The End of A Narrative?


A reader writes:

I felt compelled to write about this Vlahos article. Every diplomat should read it. As an officer who worked in public diplomacy for two years in a developing country, I was torn by the end of the article. I saw people who desperately wanted democracy. I also saw people who were scared as hell by the chaos and change that democracy and free markets bring. They all wanted to know more about America, wanted to get a visa, wanted to see our grand experiment for themselves but they knew we were not infallible and had provoked something big in Iraq. They could sense the blood in the water, yet they still basically wanted to be just like us.

I supported the war and now feel depressed; as a diplomat you almost have to buy into our 'city on the hill' narrative or you will wonder what the hell we are doing out there in places where our strategic interest is almost non-existent. Yet we have totally embarrassed ourselves. I don't buy everything in the article, but Vlahos certainly made me think about the very nature of what I do.

Another reader comments:

I would suggest that Vlahos' historically-recurring 'imperial narrative' shares the characteristics of the pathological fundamentalisms you've discussed in the Harris debate: fear of change and instability, a desire for transcendence, and a disconnect from reality that both sustains the pathology and results in its downfall. In the post 'The Dangers of Fake Faith,' you reference not only Islamist and Christianist pseudo-religions, but the atheistic alternatives of Soviet Marxism and German Nazism, of which imperial narratives are a central part of the meme. As you suggested in one of your epistles to Sam Harris, his narrative of triumphant science would result in imperialism as well, since it would grant the institution of science the same supremacy of authority as a sole hegemon or a fundamentalist religion. I also think it's fair to say that the fundamental, authoritarian, or imperial aspects of the Bush administration (and its resultant hubris and decadence) have been its defining characteristics.

What are the consequences? Vlahos argues that this is at least the end of the Pax Americana, if not a setback for modernity and civilization itself. He seems to think that the narrative is now locked into place like a Chinese finger-trap. That's where I disagree with him. The same rhythms of history that validate his initial argument undermine his conclusion. To wit: from the battles of Lexington and Concord to the secession of the southern states is 85 years, and from there to Pearl Harbor is another 81.  From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 is only 60.  The last phase of this narrative drama is still playing out before us, so let's not jump the gun on defining our era in history.

I am 21. I am coming-of-age in the climactic phase of this historical cycle, like the Sons of Liberty, the Yanks and Rebs, and the Greatest Generation. I am not 'the D-list to the Greatest Generation,' I am its rightful successor. The future does look grim, and we face many challenges. But I refuse to accept the proposition that I cannot make a difference.

I feel the same way. The original essay - it's long and needed more editing - is here.