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Guest Post: Pundita: Missing Something?

We’re delighted here at Zenpundit to present a cross-post from our blog-friend Pundita — of whom it has been said that “What Julia Child did for French cooking, Pundita is doing for foreign policy discussion. She’s opened a haute pursuit to ordinary people.”

Pundita quotes Mark in this post, and also raises some interesting issues with regard to America and monarchism — and as I have been prepping a series of posts on “the impact of ritual and ceremonial in church, military and state,” we all agreed it would be good to bring this post across to ZP in the hope of stirring some discussion — and see how things develop from there.

Pundita’s epigraph for this post is as follows:

Alan Rickman‘s Sheriff of Nottingham to a scribe: “Wait a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it? That’s it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.”

We bid her welcome.

— Charles Cameron


Pundita writes:

The title of this post refers to the punch line in a series of TV commercials in the USA for Sears Optical eyeglasses. The ads feature amusing skits of people in serious need of a pair of glasses, such as the woman who mistakes a police patrol car for a taxicab. But helped along by bravura performances from Tara L. Clark as a blind-as-a-bat cat owner and Squirty as a wild racoon who can’t believe his luck, one of the skits is so funny it’s gone viral on the internet:

 Oh look it’s a democracy! Come snuggle with the United States!

There is nothing funny, however, about American officials who are so blind to what the United States stands for they snuggle with governments that march to a very different drumbeat than their own. Yet the officials are supported in their blindness by an equally blind populace. So in this post I’m going to break a taboo and wrestle with topics that are only whispered about in this country: monarchism and America’s involvement with it. To set the stage I’ll start with quotes from two recent news reports:

From the Globe and Mail (Canada), August 19, 2011:

Stephen Harper is working to recast the Canadian identity, undoing 40 years of a Liberal narrative and instead creating a new patriotism viewed through a conservative lens.Restoring the “royal” prefix to the navy and air force this week is just part of the Prime Minister’s attempt at “creating a new frame” for Canada and Canadians. …

From the New York Times, August 17:

A photograph taken last Friday of Gary F. Locke, the new United States ambassador to China, buying coffee with his 6-year-old daughter and carrying a black backpack at a Starbucks in the Seattle airport, has gone viral on the Chinese Internet. The seemingly banal scene has bewildered and disarmed Chinese because they are used to seeing their own officials indulge in privileged lives often propped up by graft and bribery and lavish expense accounts.


The first impression from the Starbucks episode has been bolstered by another photograph that shows Mr. Locke, his wife, Mona, and their three children carrying their own luggage after landing at Beijing Capital International Airport.Chinese who saw them then spread the word that the family had gotten into an anonymous minivan because a formal sedan that had been sent to pick them up was too small.

“To most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual it almost defied belief,” Chen Weihua, an editor at China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, wrote in an article Wednesday.

Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who studies Chinese elite politics, said in an e-mail: “Ambassador Locke’s photo contrasts sharply with the image of the Chinese officials who often live in a secret, insulated, very privileged fashion.

Often I’ve heard it asked why Britain’s political Right doesn’t seem much less socialist than the country’s Left. I’d say the answer is that the United Kingdom’s welfare state has as much to do with Marxism as bread and circus did under the Roman emperors. I’d also say the same answer would apply to the welfare state in the Kingdom of Norway and the Kingdom of Sweden and a number of other countries that are constitutional monarchies.

Yet my fellow Americans have such difficulty seeing monarchism that they confuse it with something else. The same blindness can afflict Americans who insist that China is not much different from the United States. In his 2008 article for the May/June issue of Good magazine (Ten Reasons Why China Matters To You), Thomas P.M. Barnett, an American security analyst, wrote that “China’s transformation echoes much of America’s past. … right now, China is somewhere in the historical vicinity of ‘rising America’ circa 1880.”

In my retort (The National Petition Bureau will see you now, Dr Barnett), I pointed out that Chinese make the pilgrimage to a bureau that’s a CCP placemarker for an emperor’s go-fers. I added in exasperation, “Ah yes, I remember as if just yesterday the tens of millions of American peasants in the 1880s who pilgrimaged to the nation’s capital every year to seek redress from the emperor.”

Dr Barnett turned out to have a sense of humor or at least a fair-minded attitude about receiving criticism because he linked my post at his blog. Yet that did little to allay my concern that Washington’s foreign policy establishment was blind as a bat to the fact that modern China is an imperial society with a frownie face of Communist Party dictatorship painted on it, and that modern Britain and a good number of other NATO-member countries are basically monarchist societies with a smiley face of democracy plastered on them.

One could even make an argument that modern Mexico’s most entrenched problems are rooted not in the rule of the Spanish but in indigenous imperial civilizations that predated Spain by thousands of years.

In fact, the more one starts looking around the world for societies that are not holdovers from the days of kings the more one appreciates that the United States of America has very few natural allies; i.e., countries that represent a real break with monarchism and the class systems that uphold it.

Norwegians might bristle at their society being described as monarchist. They would point out that their noble class has no political power anymore and that Norway today is an egalitarian society. However, it is an egalitarianism so rigidly enforced that the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik believed after he set off a bomb in Oslo that he would be caught and killed by the police before he reached Utoya island.

His faith in the omniscience of Norway’s government was dashed but the point is that the country’s egalitarian “open society” is maintained by the second largest deployment of public-space CCTV cameras outside the United Kingdom. And Norway’s generous public welfare system means that from cradle to grave Norwegians are easily monitored by the state, which helps the government make sure Norway stays an open, egalitarian society.

Yet Americans insist on describing such states as Leftist! Karl Marx would roll in his grave if he saw what passes today for many Leftist governments.

These same Americans decry their government’s close alliance with absolute monarchies such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They do so without realizing that there is a long history of the United States being closely allied with monarchies; that many of these are no longer “absolute” but “constitutional” with parliamentary forms of government and voting rights makes them no less monarchist.

Americans were also miffed at what they considered snobbishness when they heard the Swedish Chairman of BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg, expressing concern for the victims of the Gulf oil spill by referring to them as “the small people.”

Translation malfunction, explained his apologists. There was no malfunction; English is Svanberg’s second language. And he wasn’t being snobbish, he was being Swedish. Noblesse oblige and all that; one must always look after the basic needs of the small people so they don’t revolt.

None of the above is meant as a criticism of the countries I’ve mentioned or their people, and one would be hard-pressed to find nicer peoples than the majority of Swedes or Norwegians — and Canadians for that matter, who also live under a constitutional monarchy. I see no harm in people upholding traditions that provide them with a sense of order and give them continuity with their past, which is why I cheered on the royal pomp associated with the marriage of William and Kate. If it helped Britons get clearer on their values I was all for that.

The harm comes when Americans are so unclear on their own values, their own past and traditions, they can’t engage closely with the rest of the world without becoming terribly confused. One consequence is that the more the U.S. government has tried to mesh with the “international community,” the lower America’s standing in the world has fallen.

Americans can’t turn the situation around without first acknowledging that the international community is in large measure of bunch of royalists. Arriving at this realization doesn’t mean Americans should eschew friendly relations with people in such societies or that official Washington should spurn engaging with the governments on issues of mutual interest. It does mean that Americans are asking for ever greater trouble by lumping “democratic” monarchies” with American democracy.

Over at ZenPundit, Mark Safranski has again expressed concern about what he calls an emerging American oligarchy, an elite that’s manipulating the rest of the American populace to accept its rule. Meanwhile, Fareed Zakaria is seriously proposing that America replace its president with a prime minister and Congress with a parliament — with an upper house, I suppose, to be stuffed with Mark’s oligarchs, duly elected of course, so that Americans will stop the troublesome habit of vehemently disagreeing with one another.

Now just see how one thing leads to another. First you’re snuggling with liberal monarchies, then authoritarian ones, then one day you’re asking, ‘Why is there no USA anymore? Why is there only the international community?’

Missing something?

9 Responses to “Guest Post: Pundita: Missing Something?”

  1. onparkstreet Says:

    Pundita guest posting on zenpundit! And Charles and J. Scott posting as regulars, too.This is one of my favorite spots on the ENTIRE internets.
    Another interent fave of mine, Carl Prine, gently (er, his version of gently, which is to say, not at all gentle) chides GEN. Dempsey for his reading list in a recent post. Where is the Constitution in that list he argues? Where, indeed?
    I keep having the feeling that large portions of our history are completely unknown to members of this supposed elite (seriously, as a onetime inhabitant of that Boston and Palo Alto medical world axis-of-brilliance, what am I to say? Outside of their fields – which they master brilliantly – some of those elite don’t know much. Make fun of populists and anti-War protestors (right) and tea-partiers (left) for being dumb all you want, but I’m telling you, as a sort of factotum in that world, I listened in on my betters – a lot.  What they know is a massaged and distorted narrative of Western guilt mixed in with noblesse oblige. They have high SAT scores. The underpay their TAS, secretaries, admin assistants, and assistants profs, all as they cry over the poor in post-colonial fiction and attend expensive fundraisers down Copley Square. You know?
    Now, where was I? Oh, yeah….
    In short, the oligarchs are weird. Seriously odd people. Maladjusted, even. I don’t agree with the previous zen post in which the Fabius Maximus blog is excerpted and which posits that we are well-governed. Well governed in what sense? Comparatively to Western Europe and Japan? Um, okay.
    In creating a two-tier society while painting stolid traditional middle-class values as an evil, the fools are quite good and divide-and-concur and game the class evolutionary scale toward their dullard children, so maybe Fabius Maximus is correct.
    I seriously don’t know where I am going with this.
    But I adore Pundita’s blogging.
    – Madhu
    Pssst….here’s a little secret for you all. You know how their are think tanky CNAster types (like CNAS, but you know what I mean) for foreign policy? They are their for medicine, too, and Obamacare is their baby. But you have to know some of the players from the inside to understand what that means.
    Now, where was I? Oh yeah….
    Hey, we’ve done some things to be truly and well ashamed of and there ought be no hiding it. But when it is not balanced out with a realistic history – the world as it is – it becomes much easier to lie to yourself and to manipulate others.
    Pundita’s tart (a word zen once used for her marvelous blogging – such a fangirl of her blogging that it’s embarrassing) commentary on how the Pakistani military

  2. onparkstreet Says:

    What internet devil always make me hit submit without preview? Internet devil, I don’t like you.
    – Madhu

  3. onparkstreet Says:

    "….and the U.S. military has been repeatedly outwitted by Pakistani military officers who got tactical training in the U.S." – Pundita, on a previous post.
    I’m too depressed about the ability for certain elites to game our elites to comment further on this point or on the Bruce Reidel post.
    I was going to write a novel about it in the comments section, but I just can’t go on with this topic at the moment.
    You know what the strangest part of reading milblogs is for a silly little ole’ civilian gal like me (yes, I am purposely being affected and annoying)? The sheer "we are men and women who read Clausewitz" arrogance of it all. I wasn’t too wrong with my crack about "how many Clausewitz-es fit on the head of a pin," now was I?
    COIN, FID, another article on Vietnam, yada yada yada….
    But study yourselves, dear Foreign Policy elite – civ and mil, your own curious history with a particular client state, the strange tendency for American military men of a certain type to romanticize the ole’ Pakistani "frontier," the tendency some in the CIA and State to cover for that client state, the sheer arrogance and oddness of a people who will do anything but study the exact, specific, history and nature of a part of the world meant for conquering? Or ass-kicking? Or saving?
    Just too hard, apparently.
    This topic depresses me. It’s the arrogance that gets me. And I’m arrogant as heck, too, so can you imagine the levels of arrogance out there? What’s that about, FP and milblog types?
    – Madhu

  4. onparkstreet Says:

    Not all of you people, obviously.
    Story from my youth: my mom always used to say that if you sent an American kid (of Indian parents) back to India, his or her Indian cousins would eat that kid alive in any hard negotiation, in an kind of enterprise involving money.
    It was my Indian mom saying this, so don’t go calling her racist or anything. She’d get the better of you, too, in any negotiation. A bunch of nice Pakistan ladies who are anti-General should have been in on all those various strategic reviews. They’d have done better in that environment.
    Again, too depressed on this topic to go on. We will recreate this same dynamic in all those Arab Spring countries. You just wait and see. The sad thing is that it is the people in those ME countries that we would like to help that we will likely crush with our DC bureaucrats inerring ability to go with the wrong guy….
    – Madhu

  5. seydlitz89 Says:

    Interesting take on the realationship between society/culture and government/state.  So the society can be monarchical and the state something else, as in republics like France or Portugal.  That is the society/culture precedes the state .  .  . whereas with America the state preceded the society.

    What exactly is "American democracy"?  An apparatus for selecting leaders chosen by the elite, or a shared set of political values?  How do US political institutions promote these democratic values or do they do the opposite?

  6. zen Says:

    First, thanks are in order.
    Thank you to Miss Pundita for agreeing to cross post here!
    Secondly, thank you to Charles for organizing this!
    Third, thank you to Doc Madhu for the compliment and enthusiastic response!
    Regarding "the Oligarchy"(TM) America always has had an elite, or wealthy ppl that’s not new. What is different to my mind is that formerly, with the Eastern Establishment pre-1974, there was a sense of stewardship, self-restraint, ethics and mutual identification with the nation as a whole with the old elite. When they were self-dealing, say John Foster Dulles pushing diplomacy that helped United Fruit, clients of Sullivan & Cromwell or LBJ handing out contracts to dredge South Vietnamese harbors to Brown & Root, they were at least feathering their nests in sync with pursuing American interests.
    The current crowd that I term "the Oligarchy" is an emergent fusion of financial sector masters of the universe with the political class of both parties and their close clientela based on alumni ties to a set of about 15 universities which shares a belief in technocracy, political correctness, regulatory capture to benefit the financial sector at the expense of everyone else and an education that was critical or disdainful of US history, democracy, constitutional liberties and restraints, due process, the rule of law ( it’s just a form of power etc.).
    The oligarchy – mostly JDs and MBAs – are very poorly educated in history because what they have been given in our fine universities, which abandoned the systematic teaching of the western canon to undergraduates in the 1960’s, has been a highly selective and ideological hodgepodge from 70’s & 80’s  grievance activists masquerading as scholars.  The oligarchy are not "marxists" or "leftists" but their sense of identification or primary loyalty to the US is weak and self-aggrandizement is great. The educational damage was not the looney left indoctrination, which did not stick beyond vague social guilt, but the loss of the substance that should have been there in the place of the ideological rot and the lack of a common ethical code. Unlike simple individual self-preservation, the oligarchy seem to have a visceral dislike of seeing ppl like themselves, in this insular social group, being held accountable like ordinary mortals. Even when it is no skin off of their nose or is affecting noiminal political opponents. For example:
    It is what the marxists used to call "class consciousness". They will feather their nests at the expense of American interests and not give a rusty damn. Perhaps that explains the strange affinity for the governments of Pakistan and Mexico and contempt for the rest of us.
    This trend is dangerous – this crowd is not particularly competent at anything except behaving with unseemly, almost self-destructive, avarice and networking for power. As Tom Barnett likes to say, the smartest and nicest ppl are not the ones who went into politics in the past 30 + years and largely, he’s right. I’d feel more kindly and care less about their personal corruption if they were delivering a 6 % real GDP growth rate and not trying to spy on and control the behavior and life options of the public at large. It took two centuries to build America into a superpower and they are going to undo it in one generation of inept statecraft and unabashed, maniacal looting.

  7. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Just when I think it can’t get any better!

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’ve been gaining some interesting insights about the (tectonic) differences between the US (where I live) and UK (where I’m from) lately, reading Pundita on monarchism (here and in her piece on the royal wedding), and Lexington Green on "bottom-up, inductive, spontaneous self-organization" as the essence of America.
    I am pretty sure that ritual and ceremonial have a lot to do with these differences, and will be writing on the reasons why ritual so powerfully engages the human spirit in upcoming posts — but for now, I’d like like to invite Pundita to tell us a little more from her own perspective about monarchy and its ritual aspects.
    Perhaps I might add that my own recent thinking along these lines was triggered by the media attention surrounding the recent requiem and other obsequies for Otto von Habsburg — another occasion marked by the interweaving of religious, state and military pomp and ceremony. 

  9. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Perhaps we should bring to the conversation (a conversation I tried to get you to start many months (years?) ago) that a king is not necessarily a tyrant. A tyrant is non-generational by nature (a tyrant is not into Generational Warfare, but a king maybe). The advantage is in the targeting (3GW). A king, as those in ancient Greece, fought a Generational Warfare (targeted) that had a component of time and not just distance. But then perhaps we should not. Perhaps it would seem to P.C, as those of the committee would agree. As you are of the committee.

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