the U.S. advances to a 21st century version of the Great Society.” But there is also a “progressive” element to the change in that each time we forget the lessons of the Reagan-Thatcher era, the harder it will be to learn them again — just as, so the British experience suggests — once you have retreated from world leadership, you can’t go back to it again even if you feel so inclined.

But perhaps I am being unduly pessimistic. Writing in the National Journal, Jonathan Rauch offers an oddly heartening opinion — though perhaps he doesn’t mean it this way — that all the outcry about torture is likely to come to nothing in the end, even if the Obama administration is dragged by its most over-zealous members into putting Bush administration officials on trial. This is because, in essence, he thinks America and Americans don’t change, at least not in terms of the patriotic fundamentals. Looking back to our time from 2030, he says, people will see that

In wartime, hard men with good motives but flawed judgment had gone too far. Law or no law, trials or no trials, the country found a way to avert its gaze. That is the American way of dealing with the brutal choices that war thrusts upon an idealistic people, for better and also, to be sure, for worse.

The alternative, I suppose, is to accept that America has become the kind of banana republic where every time the government changes the new lot seeks to criminalize the record of the old lot. Perhaps President Obama will be our version of General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan who hanged his predecessor, the father-in-law of the current Pakistani president. Let’s hope that Mr Rauch is right and America isn’t so much different as to have become like Pakistan, for it does, at least for the moment, seem to have become a lot like Denmark.

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