Saturday, September 7, 2013

Expiration Dates

Monrovia, California

September 7, 2013

The old clock on the wall says it's time to blog again.

And we're itching to bomb Syria.  The old clock on the wall says it is time for the United States to do something like that again, too, I guess.  The locale doesn't particularly matter, as far as I can tell.  Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria.  In each case we've decided that the guy or group we used to tolerate or support up to this point just has to go, NOW.  Happens in the Middle East with regularity.  Occasionally we fiddle around in Subsaharan Africa, too, though in all those areas the British and French have had a sort of right of first refusal when it comes to exerting the old colonial influence.  The bad guys started as good guys, or at least as the lesser of two or three evils, and now they've reached the end of their shelf life.  Take any gangster wearing a uniform or a clerical robe and turn him over and you ought to see an expiration date written on the bottom of his shoes.  For some leaders, as with some food products, it's a long date, and with some it's comparatively short.  Certain dictators and products are kept around for years and years and not thrown out, even long after their expiration dates.

My theory about food expiration dates is that, with the exception of things made with eggs and milk and fresh meat, most expiration dates are artificial, put there to induce people to throw perfectly good things out and spend money on new jars or cans of the same stuff.  For instance, just about anything made with lots of vinegar and/or salt can last for years, if not decades or centuries, if left unopened or if refrigerated.  Cheese doesn't really go bad so much as it gets, well, different.  The vast majority of foodborne illnesses are caused by the incorrect handling or preparation of fresh foods (the kind that don't usually have expiration dates because it's understood that they have to be consumed very soon after purchase) and not the ingestion of canned or preserved ones.  E. coli contamination of meat and vegetables from cow manure, salmonella in eggs, botulism in inexpertly canned stuff, whatever.  As Pasteur and Lister and others discovered a long time ago, it's the proper application of heat that generally takes care of the bacteria.  The ancient proscription of pork in the diets of billions of people on the planet--observant Jews and Muslims in particular--is based in large part on the fact that they didn't cook the stuff well enough to begin with, people got sick or died, and so they decided that God didn't want them to eat pork. (That and the fact that pigs will eat anything if you let them, including each other and their own shit.  But then again, so will chickens, especially those wonderful "free range" chickens everyone is so fond of.)  The outright banning of pork was a rather drastic solution to a comparatively simple problem, if you ask me, but what the hell, more bacon for the rest of us.  It's the God part of it that really sticks in my craw.  You want to protect your people, fine; but don't try to say that the Almighty has anything to do with it. Anyway, expiration dates on food?  Don't bother.  Just give 'em the sniff test.  Most people have jars of alkaline or acidic condiments in their refrigerators that have been there since Bill Clinton was in office.  Still going strong, like old Bill himself.

But the setting and careful observance of expiration dates is a good thing in politics.  This fact should be instructive to architects and administrators of the Pax Americana--the would-be Macchiavellis or Metternichs or Disraelis of U.S. foreign policy.  Prepare the new guys properly at the start, or pick the ones that look like they won't go bad in the first place, and you won't kill as many people in the long run.  Then give them an expiration date, and stick to it.  Eight to ten years seems like a good tenure of office limit for just about anybody, or for that matter any party.  Unlike pickled vegetables or nitrate-laden cured meats, even the most seemingly benevolent of leaders will tend to go bad if he anticipates no end to his reign,  Many of them were shitheels when the local voters or the CIA or the Brits or whoever put them in office.  Still, most non-advanced Western countries don't have reliable term limits that their leaders are willing to abide by.  Even though we imperial nations have no trouble setting people on the thrones of our client governments, when it comes to taking them off we just don't have a plan.  I say that if you're going to behave like like the second and third worlds are part of your empire then for everyone's sake be imperial.  If you have the club then wield the fucker.  Don't put a guy in office in a country that has never had anything approaching a western-style democracy and expect the local voters to figure out how to take care of things.  Instead, tell him, "Okay, you've got four years to prove you're not a completely incompetent, heartless, brutal wingnut or religious fanatic, and to do something good for your people.  Then if we're satisfied you can have another four years.  After that, you're finished."  When his time is up take him out and put in another Pasha or Governor or Prefect, like the Ottomans and the Brits and the Romans might have done.  Look, the fact is we're in charge, or at least we think we are, right?  So let's act the part instead of pretending that miniature Americas are going to spring up if we plant a seed in the sand or the jungle and give it a little water.  Get it all out in the open and keep it that way.

Even in our own country we don't let anybody stay in the highest office too long.  At first the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, setting term limits for the President, appeared to be a Republican reaction to the unprecedentedly long reign of FDR.  And to some extent it was.  But in hindsight it was for our own good.  If Ronald Reagan had been allowed to run for a third term he probably would have been elected.  Christ knows what kind of weirdness that would have wrought as his Alzheimer's disease progressed.  Bill Clinton could have had a third term, too, and probably that would have proved to have been too much Clinton by half.  What we got in his place wasn't good, but it was different at least, the way cheese gets different and begins to smell a lot more funky even though it's still edible. Take the current president (please, as Henny Youngman would say).  Keep him in there for an additional four or eight years and he's liable to become indistinguishable from his immediate predecessor, particularly in matters of foreign policy.

There's something about long terms in office that runs fundamentally contrary to the underpinnings of our nation. George Washington sensed this, and set the precedent that was only broken once before the Eisenhower Amendment chiseled it in stone.  In Washington's case, part of his reluctance to run for a third term was that he knew he wouldn't be elected unanimously, as he had been the two previous times (though he would have been elected).  People were beginning to have the temerity to openly criticize him and to divide into political parties, and he took that as an insult.  As it turned out he died during what would have been his third term, mostly because he was, by the measure of his day, an old man of 67.  He'd survived smallpox, the wear and tear of years of war and rigorous travel, and (even by the accepted norms of his era) the consumption of prodigious amount of alcohol.  His demise came from an illness greatly exacerbated by excessive bloodletting, an accepted medical practice of the time.  Whether he would have lived through a third term God only knows, but his sense of timing was impeccable.  Always leave 'em wanting more.  Whatever his motives for abdicating, in the single act of declining a third term Washington set the country's course and created a good precedent, largely by dint of the great sentimental sway he held over the country.  Some other men might have clung to power by any means; George Washington was willing to have it only by acclamation.  And it has worked out pretty well for the country.

Now, contrary to the wishes of George Washington, we find ourselves the creators, inheritors, and overseers of an empire. We're not comfortable admitting it, but it's a fact.  Like most imperial powers, we have a double standard.  We treat ourselves better and with more tolerance than we treat our colonies.  That is the way of the world.  Many people think that's a terrible thing, but empires aren't all bad.  Like it or not that's who we are.  To the extent that we abandon that responsibility or shrink from it, there will be a directly proportional increase in chaos, brutality, and bloodshed in those countries we rule, covertly or openly.  We should have the courage of our convictions. Imposing American-style democracy through the barrel of a gun isn't working.  Let's stop pretending we're liberating people and just embrace our true nature and our real agenda, namely, to get countries to behave more or less the way we want them to, irrespective of their personal whims, religious or otherwise.

Students of history tend to focus on the decline and fall of empires rather than on their longevity.  Blame Edward Gibbon for that, I suppose.  But history has taught us that many empires tend to last a long time, in human terms.  The Babylonian and Assyrian empires lasted 300 years; the British Empire 400 years; the Ottoman Empire 600 years; the eastern part of the Roman Empire, 1400 years, the ancient Egyptian Empire for longer than that.  The list goes on.

Honesty is always the best policy.  Be the Great Satan.  Embrace it.  Abandon the farcical rhetoric about the growing pains of democracy.  We should accept what we well and truly believe--namely, that our system of government and those of the western parliamentary countries really are, at the moment, better than anything the rest of the flea-bitten world has to offer, which is why people from those places are streaming to our countries and not the other way around.  If we can't give democracy to other countries then let's just rule them outright.  Above all, we should quit pretending that any government dominated or run by passionate intolerance will ever be worth a shit, and go forth and conquer with smiles on our faces.  It'll all be over in a few hundred years anyway.  In the meantime, keep an eye on those expiration dates.  

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