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Hear the Wounded U.S. Lion Roar
Published on Monday, August 30, 2004 by the Globe and Mail / Canada
Hear the Wounded U.S. Lion Roar
by William Thorsell

With the ultimately boring Olympic Games behind us, we can turn again to the far more satisfying melodrama of a major political convention -- where winning or losing matters to history.

The Republicans are descending on Democratic New York City almost three years after the humiliation of 9/11. The barbarian invasion meets the decline of the American Empire.

In Denys Arcand's film The Barbarian Invasions, the reference is to 9/11, and more. You could describe the Saudis who flew those kamikaze planes as barbarians, but the historical reference goes back to Rome. The barbarians sacked impregnable Rome, defeated it, and plunged Western civilization into a long night of forgetfulness.

In Mr. Arcand's film, there are many suggestions that, like Rome, our culture has become decadent enough to be vulnerable to barbarians, however unworthy they may be. Most barbarians have the vigour of their appetites, if not the courage of their convictions. The barbarians who savaged America on 9/11 had the courage of their convictions, too.

The Republican response has been almost primal in its insistence on demonstrating vigour in return, not by bombing the Taliban out of Afghanistan, which was a focused and relevant response to the horror. It was the later attack on Iraq, so graciously described by The Economist last month as the product of "sincere deceivers" in George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

The attack on Iraq was opportunistic and theatrical, psychological and emotional, off-centre and probably counterproductive. It spent all that American booty on sideline targets, and created all the more recruits for suicidal enemies in the process (supply-side terrorism). Iraq may well count itself lucky for this invasion: It got rid of Saddam Hussein. It is too early to conclude that the United States got a decent return for its investment of lives and materiel.

But the Republicans will be in full throat this week in New York, as they must be, given what they have done. Testosterone will flow like beer and bourbon through the halls and onto the TV screens, simply as evidence of vigour. There can be no sign of wimpy thoughtfulness at this convention, only of conviction. The great siege of America, self-defined by orange and yellow codes, will fuel triumphalism and boneheadedness.

To buttress this uber-Americanism, the Republicans will seek to claim and distill other core American values. The right to own property. The dream to be rich. The sanctity of marriage. And the pre-eminence of a Christian God.

It will be a national revival meeting of enormous importance and fascination. It will seek to banish doubt, when doubt is most useful. It will be the roar of the wounded lion, who is much more humiliated than he is hurt, and thus much more likely to give the barbarians their advantage.

Big political conventions are not as engrossing as they were when the outcomes were unclear, and the forces that determined them unpredictable. In Canada, it is not always obvious who has the majority of delegates, and the delegates can be as volatile as dice. Recall the long night in Maple Leaf Gardens that elected Dalton McGuinty as Ontario Liberal Leader. But the tendency in Canada now is to banal "democratic" voting arrangements involving thousands of party members by telephone, Internet and snail-mail that strips the decision of its Shakespearean blood. Everything comes down to membership sales and carpools -- a mechanistic bore -- akin to the Olympics.

The U.S. primary system generally decides the outcome in advance, so their conventions become marketing events for the Chosen One. But the stakes are so high that even a certain outcome cannot wash the blood from those many hands.

Imperial overreach is the classic condition of an empire's decline. The fact that this is known, and that hubris is as famous a fatal flaw as impatience, does not seem to matter. Knowledge of history provides no vaccine against its repetition. The real olympic struggle is back on your television set this week. Enjoy.

William Thorsell is director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum.

© Copyright 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.


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