How to avoid becoming a “faceless, slinking thing”

If only Robert A. Taft were still alive...

The March issue of The American Conservative notices a reissue of Russell Kirk’s The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft.  Taft, long the Republican Party’s leader in the US Senate, opposed US entry into the Second World War; that was a common position on the American Right before 7 December 1941.  Unlike many of the conservatives who had been reluctant to commit the USA to war with Germany, Taft continued to resist the creation of a militarized superstate after America’s would-be warlords shifted their attentions from the defeated Germany to the insurgent Communist powers.  

Taft never accepted the premises of the Cold War.  He led opposition to the formation of NATO, faulted President Truman for ignoring the Constitution and sending US troops into the Korean War without congressional authorization, argued against the doctrine of “collective security,” demanded reductions in military spending, and in 1950 braved widespread derision to predict that if the US continued the interventionist policies of the day, American troops might someday be sent to war in some preposterous place like Vietnam.  Not even Taft would dare to incite the laughter that would greet a warning that Americans might someday be sent to make war in Afghanistan. 

When Taft died, the New Bedford, Massachusetts Standard Times said that he had left a void that the Republican Party would never fill.  While there might still be a political group under that name for many years to come, it was destined to be a “faceless, slinking thing” for want of a man like Senator Taft.  I don’t suppose we can call today’s Republicans “faceless,” and their spokesmen are more likely to strut and preen than to slink, at least when the cameras are on them.  But their unfailing support of ever-larger military budgets and an ever-wider scope of authority for the government headquartered in Washington DC would have struck Taft and his coevals as the very opposite of conservative. 

You might think that cultivating a cheerful outlook and making a consistent effort to show that cheerfulness would be a sure way to avoid becoming a “faceless, slinking thing.”  But depending on what brings you to those habits, they may have the opposite effect.  Self-declared misanthrope Florence King reviews Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.   King begins with Ehrenreich’s description of her time as a breast-cancer patient, a time spent in a world slathered with pink and buried under teddy bears.  While breast-cancer professionals may intend to create a space where women can feel free to let go of burdens that might get in the way of their healing, what they have actually brought about suggests to Ehrenreich and to King not a liberation from troubles, but an exile from adult womanhood.  Relentless cutesiness infantilizes women, while “The emphasis placed on industrial-strength cheerfulness also [leads] to victim-blaming… and self-punishing guilt… Ehrenreich soon discovered that ‘dissent is a form of treason.’  One day she posted hers on an online message board and heard back ‘You need to run, not walk, to some counseling.'”  It wasn’t enough she had to be in medical treatment to be freed of cancer, she was also supposed to go into psychological treatment to be brought into conformity with the prescribed attitudes.  

When a person is diagnosed with a major disease, the number and variety of people who wield power over that person often increases dramatically.  Suddenly, one is dependent on the good conduct of health-care professionals and the goodwill of friends and relatives.  Such an experience of subjection can be quite demoralizing all by itself.  Added to the suffering and weakness that disease inflicts on the body, this subjection might be enough to teast any person’s mettle.  If one’s new masters use their power to force one to display cheerfulness amid the agonies of disease, one might well be stripped of one’s dignity, and feel like a “faceless, slinking thing.” 

I suppose people who wield power might themselves become “faceless, slinking things.”  That was the point the New Bedford editorialist was making about the post-Taft Republican Party, that under the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower that party had come to echo the Democrats’ will to make war abroad and centralize authority at home.  Traditional conservatives had traded their principled opposition to statism, and with it their dignity, for a chance to play the role of Caesar in the new drama of empire.  One statesman who seems to have thought along lines that Senator Taft might have favored was George Ball, who was undersecretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  A piece in this issue carries the subhed “From Vietnam to Palestine, George Ball got it right.”  Taft and Taftians may well have thought Ball was right, but did he escape the fate of becoming a “faceless, slinking thing”?  This question haunts the piece.   

Most of the piece treats Ball’s role in US policymaking during the Vietnam War.  Many of Ball’s colleagues at the head of the US government in the 1960s had studied Vietnam, but had studied the country superficially.  They had learned just enough about it to understand the theories that justified US policies in the Vietnam War, but not enough to criticize those theories, much less enough to find more satisfactory alternative theories.  Ball, convinced that Europe was the only theater of the Cold War, focused his attention on that continent, and was late to turn to Vietnam.  When he did,  he saw a place where American military intervention could benefit no legitimate interest.  President Kennedy was too charmed by the interventionist theories to listen to Ball; when he was in office, Ball focused exclusively on European affairs.  But President Johnson was interested in a wider range of views.  To quote the piece:

He would truly come into his own during the Johnson administration.  Between May 1964 and May 1966, crucial years in the escalation of the war, Ball produced more than 20 internally circulated papers challenging US policy in Vietnam.  These disputed everything about the intervention, from tactical moves in the war to the flawed assumptions underpinning it.  He debunked the effectiveness of air raids and dissected the Domino Theory.  “The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong,” he wrote in a July 1965 memorandum.  “No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong or even force them to the conference table on our terms, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of white, foreign troops we deploy.” 

When the Pentagon Papers revealed the powerful case Ball made against the war and the close attention President Johnson paid to Ball’s arguments, some adopted Ball as an antiwar hero.  Others found fault with him for remaining in the administration and publicly speaking in favor of policies that his confidential memos showed to be pointless.  Ball’s defenders, such as Bill Moyers and William Fulbright, argue that his presence in the administration ensured that the president would hear a strong antiwar voice, while his resignation would generated at most a one-day news story and would have left the president surrounded by true believers.  Some concepotions of honor might have suggested that Ball was demeaning himself by pretending to support policies that he so deeply opposed.  However, it would seem to be going rather far to say that he was reduced to a “faceless, slinking thing” during the Johnson administration.  Had President Kennedy lived, on the other hand, and had he continued to deny Ball’s views on Vietnam a hearing, perhaps Ball’s position would have become intolerable to any but a “faceless, slinking thing.”  Perhaps President Johnson himself, ever alive to the absurdity of the war but feeling trapped by the consequences of his predecessor’s decisions, was the “faceless, slinking thing,” his continuation and escalation of Kennedy’s war a symptom of his helplessness in the face of events. 



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     /  February 6, 2010

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