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Once again, the Urban Man has gone looking for reassurance that I'm still living in the American Century. I mean, now that the dollar is plunging, the euro is rising, and the Chinese are sucking up the world's oil, I often find I need a little Yankee ego boost.
Today, I've invited Matthew Garrahan, local correspondent for Britain's Financial Times, to lunch. I want to hear from his authoritative, London-accented lips, that despite everything I read; that despite the rise of Indian entrepreneurs and Singapore highrises; that despite efficient European markets and foreign bullet trains; America is still the Primo Honcho, the Empire of Unlimited Possibility…the Big Dog.
Garrahan meets me outside at the World Café in Santa Monica—a venue I have chosen with some care. I like the way it's only "worldly" in the same way as the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland: filled not with the exotic, but safe American clichés of the exotic.
Overhead, the sun wheels through another perfect day. Main Street flashes with late-model automobiles. Here, you get the sense that L.A. is a beach party of infinite consumption: a party destined to last forever. And yes, I revel in the thought of entertaining a quaint Brit in this triumphant setting.
Garrahan begins telling tales of his work here, and I am immediately encouraged by a slight undertone of intimidation. I'm thrilled to discover that this young English reporter remains at least somewhat impressed by our celebs, our abs, and our peccadillos.
When at last I broach the "Primo Honcho" question, he responds, "From my [paper's] perspective, it's all about markets and regulation. The U.S. is still the most developed economy in the world. The rest of the economy still depends on the United States. Just look at the way the sub-prime collapse reverberated around the earth."
This seems cold comfort from a man whose pounds are trading at $1.96, but I try to swagger, "You mean just by falling behind on our mortgage payments, American homeowners were able to send the whole globe into a funk...and that proves we're still Big Dog?"
"Uh...Right," he responds.
I don't mention that I've been reading excerpts from Fareed Zakaria's book, The Post-American World under the covers, late at night, with a flashlight. At one point, Zakaria compares our aging Empire to the aging British empire of the early 20th century. Apparently the British were once Big Dog, but poured their strength into some unnecessary war, the Boer War—fought not for defense, but to make some kind of vague political point. They expected a turkey shoot, but the war drained British resources, angered the world, and left them virtually friendless. Nevertheless, says Zakaria, it wasn't so much the British who fell behind, but the way others caught up and passed them by.
Apparently, we face the same sort of issue. In fact, over lunch, I mention how the last time I was in Britain, I was disturbed to find myself feeling a little backward. I noticed the Brits had, like, land-use policies. Health insurance. Modern transportation systems. A desire to, well, improve their country.
Once upon a time, I giggled at the traditions and stereotypes and round bellies of the jolly old English empire; but as Garrahan goes on telling anecdotes of his time here, of big parties and big ambitions, I can't help wondering if America's blithe confidence in manifest destiny and our fierce dedication to private prerogatives don't represent, well, increasingly comic traditions of our own.
By George, think I, what if we become quaint?
In fact, just as I begin to wonder which of us sitting at the World Café represents the old world and which the new...he reaches out and grabs the check.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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