In the late 90’s I shared an office with a Chinese academic who, because of the fact he belonged to a family of scholars going back many generations, was put in a work-camp on the Mongolian border during the Cultural Revolution during most of his adolescence. This was not a happy experience for him and had left deep scars in him. But he still was a Chinese patriot and we would have friendly arguments about Chinese/American conflicts. He expressed doubts that the U.S. would respond to provocations or crises in any muscular way–he saw us as “soft.” I told him that should we ever be attacked the perpetrators would experience a storm of violence beyond their imagining.
I felt, in those days, an underlying sense of frustration and repressed violence that was a result of being the lone superpower in the world yet, we weren’t able to just assert our superiority and, so it appeared to us, not get the proper respect and deference we deserved. I sensed this in American culture. Here we were, the most successful people on earth and we had no national mission like we did when we “fought” and won the Cold War. Capitalism triumphant, prosperity, but what did it mean? Who are we? Why was the most important news story for months a blow job? Neo-conservative intellectuals did write that only a “a new Pearl Harbor” would bring the U.S. out of its lethargy. They made much of our moral decline and need for a unifying enterprise and I think they were right–they saw us as drifting into hedonism and triviality which we were then and still are doing only now much poorer because of the way we reacted to 9/11.