US hegemony evaporates at “Warp Speed”

I’m working a few new ideas for big pieces of writing. But then, I remembered how good it felt, back when I was blogging in the aughts, sometimes just to write informal or small things.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of “warp speed”, which is the childish, popular-culture-derived name that Trump has given to his administration’s search for a coronavirus vaccine. The name comes from “Star Trek”, and was used to denote a completely fictional degree of speed for the starships that would be faster than light. I’m not sure how the TV writers who invented the concept came up with the name. Maybe because this speed of travel bent the space-time continuum in some kind of post-Einstein way?

Warping, of course, is what happens to, for example, wood planks that get damp. Or, your sense of morality can get warped (if supposing you have one.) Generally, it connotes something off-kilter.

Plenty of warped things in the White House these days.

Adequate delivery of the vaccine– US-wide and globally– will take however long it takes. (And it may well not be the United States that completes the “discovery” and delivery first.) Meantime, what’s happening at “Warp Speed” is the collapse of the world-girdling system of hegemony that the United States has enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As I wrote here ten days ago. The implications of this collapse have yet to be fully understood–and will anyway be playing out over time.

But throughout the past 9-10 weeks, I’ve been having lots of fin-d’empire thoughts. I grew up in a slowly collapsing empire, in the UK, and came to the United States at age 29. Now, this imperial collapse here– which was presaged by numerous developments, many of which I wrote about in my small 2008 book Re-engage!— has suddenly started happening at, um, warp speed… A speed that seems to bend the time-events continuum in some kind of post-Max Weber way.

I was reminded of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s amazing book Another Day of Life, which is about the 1975 collapse of Portugal’s empire in Africa. I think I first read it when I was in Beirut; its depictions of the civil war in Angola at the time of Portugal’s imperial collapse were very vivid and credible to me. The collapse had been precipitated from the imperial center, from Lisbon itself, where in 1974 there was a pro-democracy military coup led by younger officers who had become deeply disgruntled over having to be conscripted to serve in far-distant and very punishing military campaigns at a time when their European counterparts were enjoying la dolce vita. (Of course, during those colonial wars, vastly greater numbers of indigenous Africans died than did Portuguese soldiers.)

From the perspective of the 350,000 Portuguese settlers in Angola, the collapse of the empire that had settled and succored them came with what must have felt like “warp speed.” Kapuscinski’s book very effectively captured their befuddlement, chaos, and great fears as, stripped of their privilege, their protection, and most of their possessions, they huddled on the quaysides awaiting any boat they could get, to leave.

His writing is as good as I remember it! And now, I gather, there’s even a recent movie made from the book.

To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what lessons or parallels I might find as I delve deeper. But fin d’empire is definitely a thing.