Andrew Bacevich is a retired colonel and now Professor who has written knowledgeably and soberly of the events of the past six years. He lost his son in Iraq a couple of weeks ago. He published an Op-Ed in ‘the Washington Post’ yesterday, Memorial Day (“I Lost My Son To A War I Oppose”, www.truthout.org/docs_2006/052807Z.shtml).
He mentions that among the many emails of condolence he received, he also received a strain of message to the effect that 1st Lt. Bacevich’s death was the result of the Professor’s giving aid and comfort to the enemy by writing against the war.
It’s revolting, and a clarion alarm, this strain of ‘thought’. I believe that it is a classic example of what Al Gore rightly (but too gently) observes is the “strangeness of our public discourse” nowadays.
People for whom such quality of ‘thoughts’ constitute the sum total of their mental and emotional ‘content’ will always be with us. In the pre-Internet days you sort of knew they were out there, maybe living down South – a lot of them – but they never really made it out into the wider world. Richard Hofstadter studied that part of the noxious berg that jutted up into the fresh air, writing of the paranoia in its politics. But with the exception of the John Birch bunch, they mostly stayed in seedy bars and brayed at each other, and decent folk didn’t need to give them much more thought.
But the Internet has come and ‘decency’ has gone – jettisoned by the Democrats in their frenzied effort to pander to fresh voting-blocs of newly-revolted Identities. And the Roveian Republicans surfed the former into the vacuum created by the demise of the latter. And thus these whackjobs who wrote to Professor Bacevich have a wire that now runs from their treehouses and bars out into the wider world.
The thinking surpasses sophomoric and approaches the moronic: if the loss of a child on military duty proves that one has given aid and comfort to the enemy, then all the other gold-star parents must also be giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It should have occurred to the emailers, but it didn’t.
They have been raised in the same school of ‘thought’ made nationally popular by the likes of Bible Bhagwans such as Gerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. We recall Their Worships observing that a hurricane in New Orleans or Miami is punishment for AIDS or ‘libbulism’, yet Their Plenitudes have absolutely nothing theological to contribute when series after series of twisters go through the reputedly God-fearing, patriotic Bible Belt states like angels of the Apocalypse.
This is the fundamentalistic view of history: you take an event and work backwards through the actions of your congregation to connect it ultimately up to (your idea of) God. In this approach to History and to events, the irrational results and conclusions that will issue if your ‘example’ is applied to other similar situations are irrelevant; the idea isn't to accurately understand the workings of the world - the idea is simply to move your particular bunch of hearers to ‘God’ at this particular moment; it’s preaching, not studying. Studying isn’t the point; acceptingjeezuzzasyourpersonalsavior is the point. And it’s the only point.
It doesn’t take much thought to realize that this approach, taken off the dusty backroads and put on the interstate of national and international affairs with lights, sirens, weaponry, and the authority of the Federal government is not going to make things any better in this darkling world.
But it’s not simply that the emailers’ type of thought is ‘preaching’ more than ‘thinking’. What thinking is actually in it is an immature form of thinking. It’s something you expect from kids; ‘sophomoric’. There was a time when ‘sophomoric’ thinking was more largely confined to … well, sophomores. And nobody was too worried about it: part of being a kid is that your brain isn’t fully developed, that you don’t always think clearly and don’t have a well-catalogued library of experiences to help clarify and temper your thought, and that one day you’ll likely grow up, helped by the formative influence of the adult world all around you.
But then American society became youth-besotted: the country was flooded with kids (the Boomers).
Then the advertisers realized that a) these kids actually had lots of cash and b) sophomoric thinkers make much more desirable consumers.
Then Vietnam got so many folks so frustrated that the charming but illogical conclusions were drawn: If you’re old enough to die for the country then you’re old enough to vote (and drink). No. It doesn’t take too much brainwork to get killed; indeed, very few soldiers induce their death in combat by ‘thinking’. It takes a hell of a lot of brainwork to perform your duties as a citizen, as an adult, and as a member of that awesome guild known as The People.
Then the Advocacies realized that ‘kids’ make far better cadres then adults; they’re more easily worked up, swayed, and they don’t consider ‘thinking’ to be anything but an obstruction to the excitement and overriding challenge of achieving true (fill in the blank). Probably for that reason kids make the most desirable revolutionaries as well as the most desirable enfanterie.
And the Dems were pandering to the Advocacies in hope of replacing all the ‘negroes’ who somehow turned against them precisely at the moment when the Dems had sacrificed their southern voters by passing the Civil Rights Act of ’65. And then it occurred to the Dems that kids and their ‘take’ on things were a potential voting-bloc themselves (hell, wasn’t JFK a kid, at least compared to Ike and Nixon?).
So the type of thought that was usually a cross-to-be-borne only by school-teachers now became the national Style. Adulthood and ‘maturity’ went over the side, along with the afore-mentioned ‘decency’ and all those other fuddy-duddy Capital Letter Words (Virtue, Excellence, God) that were suddenly discovered to have been nothing but the machinery of the oppressors introduced into a pure world only at the onset of the ‘age of patriarchy’ (Said ‘age’ was conveniently calculated to have begun sometime around the dawn of civilization and of recorded history; the logical possibility that dismantling the ‘machinery’ might damage the ‘product’ – i.e. civilization – was not considered appropriate discourse for enlightened minds, for those who did ‘get it’).
The ‘emotionalism’ once stereotypically ascribed to ‘women’ is most certainly a diagnostic hallmark of youth and of immaturity, and the assorted illogics of sophomoric thought fused with a too-quick recourse to passion rather than thought, as befits a brain and nervous system not yet fully formed. It was no longer a matter of thinking, especially of thinking ‘critically’; ‘criticizing’ was a form of ‘judging’, and in the face of the horrible injustice of (fill in the blank) the only proper response was instant outrage and total embrace of the ‘victim’. Anything less and folks might get to thinking you were a (fill in the blank) yourself.
And then the whole mess spread into the vacuum of the 1970s until it merged with the superheated enthusiasms of an explosively surging Fundamentalism, which erected sophomoric thought and volatile passion into a religion and then tainted it with suspicion – of strangers, of omnipresent and (functionally) omnipotent evil, of thought itself.
But just so: these emailers aren’t just illogical and too quick-on-the-draw in the manner of actual youngsters. They are also tainted with a vicious bitterness that can only stem from somebody older who – on some hidden interior level – knows that while the body has aged, the mind and spirit have not matured. And regardless of all the fundamentalistic hoohah that ‘maturity’ is for sissies and that all you really need is ‘loyalty’ to Jeezzzuzzz … despite that boisterous encouragement, the individual is slowly poisoned, turned into stone, turned perhaps into a vampire, by the unsleeping acid awareness that s/he has not ripened, though Time is remorselessly draining away life and years.
And then along came Falwell and Robertson and Atwater and Rove and all their ilk, who realized that this tortured lumpenvolk – especially thanks to the equally antirational antics of the Left of the ‘60s and ‘70s – could be forged into ‘a base’ for political power.
And thus Our politics was debased; because We as The People were debased.
And Our poltical class was thus debased. Aware of the ominous changes (and the Dems knew that they had somehow invited these changes over the thresh-hold in that dark midnight of fear that they would lose their reliable voters), the pols quickly sensed its impact on their world: it wasn’t worth it taking a strong, well-thought out and reasonable and informed position, because a) you weren’t going to be able to keep enough of everybody ‘happy’, b) you weren’t going to be able to explain your position reasonably to voters and hope to ‘persuade’ the doubters through deliberation and discourse; so c) you’d better just learn not to rile the herd or any particular sub-bloc of the herd, do what it takes to keep yourself in the saddle, and hope God’s invisible hand would somehow steer the whole cattle-drive to some safe and happy destination.
And doing what it took to keep yourself in power meant finding reliably secure sources of funding (corporations, rich folks) while pandering to whatever squalling sub-bloc manufactured an ‘incident’ or an ‘issue’ upon which you might emit a satisfactory sound-bite or two. Of course, it would help if folks didn’t recall too much down the road, on the off-chance that humoring the next squalling sub-bloc meant reversing what you’d said a while back. But children are notorious for ignoring the Past, over-estimating the Future, and pretty much going through the Present like a bull in a china shop. But that’s what kids do.
It is not however what a People should do. Or the government that They endow with Their authority.
But that – I would say – is what constitutes the “strangeness of our public discourse”. I’m a little tougher on the Dems than Al Gore is in his new book, but I suppose he can’t go and piss everybody off at once. This mess We are now in has been a long time in the making; more than just the last six years or the Regime of the Twelve Years recently dented by the elections last November. We are ‘strange’ because We are basically conducting the affairs of a world power on the level of sophomores or – seriously – 7th graders.
Now this is worse than the Soviets. Back in the '60s and '70s the USSR was referred to among professional diplomats as "Upper Volta with rockets". That is, a primitive and backward, hugely underdeveloped society and culture, that happens to have an unsettling array of rocketized thermonuclear weaponry. And indeed, that's what Soviet culture and the society it formed turned out to be.
But what then is the U.S. now? The Seventh-Grade with rockets? You can make a very good case for it. And it would mean that We have actually lost ground. The anti-adultness and anti-Truth emphasis rampant among Us - especially for the past 40 years, when so much of that was imposed under the guise of 'liberation' and enlightenment - has caused Us to become an immature and untruthful society (which is not a bad opening description of the Bushist Project and Bush himself, by odd coincidence). Not that anybody plans to not-grow-up; not that anybody plans to tell lies simply for the fun of being evil (quite the opposite - the first lie is to convince yourself that the untruth you're about to tell is 'actually' the truth). A huge public lie told in order to alleviate the 'suffering' of this or that 'victim' is as toxic to the ethos of Democracy and of the Republic as a huge public lie told in order to further pre-emptive, aggressive, imperial war. That's why the Democrats are now revealing themselves to be as unreliable as the Republicans (as Cindy Sheehan has realized). Nobody should be surprised.
And yet We have unleashed the most advanced accumulation of military power the planet has ever seen. And We have sent into the maw of Great Things, and of War, so many of Our own young, upon Our authority, drawing upon their goodwill and their trust in Us, their trust that We the People would not lightly spend their blood and the treasure of their life’s possibilities. But We have.
We have because the above-noted emailers more accurately represent the status of Our public discourse.
We most surely must hold Ourselves to account.
I spent Memorial Day afternoon – 3 hours of it – walking meditatively through one of the ‘parklike’ cemeteries, several centuries old, that lies nearby here. With my CD player. Among other pieces, I played Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei”, in which he puts the words of the venerable Catholic prayer “Agnus Dei” to the haunting music of his “Adagio”. I thought of young 1st Lt. Bacevich – no, I ‘opened a channel to him’, if you don’t like the fuddy-duddy formulation (thought up by ‘them Kathliks’) that the Living are in vital communion with the so-called Dead. And in the presence of all those veterans lying there in the military section, many of whom saw their last sunrise wearing a blue uniform or even a blue-and-buff uniform, I rededicated myself to the great task remaining before Us.
Nor is it enough to say that We must ensure that 1st Lt. Bacevich and his colleagues-in-death did not die in vain. We are too far gone to simply bid him and them farewell. We, fellow citizens, need all the help We can get. He, like Vachel Lindsay’s Lincoln, “cannot sleep upon his hillside now.”
Nor, damn it, can We. “Men of Harlech, lie ye dreaming … ?”