BOOK REVIEW: “The Empty Throne” makes a better argument for not having one

I’ve said before there’s a seductive idea that some more competent version of American hegemony was once in effect and is desirable to return to.

Without meaning to, what Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay book The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership seems to persuasively advocate for is how bad of an idea it is for the United States to have a throne at all when the person in it is as likely as not to wield that leadership destructively.

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BOOK REVIEW: The adults in the room have always been “Reckless”

In the Mel Brooks parody, “Space Balls”, the villainous character Darth Helmet brags to Lonestarr, the protagonist, that, “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”

This trope appears in fiction often, and some writers rely on it almost entirely.

The medievalist historian and culture critic Steven Atwell has observed that one of the central differences between George R.R. Martin’s worldview in the fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire and that of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in the HBO adaption Game of Thrones is that Martin will stack the cosmic deck against his “good” characters to give them more adversity while D&D treat nobility itself as a handicap, where evil is synonymous with competence, cunning, with a willingness to make the hard and necessary choices.

The early 21st-century genre of “prestige television” with its white male anti-heroes is predicated largely on this worldview, from Vic Mackey in The Shield to Frank Underwood in House of Cards, but it continues today and goes back to Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and beyond.

In contemporary reality, though, we have a president and administration that is an ever-overlapping Venn Diagram of racists, incompetents, and grifters rapidly approaching a perfect circle with every new cabinet departure and replacement.

Recently, that administration announced that Vietnam War refugees who’ve been living in the United States for 40 years or more are now subject to deportation. We can and should condemn that as yet another example of ethnic cleansing that it is. It’s the sort of behavior that’s cartoonishly evil except for that it’s actually happening and hurting real people.

That we are currently ruled by schmucks does not make their sadism less painful.

At the same time, there is a syrupy-sweet voice talking from the corners of New York Times opinion columns and conservative “former Republican luminaries” that suggests that everything could go back to normal if we just had the adults back in charge, that if people were a bit more civil and subtle as they went about pursuing policies that irreparably harmed marginalized people, and if they didn’t tweet rude, misspelt things, we’d all be OK.

Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam by Robert K. Brigham is a great corrective on that impulse.

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Sometimes delaying the inevitable makes the pain worse

I saw an article the other day about tapes from the Lyndon Johnson presidency being released.

Vice president Hubert Humphrey and GOP nominee Richard Nixon were in the middle of a rough presidential race when word came to Johnson that the Nixon campaign was sabotaging Vietnam peace talks. Nixon representatives promised leaders in South Vietnam that he’d deliver them a better deal if they stayed in Saigon until after the U.S. election. Call it Nixon’s “other” Southern strategy.

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