In the latest debate between candidates for the Democratic presidential primary, former Vice President Joe Biden, who only recently lost his front-runner status to Senator Elizabeth Warren, made the following emotional appeal to the audience in his final statement: “We are better positioned than any country in the world to own the 21st century. So for god’s sake, get up. Get up and remember, there is the United States of America. There’s nothing, nothing we’re unable to do when we decide we’re going to do it. Nothing at all. Period.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A rhetorical device that works as the equivalent of a solemn command to deliver a message with the tone of a warning: Stop reflecting and accept what I have just said as definitive and authoritative.
Back in April, Biden had already scripted these closing remarks. In his speech to kick off his primary campaign in Pittsburgh, he declared, “I know we are better positioned in a nation in the world to own the 21st century.” The Daily Devil’s Dictionary commented at the time: “The expression ‘to own something or someone’ means to have absolute influence or control over them.” It expresses an imperial ambition that now encompasses not just territory but also time — in this case, an entire century.
Is this an illustration of the poverty of Biden’s thought and public discourse? Or is it rather a bit of calculated demagogy designed to appeal to Americans’ ingrained sense of the virtue of ownership and the sanctity of property? The notion of ownership constitutes one of the deepest instincts at the core of US culture, as we pointed out recently concerning the question of “owning” pronouns.
The ownership meme may remind some people of the most embarrassing ambiguity in the nation’s history: slavery. The newly created democratic nation not only accepted the idea of owning people but literally banked on it. Slavery provided the foundation of the nation’s initial phase of growth and the key to its prosperity. When Biden claims metaphorically that the US will own the century, he is suggesting that the US will, during the coming century, continue to exercise control over entire populations. This means radically reducing their autonomy and margin of maneuver, much as the plantation owners of the antebellum South controlled the slaves they owned.
To make his point, Biden appeals to another stale cliché: the idea that America as a can-do culture. Instead of sitting around and talking about what to do, Americans get the job done. At the Democratic convention in 2004 that nominated John Kerry to oppose President George W. Bush’s reelection, the candidate promised: “We can do better, and we will. We’re the optimists. For us, this is a country of the future. We’re the can-do people.”
The fact that Kerry failed to beat an already tainted Republican president may not bode well for Biden. On the other hand, at that same convention, another senator gave a keynote speech about hope and change that left a strong impression on the Democrats. Four years later, Barack Obama became their candidate. He sailed to victory in 2008 harnessing the winds of his new slogan, “Yes, we can.” Biden was his vice president for the following eight years.
The can-do theme thus has a mixed record for Democrats, still branded by many Americans as intellectuals and thinkers rather than doers. After President Donald Trump’s mad commitment to getting things done on his own, the can-do theme may now appear to belong to a moribund culture. Americans are no longer sure what they really want to get done.
After his appeal to ownership and can-do culture, Biden added perhaps his most inept rhetorical trope when he closed with a peremptory “Nothing at all. Period.” He meant to sound rousing, but the lasting impression remains negative and possibly a sign of desperation. When he says, “There’s nothing, nothing we’re unable to do when we decide we’re going to do it,” some may be tempted to test the truthfulness of his statement by thinking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Lyndon Johnson’s war half a world away in Vietnam or Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Those decisions were carried out by can-do presidents.
When the leader of the world’s most powerful nation says “we can do” what “we decide we’re going to do,” other nations are likely to believe it’s possible and may even fear it’s true. What that leader’s “we” can’t do is guarantee a positive result. And what that same “we” doesn’t do — as history tells us — is accept accountability for the disasters and suffering many of those decisions bring in their wake.
Most contemporary historians would agree that the US metaphorically “owned” — or at least acted as if it owned — the world’s economy in the second half of the 20th century. The world after 1945 was effectively managed and operated in tandem from Washington and New York (the United Nations). It was fueled by the global currency of the US dollar, whose exchange rate could be adjusted as needed to weaken or strengthen other currencies and control the balance of trade.
The problem with this optimistic view of ownership is that, during that time, the US literally became what is known in legal parlance as an “adverse owner.” The term “adverse possession” describes a de facto control of property due to the inability of the initial owner to contest the exercise of proprietary control by the adverse owner. As political scientist Larry May explains, “the adverse possession must be public in the sense that the adverse owner does not hide the fact that he or she has seized someone else’s parcel of land.” It may not be land alone but, as Biden seems to hint, economic space.
Adverse ownership holds an important place in US political thought. Slavery itself was an extreme form of adverse ownership. The 19th-century conquest of the west in the US was clearly the result of repeated acts to establish adverse ownership. Installing some 800 military bases around the entire globe — the key that enabled the US to “own” the last half of the 20th century — can be seen as a variation on the same theme. When Biden promises ownership of the 21st century, he is certainly thinking of something akin to adverse possession.
Assuming and maintaining that ownership may not be as easy as a 20th-century man like Biden is inclined to believe. Most observers see a decline of the US empire in the coming decades that is likely to be accompanied by either a major shift toward a new hegemony or, at the very least, a multipolar world.
Some see China replacing the US as the dominant adverse owner of the world’s economy, whereas Russia seems to be maneuvering for a position of co-ownership or co-management with China. Different combinations of regional powers are also possible. Speculating about how that may play out turns out to be a futile exercise, given the current volatility of politics practically everywhere other than China. Things get more complicated when considering fundamental factors at play that go well beyond classic politics, such as impending climate disaster.
Despite his insistent rhetoric, Joe Biden doesn’t really seem interested in the future. Instead of inviting Americans to envision a bold future, he commands them to “Get up and remember.” Is this an echo of Trump’s 2016 strategy, when The Donald incited Americans to mobilize their very hazy memories of an undefined time when America was great? Or are both Biden and Trump witnesses to the fact that though America may succeed in holding on to much of its power and influence through increasingly artificial military and financial means, it is unlikely to be “great again,” at least in the sense imagined by those two aging 20th-century personalities?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.