Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Another 'TL;DR' Mencken Post: 'Imperial Inertia'

I, in my DFH way, thought it would be a heap of fun to get totally baked late this evening and write a bunch of longwinded, depressing shit. I usually put such totally spontaneous, often incoherent garbage where it belongs, but what the hell.

[Okay, I was gonna post this at S,N! but passed out before I finished the last part. Glad I did. This piece belongs in a dump like elementropy. And since I'm no longer high, I won't even bother with the final part (in which I was gonna write more about the utility of Adams's theories and natural science metaphors).]

Above: Homage to Yoshi.

Above: Not, thank God, an homage to Joshi.

As with any nerd of limited financial means, there are several books that have been on my wish list for years, just waiting to x themselves off and find their way into my library via some lucky, random happenstance. A library sale here, an ebay auction there, an ABE search yonder -- somehow I get them. For instance, I scored an original of Charles A. Beard's The Devil Theory of War a few years ago at a Memphis Library sale; it turns out the book was part of the original Cossit Library's collection, which makes me think my book is even cooler, knowing it had been part of Memphis's first library's inventory, being borrowed from and read at, for so many years, that beautiful, Romanesque building -- before the decay, before it was "improved and expanded" by its god-awful, modernist appendage, before the institutions of Memphis, like its people, sprawled inexorably eastward.

Anyway, my wish list. Pretty much everything by H.R. Shapiro is on it, which is to say it's out of print and expensive. Same with the works of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix. There remains a couple I need to get of Eugene Genovese's -- I mean, from his "libertarian socialist" era, not from his later, degraded, and explicitly pro-South writings (DO NOT WANT!). And while there's still a few of Henry Adams's books on my list, I've knocked out quite a few in the last year, notably a Library of America set of his histories of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, and his treatise on theory, The Tendency of History. I'm only about a third of the way through the first volume of the former; I've just started the latter and, while knowing what I was getting into (Adams, superficially like but substantively quite unlike Marx, sought a scientific theory of history), I'm still pleasantly surprised by the power of Adams's simple metaphors which illustrate "counterintuitive" truths.


We like to think, in our democratic way, that what's popular will always eventually triumph. Sadly, no! Although it's true to think, as we do, that the wingnut stranglehold on our politics is effected by bullshit means (the lies, the procedural roadblocks, the demagoguery, not to mention the outright thefts of elections) in the service of an extremely radical and minority world-view, it doesn't mean that, just because the numbers and so much else is on our side, that we can change much of anything -- even if we come to expose, humiliate, or even electorally destroy wingnuts. Even if we co-opt their techniques, and even though our institutions are liberal and thought, therefore, to support our goals, the trajectory upon which wingnuts set this country is unlikely to be altered. Here's Henry Adams:

Few things are more difficult than to judge how far a society is looking one way and working in another, for the points are shifting and the rate of speed is uncertain. The acceleration of movement seems rapid, but the inertia, or resistance to deflection, may increase with the rapidity, so that society might pass through phase after phase of speed, without noting deflection in its thought. If a simpler figure is needed, society may be likened to an island surrounded by a rising ocean which silently floods its defences. One after another the defences have been abandoned, and society has climbed to higher ground supposed to be out of danger. So the classic Gods were abandoned for monotheism, and scholastic philosophy was dropped in favor of the Newtonian; but the classic Gods and the scholastic philosophy were always popular, and the newer philosophies won their victories by developing compulsory force. Inertia is the law of mind as well as of matter, and inertia is a form of instinct...

The pessimism or unpopularity of the law [of inertia] will not prevent its enforcement, if it develops superior force, even if it leads where no one wants to go.

My interpretation in the context of our current predicament? We're doomed. For well over forty years now, or at least since Barry Goldwater stated in so many words that he was quite willing to see almost every man woman and child on earth incinerated in a nuclear fireball so long as it meant standing-up to those goddamned Commies, wingnuts have inculcated their war-on-everybody mentality into every institution with which they've had so much as passing contact. Imperialism's not just entrenched in the "national security" apparatus, nor merely become status quo in foreign policy circles: it's ingrained into American culture. Ironically, wingnuts decided brinksmanship [1] was a virtue not a vice at about the same time most liberals, and the vast majority of the American people, decided Armageddon wasn't such a peachy prospect. Yet the successful militarization of a society to the point that it is suicidal in its homocidal belligerence to others does not come ex nihilo; as the examples of the kamikazes or, to reach back into mythical antiquity, Samson, illustrate, it takes some fucked-up preconditions for things to get to that point. In our case blame can be assigned to the early Cold War liberals, opportunists like Truman, Acheson, JFK, who often as not attacked their Republican opponents from the right, and upon whose work bitter and envious wingnuts like Goldwater and, later, Reagan "improved."

Most Americans only approve of military force when it means protecting our people and our soil -- a fact to which clever Pentagon euphemists deferred when they recast the old Department of War into the Department of Defense. And the same approach is taken by the same kind of people when the task at hand is to justify some imperial action or other: America has bombed so and so because so and so threatened (outright attack is no longer required as per the doctrine of pre-emptive war) "our people interests," which sounds serious until you realize that that, more often than not, means 'financial interests,' in which case war then becomes a racket paid for in blood and lives by the many for the few -- a self-perpetuating racket by and through which wingnuts search just as rabidly for enemies within as for enemies abroad, and therefore exert decisive force in domestic politics. For those who profit from the system, war engenders a more militaristic, more fearful, more docile society which in turn engenders more war which... the logic is pleasingly circular.

The most 'leftwing' voice allowed a place as the loyal, serious, 'liberal' opposition within the establishment is probably that of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was such a suicidal-homocidal Cold Warrior that he, by his own admission, in his zeal to obliterate the Soviet Union, helped probably more than any other Westerner the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The truth of the matter is that there is no potential institutional break to imperialist policy because there are no people available in the foreign policy establishment who think as the American people think -- and if there were, such people would not be allowed inside it. It's not a conspiracy; it's an all-powerful institutional bias thoroughly internalized within the system. Wingnut Neoconmen constitute the system's "acceptable" rightwing, 'realists' like Scowcroft constitute the center, while diehard interventionists (whose principles and precedents have always been and will always be exploited by the neocons) like Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter constitute the joke of a 'leftwing.' 'Unserious' people lay outside this narrow spectrum of viewpoints in which no one can be truly leftwing while, concomitantly, no one can be too rightwing. [2] There's your Overton Window, and through it has blown a hurricane.

Just as their position in government is basically cemented, the wingnuts continue to own, often literally, another indispensable institution of a supposedly free society, the press. Or as David Hume remarked, "the Few control the Many through Opinion." Winguttery is so entrenched in the Fourth Estate that the most 'leftwing' voices allowed a mainstream audience -- deemed Serious people worthy of the plebes' attention -- are those of war-loving fuckwits such as Jonathan Chait and Peter Beinart and Tom Friedman. Oh, but the blogosphere corrects such institutional biases! Sure. That perfectly explains why most of the few paying gigs in the business have gone to pro-war "progressive" bloggers whose "oops, Iraq was a bad idea" mea culpas came only a slight bit sooner and were only a tiny bit more believable than Chait's, Beinart's, et al's. But then, like the "progressive" blogosphere's darling Matt Yglesias said, it would be "unfair to see Peter Beinart as someone who's always wrong," Beinart's pro- to anti-war metamorphasis coming as it did "slightly behind the Matt Yglesias curve.... that sweet spot of becoming disillusioned with the Iraq War within weeks... and gained enough credit [to not be punished for so much fucking blood on pudgy typing fingers]." Thus careerists with pro-war instincts look out for each other, mutually resolve to retain their positions, block the rise of pundits whose opinions actually would actually mirror the majority of most progressives. (Chait, feeling secure enough in his cushy tenure as liberal pundit, once admitted that hawks like himself are outliers of the progressive movement yet are massively over-represented in the opinion pages. A rather convenient arrangement for the rulers of the country -- and far from accidental.)

But all this is academic. The point is that we're fucked. The system's got to the point that it's explicitly designed to shut down any anti-imperialist reforms; the inertia of nearly a half-century of batshit-insane policies can't be deflected so soon if ever; perhaps an equal and opposite period of sense and sensibility would do the trick but we all know that ain't gonna happen. Even if Obama is (I'm fighting the urge to write "allowed to be") elected, there's not much he can do or will do to change things. At best, he can pursue foreign policy goals slightly to the left of Bush/McCain's. Now I'm not saying that's not worth something (it's definitely worth a vote), but let's not pretend, either, that it's worth a lot. Immanuel Wallerstein, who in an ideologically balanced America would be on TV debating a centrist like Chait and a batshit wingnut like Bill Kristol [3], has surprisingly let himself get rather enthusiastic about Obama, though he's always been smart enough, in recognizing Obama's theme of change is a matter of style over substance, to refrain from the mindless 'Mr. November/ Won't fuck us over' conviction one sometimes sees on the facebooks of Yuppie douchebags. On the contrary, for Obama to even be seriously considered for the title of Mr. November, he's got to effectively promise the system he'll fuck us over. Hints as to how were always there if one chose to hear them, but as the campaign's gone on, how the fucking will go becomes more clear -- the positions, as it were, being choreographed in advance. First there was Obama's comments on Pakistan, now there's his recent commentary on Afghanistan, in which he reveals plans which couldn't be better crafted to, on the one hand, disgust genuine progressives (would they but listen), and on the other, delight the anti-idiotarian crowd of congenitally hawkish 'Liberals' who have pretended for a while now to have changed their evil ways but in actuality have not. True progressives are also inevitably bound get fucked-over by Obama on Free Trade which, come to think of it, is almost identical to foreign policy in the degree to which Establishmentarians' and the public's opinions diverge, and in the sheer amount of inertia built into the system.

[1] Goldwater, for his part, could never understand why people loved Jack Kennedy the brinksman but feared and loathed BG the brinksman. The public, rightly, thought BG was a madman; BG was convinced it was all due to liberal bias. Actually, it was a matter of timing. The public was appallingly tolerant of brinksmanship until the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that snapped the public to its senses and indeed mortified Jack "Missile Gap" Kennedy himself.

[2] Only in America could a butcher like Henry Kissinger be attacked with regularity from the right. Yet that is exactly what neoconservatives have done since, basically, day one of their existence as a coherent movement; indeed, one of their founding principles was a hostility to Kissinger's policy of detente, which was finally destroyed with Reagan's purchase of Team B's horseshit. In Reagan, as in W., they found a credulous, doddering fool whose shallow mind was the perfect intellectual dumpster into which they could stuff their crackpot theories. Reagan's (like, I suspect, W.'s) stupid/evil quotient was close to 100/0. As fate would have it -- one suspects fate has it in for the good ol' US of A -- shit majorly happened under Reagan's watch just as it happened under W.'s. For Reagan, this event was the ascension of Gorbachev and with it, glasnost and perestroika. To the neocons' horror, Ronnie and George Schultz developed a personal rapport with their Soviet counterparts -- to the world's benefit. Yet Richard Perle within the administration and Norman Podhoretz outside it were all the while insisting Gorby's overtures amounted to a Soviet trojan horse -- Podhoretz, never to be outdone in bugfuck insanity, continued in this vein even after the Berlin Wall fell.

[3] Quoting Gore Vidal from memory: "ABC's idea of political debate is to have two pundits, one conservative and the other reactionary, yell at each other." How many times have you seen that? "Liberals" Sam and Cokie debating George Fucking Will. Or Michael Kinsley -- whose tenure at The New Republic gave "leftwing" cover to Reaganism and made famous the sad wingnut refrain, "Even the Liberal New Republic says...," Kinsley who lovingly applied the forceps at the journalistic births of such public nuisances as Fred Barnes, Mickey Kaus, Morton Kondrake, and Charles Krauthammer -- being marketed by Crossfire as "from the Left," debating some nutjob like Bob Novak whose politics were far to the right of Attila the Hun?

[4] There was a time when educated people kept and read and cherished their set of Adams's histories. I have a half-remembered anecdote in my head of Diana Trilling's story that, when she and Lionel separated, the possession they fought over most was their set of Adams. Which, in turn, reminds me of a something I in contrast vividly remember: Norman Podhoretz's wholesale dismissal of Adams's work as cynical and (you guessed it) anti-Semitic. (Adams, in private, expressed nasty feelings about Jews which were unfortunately very normal at the time. The Pod's real beef with Adams mirrors that of HA's contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt, to whose antagonism Adams reciprocated: Adams was a traitor to his class and country by clearly revealing in his pessimistic way what the people who run America were really up to.) Now that I think of it, I must have got the Trilling story from Podhoretz, whose falling out with the Trillings was as explosive as it was nasty and illustrative of what a piece of shit Poddy is: Poddy turned on his mentor Lionel because the old man had embraced the English literature tradition and the values of assimilation and tolerance that go with it, in the process shedding the sort of chauvinistic, batshit identity politics the Pod demands all Jews adopt lest they become ethnic and religious traitors. Incidentally, the hostility to Jews who chose to assimilate was one of motivations of the early neocon critique of Henry Kissinger, an animus particularly obvious in the writings of Podhoretz and Irving Kristol. Though both Kristol and Pod were to eventually brown nose Kissinger for entirely cynical, careerist reasons (Pod famously comparing Kissinger's mendacious memoirs to Lytton Strachey), initially they were hostile to the master war criminal because he reminded them of the relatively well-off, assimilated, German-Jewish types they grew up hating (envying) in Brooklyn.