Scholar still straining to be heard

  • Fri Sep 17th, 2010 12:30pm
  • Life

By Tim Rutten Los Angeles Times

”The Empire: America’s Last Best Hope,” by Chalmers Johnson, $25

There’s an unexplored flip side to the Cassandra myth: As you’ll recall, she was the Trojan princess to whom the gods granted the gift of prophecy.

Then, because they were — in the fashion of deities — perverse, they guaranteed that no one ever would believe her visions, which drove her mad.

So, one presumes, some of what she forecast from then on was true and some was a bit unhinged. Homer never gets to the question of how even those who were sympathetically inclined were supposed to tell the difference.

Chalmers Johnson, now 79 and professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, was for many years one of our most distinguished scholars on China and Japan — head of UC Berkeley’s important Center for Chinese Studies and co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute, where he still serves as president.

For some years, he was a consultant on China and Maoism to the Central Intelligence Agency.

More recently, he has turned his focus as an eloquent public intellectual to his dismay over U.S. foreign policy during the post-Cold War period and, particularly, to the dangerous consequences of American interventions in the Islamic world.

“Blowback,” the first in a trilogy on the latter topic, appeared immediately before the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which gave his arguments a special urgency and a Cassandra-like credibility.

His new book, “Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope,” attempts to do the same, retracing a good bit of that trilogy’s familiar ground.

It is itself part of the publisher’s ongoing “American Empire Project,” which takes it as a given that “in an era of unprecedented military strength, leaders of the United States, the global hyperpower, have increasingly embraced imperial ambitions.”

One of the project’s purposes is to “discuss alternatives to this dangerous trend.”

“Dismantling the Empire” is meant to be provocative, but it seems too often like a prophet straining to be heard.