The opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics reminded me most strongly of Blade Runner. Not in a good way.
The filthy air made every light cast a shadow. It was difficult to make out the spectators on the far side of the stadium.
So began the first modern Olympics in an authoritarian state, since the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (depending upon how you wish to count Moscow in 1980, or Sarajevo in 1984.)
The United States--and our form of self-governing, divided power capitalism--is in decline. The Chinese new combination of authoritarian capitalism is on the ascent. Our time on top is dwindling. The Chinese, and despotic forms of government, will succeed us. So goes the dominant thought in our culture, one that should be thoroughly enforced by GE over the next few weeks of Olympics coverage. Authoritarian capitalism: it's the future!
Left or right, liberal or conservative--everyone cannot eat up enough of the notion that repressive, undemocratic, imperious governments are more successful than our, now quaint, notion of a government of the people, by the people in which the law is king and all is overseen by a vigorous judicial system.
On the right, you have the Unitary Executive neo-con movement--epitomized by "I'm my own branch of government, beyond reach" Dick Cheney. Extra-judicial detentions, torture, denial of oversight and a private security force above the law--all the trappings of an authoritarian state. Most of the discussion of these horrors assumes a trade-off: Yes, it's all horribly corrosive to underlying principles of the Constitution. But, such tools just work better than things like Habeus Corpus, warrants, proper trials, Judicial oversight and civilian police operating under strict rules and supervision.
Truth is, all of these special powers have netted us no benefit. None. Nada. Zip. The new authoritarian system has performed far more poorly than the old civilian judicial system. Compare the results of the recent trial of Bin Laden's driver--detained, tortured, tried and convicted under the despotic system--to the results of the trial of the shoe bomber--under constitutional civilian law, courts and oversight. The system of checks and balances, of laws and rules, of openness and transparency simply works better. It's not a matter of style, but results. We are less safe when abandoning the principles laid down by the founding fathers.
The left's insidious embrace of authoritarianism might be more terrifying.
Take Michael Pollen's loving, vigorously anti-science, embrace of serfdom at the end of the Omnivore's Dilemma that underlies his shallow, and ultimately hollow, stance against empiric discovery of nutrition and agricultural science. (I dislike Pollen's analysis, but in retrospect think I'm being unfair here. So, away it goes!)
Even more telling is Jared Diamond's description of China in Collapse. After 19 pages of detailed accounting of the environmental horrors of present-day China, he ends on a strange hopeful note. Yes, China's rapid development over the past two decades has ridden on an unsustainable wave of environmental degradation. But, with one wave of the authoritarian magic wand, the government of China could reverse this trend--like they did with the One Child Policy. This logic was already weakened by Diamond's own accounting. Yes, population growth had been dramatically slowed--but not household growth, nor growth in resource consumption or pollution.
In the months and weeks leading up to the Olympics, the Chinese government has done exactly what Diamond wanted. The wand has been waving, ever more vigorously as today approached--ordering drivers off the road, factories closed, pollution to halt, the rain to fall. The full peremptory force was activated and the skies over Beijing (just one city, for only a couple of weeks) could not be cleared.
(The pollution of Beijing, as viewed from a satellite.)
With all the bitching on the left and right about the EPA, and all the wrangling and compromising that goes into crafting environmental regulations under a democratic government, the United States has done a vastly better job of containing pollution than China (or any other authoritarian state.) Period. There is no magic wand, no way of forcing a desired outcome--only hard fought compromise by all.
On the left, it's assumed that the past decade has gone so poorly not because of the ever larger levers of power handed to the president, but the man wielding them. While watching these Olympics enfold, I suggest you consider the levers of power themselves are the problem, that no man or woman can be a success, for us all, with such power.