Witnessing the end of the American Century from the former British Empire

14 July 2018

All good/bad things come to an end. It was 229 years ago today that the French revolutionaries, fueled by the principles of The Enlightenment (and the American Revolution), stormed the Bastille Prison in Paris, marking the beginning of the end King Louis XVI of the old regime. I’m on a train to London, watching the ripples of the Trump visit, which includes his slamming the Prime Minister and almost running over the queen to get his photo op. At least 250,000 people filled the streets of London to protest Trump but it seems almost pointless. Nobody has done more to overthrow King Donald of Orange than Donald J. Trump. I have a meeting at the U.S. Embassy on Monday and I just hope they’ve steam-cleaned the carpets.

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As we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in November, we will also be marking the beginning of the American Century. Centuries last one hundred years, so ours seems to be winding down quite nicely. We should have it wrapped up by November 11. They used to say the sun never sets on the British Empire and now what have they got left? Bermuda? All empires end and the world is watching the fading of America. The only remaining question is whether or not Trump will salute Putin on Monday when they meet in Helsinki. (After all, he saluted a North Korean general so why the hell not?)

I may be being a bit overdramatic. I’ve just seen the U.S. president floating through the air as a giant baby in a diaper. My emotions might be more in charge than my insight as a political scientist, but there is a theory at work here.

My very first academic publication was in the area of World Systems Theory. WST looks at the impact of the rise and fall of the global economy over centuries. Before I began studying Nazi skinheads, I was studying the birth of the world market by running complex statistical analyses of Dutch shipping records from the early 1600s. (I can’t begin to tell you how boring that was – Thank you, Nazi skinheads!) This theory sees global economic class devisions. Imagine “third world” countries as the workers of the world, selling their labor in the earth’s great factory, making shit for the enjoyment of those in the first world, known as the “core.”

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At the top of the ladder is the global hegemon, the top dog of both wealth and political influence. The top dog changes about every 100 years. In the 1600s it was Spain. In the 1900s it was the USA. Fairly accurately, World Systems Theory predicts that a country gets about a century at the top and then there is some global economic shake-up. Suddenly there is a new sheriff in town. The end of WWI saw the demotion of Britain as America and her mighty industrial economy (driven by some serious “Gilded Age” corruption, by the way) stormed through the clouds like Eddie Rickenbacker.

The United States of America won’t last forever. Other than China, most nations have a relatively short life-span. Germany only goes back to 1871. Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 2003. Whether or not you think God likes you best, there is no guarantee of a nation’s permanence. Even less sure is a nation’s dominance on the world stage. With our current buffoonery creating a vacuum of world leadership and only division at home, it appears the writing is on the wall for the once exalted “land of the free.” America first!

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There is a feeling of doom in the United States but it’s even more depressing witnessing it from abroad. I was having a pint in a pub in Luton, England last night. A patron, hearing my accent, asked, “What the fuck’s happened to your country?” I could only cry in my beer and try to assure him that good people will rally against this tyrant like we did against theirs two centuries ago. (They’ve got their own questions to ask about the passage of Brexit, which is already dismantling their stability. Maybe we can be buddies as the world watches us go down the toilet.) Trump is an embarrassment to us Yanks abroad. There were plenty of Americans in the streets on London yesterday (and up in Scotland today). As I changed my dollars to pounds and saw the devaluing of the buck to the bob, I figured the end might come sooner than we expect. Economists have been predicting that the Obama recovery looks to implode into a Trump recession at any minute. America first! the said as the ship sank.

Who the next global hegemon will be is anyone’s guess. WST predicts that it’s typically the ascendent economic power, so we might best learn how to speak Chinese. But Russia is in the running and with the recent indictments further linking Trump’s presidency to Putin’s power, my money is on the Ruskies. What will Vlad and Don talk about in that closed door session in Finland? Maybe where Trump will leave the keys to the White House in exchange for his new job as a Russian oligarch (and wife #4!). Russia first!

Sociologists are fond of saying that a fish doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out. It’s hard for us to see the end of American dominance while the illusion of it still surrounds us. Both the Romans and the Nazis thought their reign was unbound by time. America might still have a few good years in it if we can replace the current kakistocracy with a vibrant participatory democracy, but odds are the Democrats will turn a cake walk into a mud bath. So you might be best served by thinking of options outside the USA! USA! Investing in rubles, perhaps.

When historians write about the madness of King Don, they will talk about how he drove a once great nation into the ditch, like a rich chauffeured brat who demands the keys to the car he has never driven. But he didn’t do it all by himself. We encouraged him because we thought it would be entertaining. And it was, until it wasn’t.

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Jukebox Hero 3: Right Here, Right Now Watching the World Wake Up

I’m occasionally posting some chapters from my “rock memoir,” Jukebox Hero. This seemed like a relevant piece in the wake of Generation Z’s moment in history. Here are some others:

Jukebox Hero 1: Queens of Noise

Jukebox Hero 2: I Will Follow

Jukebox Hero: Bridge Chapter A– “Right Here, Right Now”

I took a break from my trips to Europe after 1987 when I got the job managing the Atlanta band drivn’n’cryin’. The Europe I knew was on the frontline of the cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Frankie Goes To Hollywood song, “Two Tribes” was more of a cautionary tale than a dance hit. “When two tribes go to war, one point is all that you can score.” I had marched in CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) parades in London and a cheered when 70,000 protestors blockaded the RAF Greenham Common nuclear missile base in Berkshire, England in 1983. The window of my squat in Brixton looked out at a massive mural of a nuclear holocaust. Western Europe was Ground Zero for the beginning of the end.

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I met a Russian kid named Yuri in Denmark in 1986 who had recently defected to Finland and told me that the Soviet people were deathly afraid of the madman living in the American White House, Ronald Reagan. In 1984, I had tried to see George Harrison’s English house in Henlely-on-the-Thames only to be told that Beatle George had moved his family to Australia out of fear of nuclear war. I made it to West Germany twice, only to witness a heavy presence of the American military and anger that American and Soviet egos were pushing Europe towards nuclear annihilation.

The U.S. policy that was just a budget item or back page news story to most Americans was more than life and death to Europeans. It was mass extinction.

By 1989, I had a good 7-years in protesting the Reagan-Bush arms race under my belt. In 1983, at the tender age of 19, I became a lobbyist in Washington DC for the nuclear freeze movement. When Mikhail Gorbachev began the Soviet period of Glasnost in the late 1980s, it seemed like World War III might be avoided and, more, importantly, that I could finally get into the Soviet Union with a duffle bag full of Levis.

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So it was with intense excitement that I watched the Iron Curtain begin to crack in the last minutes of the 1980s. I watched East and West Germans take sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall from a TV in my apartment in Atlanta with tears streaming down my face. People were escaping the oppressive regimes in Romania and Hungary and by 1991 the Soviet Union was collapsing.

I had to get back to Europe to be a part of this moment in history. Just like I had to be in London in 1985  for Live Aid, I had to be back at the frontline for the end of the Cold War. The door to Eastern Europe was finally open and their was a blank slate for the new decade. When I was offered a teaching assistantship in London for an Emory study abroad course, I packed my bags.

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In 1991, I was 27-years-old and fully invested in the rock-and-roll lifestyle. I had been teaching undergrads at Emory but spent most of my time on the road or in the studio with drivin’ n’ cryin’. With my long bleached hair and black stretch jeans, I probably didn’t look like the typical university TA.

Once in London, I tried to turn on the American students to the city I knew and loved; shopping in Camden Market, seeing bands at the Marquee Club, and endless pub crawls. While there, I got hooked on going to the theater in the West End, seeing Les Miserables four times. I sent a postcard to my girlfriend, back in Atlanta, that said, “I’m still straight but I LIVE for the musical theater!” And it wasn’t just American university kids in those seats. I started to notice a new subculture in the West End, Russian tourists.

One of the places I loved to take the students was my favorite dance club, the Camden Palace.  The hall opened in 1900 as the Camden Theater but had been the Palace since 1982. It was at the Palace in 1983 I had met a nice German girl at the bar. I was trying to chat her up when she realized the guy at the bar next to me was Limhal. Limhal was the poofy-haired singer of Kajagoogoo who were topping the pops that summer with the airy hit, “Too Shy.” Despite the rumors that he liked boys, Limhal scooped in and purloined my fraulein. Damn you, Limhal!

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In the summer of 1991, Thursdays were “guitar rock” nights at the Palace. Kids from around the globe met to dance to R.E.M., Happy Mondays, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. There was a song by The Wonder Stuff, “The Size of the Cow” that always filled the dance floor; Americans, French kids, Italians, and the ever-trendy London scenesters. I loved Thursday nights at the Palace because the music kicked ass and you didn’t need a partner to dance with. It was like being at a rock concert. You just hit the floor of the old theater and felt the energy of the crowd.

One particular night in late July, I dragged a few students to the ornate club. I wanted to share the fun of dancing to the new music of the decade with the youth of the world. London always felt like the center of the hipster planet. In London, you can find the best African music, the coolest Middle Eastern late night cafés, and the most over-the-top South American dancers. Going to London, was never like going to “Merry Old England.” It was always like being present in all that was important to the world.

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On that night, the floor was particularly rocking. There was a new wave of kids making it to London from the newly free Eastern European countries. You could identify the “Easterners” because they grew up completely removed from any black culture and danced like it. It didn’t matter. For the first time since before Hitler fucked everything up, Europe felt truly united. The next song was Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now,” which was inspired by the fall of communism. The Russian kids and the Czech kids crammed on to the dance floor. Taking their lead, the German kids and the Swedish kids followed.

There were so many people on the dance floor for this song, no one could move. Instead, everyone hugged and jumped up and down and wept. This is what freedom felt like. We weren’t East and West anymore. We were kids who wanted to dance and not get nuked. I had danced at the Palace in 1982 amid fear of atomic bombs. In 1991, I danced in love with the world. We had all survived the long war. You know it feels good to be alive.

I was alive and I waited for this

Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be

Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.

I still get chills every time I hear that song. I’m sure there are Baby Boomers who have one song that crystallizes what it meant to be a part of that generation, but for me it’s that Jesus Jones song that finally plugged me in to my time on Earth; a song that would later become a K-Mart ad and a Ford commercial.

Later that summer, while traveling through Eastern Europe, I was on a train pulling into a station in East Berlin. It was 3:30 in the morning and there was one East German kid on the platform with a beat up boombox. He was playing a tape of the Scorpions’ new song “Winds of Change” over and over. I just listened to the lyrics about the new Europe bounce around the crumbling old regime. Music had the power to ferry us through massive historical shifts. For the rest of our human existence, historians would muse about this massive global right turn, but, in the moment it occurred, it all came down to a song.

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In 2003, Vladimir Putin told Paul McCartney that it wasn’t Ronald Reagan that ended the Cold War, it was The Beatles – that once Russian kids heard that sound, they stopped caring about the Communist Party and just wanted to join the world party. When they grew up, they pulled the plug on the USSR and came out to dance.

 

Butterflies for the Children of Aleppo

December 1, 2016

What can we do? Can we dance while the children of Aleppo are being slaughtered? Can we smile while the last doctors pull the ball bearings from Russian-backed Syrian regime cluster bombs out of the spines of toddlers? The monarch butterfly only lives for six months. Do we have a right to enjoy its beauty knowing that its wings will soon be broken against the wheel? What can we do? What did you when you saw little Omran in the ambulance? What will we do now that we have seen him?

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The siege of Aleppo continues unabated. The once bustling city has been hollowed out by Syrian and Russian jets dropping barrel bombs that spread explosions of shrapnel which decapitate children every single day. The innocent civilians cry to the sky. “Where are you, world? How are you letting this happen to our loved ones?” And the world Tweets something clever, indifferent. #WeirdBathroomConvos

History will ask where we were in 2016 while this horror happened. Just like it asked where where were in 1994 during the Rawandan genocide and where we were in 1975 during the mass killings in Cambodia. We are always in the same place; dancing with our eyes closed.

In 1993, I was in eastern Europe, doing my dissertation work on new fascist youth movements. The civil war in Yugoslavia was in full swing and Bosnian refugees were streaming out of the country with horror stories beyond belief. I tried to make it to Sarajevo, but the city was under a murderous siege and all travel in was closed.

It was a sunny day in Prague so I went to Josefov, the old Jewish quarter, to soak up the sun and some relevant history. There was an exhibit about the internment of Jews in the German concentration camp in nearby Terezin. Toward the end of the war, Hitler didn’t want the world to think his camps were so bad, so he invited the Red Cross to tour the camp in Terezin. The barracks were cleaned, prisoners that were sickly were quickly shipped off to Auschwitz, and the children were given art supplies to show the kindness of the Nazis.

What kind of art would children in a Nazi death camp create?

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The exhibit had some of their art preserved over the decades. The art was their escape. Amid certain death they drew pictures of red birds and green butterflies flying though perfectly blue skies.

Later that day I was in the Old Town Square in the Staré Mesto part of Prague. In an abandoned storefront people had created an exhibit about the war in Yugoslavia to raise awareness about the violence nearby in the Balkans. The exhibit included art by Bosnian Muslim refugee children whose parents had been killed by Serbian soldiers.

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When kind of art would the children of ethnic cleansing create?

Crayola crayon drawings of red birds and green butterflies flying through perfectly blue skies.

I walked outside and wept that this was happening again. And this time it was happening on my watch. I sat down in the Charles Bridge over the Vlatava River and wrote this.

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Kids in cages, kids in camps

Kids on TV, kids on maps

Crayon dreams of simple pleasures

A blue bird and a yellow sun

cross with grey sketches

of a brother being hung

Playground mortar shell

interrupts an afternoon soccer match

Late night round up

Out of bed shouting family snatch

The innocent monsters of childhood

are traded for the nightmare monsters of mankind

Kids in cages, kids in camps

Kids on TV, kids on maps

Twinkle, twinkle, night lights off so far

Doomed by the brands of moons and stars

Red rockets fly from mountain tops

Yellow bayonets from ghetto cop cars

When I grow up I want to be alive

I want to be married to a brave prince

with Mommy and Daddy smiling

But instead I go to Srebrenica or Auschwitz

“Never again” is an empty cry as Sarajevo’s children

relive the genocide plans of the ruling mind.

I wonder what type of art the children of Aleppo are creating now, in those precious moments between bombings and siblings dying. I imagine drawings of red birds and green butterflies flying through perfectly blue skies.

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Andrea and I have been crippled by the images of Syrian children creeping into our mundane lives as parents in America. How can we look away? We are somehow complicit as “strong leader” Putin continues to bomb civilians. What can we do? Could butterflies help?

Andrea made the decision to use her artistic shoulder to slow the wheel. She is doing a series of  paintings of Monarch butterflies, the symbol of her home in Michoacan, Mexico and symbolic of the great migrations we make to live and reproduce. She will be debuting them at my reading at Music Millennium on Saturday. All proceeds go to UNICEF Aleppo Relief. They will also be available on her website (andreabarriosart.com) for only $40 (they come with a little easel). It’s one way relieve an ounce of the suffering of children who do not deserve the hell of adult politics.

In addition, 10% of the sales for my new novel, The Dream Police, are going to UNICEF Aleppo Relief. It’s not much but if the book does well, it might be.

I think of all the places that children suffer from the actions of adults; Syria, South Sudan, Chicago. I think about food contaminated with plastics and guns in schools and lead in water. I think about how much we don’t think about our children and I want to turn into a butterfly and fly away.

Please help UNICEF help Syrian children by donating here: UNICEF

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