Since at least the epic of Job described in the Bible, humans have tried to understand why their God has inflicted cruelties upon believers. Many years ago, I recall my daughter of almost four, after we had been in an auto accident which injured my year-and-a-half-old son, asking my mother what had he done wrong to deserve such punishment from God?
Empires, such as that here in America, exalted by the neoconservative faithful such as William Kristol, are especially in need of rationalizations to explain the awful things happening abroad such as global terrorism, as well as the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add to that the most unusual hurricane season in decades, where such entities as Ivan dont easily die, but are reborn and circle back, and some may ask what has Americas fundamentalist leadership under George W. Bush done to make God so angry at this nation?
The Chinese Empire, even as its elite outgrew primitive religion millennia earlier, was still faced with answering this same question. Since they had no intention of doing away with the institutions of empire, their only answer was to regularly replace specific emperors. Thus was developed the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which linked nicely with the dominant neo-Confucianism of the Empire.
The Chinese believed that good things happened to the people and their Empire when the leaders lived lives of truth and virtue. When they did not, they had lost the Mandate of Heaven and needed to be replaced. Whether or not George W. Bush ever had such a Mandate of Heaven, even if he believes that he hasperhaps it was bestowed upon him by the Supreme Court certifying his election in 2000he certainly seems to have lost it since then.
Now blathering on by Bush in speeches about virtue, or writing about it by the sanctimonious, compulsive gambler, William Bennett, or praying about it (or is it preying?) as do other U.S. leaders, is not a substitute for virtuous behavior.
These Chinese ideas, having filtered back to Europe in the 18th century Enlightenment, played a role in the discussions by American leaders in the founding of the republic. Thomas Jefferson was especially taken with them, talking about a natural aristocracy of talent and virtue, and an educational system of government schools which as the sinologist H.G. Creel noted, was clearly borrowed from China.
As the great economist Lord Bauer once mentioned to me, Alexis de Tocqueville, that insightful observer of America, when he saw these developments in early 19th century France, called it, le system chinois (the Chinese system), and the Japanese, in the late 19th century, searching for Western models, adopted the French educational system. What irony, Confucianism by way of France! Nations may clash, but civilizations tend to borrow from each other.
It was the usually dour John Adams, who in their correspondence, questioned Jeffersons verbal constructs. He noted that there were all kinds of talents, not just the intellectual/academic ones favored by Jefferson, even a kings mistress displayed certain talents, but most importantly, how do you teach virtue?
There is only one answer to Adams, as Confucius understood. Virtue is taught, or not taught, by the young emulating the behavior of their parents and elders, and by the people observing the actions of their leaders.
In this regard, has the U.S. reached new depths of degradation in pursuing an unprovoked war in Iraq and the declaration of perpetual war globally? Certainly, George Bush has lost the Mandate of most of the rest of the world, outside of a few client states and toadies; the Presidents recent reception before the U.N. made that quite evident.
At home Bush piles on more and more bread and circuses, combining huge farm, education, Medicare and other pork and corporate welfare schemes with tax breaks mostly for the wealthier (but even a smidgen for the middle classes, as did the Caesars of old) with a paper money inflationary system (also borrowed from China). If one counts Off-Budget Expenditures (OBE) the U.S. government now owes over $72 trillion to its own people and the world, which the government will probably attempt to inflate away in the future if the system itself doesnt collapse in the short run.
Just as with those empires of old, which sought what the historian Carroll Quigley (Bill Clintons guru at Georgetown University) called Universal Empire, that is, not just imperial centralization, but hegemony over their existing Core and Periphery, which today literally means the entire world, I believe that the U.S. has not only failed, but is in decline.
The Chinese understood that imperial states come and go. The great centralized, bureaucratic empires of Rome, China, Spain, Britain, and Russia have broken apart or declined.
Whether in Quigleys terminology our social, political and economic institutions can once again be made into viable instruments of expansion, is the real systemic question facing us. George Bush did not create these tendencies that go well back into our history, but he has greatly accelerated and exacerbated them. In short, he has clearly lost the Mandate of Heaven!
But, who will tell him that he has no clothes? He rejected his fathers advice on Iraq. Perhaps, others in his family, which protected and elevated a mediocrity, his mother or his wife, will tell him he has lost the Mandate; even if, in a so-called Democracy, the voice of the electorate is considered the Voice of God!
But, perhaps it is really the American people themselves who have lost the Mandate of Heaven, since, after all, it is they who elect U.S. government leaders. Whether the American nation can be perhaps the first in history to eschew empire and return to a decentralized republic will be the great question facing us in the 21st century. Can Americans find leaders with virtue and vision who can restore the Mandate of Heaven?
William Marina is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.