An Assembly of Pieces

James Anderson Merritt's piecemeal thoughts and observations, and the occasional attempt to put some of the pieces together.
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All material except cited quotations Copyright (C) 2004-2008 by James Anderson Merritt. All rights reserved.
Saturday, May 21, 2005
I haven't posted in some time because of technical difficulties. Basically, Blogger has for some time told me that there was an error on any attempt to publish; subsequent attempts to troubleshoot have been fruitless. In hopes that the problems were internal to Blogger and would sort themselves out in time, I have busied myself with other things. But I had a thought that I especially wanted to put out into the blog world, so here I am, trying again.

Uncle Sam and Howard Hughes

I am struck by the similarities between the evolution of the United States and the life of billionaire aviator/industrialist and bon vivant (later scruffy, paranoid recluse), Howard Hughes. By all accounts I've ever read or seen, the young Hughes was the kind of brilliant, bold and daring man, whom "men want to be like and women want to be with." And that's even acknowledging that he could be a royal S.O.B. when it suited him. Hughes took on all comers, dared to be great, made some very smart moves to match his luck, and achieved greatness, much as did the early United States. As the stresses of success and the march of the decades did their subtle work, however, Hughes withdrew from direct engagement with the world, using minions and his vast wealth to purchase and influence. In the latter part of the 20th century, Uncle Sam did something similar, letting client states and national proxies fight wars with the clients and proxies of the USSR, but pulling all possible strings behind the scenes to pursue "America's national interests."

(The parallel isn't exact, of course. We did have our own shooting wars, some of which, like VietNam, were quite costly for us on many levels. We also gained an "Ugly American" reputation for directly intervening in the affairs of other nations. Hughes had his run-ins with the real world during the same period -- if you can call FBI surveillance and congressional investigation the "real world." But he seemed to withdraw from public view even as the US seemed to grow omnipresent throughout the non-Soviet world. For all the US was out in public, however, much more went on behind the scenes, as it was with Hughes.)

Eventually, Hughes seemed to be convinced that everyone was out to get him, especially the Federal government and even bacteria. He was reported to be very phobic and obsessive in his determination not to fall victim to germs. Now we see Uncle Sam becoming convinced that anyone who isn't with us is against us -- and that there are billions against us. We discuss sealing the borders shut, and we have just passed the RealID Act, which promises to force everyone to carry what is, in effect, an internal passport, all in the name of keeping nasty terrorists out of our territory. Some of the stories they used to tell about the obsessive Hughes made him seem demented and silly. Personally, I think that Uncle Sam is going down that same road. Like Hughes, he is going to live in a sealed-up, sanitized suite, and perhaps grow his hair and fingernails long. He is going to use every possible regimen to cleanse his environment and body of vicious germs, but his life will be forever changed -- and a lot less fun or productive -- by the discipline. But he will retain his vast wealth and status as global superpower, or so he thinks.

Is it worth it? Do we really want Uncle Sam to morph into the Howard Hughes of his "eccentric billionaire" days? More importantly, do we want to live as cells in the body of such a nutcase -- even a rich and nominally powerful nutcase? I don't know about you, but I don't consider myself expendable, much less anyone's property. I don't want Uncle Sam to throw his weight around the world for my benefit. I want Uncle Sam to keep me and every one else in this country free to throw our own individual weight around if we so choose. Pursing aggressive, interventionist foreign policy that is bound to make Americans less safe, and then responding with a Hughes-like "germ-phobia" toward foreigners and potential terrorists when aggrieved parties push back, is not the way to keep us free, much less the way to affirm the worth of indivdual citizens.

The recent Hughes biopic, "The Aviator," suggests that Hughes made the mistake of stepping on the wrong toes and irritating the wrong people. Rightly or wrongly, they made life hard on him and helped push him toward the fearful hermitage of his latter years. Something similar appears to be happening with Uncle Sam. One wonders whether a more cunning Hughes could have found a way to remain personally active in the world. One wonders, as well, whether Uncle Sam can change his behavior so that he, too, can stay positively engaged with the world, allowing his citizens to enjoy peace, affluence, and liberty.


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