The American Conservative, 15 December 2008

George Frost Kennan, by Ned Seidler

George Frost Kennan, by Ned Seidler

Several pieces this time despair of any prospect that traditionalist conservatism will reassert itself as a force to be reckoned with in American politics.  What, then, do the writers for this traditionalist publication believe is to be done? 

At least two of them seem to think that the time may have come to give up on the USA altogether.  Bill Kauffman writes an admiring piece about Kirkpatrick Sale’s Third North American Secessionist Convention, singling out for praise the doughty Yankees of the Second Vermont Republic, who want to break away from the continental Leviathan in the name of Ethan Allen, Robert Frost, and maple syrup.  A review of Lee Congdon’s George Kennan: A Writing Life includes remarks on Kennan’s argument in his late work Around the Cragged Hill that the USA is too big for anyone’s good and should be broken into smaller constituent republics. 

Elsewhere, a letter to the editor takes issue with those who claim that neoconservative advocates of the 2003 invasion of Iraq could have been so foolish as actually to have believed the sorts of things they said in public at that time.  The correspondent asks the magazine to “spare me the ‘neocons were dumb to believe Iraq would turn into Ohio’ nonsense.  These grown-up guys, smart enough to become advisors to the political leadership of the most powerful military on the planet, weren’t convinced of something a 10-year old knew?  Please.  It’s nice to imagine that some massively dumb, partially blind, amazing social phenomena led us into this debacle, but the truth seems simpler and more banal: the neocons didn’t care and neither did we.” 

The fallacy here seems obvious.  “These grown-up guys, smart enough to become advisors to the political leadership of the most powerful military on the planet”- that’s an impressive description.  The correspondent is right to be impressed, we should be impressed as well.  But keep in mind, every one of the members of that group was at least as impressed by his or her colleagues as we are.  Sitting at a table surrounded by such people, who would dare be the first to say something radically different from what the others were saying?  Unless someone goes first and breaks the spell, a roomful of extremely competent people can march blindly into mistakes any well-informed individual, sometimes any normal 10-year old, could have warned them against.  Many policymakers are acutely aware of this danger; indeed, when President Truman made George Kennan head of policy planning at the US  State Department in the late 1940’s he explicitly defined Kennan’s job as speaking up against the preconceptions under which others were laboring and breaking the spell of those preconceptions.

In his 1958 book The Causes of World War Three, sociologist C. Wright Mills coined the term “crackpot realism” for the sorts of ideas that come to be accepted in settings where everyone too impressed with everyone else’s credentials to challenge their preconceived ideas.  While the formation of a crackpot realism may be a “massively dumb, partially blind” process, it is far from “amazing.”  Indeed, it is sickenly familiar.  Who among us has not been excited to be admitted to membership in a particular group?  And who has not gone along with that group rather than risk being thrown out of it? 

Moreover, the bigger and more elaborate the bureaucratic structure beneath the ruling elite, the more bizarre their crackpot realism is likely to be.  Each layer of bureaucracy represents, in the first place, a filter through which information must pass before it reaches the top.  The people at those lower levels generally want to rise higher, or at least to stay where they are; as such they will be inclined, whenever possible, to tell their superiors what they want to hear.  By the time a report reaches Washington, it may well be drained of any information that would challenge whatever preconceptions prevail there at the moment. 

In the second place, each layer of subordinates is another buffer between the decision-makers and the consequences of  their errors.  Even after a decision has led to uncontainable disaster, those responsible can claim, and can sincerely believe, that the only mistakes anyone made were made by someone far below them.  If officials must be punished, there’s always someone lower-ranking who can be made to take the harshest penalties. 

Thirdly, each layer of subordinates makes the positions at the top levels that much more valuable, that much more coveted, that much more intimidating.  By the time a hierarchy as enormous as the American national security state is placed under you and your colleagues, even the pluckiest of truth-tellers might not be able to muster the courage to simply contradict you.     

The cover of this issue features a cartoon of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama standing in front of brilliant yellow background.  Carter, in 70’s garb, is standing on Obama’s right, his arm around his successor’s shoulders.  In the background behind Carter is a sunflower labeled “The Spirit of  ’76”; Carter’s right hand is up, as if he were holding a flower.  At a glance it looks like the grinning Carter is a bride holding a flower, while the miserable-looking Obama looks like an extremely disappointed groom.  I describe the picture because this blog doesn’t take bitmap embeds, so I can’t show it to you.  You’ll have to follow the link.  It’s worth a look, the intense yellow is fascinating.


  1. cymast

     /  December 17, 2008

    “The Spirit of ’76” looks more 60’s than 70’s. Perhaps Obama can’t help but follow in Carter’s footsteps, and Obama realizes this.

  2. acilius

     /  December 17, 2008

    I’m sure you’re right about the point of the cartoon. The suggestion of Mr O as the unwilling groom of Jimmy Carter would seem to represent the idea that Mr O is stuck with Carter.

    I saw plenty of imagery like that in the 70’s. Lots of stuff that started in the 60’s went mainstream in the 70’s. When I was a kid I wouldn’t have blinked at a wall painted two shades of bright yellow with a giant cartoon sunflower.

  3. cymast

     /  December 17, 2008

    Perhaps Obama’s entire life has been a railroading of Carterism. Obama, after decades of conditioning, is unable to break out. It will be interesting to see whether his hate cult was purely a political tool, or whether he, after a day or a decade, was indoctrinated.

    I’m sure you’re right about the 60’s into the 70’s. But some say the 60’s were but a couple years.

  4. acilius

     /  December 17, 2008

    They make two major points. The one liberals can agree with (but not be happy about!) is that Mr O has some of the same strengths and weaknesses that Carter had. Like Carter, he rode into office on a tide of disgust with the status quo and presented himself as a fresh face. Also like Carter, he has said very little about just what he will do once in office and what record he does have in public life shows an unidea’ed timeserver whose chief rule of operation is to stay on the good side of anyone who can help him to the next rung up the ladder. So even if Mr O wakes up tomorrow with some brilliant plan to save the country, it may already be too late- he hasn’t built a movement to support any particular policy agenda. The Onion summed it up with their headline some months ago, “Obama endorses hope” (subhed: “Illinois senator also backs dreams.”) Once he gets more specific than that, the coalition that put him into the presidency may fall apart.

    Being The American Conservative, their other point is that unless Mr O somehow becomes a transformational leader, he won’t be able to change the Democratic Party, which they see as mired in foolish notions beloved of the 70’s era left. I don’t want to dwell on this point, in part because I find it so unconvincing that I’m unlikely to look at it again, and in part because their arguments and concerns strike me as so silly that I find it hard to be entirely fair to them.

  5. cymast

     /  December 17, 2008

    So you’re *absolutely* sure you don’t want to run for President?

  6. acilius

     /  December 17, 2008

    Most definitely! Now if you suggested I run from the president, there’s a good idea.

  7. cymast

     /  December 17, 2008

    I’d suggest you run with your shoes firmly secured to your feet. Or make your getaway on a shoecycle.

  8. acilius

     /  December 17, 2008

    Shoecycle, yes, that would be the ideal.

%d bloggers like this: