As anything other than a freakshow, Las Vegas is inevitably a disappointment for anyone over the mental age of 12.
You arrive still half-expecting the raffish sand-blown 50s playground of the Rat Pack with casinos that, if scarcely modernist masterpieces, were actual real buildings — and you are greeted by the largest theme park in the world, where every effort has been made to disguise the fact that the town lives off vices that are adult by definition.
There are casinos pretending to be anything but — pretending to be a pirate ship, Venice, the Eiffel Tower, King Arthur’s castle. The strategic intent is well-known — the mob wanted to turn the place over to the legitimite side of their business and attract a family audience who would end up paying as much for shows as they lost at the tables, thus was Disney Sands born. Enticing at first in a sort of Baudrillard come to half-life sort of way, you soon get dizzy, absorbing semiotic gamma rays. Mutation must be an occupational hazard.
But you can’t help but think that new Vegas — the last original strip hotel, the Stardust, was torn down a few months ago — somehow emerged from the American psyche as a materialisation of its hopes and desires through sheer force of will. Adult experiences made acceptable by swaddling in layers of infantile innocence is the current American condition and will so be until it leads the country so seriously astray that it has a bracing encounter with its own mortality.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
The Georgian situation isn’t that, but it’s a kinda rehearsal. As soon as Georgia’s unbelievably stupid — and not coincidentally American-educated — president tried to consolidate “Georgianness” by laying into two autonomous provinces of people Stalin had omitted to deport en masse to Siberia in his culturally genocidal period of regional “tidying-up”, the Russians went in; occupied the province and then the strategically important Georgian city of Gori; made menacing noises about marching to Tblisi; accepted a cease-fire in so far as it suited them; and now, declining to follow the US on the road to hell by occupying the place and getting interns to run the apparatus of government, appears to be withdrawing, the point made.
The US, in what seems to be a deliberate attempt at national humiliation, has limited itself to providing relief to Georgia — in other words, it’s helping Russia by doing the social reconstruction it should be paying for. It’s a decent thing to do, but, hey, great way to make yourself the Russian bear’s bitch (a female bear is a sow, apparently, which is disappointing).
Despite the fact that the world’s policeman has instantly made itself over into being the global girl scout, ever ready with a bandaid and a brownie song, the US media couldn’t help but spin this as some sort of moral victory — “Georgians will be there at the airport waving US flags” said one report, expressing once again the view of global affairs as a high school prom writ large, this endless, needy desire to be liked no matter what you did or failed to.
But no one can really spin the degree to which this demonstration of Russia’s brutal, focused efficiency, its clarity about its own interests and the limits of its power, is a demonstration of how incapable the US is of thinking straight at just about any social level, neither the government, nor the press, nor even on the street where people have either heard nothing about the whole thing, or are twittering about what “we must do” in such circumstances. The Russians look at the world and see a series of dangerous gambles; the Americans are lined up at the buffet watching the Cirque du Soleil floorshow.
Surely it can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that we just moved closer to the possiblity of a global land war in the future? Simultaneously with the Georgian fracas, Poland and the US signed an agreement to have a missile interceptor agreement, adding to the one the US has with the country foreign policy genius John McCain insists on calling Czechoslovakia. Are these really in the interest of the states concerned, or are they doing simply out of sheer hatred of Russia? If the Russians did decide to suddenly roll westward, would the US really do anything to help, or would it let Eastern Europe be retaken. Why would it not, if the price was containing the conflict to a European land war, rather than a global nuclear one?
Whatever the case, the chaos in Georgia is nothing compared to the disruption to American politics. Simply put, the position of both Obama and McCain have been run off the road. How can McCain keep running the ‘we’re Americans we never surrender’ when an ally has just been hung out to dry? The Wiz’s cardboard facade has suddenly fallen over. But equally how can Obama maintain his touchy-feely let’s talk it all out sort of thing in the face of Russia’s utter disregard for what the Mob calls “chin music”? Neither candidate is willing to tell America the truth — that Iraq was the grave of unipolarity because it revealed that America was impuissant behind its lethal nuclear armoury. Lacking the will and ability to subdue even one broken-down Middle East country, it simply no longer has the ability to project power short of an annihilating bombing strike.
The Georgians appear to have learnt this too late – indeed one danger for Obama, or would-be danger if the public were playing close attention, is that Georgia’s fate flags the hazard of having leaders who are simply too young to have seen a few cycles of history resolve themselves.
Sakashvilli was 36 when he became President, a Columbia Law School grad and scholarship kid coming back to his homeland to preach the gospel of classical liberalism. Georgians were grateful for a relief from the old guard — although the degree to which the outside funding allowed him to swamp the opposition politically has to be borne in mind — and national solidarity may raise his popularity for a while, but you wouldn’t want to put money on his longtime political survival. Essentially he and a couple of bright kids used the country as a prac exercise for the context free application of liberal political theory, and the whole country is now paying the price.
Selected writers in the West — the predictably delusional opeds in the Wall Street Journal for example — are conspiring with them in this. In The Australian Greg Sheridan suggests that Georgia’s request for Australian military assistance is a “tribute to our army” and then goes into a familiar exercise in materiel p-rn, a genre in which he is unsurpassed. They didn’t ask us for military assistance because our army is so great, you dope, they did it because they’re nuts, and are behaving like a News Limited editorial staff would if someone gave them their own country.
Trying to join NATO when you lie at the base of Russia is criminally stupid. The only realistic strategy is Finlandisation — adopting strict neutrality, recognising that your domestic politics have to take account of your neighbour’s interests, overcoming prior hatreds, and building up links through trade. Less glamorous than waving a red and white flag, but far preferable to a white flag stained red.
The paradox of course is that the major American politican willing to join the Georgia boys in their delusion, at least part way, is John McCain, the oldest boy in the world. Though it should be noted that he seems a deal less aggressive than he was, though any connection between this and the fact that Cindy McCain’s right arm is in a sling is surely coincidental. Still, good things those couches on the Straight Talk Express are an easy wipe vinyl. M’esteemed colleague Charles Richardson can rest assured that Mr Hanoi Hilton is being regularly soothed.
So too are the US electorate, with endless media discussion about what America might be able to do to help? Will anyone be able to tell that the question doesn’t even make sense? Not before November. Because deep down every American knows that Russia’s self-assured and audacious act is another sound of the klaxon in the adult theme park of American supremacy, and the sense of identity founded thereon, and all that’s on offer now on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams is a few cheap strip and slot joints, and a lock in at the Loser’s Club.