HOW HERE AND WHAT NOW
The Right blames the Left, the Left blames the Right. Few want to admit that the New Left’s National Nanny State and the New Right’s National Security State have both been working hard to get Us here.
The New Left – born in the late 1960s – demanded the Beltway terraforming of American society and culture, luring whatever was left of ‘liberalism’ among the politicians into the revolutionary Content and Method that had always been lurking in the elite heart of American Progressivism. There was a great Outrage (or many) that demanded immediate government intervention in order to ensure ‘rights’ – no deliberation, no thinking-through, no thought as to consequences or workability … just an emotion-laden, government-heavy overturning of everything traditional or common-sensical in order to put in its place the demands and agendas of this, that and the other ‘rights revolution’. The crazy and poisonous political agitations of the later 1960s generated more than enough hot-air (or steam) to blast a path through the restraining walls of careful thought and deliberation. The pols scented votes – what was not to like?
The New Right – reaching its apotheosis in the necons – watched the massive erosion of maturity and rationality effected by the New Left in the late 1960s and the 1970s, and considered the possibilities for themselves that might open up as a result. If the New Left could get so much done with emotional demands that brushed aside fact and reason, why couldn’t the New Right surf the same type of waves?
When emotion trumps fact or reason, then the ‘victim’ and his/her ‘story’ somehow participates in the same dynamic that drives the beer-swilling patriot waving a plastic flag and pledging allegiance to Rambo.
The New Left scripted a national melodrama where the Beltway would be the cavalry, this and that and the other oppressed group would be the settlers, and the Injuns would be … the vast, ballasting, productive Middle of American society and culture: the working and middle (or lower-middle, you’d have to say today) classes. And all their pomps and all their works.
It’s a frightening thing to contemplate – and even more frightening to realize that it went most un-noticed (or at least unspoken) for decades, but somehow in the 1970s world history was given the stunning example of a government – in a democratic Republic – literally turning on its own core population and attacking its values, traditions, ethos, and culture. Which were also the values, traditions, ethos, and culture that had sustained the nation not only in terms of historical time but also in its capacity to produce goods and support itself. (See Fred Siegel’s excellent article here for a look at how this played out in New York City, as a microcosm of the nation.)
Yes, there is much to be said for reworking arrangements which lay too much of a load on a marginalized sector or group in society. Justice demands it.
In fact, you can make an excellent case for the possibility that the Beltway – especially the New Left at the beginning – literally set out to ‘redistribute’ assets NOT from the workers to the rich (the New Right would work that angle) BUT RATHER from the independent working and lower-middle classes to a new client class of ‘paralyzed poor’ who would become – as in ancient Rome – indentured clients of their ‘elite’, ‘knowledge class’ Democratic patrons. Nor was this a matter of ‘justice’ or ‘rights’, but an out-and-out political assault-on and theft-from one class in order to bankroll a more politically useful class. The cynicism is awe-inspiring. But you can’t just go galloping in with a government cavalry-charge of imposition and achieve that. Especially when little substantive thought has been given to just what should be done and just what can actually be workably done (the two are not the same).
But the New Left somehow convinced the Beltway pols that all the 1940s and 1950s European social thinkers who tried to draw lessons from their experiences of Fascism, Nazism, and the most stubbornly brutal of the old European colonial regimes … that all of them had some vital and precisely accurate relevance for America as a culture and a polity.
The unspoken assumption – the unstated middle of the case – was that the America of the 1950s was for all practical purposes a Fascist, Nazi, colonialist oppressor State and Culture. So much so that nothing less than a thorough dismantling of it (especially insofar as it was white, male or male-friendly, and working-class that subscribed to conformist bourgeois values and lifeways) would be acceptable.
Or perhaps the American culture, polity, and people were just dull, boring, conformist, and so stupid that they ‘just didn’t get it’. The ‘it’ in this case being as vaguely and fuzzily defined as it was in the days of Clara Bow – “the Original It Girl” – whose early 1920s film career as one of the first ‘stars’ had far too many Americans worrying about how to get ‘It’ or beating themselves up for not having ‘It’. (If life was tough enough keeping up with the Joneses next door, how on earth were you going to succeed in keeping up with Gable or Harlow or Garland or Dean or any other celluloid phantasm?)
But somehow – I think it is becoming clear these days – the ethos of the working and lower-middle classes was somehow a backbone to the culture and to the society. And the idea of not only replacing the backbone but literally ridiculing it and attacking it has to be considered as highly fraught if not also greatly ill-advised. Have you ever heard of ‘full skeletal replacement’ surgery? There’s a reason why-not .
And how many cohorts of Americans have now been raised without ever hearing – from media, elite, or government figures – the phrase “the dignity of labor”, so weighted with the history and character that built the country and sustained it for so long?
I think it’s relevant here to imagine the challenge set to a ‘too-modern’ society, if it might be put that way. To use the imagery of the sea: in the days of the sailing ship, it was clear to all that each of the crew had to be knowledgeable and competent in the art and tasks of handling vital sailing tasks: you were never far away from the power of the sea on a sailing vessel; you could never forget or form any cuddly illusions about the power of the sea.
As ships actually began not simply to take along assorted passengers, but actually were built for the task of transporting passengers – the first ocean ‘liners’ in the mid-19th century – there were simultaneously crewmembers assigned solely to serve the passengers, plus passengers whose interest and purpose was simply in getting to their destination. Neither of these categories necessarily knew enough – or had cause to think – about the power and lethality of the sea and the complexities and vagaries of the wind and weather.
As the liners became more mechanized – steel, engine-driven mini-cities or floating hotels – far more of the crew were either actually assigned to serving passengers or were mechanics who labored in the deep places within the steel hulls and knew little about sailing or the sea.
With the arrival of Hollywood films – especially as they developed in the ‘30s and beyond – large swaths of the population began to imagine, or perhaps pre-consciously presume, that life should resemble the scenes they saw on the giant screen. Forgetting that the scenes they saw on the screen were the result of highly-controlled, strictly-choreographed filming, often on sound stages, that reflected a level of highly developed and enforced directorial control over the ‘life’ that was unfolding on the screen that did not in any way resemble the far less controlled (or controllable) challenges of real life. People began to live life more by (again, without thinking about it) imitating what they had seen on the screen rather than having to more directly and robustly apply themselves to the challenges of developing a self and conducting a life directly, in a ‘hands-on’ mode.
And they began (without thinking about it) expecting life to behave the way they saw it on the screens. Yet what was on the screen was the result of a draconian hierarchical organization presided over by a director and organized by large production crews down to the minutest detail. This dynamic could not have good consequences for a healthy, competent, Citizen Republic and for democracy.
People began to approach life more through a deep and subtle form of imitation with expectations that things would work out for them as the ‘star’ of their life-script the way things worked out ‘in the movies’.
And on the sea, people imagined they were merely on a moving hotel when they boarded a vessel; and more and more of the crew were dedicated to being ‘hotel staff’ rather than sailors facing the sea. This became clear as early as the Titanic debacle: sure that so marvelous a vessel would never sink, the passengers were shocked to discover that few of the crew were actually competent in handling the life-boats and literally ‘sailing’ them free of the great sinking vessel.
The ‘Disneyworld’ view of life is similar: few people realize precisely how much control – meticulously planned and robustly if smilingly enforced – is required to provide that experience of ‘authentic reproduction’ that actually fools too many folks into forgetting that the Disneyworld-experience is not so much an ‘authentic reproduction’ of the way life could (or should) be, but is rather merely an imaginary and highly-structured fantasy and illusion.
There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but only if the illusion is recognized for what it is. When the illusion is mistaken for reality itself, then the ‘illusioned’ are operating on a hugely inaccurate presumption about life and even about conducting a life and building a self and sustaining a social community and a political common-weal.
Blend this predisposition with the ‘revolutionary’ eagerness to concentrate more on the ‘vision’ one wants to see actualized than on the reality one must necessarily manhandle into ‘change’ … and you wind up with a lethal mix of fake reality and outright fantasy, and an increasing public incompetence in dealing with reality or even in distinguishing reality from non-reality and fantasy and illusion..
In the later 1960s this entire toxic brew was quaffed by far too many, driven even more urgently by the Boomery callowness of youth who had grown up in what We now know was a highly-unusual and actually quite fragile Age of American Dominance and Abundance (1945-1970, more or less).
The whole shebang drove ‘radicals’ and citizens alike, and thus legislators as well. The more stolid and prudent working-class and lower-middle class awareness of the true challenge required to sustain self, life, and family in this Vale of Tears were kicked to the curb as being outmoded, unnecessary, and oppressively depressing and ‘dark’ and ‘negative’ and ‘downbeat’.And the country descended into an orgy of simultaneously ‘change’ and ‘fantasy’ (recall the decades-old American political mantra of ‘the Dream’) that had now become disconnected from any ballasting awareness of the genuine challenge and fragility of living as an individual or a community or polity. It was ‘Wheeeeeeeee!’ all the time, whether brayed insistently by radical reformers, or cheeribly burbled by happy-faced gurus.
Any voice calling for caution and prudence so as not to overturn the craft altogether was dismissed as ‘backlash’ and fuddy-duddy ‘fear of change’.
And this was true of the New Right as well as the New Left. And it exercised its lethal pull in matters economic and military as well as in matters cultural and domestic.
At any rate, the Beltway – led by the Dems in the beginning – bought into the ideas that A) you could use revolutionary Method to achieve Good by imposing it through government hyper-activity and B) you could saw off the old ‘head’ of the culture, society and polity, and install the new Correct ‘head’, without the entire organism starting to go into de-fib. And while you were at it, might as well scoop out the old ‘heart’ and impose the new Correct one – again, all so quickly and cleanly and surgically accomplished that there would be no ill consequences to the living entity stretched out under the surgical knife of your governmental authority (and purse-strings) .
It is only nowadays, I think, that the Beltway can be seen as some variant of the old Crazy-Professor or Crazy-Doctor script (shades of the 1950s!) or perhaps old Doktor Baron von Frankenstein himself: assemble all the demands, stitch them together, juice’em up with electrical jolts of cash, and turn the critter loose to build a new and better Transylvania. Ja!
Nowadays, even the best and most honest of ‘liberal’ commentators cawn’t think why ‘liberalism’ has failed (let alone ‘progressivism’ and ‘radicalism’). But they are happy to presume it was the fault of the New, neocon Right.
And they’d be right in some large ways. The neocons didn’t make the witless New Left assumption that you could gut the heart, mind, and brawn of a Producing culture and offshore your production and still maintain a working economy. (Have you heard any gushy good news about the Knowledge and Service economy recently?) They didn’t imagine that you could kill the Goose and still rely on a steady supply of Golden Eggs for your Greater-and-Better-Transylvania plans.
Rather, the neocon New Right made the witless assumption that you could continue to pour whatever Golden Eggs remained mostly into military production and – eventually – military adventures (and mis-adventures) and yet not wind up bankrupting the country by wrecking its balance of trade. (War, alas, is not really classifiable as a form of ‘trade’, but as you go deeper into debt you need other countries to buy your dollars and bonds in order for you to keep subsidizing your military that is then going to go out and get into those other countries’ business … you might see the ultimate un-workability of this game-plan. See here for an extended explanation.)
So We had witless assumptions being made by both New Left and New Right (the old Democrat and Republican monikers mean nothing any longer, nor do ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ as applied to those Parties). And both sets of assumptions required an invasive and impositional government (either as Nanny State or as Security State). And both sets took no account of the possibility that the Great Victor of 1945 would ever cease to be the Number One economy in the world.
And when in the early 1970s it became very clear that something was going wrong with the economic capability of the Great Victor, each side blamed the other (a sense of entitlement or a sense of military adventurism were wrecking the economy – but nobody with ‘access’ wanted to say that BOTH were). Then in the 1980s Reagan deregulated a whole lotta stuff and borrowed a whole lot from other countries, and suddenly New Left and New Right realized that the Golden Egg supply was getting verrrry iffy, and thus both had to let the famous F.I.R.E sector (finance, insurance, real estate) call the shots in the hopes that somehow ‘the money professionals’ would know how to keep the Eggs coming.
In the 1990s the Dems were the ones who tried to pander to their feminist demographic by agreeing that the nasty, brutish, swinish, masculine ‘industrial productivity’ culture could be given the coup-de-grace by allowing corporations to offshore manufacturing jobs; the sooner the masculine culture was gone the better and the Beltway pols would through their PACs get a cut of the proceeds of all the sales. And the Knowledge-and-Service culture would keep the country going as the Great New Transylvania was established.
Such a deal! Such wisdom. Such foresight.
Then came 9-11. Somehow, almost as if the thought had long ago occurred to them, the Beltway Biggies went after Iraq (although so many of the perps were Saudis) and Afghanistan (where no Western power has ever won, going back to Alexander the Great). Bin Laden had hoped to lure the US into overreactions that would eventually bankrupt it – thus ending its ability to impose itself, as he saw it, into the rest of the world’s affairs.
His strategy recalled – weirdly enough – Jimmy Doolittle’s April 1942 bombing of Tokyo, which although it caused only limited damage in the larger view of things, so infuriated and embarrassed the Japanese military that they planned what turned out to be the Battle of Midway (where, in the space of 5 minutes on an early June afternoon in 1942, 12 iron bombs dropped on 3 major Japanese fleet carriers instantly overturned the strategic balance of the entire Pacific war - a 4th carrier was wrecked shortly thereafter; if you want more to contemplate, the 4 Japanese carriers were all in on the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December, and the US planes that destroyed them flew from the very US carriers that had been at sea that December morning and escaped destruction).
And the US responded in fury – so it is widely imagined – by going after Iraq and Afghanistan, and overextending itself lethally.
Here it is claimed that We are merely performing a ‘humanitarian service’. This is the position of Samantha Power, a feisty red-headed, Irish born feminist poster-person who loves baseball. Extending into foreign affairs the classic tropes of American radical feminism, she insists that the government “can’t just do nothing” when there is ‘oppression’ in the world; and she means “gross human rights violations even if they don’t meet the definition of genocide”. [italics mine]
Which means that whatever government decides to define as “gross’ needn’t even prove ‘genocide’, but rather the government can go ahead and ‘just do it’, going after another sovereign nation with planes, drones, bombs, or whatever else comes to hand.*
As was the case with so many feministical demands for government action in American domestic politics, this approach – while ‘sensitive’ and surely emotional – cares not a bit for any larger consequences. Just as demands for draconian domestic violence and sex-offense laws cared not a hoot for the integrity and coherence of Western justice procedures developed over long centuries, so too Power’s approach gives not a thought to the fact that the entire Westphalian concept of sovereignty, upon which world diplomacy has been based ever since, and surely since the erection of the UN in 1945, is thereby undermined at a stroke: any government that decides it is seeing “gross human rights violations” (however those rights are defined) can invade.
Does the same apply to the US if some country decides it sees such violations in the US? Or is that thinking too much?
She attributes any doubts about her insistent demands for intervention to political calculation and fear of “doing the right thing” (that is to say, fear of doing what she wants done and which she is already sure is the right thing).
She figures that if there’s a problem around the world breakfast table, then the US Nanny should not hesitate a moment to mete out whatever ‘justice’ is requires. After all, what’s a government and a military for if not to assuage ‘pain’? (She hasn’t apparently considered the possibility of the invaded nation fighting back, or of civilian casualties incurred either by accident or because the locals want to repel the invaders.)
Anyhoo, what ‘gross civil rights violations’ suddenly arose to attract her concern seem to do with the Libyan government sending Viagra-crazed troops among the populace to commit - waittttt forrrrr itttttt! – sex offenses.
It stuns – really – to watch this sort of thing without the rose-colored glasses either of the New Left (pain is being assuaged!) or the New Right (another bum bites the democratic dust!).
It also makes you wonder: once upon a time the idea of females achieving power in government was considered inadvisable because – as the thinking went back then – they were prone to irrationality and emotionalism, which are the sort of things you really can’t let loose in the dangerous world of government-to-government affairs, especially where shooting war and lots of death are possible outcomes.
Well, things have come this far and here We have a National Security Advisor whose overall philosophy is that consequences don’t matter and that you shouldn’t think too much about big stuff and you should instead just go ahead and do it if you really believe that you ‘get it’.
It seems rather emotional, and in its refusal to consider wider and deeper and large possible consequences it seems irrational. It may seem un-gallant to notice it, but there it is.
But as genuinely bizarre as this self-determined authority to wage ‘humanitarian intervention’ is, it’s not my main concern here.
I’m thinking that Power and her whole philosophy and the advocacies that espouse it are just ‘useful idiots’ (to borrow a phrase from radical-feminism’s great-grand-uncle, the late V.I. Lenin). They serve as a pretext for a far deeper and far more serious set of objectives.
I want to propose this: that serious Beltway thinkers, in both the Executive and Legislative Branches, have known for quite some time (since Reagan’s era at least) that this country was no longer going to be able to maintain its economic primacy (perhaps even viability) on the basis of its own Productivity.
And that therefore, at some point, sooner or later, the US government was going to have to Go Out and Grab other people’s stuff in order to control fresh resources and – as the dynamic crest of history passed to other nations and other parts of the world – to keep a place at the Great Game’s Table.
So long as the USSR stayed in business, the world’s nations could be held to the script that had been set in the mid-1940s with the Cold War: support the US totally or become a slave of the Soviets. But as soon as the Soviets (and all their military power and threat) went away in 1991, the nations of the world began to realize that without the Soviet threat they didn’t need to kowtow to the American ‘protector’ and ‘leader of the free world’ – after all if the Soviet slave world dissolved, then the ‘free world’ of the Western, NATO, US-led alliance also faded (sort of like when in Tolkien the evil Great Ring of power was destroyed, the subordinate Good Rings also lost their power).
Within a decade, in one of the most stunning sequences of comprehensive official failure this country has ever experienced, 9-11 happened and, almost instantly thereafter, the US government claimed that a) Iraq’s secular and anti-religious state was behind the religiously-motivated attacks (go figure) and that b) Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (oops – guess not, but so what?) and that c) Saddam was somehow the new Hitler and it was 1941 all over again.
But I think that he was sitting on a whole lot of oil – which is slated to become a valuable commodity as soon as the stuff runs out; and in a great location (in the Persian Gulf and near the great central Eurasian land routes that connect Russia, China, and India without any reliance on the sea-routes that are still more or less controlled by the US Navy).
Afghanistan is even more conveniently located to have some influence on those land routes; and it is possessed of significant rare-mineral wealth not yet exploited.
And Libya sits on the Mediterranean, possessed of large oil reserves and 150 tons of pure gold in its Central Bank, and is also located on the continent of Africa, where there are no doubt huge amounts of still unexploited (and now rather urgently needed) natural resources. And – thinking of Power – a whole bunch of countries that have never really grown into full maturity as governments and for which violence against their own peoples is a governmental way of life. Oh, and are so small that they really can’t put up much of a fight if they were to one morning find themselves the target of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘regime change’ (raising the curious symmetry of recent domestic American concern for school ‘bullies’- funny how the deep night moves).
So what I am driving at here is that Cheney was right: the US is going to have to go over to the Dark Side. But not to gleefully torture natives for the hell of it (for ‘shits and giggles’ in the military shorthand) but rather because the world’s natives are now sitting on top of a whole lotta stuff that the US now sorta reely reely needs right away if it is going to keep its lifestyle and any sort of position as a Player in a world-situation that History now seems to be taking in a direction rather different from the WW2 and Cold War scenarios (where the US was John Wayne and the Great Nanny wrapped up into one).
The Beltway has never had the courage to come out and say this to the American People. To do so would be to admit that the country is no longer possessed of the Abundance (in Productive capacity and resources) that gave it a primacy over all the other nations of the world for so long; and that the Beltway has not only known about this but contributed to the mess by its witless doings of the past 30 or 40 years; and that now We are ALL going to have to go over to the Dark Side and let Our government Go Out and Grab Stuff or else We are all going to have to take a huge cut in pay and lifestyle (and not just until things ‘get better’ because 1945 and 1965 and even 1995 are never coming back, economically speaking).
Yes, ‘human rights’ (or women’s rights, or animal rights or the right to be free from pain) may serve as a lubricating pretext for a while.
But We might as well grow up and face this awful fact: the Beltway is operating on the assumption that it’s Grab-Wars or 2nd-class status for all of Us.
And it may very well be right in its assessment of Our situation at this point.
And thus the question for Us is: Do We allow this sort of role for the United States in the world today?
Nor can We escape the moral Question by hiding behind the Beltway: that either they know best or they are just trying to cover their own frak-ups now. This country is most surely headed toward a much diminished role in world affairs – and if the dollar ceases to be accepted as the world reserve currency then that is going to be much more true than any living American can ever imagine or has ever experienced.
Recently, by the by, before he was ‘intervened-against’, Qua-daffy was trying - by amazing coincidence - to organize regional governments to denominate oil purchases in some currency other than the dollar. But then, so are the Chinese and Russians and Indians, who – I am going to bet – not even Samantha Power seeks to intervene-against; or if she does, she and her intervention philosophy will find themselves out of a security clearance forthwith.
So if We assume that Cheney and all his ilk are right in their assessment, then do We accept their Go Out and Grab solution? Do We allow US military forces and might (at least for as long as they can be paid for) to be deployed in Our name for that purpose of Go Out and Grab?
THIS is the moral Question that now faces Us. This is the Great Question of Our Time. We face a ‘rendezvous with destiny’ here. And watching a whole lot of WW2 documentaries and films where the Americans win isn’t going to change the fact that those days (and perhaps that America) are gone, baby, gone.
We cannot say that We can no longer distinguish illusion from reality: to do so is to surrender the Republic and the Constitution – after all, if you don’t have The People you don’t need all the rest of it. Nor will We be able to muster even the excuse of the German people in 1946, who at least could claim that if they had dared to speak up against the depredations made against the world community by the Third Reich they would have found themselves in a concentration camp or up against a wall forthwith. We do not (yet) live in a totalitarian dictatorship, no matter how much leftover 1960s’ radicals like to toss the image around.
We are not a Fascist or Nazi government. We are still a democracy.
That Question is not going to go away. It faces each of Us now. And it will be asked of Us in this world.
And the Next.
*And you see here the efflorescence of a dangerous bit of legal thinking thought-up for the purposes of the Adolf Eichmann prosecution and execution in Israel 51 years ago: that if you have participated in genocide, then there is an undying ‘universal jurisdiction’ by which any country can arrest and prosecute you.
Eichmann, you may recall, was the SS officer in charge of arranging the transport of European Jews to the death-camps. He had escaped to Argentina after the war and had been living there with his family for 15 years when the Israelis – seeking to revivify awareness of the Holocaust for a generation of their young who had not been alive in WW2 – secretly sent a Mossad team to (pick one: kidnap, capture, arrest) him on Argentine soil and spirit him back to Israel, lying all the while to Argentinian authorities that the now-drugged Eichmann was merely a drunken El-Al employee being brought back to the plane to ‘return’ to Israel.
During the ensuing trial the Israeli prosecutor proposed – and the banc of 3 Israeli judges accepted – the theory of ‘universal jurisdiction’: that, much like with pirates in the days of sailing ships, Nazi participants in the Holocaust were hostes humani generis – enemies of humanity – and any sovereign power whose navy captured one could execute the brute forthwith as a service to humanity and on the authority of ‘humanity’.
But dubious as this ‘principle’ might be from a formal legal point of view (to say nothing of the fact that it justified post facto what was actually a sovereign Israeli assault on another nation’s authority and jurisdiction and constituted nothing more or less than a government-kidnapping), it was still primarily a ‘police’ application: any nation could investigate, arrest, and try such a person.
BUT what We then see taking ominous shape in the United States as early as Clinton’s Balkan adventures – though not coming into full fruition until the current Administration – is the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’: that a) upon its own judgment as to what constitutes a “gross” violation of this or that “right”, then b) a government (i.e. the US) can forthwith invade another sovereign’s country and even effect regime change (and perhaps culture change).
And in an eerie similarity to the under-the-table advantages that such universal-jurisdiction provided to the Israeli government, the benefits to the US government would be a powerful influence over (if not de facto take-over of) a valuably-resourced or usefully-sited nation that it had targeted for precisely that purpose.
You see where this sort of thing can go. And is going as We speak.
If the above thought is correct, then the fact that continuing US military activity in Muslim lands is generating significant terrorist blowback potential … is not going to be a problem for the government. Indeed, very much the opposite. Because the ongoing blowback will generate the pressure and justification for the government to Stay-and-Keep what it set out to Go-Out-and-Grab, which was its primary but hidden objective in the first place.
Labels: Grab-War, the Great Question of Our Time