It had been a phobia of his for years that someday he would fall into the hands of madmen—in particular, madmen who seemed sane up until the last moment. – Philip Dick
LI knows exactly what Dick is talking about. Or perhaps I should say – America in general knows exactly what Dick is talking about. Except – do we? Do we, Walt-Whitman-Alan-Ginsburg-Muddy-Waters' America? Case in point is Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight. We ignored the excerpt in the NYT magazine, but we knew it wasn’t going to go away.
Beinart has taken a page and a phrase from the Weekly Standard, and issued a call for a liberal foreign policy of ‘American greatness.’ To make his case, he unfolds a narrative of stalwart cold war liberalism – Truman, Kennedy and (not mentioned in the TPM post, but surely a presence) Henry Jackson. Beinart proposes to be our modern Kennan. Kennan’s memo about Russia gave an intellectual blessing to Truman’s anti-communist/security state program. Out of that fountainhead issued the CIA, the expanded and never contracted Pentagon, SAC, the interventions starting in Greece and ending in Angola, etc., etc. Beinart correctly sees that this liberalism had a double face, with the domestic side using foreign policy as an excuse (or, I suppose Beinart would say, as a platform) for expanding the role of government in the economy, gradually forcing the governing class to expand civil rights, and construct a welfare society. Beinart does like to lard his punditry with the kind of prophetic vistas that real estate salesmen selling houses near paper mills put in their pitches.
“In the liberal vision, it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional. Because we recognize that we can be corrupted by unlimited power, we accept the restraints that empires refuse. That is why the Truman administration self-consciously shared power with America’s democratic allies, although we comprised one half of the world’s GDP and they were on their knees.
Moral humility breeds international restraint. That restraint ensures that weaker countries welcome our preeminence, and thus, that our preeminence endures. It makes us a great nation, not a predatory one. At home, because America realizes that it does not embody goodness, it does not grow complacent. Rather than viewing American democracy as a settled accomplishment to which others aspire, we see ourselves as engaged in our own democratic struggle, which parallels the one we support abroad. It was not the celebration of American democracy that inspired the world in the 1950s and 1960s, but America’s wrenching efforts—against McCarthyism and segregation—to give our democracy new meaning. Then, as now, the threat to national greatness stems not from self- doubt, but from self- satisfaction.”
Beinart realizes that this vision isn’t shared by all liberals – in fact, it is increasingly scoffed at – and responds to that scoffing much like Mildred Pierce finally owning up to the moral flaws of her daughter:
“This vision has sometimes divided liberals themselves. Recognizing American fallibility means recognizing that the United States cannot wield power while remaining pure. From Henry Wallace in the late 1940s to Michael Moore after September 11, some liberals have preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world.”
America shedding its moral innocence is a phrase that Mencken would certainly have loved – it concentrates, in one butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth phrase, a flabbiness of vision so comprehensive that one could run a think tank on it for a year.
For good and ill, America has never been morally innocent. The unjustified transfer of the qualities of a human being to a nation can insensibly lead to the idea that nations are also, at one time, babies. But nations are at no time babies. Nations are conceived in fire and blood, and they would not survive for a day if they were not so designed that they served the interests of the most powerful class within them. Rather than innocence, America suffers most from moral ignorance –from an inability to deduce, from the chain of actions that constitute its history with other nations, the co-extensive tendencies and structures that have been built up inside this country. If I continually find myself with a hangover on waking up in the morning, I should, as a rational person, deduce that I have a tendency to drink too much – and not that I think so much about virtue and God that my brain hurts.
Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, the culture and political economy of war has become so strong in America that the country has a hard time shedding it even when, as now, it has become counter-productive. Beinart’s problem actually is in seeing that war has a price – even wars that are won have a price that they exact from the victor nation. That is what makes the phrase ‘good war’ so satanic – it attaches people to war under false pretenses. While it might be good to win a war, it is never good to wage one – it is, at best, necessary. But when you have promoted the habit of war, both by grossly inflating the war related economy within your country and by childishly refusing to examine your country’s interests in the context of military conflict –substituting rhetoric about national greatness for the reality of the compromises between justice and economic and political interests that must determine any nation’s foreign policy – you have ceased to analyze at all. You have started to maunder.
In his response to Beinart, Max Sawiky takes out a sawed off shotgun and puts a load of double ought in the quivering jello of the national greatness thing. Myself, I wish only to indicate that Beinart's argument is part of a larger argument that is not being joined. The larger argument is that the Cold War is not a model, but a deleterious compulsion to which the elite go back because they have lost their sense for alternatives. In fact, the thing America needs to do least, at the moment, is hold fast in the long war against ‘jihadist totalitarianism’ – Beinart’s comic phrase for the barely controlled anarchy that has, so far, infested only one state that we know of, Afghanistan during the 90s. Unless he is subtly suggesting we should sneak attack Saudi Arabia. That we should orient our whole foreign policy to preventing other Afghanistans is perhaps the dumbest thing he suggests – it competes with the inability, at least in the excerpts, to recognize that the Cold War mentality actually vitiated America’s war against Osama bin Laden, since that war was fought, as it were, absent-mindedly – while the troops were closing in on Tora Bora, the commander, in Tampa, and the Secretary of War, in D.C., were dreaming of Iraq. And so the best of all possible worlds was formed, by accident and intention – Osama escapes, terrorism is on tap, and the ‘jihadist threat’ can be pulled out of a hat anytime to justify more military malarkey. It really is a minor threat, but, frustratingly, the last people who will treat it as a threat are the same people who continually tell us it is a major threat. They treat Al Qaeda the way the producers of Friday the 13th treated Freddie Krueger – as a dependable monster generating an infinite amount of sequels.
Beinart’s history – his idea that we should revive cold war liberalism now, rolling out the references to Truman, to Kennedy, to the Missile Crisis, etc., – reminds me of what Gibbon said about Constantine’s arch. Constantine, to celebrate himself and his new capital city, demanded a triumphant monument. But there was a small problem in building one from scratch:
“To revive the genius of Phidias and Lysippus, surpassed indeed the power of a Roman emperor; but the immortal productions which they had bequeathed to posterity were exposed without defence to the rapacious vanity of a despot. By his commands the cities of Greece and Asia were despoiled of their most valuable ornaments.The trophies of memorable wars, the objects of religious veneration, the most finished statues of the gods and heroes, of the sages and poets, of ancient times, contributed to the splendid triumph of Constantinople; and gave occasion to the remark of the historian Cedrenus, who observes, with some enthusiasm, that nothing seemed wanting except the souls of the illustrious men whom these admirable monuments were intended to represent. But it is not in the city of Constantine, nor in the declining period of an empire, when the human mind was depressed by civil and religious slavery, that we should seek for the souls of Homer and of Demosthenes.”
Depressed by the civil and religious slavery of the Bush era, I don’t think we should seek for the souls of FDR and John Kennedy in the bodies of Hilary Clinton and Joe Liberman.
“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads