The chimera is a mythical creature depicted in dozens of ancient cultures. It typically is a combination of characteristics of multiple animals, like a scorpion’s tail with a porcupine’s dangerous quills–and maybe bat wings. It could be part eagle, part leopard or a multi-headed beast as described in the Book of Revelations. It might be combination lion and goat or a fire-breathing dragon with a snake’s head at the end of its tail. It might even have tentacles like an octopus. The mythological horse, Pegasus, one of the most widely known mythic creatures, ridden by Bellerephon, battled and defeated a chimera. The Buddhist garuda is a chimera.
The point is, they are all fantastic, dazzling, imaginative and implausible. And scary. They are monsters, wild, contradictory in their visual character and confounding in their implications. Are they wise or dangerous? What is the message they bring with their presence? Do they bring any comfort? Is their sole purpose to comfort the afflicted or–you know, like journalists doing their jobs, afflict the comfortable? Is there any shred of benevolence in them or is their only function to shock and confuse us, to remind us of the depth, complexity and the power of the unseen, the omnipresent and occasionally explosive contradictions humans carry: our capacity for strength, perseverance and nobility, courage and righteousness contrasted with bursts of violence in all its many forms, always carrying a subliminal threat of a poisonous sting, or our capacity for monstrous hypocrisy and fraud?
Since America is turning so many different faces to the world simultaneously, reflecting the conflicts raging within, exhibiting the sharp divisions, the social and economic decline, the descent into warring spasms of rhetorical gas, rising brinksmanship, burning its way through saplings of truth on the forest floor, scorching its way through the previously armored but suddenly vulnerable old-growth giants of science and evidence-based reality, snapping the stinging tail of backlash, transforming social discourse into a cacophony of Babel, America is now a chimera. In America, the chimera is no longer a quiescent aberration, a deep and nagging sense of unfulfilled ideals weighing down every initiative attempting to bring those ideals closer to reality. America has become the chimera to its people, to other nations, to the planet itself. Which of its animistic tendencies and talents will manifest next? Which will dominate and determine not only our own future but the future of the wider world?
Attempting to reconcile its most aggressive and nurturing energies, America’s foundation of democratic ideals, its aspirations toward egalitarianism, its shining successes with its belligerence, hubris, rhetorical duplicity, its blistering and bloody failures, the contrast between forging a new role for governance on behalf of all people versus a zero-sum economic regime tilted entirely toward wealth at the expense of all else, the radical divide has never been deeper or louder or more obvious. The multi-headed beast is tearing itself apart as it is beset with challenges as never before, at moments showing exemplary generosity, at others breathing fire at friends, foes and its own people, struggling to sustain a facade of competence, solvency, invincibility, economic dominance, unity and political relevance.
The term Chimerica was originally coined (unwittingly?) to refer to the mutual economic dependence between China and America in matters of trade and global finance. It was not intended to refer to a monster whose diverse capacities would keep us guessing which of its demonic energies might next be unleashed. While China’s dependence on America may be declining, bringing the Chimerican condition to a close, we’re witnessing an American transformation into a chimeric version of itself which is an increasing threat to the safety of all. Deliberately prolonging the pandemic, guns and gun violence, economic disparity, racism, a barely functioning justice system (whose legitimacy is falling like sand through our fingers), the surveillance state, remote control warfare, and above all, climate misinformation, disinformation and denial—these are the multivariant threats Chimerica has become.
With regard to China itself, the economic, political, territorial and ideological divergence is deepening. The sabres barely remain in their scabbards. I’m not an apologist for China. The regimentation, uniformity and compliance required of Chinese citizens is becoming increasingly intrusive and pervasive. The limits on individuality and free expression are closing in. What China has done to the Uyghurs is a testament that there are no limits to their willingness to destroy divergence.
The strategy, depth and manner of Chinese economic hegemony throughout Asia and in the developing world, their relentless pursuit of their own self-interest regardless of any principle other than to extend and deepen that influence are unprecedented. And at home, for generations now, the Party has instilled an intense nationalism and pride throughout the nation. Picture the way Americans were acting throughout the world not long after WWII, feeling our oats in obnoxious and overbearing displays throughout the world. That’s China now, only more intense, with a more enlightened and strategic vision, careful, but determined to overcome any obstruction.
What I have never heard admitted by any American pundit or historian is a name for what’s happening here. It’s not mere opposition to America per se. It’s de-westernization, a de-linking from the western idea of modernity, from western economic influence, from western finance determining the rules of the game, from western ideas of self-determination (its own form of economic hegemony). While the United States has 700 military bases throughout the world, China has diplomats, technicians, engineers, development banks, consultants and political strategists blanketing Asia, South America & Africa.
China is embedding itself in 1000 different places, building massive infrastructure projects, cleverly currying favor and dependence, and conveying the message that the time of Western determination of the rules is over. Modernity in the image of the West is over. Not that that in itself is a good thing. It’s colonization in a different form. It’s still the Perpetual Growth Imperative, just not defined by Wall Street. Economic hegemony is undergoing a shift from West to East. China is so far ahead of the United States in this regard, it’s making the United States look like its feet are embedded in cement.
The original meaning of Chimerica may be on its death bed. I’m not really suggesting that economic negotiation and mutual dependency are already a thing of the past. But de-coupling is surely underway. De-westernization is taking hold in the world, promoted and financed by China, and among the biggest factors turning America into a multi-headed, multi-species, unpredictable, fire breathing dragon of its own, and getting backed into an economic corner. With all its might, the United States is no longer Pegasus. It’s much more likely to be using Pegasus to spy on you. The hollowness of “We’re number One,” is only going to become increasingly obvious. What happens when something that dangerous feels threatened?
The options are narrowing. There will come a time when China, determining the time, the place and the way it will assert itself, will take steps the US government will regard as aggressive. The United States will be tested. It will talk about safety. It will say the ‘American Way of Life’ is not negotiable or that ‘commitments’ to our ‘friends’ are not negotiable. But in Chimerica, the difference between war and peace is already blurring as industrial espionage, cyber warfare, disinformation campaigns and self serving social media become more intense, amoral and the stakes continue to rise. So also the distinction between safe and unsafe will get so muddy as to become indefinable. The chimera is America’s shadow. Because we are ignoring the world, forgotten our ideals and not lived up to our promise, China is going to bring out the beast in us.