Jonathan Freedland reviewed Tony Judt’s book “Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century” in the October 9, 2008 issue of ‘The New York Review of Books’. It’s a sign of things that I just got around to reading that issue.
It prompts a few thoughts.
Judt observes that JFK handled the Cuban missile crisis “with cool restraint, even though he was surrounded by hotheads”. Among those hotheads, as Andrew Bacevich has limned nicely in the chapter “Elusive Bargain” that he wrote for the compendium he edited, “The Long War: A New History of National Security Policy Since World War Two”, were the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wanted a massive bombing raid followed by an immediate invasion, and would see anything less as being “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich” (cigar-chomping Curtis LeMay, Air Force chief, wunderkind wizard of the B-29 firebombing raids on Japan 18 years before). It would serve ‘progressives’ as well as nationalist-rightist ‘conservatives’ well if they were to read up on this; Judt himself rues the failure of so many to actually ‘remember’ (rather than simply ‘commemorate’) what actually happened back then.
Not simply, I would add, because it’s good form to know history accurately, but rather because a lot of the same dreck is still going on and because far too many of Us are mired in a ‘commemorative patriotism’ rather than a hands-on, tiger-paws performing of Our hugely serious role as The People when it comes to anchoring all these ‘players’ and holding them to some standard of mature, competent, honest performance. Nor am I thereby siding with the ‘Amerika baaad’ Yippie bawling of the 1960s or its gone-to-college reincarnation as the ‘multicultural’ America-baaad of the 1990s.
Bacevich, for that matter, does a powerful and carefully-documented job of showing how the Joint Chiefs, especially since World War Two, have thwarted every Chief Executive when it came to more rationally apportioning Service roles and missions (if they were going to lose budget-share or clout, they were agin’ it), while simultaneously ‘advising’ military action as a first, rather than a last, resort. Truman, Eisenhower, JFK … all the ‘greats’ in the Oval Office found themselves whizzing against the wind when it came to bringing the Pentagoons to heel. Ike – Ike! – had to fire fellow WW2 hero and five-star general Omar Bradley as Army Chief of Staff in the early 1950s. It ain’t pretty – not near as pretty as the post-card ‘history’ most folks have filed away in their head. The Marines, just for example, are presently spending the usual billions on the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, designed as an amphibious assault vehicle that will trundle up the beaches under fire carrying Marines and then operate as baby-tanks – even though there is not a spot on the modern globe where the Corps will be making opposed beach landings in large numbers. The EFV, by the by, is over-budget, over-weight, under-armed, under-armored, and … they’re working on it. The other Services all currently have such ‘projects’ in a similar state of dis-readiness.
Judt opines that the Americans are particularly prone to over-estimating and over-relying on the military option – and ‘war’ – because in neither of the World Wars did they experience the wrack, loss, and devastation incurred by other major nations. Indeed, that very destruction provided the window in which, for a quarter-of-a-century, the US was the pre-eminent industrial and financial power on the planet. A status which lulled many – especially inside the Beltway – into imagining that such a pre-eminence would go on ad infinitum; which turns out not to have been an accurate assessment of things at all. As We just now are finding out – to Our great damage and detriment.
We also “glorify and exalt” the military in a way no other great nation does, for much the same reason. Reagan’s shrewd and telegenic ploy – to raise up ‘the military’ as a foil and counter-example to the mish-mash of cultural consequences that flow from the myriad Revolutions of the Identities – was part of that. Even then, by the early 1980s, when Our industrial and economic capabilities were already noticeably fading. But it made folks ‘feel good’, and what else is politics for? Yah.
Judt “believes the events of 1989 hobbled progressives gravely”. The USSR started to ‘go away’ in that year, culminating two years later in its complete dissolution. Without an ‘enemy’, what large narrative, capable of appealing deeply to a broad base of citizens, do progressives and liberals have? “They have no larger story to tell, no way of sketching the good society they wish to create”. We are seeing that here: the ‘victories’ of this or that Identity and its Advocacy have not proven capable of inspiring more than the dogmatic base of this or that Identity.
And the ‘victory’ of ‘abortion-rights’ has not only failed to inspire deeply and widely, but has actually riven the country – and the Democratic Party – in ways that cannot, if dogmatically approached, ever be healed. I think you could make a good case that the country as a commonality was already shaking itself apart during the 1970s, and when the USSR, which had been serving as a sort of exo-skeletal source of national ‘unity’ and common purpose and meaning, disappeared, then the already all-shook-up country no longer had any external ‘containment’ element that would help it keep its Shape (morally, ethically, and maturationally, as well in terms of its self-conception as a member of a community of nations and in terms of its foreign policy). The combination of implosion and explosion was already evident in the ‘humanitarian’ invasions of the 1990s, but under the catalyst of 9-11 it went ‘supernova’. Thus Our ‘star’ has lasted only two decades longer than that demonic Red Star.
Judt asserts that “to do any good in the new century we must start by telling the truth about the old one”. Well, yes, but as one ancient Greek put it: the truth is a heady wine, and most men cannot take much of it. And on top of that We must factor in the consequences of the Identities’ undying insistence that ‘facts don’t matter’ (at least until ‘our’ version of them have been established ‘on the ground’, at which point no other ‘facts’ and no other ‘truth’ will be tolerated).
With several cohorts of children now having grown up in this country precisely educated into how not to delve independently for ‘truth’ or accurate facts, on top of the perennial human aversion to the strenuous demands of truth-keeping and truth-finding, then this is going to be a job of work – if it isn’t already too late. Holding a quickie seminar on what-to-do-if-you-see-an-iceberg would not have done Titanic’s bridge officers much good as they were standing huddled together at an angle of 20 degrees and the passengers (those not locked below in steerage) were milling about near insufficiently numerous lifeboats already un-launchable. Oy.
It’s a difficult and fragile thing: public motivation. The best route is to establish some broad and deep common consensus as to what meaning and sense of purpose and sense of ordering the common life and weal are enshrined at the heart of the citizenry’s very sense of common – and perhaps individual – meaning. Once you have it, then you don’t want to throw it away; you can make changes, if you are careful and prudent and give things a lot of thought, but you don’t want to go and just rip the whole thing out and figure you can replace it quickly and easily – as if you were Shylock, looking to extract your pound of flesh with no muss or fuss and no adverse consequences to the overall well-being of the extractee. Or as if you were a hugely competent engineer on the Starship ‘Enterprise’, simply pulling out one core ‘energy crystal’ from the engines and replacing it with another one (they even did it without gloves, in the films and on TV).
But if that consensus is gone, then you might simply hope for ‘inertia’: folks are so used to ‘the country’ being there that they simply prefer to assume that it will always be there. Thus, the first rumbling scrape the passengers felt on Titanic didn’t addle them too much: surely a ship this big isn’t going to get into big trouble, and surely the officers of such a superb vessel know enough not to screw things up. Surely. Back to sleep – or the champagne.
But if things start going baaad, then you’ve got to motivate them with a sense of ‘emergency’. There’s a unity in facing a common danger. Or, given the jingo-tendencies of too many folks, in whacking a common ‘enemy’.
And the bigger your emergency, the more urgent your need for an ‘enemy’. Any ‘enemy’, really, since you can’t afford to waste too much time checking to see if the proposed ‘enemy’ is actually – well – an ‘enemy’. In this sort of situation, a nation could be envisioned as going into a death spiral of ‘necessary’ wars simply to give its citizenry something to rally around. Each of the Identities have settled upon an ‘enemy’ over the past few decades of domestic frakkery, and Bush quickly wound up going from Taliban to Iraqis to a multiple Axis of Evil to a Global War on Terror … as things started going south, more enemies were needed – and duly manufactured with the help of a gutless media. Or raised up, like a golden calf, or rather a herd of them.
And if that doesn’t work, if it isn’t enough, then you need to – ummmm – ‘impose’ consensus. And when you get to this point, ‘democratic politics’ becomes – ummmmm – a ‘luxury’ that the country ‘can no longer afford’. But which was ‘quaint’ anyway, and devised by dead white males anyhow, so why keep the oppressive old habit around any longer?
And you can see where things would go from there. Or where things are going. A political agenda that is unable to appeal to the deepest, more-than-material longings of the human spirit of the citizenry is going to wind up imposing itself upon its own populace sooner or later, and the more trouble the nation gets itself into, the more stresses and pressures, then the sooner it will happen. The sooner, you could say, that it would have to happen.
This is the huge danger built into a dogmatic liberalism. I don’t mean a pragmatic liberalism that seeks to effect changes here and there as best might be accomplished without deranging the entire common weal. I mean a dogmatic ‘liberalism’ that seeks to free itself from the constraints of any deliberative judgment – upon itself or its agenda – by refusing to acknowledge, let alone substantively address, the deepest – and thus beyond-material – needs of its citizenry.
As monstrously unlovely as the Fundamentalist Ascendency was, it was a desperate expression of the country’s hunger and thirst – so richly and stubbornly human – of a grounding in some reality or truth beyond the material level of this life. To this the revolutionaries of the Identities – however well-intentioned – could offer no more than could the Marxists. Which explains why the revolutionaries of the Identities have wound up imposing the same sort of agitprop conformity as the Leninists. And why Our democracy, that seemed to be working well enough for all those years since 1797, started to show shocking signs of fundamental dysfunction after 1968 or so.
The revolutionistas of the Identities, the dogmatic liberals who will accept no compromise and will impose their wishes however they can, have failed in both concept and execution. Nor can it be any surprise – and is surely no cause for consolation – that the dogmatic ‘conservatives’ whose existence was catalyzed by their intransigence made the same mistake when they tried to stoke up some war in order to fire up some unity and – a fine two-fer – grab some new sources of income to replace the lost competitiveness and competence and capability that neoliberal economic ‘theory’ had tossed away in an orgy of remunerative (to the elite) outsourcing.
Unsurprisingly, alas, Freedland makes a too-predictable objection to Judt’s thought. Judt, he notes, says that “the US adopted an ‘Israeli-style foreign policy’… similarly [that] he crafts a nice metaphor of Israel as the fifty-eight year-old country that refuses to grow up, suggesting that the Jewish state ‘remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies uniquely) immature’ … but is that immaturity really so curious when one considers that most other Western democracies are, in fact, much, much older?”.
First, I think that the US – meaning the Beltway gang – has indeed adopted an ‘Israeli-style foreign policy’. Having gotten themselves into a situation in 1948 where it was almost guaranteed that their State would be fighting outraged neighbors and resistant natives, the Israeli state immediately declared itself a victim, and a victim so profoundly threatened that it had the moral authority to do ‘whatever it takes’ and ‘anything it takes’ to keep itself in existence, and in possession of a double moral authority since it was also the heir of the six millions of the Holocaust and had thereby had charged itself with the task of preventing another Holocaust, and then proceeded to do whatever it took to hold all those dissonant conceptions together while steadfastly not simply defending ‘a’ homeland but pursuing ‘the’ actual geographical homeland from which the Romans had ejected the Jewish people in A.D. 70 – without actually admitting that this was the real plan and had been from Day One.
The US – prescinding from its incomprehensible subordination of its own interests to those of the Israeli realm – engaged in a similar foreign policy when it pursued a military option, and one condemned by its own agents at the Nuremberg trials, after having been ‘victimized’ by 9-11, and pursued that military adventure with no thought to or constraint from truth or the consideration of consequences, compiling in the process a record of occupation, death-dealing to civilians, and torture … all the while refusing to be detained or constrained by the increasing evidence of the untruth of its purported ‘grounds’ for waging war and committing itself to the same type of ruthlessness evidenced by the forces of the Israeli realm, which itself was much the same type of ruthlessness adopted by the Imperial German Reich in 1914: there aren’t enough of us, there are too many of them and on too many fronts, so we are in such a potentially catastrophic situation that terror and ruthlessness are the only way to keep things going our way. Ach. That did so well for Wilhelm II. And for the sons of his soldiers who found themselves a quarter-of-a-century later in Greece and Poland and the Ukraine.
Secondly, I think that such a method of proceeding is damned well ‘immature’ for any government, morally and spiritually and humanly unripe and indeed bankrupt.
Thirdly, this ‘immaturity’ has nothing to do with chronological age but rather with the unripeness of essential and fundamental humanity and the standards of decency that – however imperfectly – the West has been evolving for half a millennium. The ‘emergency’ has deranged and debauched those who would wield it – a situation hardly unknown in the long, sorry, blood-soaked history of our species.
Fourthly, Freedland speaks of the “Jewish state” where Judt speaks of the “Israeli-type” foreign policy. This is from the Goebbels playbook: making in inference that is not justified in order to bolster your perhaps weak case. The activities mentioned in the paragraphs above would be outrageous if practiced by any modern state, especially one with pretensions to ‘democracy’ and to a place among the morally most evolved states. And that’s how Judt is quoted as dealing with them – referring to the Israeli state and not to the Jewish people or the Jewish religion.
Of course, such outrages perpetrated by a State (and I am not assuming the full compliance of the Israeli citizenry, many of whom are Jewish) that loudly claims so thick a moral mantle actually assume an even more repulsive quality.
This is the reverse conclusion inhering in the Israeli record. They would prefer that they are seen only as the victims of the Holocaust, and thus – they would have us infer – are morally justified and ‘authorized’ to ‘do whatever it takes’. What they do not want anybody mentioning out loud is that so morally justified a state can hardly engage in the type of ruthlessness that – at least among the developed nations – is generally presumed to have been banished through the blood and wrack of the Second World War.
Fifthly, the fact that the Israeli state is indeed – though hardly surprisingly – in a precarious position, and has been from the beginning, should have moved it to develop the most robust and mature diplomacy. Why it chose the primary path of violence instead is a subject far too little explored. It can hardly be impossible that its original founding violence, combined with its ongoing dishonesty as to its actual territorial objectives, constitute a liability so great that they cannot risk sustained, deep, and honest diplomacy.
And the same is the situation in regard to the situation of the US, is it not? The original resort to massive violence and dishonesty, compounded by the ongoing dishonesty as to why American forces should remain in great strength and largely free of the host country’s law, in that part of the world, continue to create their own ‘backlash’ among the hardly-witless diplomats of the region and actually work to undermine any credibility American diplomacy might attain. Which leaves only the military option – which the US had chosen in the first place. And so on.
And it appears, as I mentioned in the most recent Posts, that the US Executive and Legislative Branches – that is to say, Our government, the one that works for Us, theoretically anyway – has subordinated itself to the Israeli game-plan as well as adopted that game-plan as the US modus operandi.
Like Renaissance cardinals Our pols strut and waddle along the Capitoline hill, richly attired and safe from any of the vulgar anxieties that beset the rest of Us, assuring Us that they are endowed by God with special knowledge and wisdom, and reminding Us to pay up … and that there are now troops posted among Us to deal with any un-belief.
This is not Progress, I think.
And if a Reformation is to come, it will not be fun for anybody.