In France, the only story about the U.S. right now is its fragility. There's generally incredulous coverage of the health care debates, with marvelling at Obama's inability to either defend or get support for a "public option" variant on the universal public coverage that Europe takes for granted.
There's the relentless transformation of Afghanistan into Vietnam, the pouring of resources down a rathole that will do nothing but create more enemies, suffering, and poverty. There will be one difference from Vietnam. This time the poverty will also be America's.
Then there's the pitiful dollar. As I've noted before, the world hates the dollar. Currency traders are as contemptuous of US economic conditions and policy as the Taliban are of our Afghani statebuilding, and at the first sign of recovery this spring they began to sell the dollar. Some of the reason is that rock-bottom interest rates encourage the carry-trade (borrowing a low-interest currency to buy assets in a higher-interest currency), and some is just sheer fear of the US's infinite deficit funding. I would add that the real problem is not deficits as such but deficits with no "real economy" revival or reindustrialization anywhere in sight. Hence daily stories like the Financial Times - "Asia steps in to support dollar." And hence the daily fretting of my Capitalist Pals - "Is the United States on Sale?"
The issue is the absence of bottom-up vitality in the U.S. The cliche summary is that Wall Street thrives while Main Street dies. That's pretty close to the truth, as my university blog is documenting with sickening ease.
I thought about this on a trip to Florence, Italy has weekend. The L.A. boy in me always remembers the dismal intersection of Normandie and Florence, ground zero for the 1992 Rodney King revolt, an image of the U.S. borrowing with names a cultural capacity it lacks in fact. Florence Italy was an unruly republic that in the 1200s started to build a palace for its elected officials. The officials lived there for 2 months day and night while they did the job of governing. Afte 2 months they no longer had the job, and were replaced by other citizens.
The republic was replaced by the rule of great families, the Medicis being the most important of these. By the mid-1500s, Cosmo I had anointed himself grand duke of Tuscany over all, and moved his court into the formerly-republican palace. The English-language tours don't even mention this fact, as though the distinction between republic and art-loving tyranny would be lost on us.
Florence's wealth had been established through the combination of mass creativity and an early Medici's financial brilliance - usurious lending to various royal families and creative financing that supported trade. In other words, its wealth rested in large part on the massive upgrading of craft expertise in the arts and the trades - the invention of perspective is the most famous, but there were countless other improvements devised and developed by thousands of unsung heroes of technico-artistic transformation. This is where the Duomo comes from, as well as everything else - not from the Medici sponsorship as such, though that was crucial, but from consistent craft innovation widely distributed through the general population of Florence and beyond.
Cosmo had a couple of tiny studies where he supposedly kept in touch with higher things, including his own thoughts. I was struck by one painting and looked it up later. This is a version of Alexandre the Great meeting the philosopher Diogenes, who supposedly lived in a tub.
Florence was flooded with competing philosopher-kings and yet the spirit of the place is the tacit immunity of the artists and artisans and philosophers to royal power. The solider-kings tore up one beautiful city or another on a regular basis. The artists and artisans put them back together, better than before.
In the US, the whiff of doom comes from the absence of this artistic-artisinal counterpower in political practice, and also in political theory. It's a series of powers that lie in wait everywhere, but that in general don't recognize themselves as counterpowers at all.
Then there are my artist friends Cora, Erik, and Ines, who do.