Monday, April 02, 2012
WE ARE TRULY EXCEPTIONAL
In the latest, April 5, issue of the ‘The New York Review of Books’ Michael Ignatieff reviews a new book entitled “All the Missing Souls” by David Scheffer, a human rights expert who among other things worked with Madeleine Albright during the Clinton years.
I haven’t read Scheffer’s book, but Ignatieff’s review itself is instructive; I’m focusing my comments on the review itself.
Ignatieff rightly notes that “affirming belief that America is an exceptional nation has become a test of patriotism in American politics”.
He’s got a solid point there.
America is and has always been a unique phenomenon in world and human history. A nation that arose on a piece of large and remarkably endowed property that, compared to other countries, had sprung into the midst of the planet’s political affairs ‘fresh’, comparatively unencumbered by prior claims since it was, in a very real political sense, a ‘New World’.
The whole of this New World was the home of tribes of ‘natives’ who had gotten to the place long before the Europeans, who were themselves emerging from the awful forge of the millennium that followed the final fall of the Roman Empire. During that time, when the Europeans were enmeshed in myriad struggles among themselves and subjected (as late as 1683, less than a century before Lexington and Concord, the Ottomans were again before the gates of Vienna) to lethal and bloody power struggles among themselves and with other, still robust, civilizations (the aforesaid Ottomans).
But that millennium had not been one of simple ‘victimization’ for the West. Throughout the genuinely Dark Ages, Europe forged itself under the aegis of a Christendom that had managed to combine and re-combine the gifts and genius of various tribal and nascent evolving national identities and – later – monarchical polities; anchored in the perhaps under-appreciated (then, as well as now) synthesis of Greek and Roman insights into law and government combined with the Hebrew and Christian theological affirmations of the primacy of God’s reality in the affairs of humans who were simultaneously His creations, made in His Image and endowed with an immutable dignity as well as carrying an innate predilection to fail that Image.
In that regard, even the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution – which contributed mightily to the formal break-up of the Medieval synthesis of Christendom intellectually and politically – did not so much create anew from nothing, but rather continued to work variations on those great Themes, resulting in a stunning (and often confusing) profusion of thought as to how the various national cultures and polities might preserve the space and the freedom for humans to develop and sustain the deployment of their gifts.
In a vital sense what the Framers then inscribed on this political tabula rasa (granted fully that in other very real senses this New World was not a blank slate but the home and habitation of other human groups and tribes) was indeed a novus ordo seclorum, a new order for the ages.
Because the Framing Vision – especially as expressed in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and then given sustaining shape in the machinery emplaced by the Constitution – produced through their efforts the first large-scale polity that was grounded in and upon that idea of the equality of all human beings that extended in this and that conceptual form back to the Greeks and the Stoics, Aquinas and the post-Medieval political thoughts of Protestantism and English Constitutionalism and up into the Enlightenment. (You may well add the example of the Iroquois Confederacy, though I would then also add the communal voting-for-leaders of Aquinas’ own Order of Preachers.)
(Yes, in the crooked paths of human history that are consequent upon the crooked timber of humanity, the foundation of the United States, at its moment of construction, had to take into account the even-then odious reality of Southern race-Slavery. The Southerners, as I have said in prior Posts, made the Framers an ‘offer they couldn’t refuse’ in the darkest and most coercive sense of that phrase: a country with race-Slavery or no country at all.
It took a further 75 years for that hellish reality to be finally expunged through – under Lincoln’s torturous and subtle but profoundly noble efforts – “a great civil war”, testing both whether a democratic republic can “long endure” in human history and whether the ancient concept of the universal equality of all human beings is sufficient to ground a large polity over the long haul.
I would add two brief observations about that.
First, the universal equality of all human beings was conceived most immediately as a political equality, of the right to participate constructively in the governing of the government and as an equality before the laws thus erected.
Second, that equality was based in an observed ideal given expression in Aristotle, who based it in the observed commonality underlying the panoply of diverse human cultures, societies and civilizations encountered by the Greeks even in his time, whose commonality indicated, to him, a nature and essence and purpose common to all humans.
That equality was then merged with Christian-Catholic theology by Aquinas, who anchored it solidly (and uniquely) in the Christian-Catholic Vision, informed by revelation, of that omnipotent but benevolent Creator God in whose Image all humans were called into existence in this life (while on their way to final fulfillment in the Next).
Protestant Reformation thought further emphasized the liberty of conscience of the individual and the visceral caution towards if not also suspicion of organizational power (the Church figuring large in their experience – but that spilled inevitably into a certain stance toward political organization as well).
English Constitutional thought added that tradition’s ever-evolving and expanding definition of political rights against the intrusive power of the Crown and the intricacies of elaborating a legitimate parliamentary power and the complexities of extending the utterly vital political franchise even to those who had no property whose experience of ownership and stewardship would impart some lived experience of sober and responsible and prudent stewardship and ‘governance’.
The French Revolution demonstrated the hellish potentials of a purely ideal-driven (thus ‘ideological’) insistence not only upon Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity but also on the demand for a pure and immediate imposition of those three worthy but general goals.
And Lenin’s October Revolution (as opposed to the actual Russian Revolution of February, 1917) further exemplified that lethal potential, especially when the regime thus erected was assisted in its impositions not only by a highly-developed (if – relative to the genuine Western tradition – whackulent) ideological justification but also by all the technical machinery available to a modern state and lubricated by the post-Medieval eras’ inevitable weakening of any constraints by a Higher Law upon the actions of a putatively well-intentioned and Politically Correct regime.)
And following that further 75 years that culminated in the political refinements consequent upon that “great civil war”, it took a further century until, finally arising under the profoundly unitive as well as reformative vision given its most elaborate and elegant expression by Martin Luther King, the barriers of the Jim Crow regime – that network of state laws that supported the Southern sub-culture that sought to somehow continue the ethos of Southern race-Slavery (without the formal Slavery bit) – were rightly removed by the authority and action of the Federal government.
(The further engorgement of Federal authority and action since 1965, influenced – in the crooked dynamics of human history – by the attempted blending of Soviet and Leninist thought and dynamics with the Framing Vision and its consequent dynamics … is an actual historical development whose ultimate wisdom or folly I have addressed in recent Posts and which for the purposes of this Post shall remain bracketed.)
The efforts of Jefferson and Lincoln and King, supported by the efforts of many others not so eloquently gifted, have bequeathed to Us a very truly ‘exceptional’ Vision, and in the Constitution a machinery best conceived – by an even more exceptional Framing cohort – to sustain it on what was never considered to be anything but a long voyage through History, with all the dangers and challenges attendant thereupon.
To the extent that We as individual Citizens and as The People embrace and remain faithful to that Vision, then We too are truly ‘exceptional’ in human history.
Although, as Washington and Adams observed – and they were not the first in that long tradition – such ‘exceptionalism’, while it must instill a genuine pride and consequent sense of responsibility, does not and cannot be construed as some sort of existential (or divine) Warrant to go forth and terraform the planet, culturally and politically and – oy – militarily. We were to be a ‘beacon’ and a ‘citty upon a hill’, but not ever a benevolent Leviathan (that awful species of non-divine idol-god is of its very nature incapable of sustaining benevolence).
And there ever remains the profoundly awful possibility – to which the crooked timber of the human psych is always prone – of a) assuming unthinkingly some misplaced and unjustifiable pride in the mere fact of Our existence as ‘exceptional’ and to then b) assuming with a lethal blitheness or callow self-assurance that We therefore are somehow exempt from not only the crookedness but also the perverse and torturous complexities of human history.
A genuine ‘patriotism’ – love of country – is and must include a mature and competent love of the Framing Vision (hard to achieve when the experience and definition of ‘love’ has undergone so many deformative and immature distortions over the years). ‘Love’ includes an element of active and deliberate and constantly-willed ‘respect’ (as it once was held, ideally but not phantasmically, to be the case in marriage and all deep human commitments).
Genuine patriotism, then, involves – before anything else – a habit of ‘respect’ which, by the by, cannot but then assume a transformative role in shaping the ‘character’ of each Citizen and of The People as a whole and – from The People – thus also of that government of which The People remain the ultimate and final governors.
To assert, as some in positions of influence do today, that America is exceptional because “it still has an unmatched military” betrays – aside from the functional accuracy (or otherwise) of that assertion – a lethally shallow and thin and indeed toxic under-appreciation and a profound misunderstanding of the nature of this country’s actual and genuine ‘exceptional’ nature.
Of course, and ominously, Correct ‘patriotism’ as it is now evolving cannot really dare to delve more deeply and genuinely into the matter. Because to do so runs the risk of involving ‘comprehensive’ systems of explanation – to use Rawls’s Correct and toxic burbling – that have been kicked to the curb in the past 40 biblical years’ worth of ‘creating space’ for rich and fresh and transgressive and groovy and world-historical diversities of culture and praxis, and – not to put too fine a point on it – to involve some thought about and reference to a Beyond, a Higher Law which the increasingly engorged Leviathan/Leviatha of government refuses to acknowledge as a boundary to its actions. Or as a standard by which those actions might be judged (or Judged).
If We, The People, are losing control of Our government, it is because We are losing control of ourselves.
Should this sort of thing happen with a carnival ride – a Ferris wheel at a local fair, say – and the operators allowed the machine to become loosened in its connections to its restraining struts, and then on top of that to allow it to pick up speed and revolve at increasingly higher speed, while loaded with passengers and in the midst of a crowded fairground … wouldn’t those operators be held responsible for the consequences? You see where this sort of thing can go.
So, yes, ‘American exceptionalism’ is no mere rhetorical sugar-rose on the cake-frosting, to be squeezed out in a pleasing shape to the oohs and aahs and the delectation of the assembled lip-smacking party-goers. It is one of the most awfully and awesomely real elements of ‘being’ if you are genuinely and fully an American and a Citizen. It is most surely not kid-stuff.
Nor is it merely a come-on phrase to be deployed seductively and manipulatively by carnival hawkers for the purposes of the stereotypical used-car salesman or world-changer. Which would include far too many of the national elites and those souls – in barrooms or consciousness-raising sessions – who find meaning and purpose in merely mouthing repetitively those same phrases, with whatever boozy and brassy embellishments or conceptually whacky assertions that might come to mind, to the amazement of the crowd and the amusement of the children.
Ignatieff is spot-on when he asserts that “law, after all, constrains power”. Although, as I mentioned in the immediately prior Post, the “rule of law” has been sorely bethump’t around here in the past 40 Biblical years, not only from the neocon and corporatist Right but from the radical-feminist and Correct Left – law for those types being merely an oppressive embodiment of patriarchy and the status-quo.
(It was Obama himself who observed in ‘The Audacity of Hope’ that the Left had made a serious error when it “over-used” the courts to “avoid political fights”, thus seeking – I would say – to subordinate the law and the courts to becoming mere agents of their agendas and their ‘revolution’, much as Lenin referred to “our revolutionary courts”.
Although this was precisely what Catharine MacKinnon had recommended when she put forth her essentially Gramscian-Leninist legal and political agenda for radical-feminism: since The People ‘just don’t get it’, then go around them and – with charming conceptual incoherence but acute revolutionary cynicism – take it to the courts, thus avoiding “messy” politics altogether and getting the judges, inspired especially by the sublime legal stylings of Justice Brennan, to impose the revolution for them. As I said in the immediately prior Post, the true nature of this profoundly anti-American and anti-Framing Vision approach seemed and seems to have escaped the effective notice of the commentariat and the Correct elites and the sworn upholders of that Framing Vision in the Beltway.)
But of course, if there is no ‘Law’ and there are only laws passed by a government that acknowledges no Higher constraints upon it, then ‘law’ simply becomes the football in the general scrum that Identity Politics envisions as the primary reality of such ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic politics’ as it considers legitimate and useful. As Chantal Mouffe, noted Eurocommunist of the 1970s and 1980s put it, her fresh and rich “radical democracy” had no use whatsoever for a “deliberative democratic politics”.
And as I have often said, between radical-feminism’s blanket presumption that most of The People ‘just don’t get it’ and Mouffe’s logical Marxist-Leninist presumption that there is no need for a “deliberative democratic politics” when most of the Citizens are either patriarchal or self-cooperating oppressed lumps who essentially are too politically ungulant to want to free themselves from the status-quo of their various oppressions and need to be herded (or stampeded) by the vanguard elites who do ‘get it’ … then there is a fundamental authoritarianism built into both of their resulting political agendas.
Long live the revolution, then. Trangsression uber alles. But you aren’t going to keep faith with the Framing Vision at the same time. America is not – pace the old saw – a Hollywood movie where in the end you can get the girl (or guy), the gold watch, and everything and live happily ever after and/or ride into the sunset towards California. (Or, in that early 1990s chick-flick’s equally whackulent ending, hold hands and drive over the cliff into an iconic Western canyon-gorge. An abyss is an abyss, no matter how tastefully arranged by local geology and photographed by the camera crew.)
Surely, now, neither heading to California nor driving over a cliff should be considered a good idea; although who knows, in the current desperation, how many are considering the possibilities.
The Hebrews considered the Law as holy not simply (and perhaps simplistically, to the secular mind) because it was given to them by God, but because the effect of that Law was to create social and cultural and political order out of the chaos that existed before. And that order was thus considered to be the most marvelous gift of God to a chosen people mired, as was all of humanity, in the abyssal swamps of living-together without reliably grounded and life-enabling Law.
In the general scrum of the past 40 Biblical years, that bit of rather vital insight has been lost. But the reality that it describes remains. Shutting off the fire-alarm – who knew? – doesn’t extinguish the fire.
Ignatieff notes that Scheffer reports his becoming increasingly aware of the truly shocking fact that during his tenure in Madeleine Albright’s patch of the Clinton Administration, the US was now coming to see itself as above the very law (and Law) that it had sought to strengthen through the erection of the UN in FDR’s last Administration and in the Nuremberg trials in Truman’s Administration.
Albright herself is relevant here. A woman, and older, she was also possessed of assorted memories and some personal experiences of the Holocaust and of World War Two’s epic struggle against Fascism and Nazisim and Imperial Japanese military hegemonism. So in her own personal history she covered a number of useful ‘bases’: a woman, tied to the Holocaust (and thus now to the Israeli government’s agendas), and a revenant from that last Moment when America had both the chops and the high purpose of saving the world from militant hegemony.
But she was also soused with the more recent radical-feminist authoritarianistic presumptions which not only came from that alien political Universe of Marxism-Leninism (imported here when the radical-feminists filched Gramsci and adapted him to their purposes, with Beltway collaboration) but also served as a marvelous cover for the neocon Right’s own dampdream of American world-hegemony (which has proved as dependent on the military for the fulfillment and imposition of its purposes as the radical Left has proven dependent on the courts).
Nor have things gotten any better now that several of the most ‘successful’ women in the current Administration have embraced ‘R2P’, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Based on the radical-feminist legal and political theory first deployed here domestically – that since ‘the personal is political’ and since patriarchy is most fundamentally furthered by the patriarchal dominance of the sexually aggressive and violent male ‘within the family’ then no ‘old ideas’ about the government being boundaried against interfering in that most intimate private sphere can be considered legitimate – the R2P ‘doctrine’ insists that no ‘old ideas’ about Westphalian ‘sovereignty’ can be allowed to interfere in the US government’s ‘right’ to step in (militarily, of course) wherever it deems it necessary to ‘protect’ against ‘victimization’.
Queasily but revealingly, this doctrine seems only to be deployed now against nations that either don’t have the military strength to defend themselves against such intervention, or have somehow become an obstruction to this or that US foreign-policy objective. Sending the peerless military against China or Russia, for example, is probably not going to happen, no matter how much ‘protection’ those citizenries (especially their ‘women’ and – of course – ‘children’ might need). And, of course, if there is any ‘sexual violence’ and ‘patriarchy’ in, say, Israel, well – even if it does exist, no doubt the Israelis can handle it themselves and don’t need any intervention. Neat.
We are “exceptional” and – to add Albright’s own spin – “indispensable”.
We are not “chosen” (or – in Lincoln’s fine phrase – “almost-chosen”) any longer. To assert that would upset the Israelis' Jewish religious sensibilities and, more importantly, would upset the secularist sensibilities over here who most surely aren’t interested, from either Left or Right, in suggesting that there is anyone (or any One) who might have the authority to do the Choosing. (George Bush the Lesser may have been the Deciderer, but there will be no Chooser with a capital ‘C’ in the brave new secular world order).
For a while the Republican-abetted embrace and valorization of the whackjob Fundamentalists provided benefit of clergy – as it were – for the Gott-Mit-Uns trope. But that was then. Now, as the new coinage indicates, America doesn’t trust in God. Or, more cogently, doesn’t trust God to approve of what it’s up to.
The Left will now try to plaster over the lethal divisions in American society induced and even required by the past 40 Biblical years of cultural and political destruction (or rich transgression, if you wish) by insisting that all types of ‘oppression’ – racial, gender,and class – are bad and evil.
Like Stalin suddenly faced with the (somewhat self-induced) catastrophe of the rampant calamity of Hitler’s invasion in June, 1941, all previously demonized classes will now suddenly become honored participants in (and cannon fodder for) the regime’s Great Patriotic War.
Were you a kulak or other oppressive parasite life form? Don’t give it another thought - you are now a Russian, even if you are not a member of the Party, and – but of course – we are all Russians together. Da! And wheeeeeeeeeeee! So pick up a shovel or rifle and head for the front (which, helpfully, will shorten your journey by coming straight at you at high speed). Don’t vorry – be hapski!
The Left – still clinging to command on the Titanic-bridge of the Democratic Party – will now embrace the formerly lumpen-oppressor ‘males’ and the small-businessfolk and their lumpen-culture of Productivity and Family, even as the Correct elites whose ultimate conceptual objective is to eradicate them and all their pomps and all their works continue to double-down on the agenda that ran everything and everybody into the berg (and over the cliff).
Why, even Archie Bunker may be ‘rehabilitated’. He too may receive the type of leaden encomia of the type most recently reserved for Correct and elite thinkers: Tireless Implementer of the Five-Year Oil Plan! Stakhanovite Toiler for the Ten Year Solvency Plan! Courageous Dreamer of the Twenty-Year Impossible Dream Plan!
Obama has now had to lunch in the White House the neocon huffer-and-puffer Robert Kagan, who has feathered his nest richly by insisting that as long as the US has its military, it will never be out of business as hegemon or at least as world-class Macher and Player. And as Madeleine Albright said to the feckless Colin Powell – channeling, marvelously, Hitler himself: What’s the use of this great military if we aren’t going to use it?
Funny how the world-historical night moves.
It is on currents as powerful but lethally convoluted as this that this increasingly ‘almost-chosen’ People is adrift, bereft of compass or pole-star and, oy, fuel and even watertight integrity.
We do indeed have a rendezvous with a world-historical destiny now.
But perhaps it’s time to take stock of just what Citizenship means. It may be time for The People, as a feisty pitcher, to save the game lost by the elite ‘team’ that has been calling the shots for so long.