A few of us silverbacks were sitting around the coffee shop talking about the newest generation. Someone mentioned the sense of entitlement we hear about these days, how they were raised to think that one opinion was equal to another, that everyone should be making a hundred thousand dollars a few years out of college, that everyone gets a trophy.
“It’s more than entitlement,” one said. “My son is nineteen, a sophomore in college, and I don’t think that he can imagine hardship.”
He meant that literally. His son grew up surrounded by enabling devices like his own computers, televisions, cell phones. His large bedroom looked like an ad for the Sharper Image. The only thing missing was a microwave that would have let him leave trays for his parents and never have to leave his room.
I thought back to my own childhood in the fifties and how I resisted parental tales of the Depression as moral stories that didn’t apply because post-war prosperity was the water in which we were swimming. But the shadow of the Depression - and the war - fell over my immediate sense of the past and the world that had given birth to my own. I knew that darkness was real.
And then, there was the Cold War. The world was bi-polar. Real and imagined enemies staked a claim to territory, too.
“Your son,” I said, “grew up in a uni-polar world. He has known nothing but American Empire, the presumption of American dominion over all of the creatures of the earth.”
I think there’s a link between the personal sense of entitlement we had been discussing and the way the nation has been extending its power.
When I returned to my office, I found an email from a friend. He’s an intelligence professional who is deeply concerned about a cloud of large-scale “blowback” that he thinks might be looming on the horizon.
My friend sent a letter to the editor he had just read in which the American right to use CIA operatives to kidnap people abroad for rendition was called into question. Would we be neutral, the writer asked, if Italians kidnapped American spies and brought them to Rome for trial?
Americans can’t really imagine that happening. Americans have lived for so long with the feeling that we can go anywhere, do anything, without negative consequences, that empathy with others has atrophied. So has the right of others to do unto us as we do unto them.
It wasn’t long ago that the current administration refused to accept jurisdiction by the World Court. The reason was that others might try us as war criminals one day and we could not acquiesce to a court that might find us guilty.
That reminded me of growing up in Chicago. I was taught never to go to traffic court, for example, without the right lawyer to make sure the court arrived at the right decision.
David MacMichael, a former CIA contract employee, testified in the Hague about the criminality of covert actions by the Reagan administration. David told me he thought it had to be done, if for no other reason than America was part of the world, too, and injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.
Although I come from Chicago, I lived for a few years on a neighbor island in Hawaii. Once I was backing out of a parking space and was almost hit by another car. In good Chicago fashion, I came storming out of my auto, ready to rumble. The person in the other car, however, turned out to be a friend who - luckily - knew I was a recent arrival.
“Richard!” she said. “This isn’t Chicago! You can’t do that here! This is a small island. We have to live together.”
The earth, too, is a small island. An entire generation has grown up thinking we can be the Big Gorilla because they have never known anything else. Currently by official count we have 737 bases in foreign countries, more than 95% of the military bases on foreign territory in the world. But silverbacks know: nothing lasts forever. The Big Gorilla gets sick or loses weight and then depends on others for bananas.
No one knows what complex events will trigger the diminishing of American Empire or when. The only sure bet is that it will end as all things do end on this planet. These winter nights, we can hear the wind in the rafters and sleet against the window. There is a message in the wind: We do not live alone nor can we act as if we do. The consequences of disrespect for others and for moral laws - and aren’t they the same? - come with the twilight, and descend.
By Richard Thieme
Richard Thieme speaks and writes about the challenges raised by technology, science, and globalization in the 21st century. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org