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Friday, April 9, 2010

The Obama Years

The decline of the American Empire does not seem as if it will be a dramatic, or traumatic, affair, or sorrowful, with solemnly departing viceroys and lowering flags, like the British Empire after the last World War. It appears rather as if it will be a hushed, imperceptible devolution, lost in details, inconspicuous for long stretches of time, a gradual diminishing of the light. The people of America are not encouraged to be informed about what happens abroad, nor are they predisposed to the study of History, and they consequently do not know of the passing of old empires and the birth of new ones. They don’t know of the great cities that are rising in India, in China, in Brazil, in Europe, of the dazzling new architecture, efficient means of transport and communications, orderly schools, and colorful markets and fairs. They don’t know what is happening outside, as their own lights begin to dim. The spread of debilitating poverty occurs in small increments. After each economic downturn there follows a lackluster period of recovery, each one less of a recovery than the previous one. Permanent unemployment and under-employment grow. It takes years to notice the decline in our collective education and the impoverishment of our discourse, which follows, as day follows night. It takes decades to note the deterioration of our health, and the gradual deformation of our bodies. Can we tell that our culture is increasingly threadbare entertainment, the more boring it becomes, the more passivity it induces in us? What do we produce anymore? Is there industry left in America? Are we making anything other than money? And our unending imperial adventures and wars, isn’t that where all our money is wasted? But the decline is not noticed. Every morning there is ‘Good Morning America,’ and the ‘Early Show’ and the ‘Today Show,’ and everyone is laughing and running about, working to exhaustion. The devotion for mediocrities and the engorgement of our plutocrats is our only real show. And every few years there is a new wave of gadgets and toys to play with, and the kids don’t know things are getting worse, imperceptibly, quietly . . . .

C.P. Cavafy

With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind—
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

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