Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The “ship of state” metaphor first appears in the works of the late 7th century BC poet Alcaeus. An aristocrat from the important Greek city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Alcaeus’s metaphor of a ship endangered by a storm represents the political upheavals caused by a succession of tyrants vying for control of the city––the surges and waves of civic violence, political turmoil, and tyranny that have damaged the ship’s hull, sails, and tackle, and threaten to sink it.
Though tired after 2600 years, the metaphor is still useful. We also are in the midst of political storms––political violence, the “soft despotism” of federal overregulation, the illiberal “wokeism” attacking our unalienable rights, and the serial damage to the Constitutional institutions that have kept us sailing free for over 200 years. But a variation of the metaphor more telling for our predicament is the sinking of the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ocean liner that fatally struck an iceberg in 1912. However, rather than one iceberg likely concealed from the Titanic’s watchmen by a nighttime optical illusion, we are confronted in broad daylight with an archipelago of icebergs that have been visible for decades now.
Take the looming federal debt, deficits, and unfunded liabilities. Our national debt has reached $28.43 trillion, 133% of GDP; annual budget deficits hover around $3 trillion; and there are $162 trillion in unfunded liabilities, including Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security––all relentlessly growing without any serious effort to reform the “big three” entitlement programs that eat up half the annual budget. More ominously, these frightening numbers have occurred during a time of anomalously low interest rates. Just a one percent rise in rates would swell interest payments to $530 billion a year––more than we spend on Medicaid.
Yet despite decades of warnings about the approaching fiscal calamity, both parties cannot summon the political will to turn the ship away from disaster. At best, we have one party occasionally trying to slow it down. Worse, the covid panic last year added to the debt $4 trillion in mitigation spending. Biden so far this year has added just under a trillion more, and another $1.9 trillion––$4.6 trillion if its provisions are extended for 10 years––in the pork-laden “bipartisan infrastructure” bill. And instead of slowing down, he’s angling for yet another $5 trillion in spending of money we don’t have.
It’s as though the captain of the Titanic ordered “Full speed ahead!” when warned about the iceberg.
Abroad, multiple threats to our ship of state are relentlessly drawing near. The disastrous, hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan has damaged our country’s interests and prestige, just as Jimmy Carter’s feckless handling of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis emboldened not just jihadists like Osama bin Laden, but a nuclear-armed rival, the Soviet Union, which went on a geopolitical rampage during Carter’s tenure. Today Russia is partnering with China to check America’s influence in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, the latter the great repository of fossil-fuel reserves. Oil is now up to $80 a barrel, gas prices have doubled in some states, natural gas supplies, especially in Europe, are low, and the president of the most powerful military in history is reduced to begging Middle East petrocrats to increase production. As we saw in the Seventies, growing inflation and rising gas prices are omens of economic and social storms.
Meanwhile, Russia is amassing troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, an ominous harbinger of annexation similar to Putin’s seizure of Crimea, and his occupation of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, and Georgia’s disputed territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He’s also using the energy weapon to intimidate and control Europe’s foreign policy. We should have known long ago that Russia, like Germany in 1919, hasn’t accepted the Free West’s victory in the Cold War, what Putin called “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century.” Flush with increased energy revenues, and supported by China, Putin may calculate that the time is right for recovering Russia’s “near abroad” empire lost in the collapse of the USSR.
For its part, China, emboldened by the public displays of weakness by our president and diplomats, is threatening Taiwan and our other allies like Japan and the Philippines. Its publicly professed aim is to replace the U.S. as the regional hegemon in the South China Sea, and weaken our chain of island allies that comprise a barrier to China’s control of the region’s vital sea-lanes. China’s ambitions have also been empowered by the corporate globalists’ “money doesn’t stink” strategies for colluding with the communist overlords to increase profits. A flashing sign of their amoral worship of the bottom line is the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Our corporate sports plutocrats, with the exception of the Women’s Tennis Association, have no interest in punishing China with a boycott for its brutal treatment of the Uighur minority, or its destruction of Hong Kong’s democracy.
Finally, the current administration’s groveling eagerness to resurrect the feckless Iran nuclear deal has given new life to that country’s fanatically brutal regime. Now we hear that Iran is very close to manufacturing at least one nuclear weapon. When that happens, Israel, which Iran has vowed to “wipe off the map,” will be confronted with an existential decision. Other enemies of Iran in the region will scramble to acquire their own nuclear weapons as well. It’s one thing when liberal democracies ruled by law and accountable to their peoples, like the U.S., France, England, and Israel, possess nuclear weapons. But unaccountable tyrannies like North Korea and potentially Iran dangerously elevate the risk-level. Just one nuclear attack would be the mother of all icebergs.
Again, all these dangers are the consequence of appeasement and a failure of nerve. Most important have been the ossified foreign policy paradigms that shape our strategies and decisions, and that give cover to actions that originate in short-sighted partisan and economic interests. The delusion of a “rules-based international order,” the idea that transnational laws and institutions can keep the peace and protect our security and interests, have camouflaged decisions that originate in one faction’s self-interest.
The World Trade Organization, for example, benefits large corporations with multinational interests. The globalists lobbied for the inclusion of China, with its huge market and opportunities for lucrative investment, into the WTO. Though for twenty years China’s cheating and gaming of the WTO’s rules have been obvious, no one has been interested in holding the CCP to account. Human rights violations like forced labor, torture and organ-harvesting of political prisoners, and the slow-motion genocide of the Uighurs, have drawn a shrug at best, and some feeble diplospeak bereft of any actual consequence other than very selective economic sanctions. The result has been the swift growth of the Chinese iceberg.
Or consider the EU’s volunteering to subject its energy needs to Putin and his geopolitical machinations. The same threat that European NATO members used to berate Donald Trump is now holding the energy trump card Putin can play whenever he needs to. But the Biden administration is doing something similar to the feckless Europeans by waging war on carbon and pushing “renewable” energy like wind and solar. As a result, we’ve gone from energy independence to begging the Saudis to pump more oil––all to gratify the anticapitalist Left’s desire to weaken our economy, even as “clean-energy” grifters rake in billions.
Most important are the dangers that have arisen from changes in our culture and politics. The transformation of both that started in the Sixties has reached critical mass, with illiberal Leftist and progressive ideas and policies on sex identity, race, the economy, and the American social-political order dominating schools, universities, popular culture, media, corporate boards, sports, and entertainment. Tolerance for diverse views, ideas, and opinions has been eroded, riots and looting are used to intimidate political enemies, “cancel culture” destroys lives and careers, and anti-American Orwellian history infects the schools, popular culture, and media.
The aspiring new political-social order, moreover, enshrines unsettled scientific questions–– such as human influence on global warming, the existence of “systemic racism,” or the notion of multiple optional sex identities––as infallible truths to which all must make obeisance or face ostracism and persecution.
These fancies and hallucinations of the cultural Left have been eagerly adopted by the ruling progressive elite, for they create crises to be exploited, and leverage over their political rivals. The technocratic administrative state provides the muscle for these changes, and furthers the long progressive aim of dismantling the Constitutional order of unalienable rights, divided and separated powers, and a federalism that empowers the true diversity of the citizens inhabiting the fifty states. Just like the tyrants who endangered Mytilene, our new technocratic tyrants are driving our ship of state deeper into the perfect storm.
Storms and icebergs are beyond our control. But the dysfunction of our culture and politics are the bitter fruit of bad choices, the passion for power, and selfish interests. Thus our response to this looming catastrophe must be like Alcaeus’ advice to his troubled city:
Let us strengthen the ship’s sides
As fast as we can and hurry into a safe harbor.
Let no weak hesitation take anyone.
For a great contest is clearly before us.
Recall your previous toil.
Today, let every man be dedicated.
And may we never cause shame
To our noble parents who lie beneath the earth.
The greatest historical champion of freedom deserves no less from its people.