Tuesday, May 04, 2010


Over on the Counterpunch site the insightful military commentator Andrew Bacevich conducts a useful bit of history. In light of Obama’s suggestion (see the immediately preceding Post) in his Commencement Address in Ann Arbor, this is all to the good.

Bacevich’s first point it to observe that the greatest and most dangerous American deficit is in self-awareness. He’s in good company here: the ancient Greeks were strong proponents of it in their best moments: Know Thyself.

In fact, they had worked out a rather comprehensive view of things. Socrates put it well: “Wars, factions, and fighting, have no other origin than this same body and its lusts. ... We must set the soul free from it; we must behold things as they are. And having thus got rid of the foolishness of the body, we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and shall in our own selves have complete knowledge of the Incorruptible which is, I take it, no other than the very truth.”

Human beings, as individuals, must free themselves from false or illusory awareness, which they so often incorrectly deem ‘knowledge’. Rather they must always try to see the world as it is and things as they are.

But to do that humans must see themselves as they really are. Each individual human must accept this urgent and profound task. (Which is something all Citizens should do as well.)

Nor is this simply a matter of training the mind; it is a matter of disciplining the soul. (Which gets you into the whole territory of what Christians came to see as Original Sinfulness – the seemingly universal tendency of humans to deny their own best Ideals and their own best potentials.)

Plato came up with the allegory of the Cave. There are those who are seated in the Cave, facing the back wall; they have been chained there all their lives. A fire is burning behind them and on the back wall of the Cave, which is actually on the wall in front of them, they see shadows of persons and things passing between their backs and the fire itself. There are thus projected on the back wall of the cave the gauzy shadow-shapes cast by the movements in front of the fire.

The chained come to mistake these half-phantasmic forms as ‘real’, being the only type of thing they have ever seen.

One person (nicely called by Plato ‘the philosopher’) manages to get out of his chains and walks toward the fire, thereby coming quickly to realize that what ‘everybody’ has been calling ‘reality’ is nothing but ephemeral shapes; and he sees the real moving persons who have cast those shapes in the first place. Human beings, perhaps carrying objects like stones or blocks of wood or statues … to the chained they all are of equal ‘weight’ and ‘reality’.

The philosopher quickly comes to see that there are humans and there are stones and assorted objects, and even statues that are cast in the human form (or fantastic animal forms) but are not alive (though they are ‘real’ in their own way).

And then imagine that the philosopher is brought outside the Cave into the full light of day and the real world in its fullness.

And then imagine that, in a fit of compassion and the eagerness to share his new knowledge he goes back to his still-chained compatriots and tells them all he has seen … and they try to kill him. It is, after all, easier to kill the messenger than to try to adapt yourself to a new reality (or reality instead of phantasmagoria) after you’ve spent your life getting used to the phantasms. Such is Our species – at the lower end of its range.

Such are the trials of the philosopher – of any human who tries to penetrate more deeply and fully into the truth and reality of self and world.

Bacevich sees America as being historically (if not also congenitally) unable to sustain awareness of human knowledge’s limits and incompleteness, and thus Americans lack the humility, prudence and caution that accompany such a clear sense of limitation.

Which can result in imprudence, overconfidence, haste, impatience, in addition to all the mistakes and bad consequences that flow from whatever actions are taken in such a state of illusion.

And once you’ve started racking up a history of such mistakes, it’s also easier to forget them than to fix yourself, let alone face the frak you’ve caused.

You can accomplish that by the low road: distracting yourself and dulling your senses to the wrack and ruin, turning yourself into – for all practical purposes – what used to be called a ‘moral idiot’ and is now called a ‘sociopath’(although that clinical term leaves out the moral bit – which is unreal, I would say).

Or you can take the high road and believe that what you’ve done was God’s will and so it simply can’t ultimately be a frakkulous mistake. Woodrow Wilson, in 1919, having successfully maneuvered his country into war in order to prove his own greatness and to force the country to grow into its own Noble Destiny (as he saw it), confided that “If I didn’t think I was doing God’s will I’d go mad”. Which is what happens when ‘great things’ and ‘noble secrets’ result in wrack, ruin, and the queasy awareness that the Golden Goal (such as ‘an end to war and militarism’) is still not within reach.

The most recent episode of Showtime’s “The Tudors” rather remarkably has the Duke of Sussex returning to a castle accompanying Henry VIII on a royal visit, only to be confronted in his bedchamber by the ghost of the castle’s previous owner, a nobleman who led a popular resistance against Henry’s suppression of the Church; Suffolk, in order not to lose the love of his King, had led the royal forces and mercilessly put down the resistance, killing men, women and children to make an example and betraying his word to this now-deceased but hardly ‘dead’ gentleman who sits before him. America has learned only to laugh at ghosts in movies; there’s sooo much more to it than that. We have lost communion with the ‘dead’, and especially with those whose death came about on Our authority.

With the Marines back in Marja, in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, Bacevich reminds Us that We have already been there, in the days of Ike: the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had decided that a massive agricultural reform project would be just the thing to domesticate ‘the natives’ and convince them to set down roots. It was working in thousands of American Suburbias, so why not everywhere else?

(Although, as We know now – and were informed in 1963 courtesy of Betty Friedan – each of those Suburbias was a Dachau for women and – courtesy of Alice Miller in 1981 – an Auschwitz for children. You’d think that after such revelations Americans of Left or Right persuasions would want to re-think their too-optimistic assumptions about their latest conceptual fads, but … let it never be said that Americans since 1945 can be legitimately accused of thinking-too-much.)

Not that anybody was trying to ‘liberate’ anybody. It was just that the Pashtuns of Helmand had been reading the papers and traced a line of US blurbing for ‘self determination’ stretching back to 1919 (not so very long ago as memory goes in that part of the world) and throughout the excitements of 1939-1945.

But neither the Afghans nor the Pakistanis – the favored US players on that part of the Board – wanted to see an independent Pashtun state. So the US conceived the idea of distracting the natives with tractors and Tupperware.

Well, tractors and Tupperware and a huge dam – but the Americans didn’t quite do their homework on the local hydrology. And toss in the 15 acres, 2 oxen, and a lifetime supply of free seeds – but the Americans didn’t quite do their homework on the local ancient and deeply rooted culture.

Needless to say, when the Soviets arrived in Afghanistan in 1979 they could still see the skeletal steel and concrete remains of their American predecessors’ failed efforts at politely distracting the natives.

Even though there exists a 1973 US study of the whole misadventure there, citing a “plague” of “cross-cultural misunderstanding and technical miscalculations”, Bacevich figures that the current American foray – something along the lines of ‘armed missionaries’ masquerading as ‘armed social workers’ – isn’t going to do things any better.

Although, come to think of it, the squeaky and decaying pump of the ‘Washington Post’ was conveniently primed with the waterous wisdom that this time the Americans would get the dam and agriculture stuff right. And maybe this whole new kind of ‘war’ too. Gee, that’s swell!

Bacevich acutely lists the core problems – not just the ‘technical challenges’ that no doubt will be reported as ‘largely solved’ in this generation’s version of the Five O’Clock Follies, but rather the profound assumptions as to what ‘reality’ is over there.

Dr. Socrates to Cave One stat! Paging Dr. Socrates!

In a soberingly low-key delivery, Bacevich ticks off the lethal American mis-assumptions:

“a) that the Pashtun way of life is defective; b) that the Pashtuns know this and yearn for something better; c) that United States officials understand where the problems lie and by mobilizing American resources and skill can repair them; d) that in doing so, the United States will both improve the lives of ordinary people and enhance America’s standing in their eyes and in the eyes of many others.”

One is reminded of the fact that Titanic was already doomed in her design stage by the use of hand-driven iron (rather than steel) rivets in vital areas of the hull; by the reduction in height of her watertight bulkheads (to make room for grander staircases); and by the reduction in the number of lifeboats (to make for grander views from the – you’d think aptly called – boat deck).

But of course, if the ship is unsinkable to begin with, then you don’t have to pay attention to the sinkage stuff, do you? Good frakking grief. It’s amazing the Brits built her before We did.

We have yet to see how the countries of the world are going to take this latest form of colonialism: call it the Humanitarian Grandiose variant of the colonialist enterprise.

Bacevich nicely hits the nail on the head. The Beltway Bear is utterly certain of its possession of the One, True and Right Ordering of Things: “secularized modernity”, consisting of a free-market economy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, quality education, and – but of course – ‘gender equality’ (a code term whose precise practical contents and consequences are still not fully known). Toss in, he adds, birth control to keep the birth-rate down.

Looking at his analysis, I am beginning to see a verrrry historical pattern: We are heading into a series of colonial and resource wars (the oil and cash are running out and the industrial capacity is already out-sourced) that the ‘elites’ of both Left and Right can love.

A nation sitting on top of desirable resources – even if it’s just a desirable location (location, location) – needn’t be formally occupied for the sake of ‘oil’. Nor need it have an odious ‘regime’ as did the Iraqis.

It need only be some version of non-secular patriarchal oppression (which, as the feministicals assure Us, includes most of the rest of the world). Such blasphemous (as it were) oppression would immediately justify a mission civilisatrice for the purpose of ‘liberating’ all the oppressed and spreading the enlightenment that only postmodern American culture can bring. The Great Board is back in play, but now for a ‘good’ purpose. Yah.

This was precisely McKinley’s scam when he forced a war on decrepit Spain in order to grab the Philippines (so close to the Open Door of a decrepit China just waiting to be turned into a ‘market’): he would civilize the benighted natives, bring them culture, and stay around and in charge for as long as it took to see the job completed.

Of course, in McKinley’s day America had other things to do than engage in extended foreign wars, and the resultant Filipino (pick one: revolt, insurrection, insurgency, resistance, patriotic war against the invader, terrorism) that lasted four bloody and vicious years was unsought (though in preparing that generation of Americans for their role as world-class ‘players’ it had its uses).

Nowadays, however, a far different and much-diminished America has nothing better to do. So ‘humanitarian liberation’ in the form of spreading that Correct culture that the Beltway’s mission civilisatrice against its own People (namely Us) has achieved (the Beltway would like to think) will now be a secular blessing that will be shared with (read: imposed upon) the cultures of any under-developed country that can’t defend itself and hasn’t got anybody else to stand up for it (like Serbia in 1914, that had the Russia of Nicholas II behind it and thus lustily led the way into World War 1).

But of course, the natives nowadays are no fools (if indeed they ever were). They know that to accept the American ‘partnering’ or ‘liberation’ is now going to mean the deliberate and sustained deconstruction of their culture (and I am not suggesting here that all other cultures are ‘good’ and ‘nice’ or couldn’t use some work).

So they will fight.

And so We will have a fight – many of them, most likely. And they will go on.

Which is pretty much a fine working example of the ‘self-licking ice cream cone’.

But those fights will be furious and bitter. Not because the ‘natives’ are fuddy-duddy ‘backlashers’ but because they know freakish danger when they see it and they will fight for their beliefs and their folkways. Because they know, as the frakkulously imbecile cadres of the Revolutions of the Identities over here did not know and have never learned, a culture is a living thing, and things are connected to each other like the intricate weavings of, say, a finely-woven rug. And if you pull out one thread, or a whole bunch, the thing is soon going to come apart in the winds of Time and Events.

And most ‘natives’ aren’t going to sit still for that.

And We are no longer the Masters of the Universe. Not in the goofy, gap-toothed version embodied in American boys encountering the Cargo Cult natives of the South Seas in World War 2, and not in the gimlet-eyed, lock-and-load, embrace-the-suck sand-troopers of Our current misadventures. (And upon them all be peace.)

We are becoming truly decadent.

Cut loose (officially and among the now-entrenched ‘elites’ anyway) from any Beyond except the American Shinto of the idolatrous, nation-worshipping Fundamentalists, We are now like a Ferris Wheel that is no longer restrained by its struts, drunkenly careening through the Fairgrounds, carrying its passengers (namely Us) with it as it rolls over persons and properties, until at some point it will crash into something big enough to stop it, or it will lose enough momentum so that its own weight will pull it over, carrying its passengers (namely Us) with it.

I’m not sure that in a situation like this ‘optimism’ is the most constructive – or the most mature – approach.

In looking at the Beltway nowadays, I am reminded of the story of the scorpion and the lion. Both need to get across a large and strong river. The scorpion can’t swim and asks the lion for a lift. The lion demurs: your kind bite and you’ll kill me in the middle of the river. To which the scorpion replies: If I did that we’d both drown, and that wouldn’t be very rational, would it? The lion sees the rationality in that and takes the scorpion on his back. In the middle of the stream, the scorpion bites the lion. As he feels his strength ebbing away, the lion says to the scorpion: You’ve killed me and now we’re both going to drown – why did you do it? To which the scorpion replies: Because I’m a scorpion and biting is what I do.

Are We now become a scorpion, with only one thing left that We can do: go out and bethump other peoples for whatever ‘good’ cause happens to come to mind? And grab their stuff? While claiming an authority of a God whom Our elites claim doesn't exist to deconstruct their culture in the name of some 'good' that We are somehow authorized to impose anywhere We can land enough troops?

It didn’t have to be this way. We were set up to be a MODEL of democracy, not its AGENT. We weren’t going to be going abroad all over the planet “in search of monsters to destroy”.

But as America’s place in the world became more torturously complex, its People precisely became less able to govern their government.

And if in the 1890s and in 1916 that war-making was accomplished by Jingoist ‘real’ men and Wilsonian ‘noble’ men, now it’s being done by the cadres of Universal Correctness allied to the neocon Jingoist ‘wannabes’ and the Fundamentalist ‘deputies of God’.

This, really, begins to resemble the freak-show of Medieval ‘politics’ and wars.

It’s time for the shareholders to ask if indeed the clowns haven’t taken over the circus and to decide if itsn't indeed time to step up and step in. This government very much needs to be governed.

I don’t see any other way to save what remains to be saved.

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Blogger James said...

Yes, you are right, we are supposed to be a model not an agent of democracy. John Adams, I believe, once said words to the effect that Christian missionaries should practice being better Christians before then went out to spread the faith.

6:18 PM  
Blogger publion said...

I may have accidentally put this response to James's above onto another Post, so let me put it up here as well.

Nicely put! Once you presume yourself Deputized by God then it’s wayyyyy too easy to let your government indulge itself in the sempiternal predatory governmental vice of masking its engorgements in God’s Will and the ‘benefit’ of its Citizens.

It worked for a while – during the era of mass industrial-age armies of the West when Europeans and Americans could simultaneously overwhelm ‘the natives’ and ‘Christianize’ them (McKinley) or could lustily jump into a war “to end war” (Wilson). But those days are gone (like so much else).

Resistance to Our ‘mission civilisatrice’ is no longer lodged with spears and blowguns and robustly tossed coconut shells, but with weaponry and communications devices and concepts that the West has spread throughout the Third World. And as the Germans discovered twice in a quarter-century, when people choose to resist your invasion and occupation, and are willing to lose their lives to do it, then you aren’t going to have any long-run success (the Brits discovered that here in the later 1700s, by the by).

Americans may do well to watch Warner Brothers marvelous “Casablanca” (1942), and that stunning, tear-bringing scene where the Nazis try singing one of their favorite national songs in Rick’s nightclub and the entire corps or club-goers rise up to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ – only this time … Americans aren’t the club-goers. THIS is what is being done in Our name – and the peoples of the world hold Us responsible.
Take that to prayer. I am presuming no specific answer or response.

7:01 PM  

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