Can the USA become a normal country again?


He wanted to to return to normalcy

I posted a “Periodicals Note” about The American Conservative‘s March issue a few weeks ago, then realized I’d never put one up for the February issue.  That’s a shame, because there was a lot of great stuff in it. 

I loved this line, a quote from Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute: “Thus far, the approved conservative position appears to have been that Barack Obama is some kind of ruthless Stalinist with a secret plan to turn the United States into a massive gulag—but under no circumstances should there be any additional checks on his administration’s domestic spying powers.”

Ted Galen Carpenter sums up The American Conservative‘s whole worldview with the opening paragraphs of his piece titled “New War Order.”   So I’ll quote them in extenso:

For a fleeting moment 20 years ago, the United States had the chance to become a normal nation again. From World War II through the collapse of European communism in 1989, America had been in a state of perpetual war, hot or cold. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of that could have changed. There were no more monsters to destroy, no Nazi war machine or global communist conspiracy. For the first time in half a century, the industrialized world was at peace.

Then in December 1989, America went to war again—this time not against Hitler or Moscow’s proxies but with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Tensions between George H.W. Bush’s administration and Noriega’s government had been mounting for some time and climaxed when a scuffle with Panamanian troops left an American military officer dead. On Dec. 20, U.S. forces moved to oust and arrest Noriega. Operation Just Cause, as the invasion was called, came less than a month after the Berlin Wall fell, and it set America on a renewed path of intervention. The prospect of reducing American military involvement in other nations’ affairs slipped away, thanks to the precedent set in Panama.

How real was the opportunity to change American foreign policy at that point? Real enough to worry the political class. Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop lamented in 1989 that there was growing pressure to cut the military budget and that Congress was being overwhelmed by a “1935-style isolationism.” But the invasion of Panama signaled that Washington was not going to pursue even a slightly more restrained foreign policy.

That the U.S. would topple the government of a neighbor to the south was hardly unprecedented, of course. The United States had invaded small Caribbean and Central American countries on numerous occasions throughout the 20th century. Indeed, before the onset of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s, Washington routinely overthrew regimes it disliked.

During the Cold War, however, such operations always had a connection to the struggle to keep Soviet influence out of the Western Hemisphere. The CIA-orchestrated coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the military occupations of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983 all matched that description. Whatever other motives may have been involved, the Cold War provided the indispensable justification for intervention. And for all the rhetoric about democracy and human rights that U.S. presidents employed during the struggle against communism, there was no indication that Washington would later revert to the practice of coercing Latin American countries merely, in Woodrow Wilson’s infamous words, to teach those societies “to elect good men.” Thus the invasion of Panama seemed a noticeable departure. Odious though he may have been, Noriega was never a Soviet stooge.

Lefties may well respond, first, that the USA has never been a “normal nation.”  The thirteen entities that signed the Declaration of Independence were joint stock corporations before they became colonies, so that this new nation was conceived in crony capitalism and dedicated to shareholder value.  Imperialism too is older than the Republic, as the native peoples displaced by the growth of those colonies could attest.  Nor did independence make the former colonists less warlike.  The “state of perpetual war” that Carpenter says the USA entered during World War Two was in fact the country’s usual condition from its inception.  In just the 30 years from 1775-1805, the USA fought at least five wars.  By the time the War of Independence was over, American forces were fighting Shawnee in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, a war that would go on until 1787.  The Wyoming Valley Disturbances overlapped with the 1785-1795 conflict in what is now the state of Ohio, the Northwest Indian Wars.  By the middle of 1789, the USA was also waging naval battles with France.  Less than a year after the naval war with France, the USA was at war with Tripoli.  

Second, one might question whether the phrases “a normal nation” or a “normal country” can be used in serious social analysis; certainly they were potent slogans in the 1990s for liberal-minded citizens of postcommunist states who wanted to their countries to adopt policies that would be pleasing to the West, but does “normal” really mean anything beyond that? 

Third, one might question whether  Senator Wallop’s statement really showed that the USA was likely to turn away from militarism and an annual military budget in the hundreds of billions of dollars.  If the push to cut the defense budget was not strong enough to survive the acne-scarred spectre of Manuel Noriega, it can’t have been all that strong. 

Fourth, it is by no means universally agreed that a “global communist conspiracy” was in operation up to 1989.  If the USA’s confrontation with the USSR “provided the indispensable justification for intervention” in the decades from 1949 on, it was because that confrontation created an international system that remained highly stable as long as each side recognized the other’s sphere of interest, but that could become catastrophically unstable if either disregarded the other’s sphere of interest.  Because the USA and the USSR both wanted to expand their influence, each wanted to destabilize the system; however, neither wanted to trigger a third world war, so they worked out set patterns of interference in each other’s spheres of influence.  When the USSR retired from the field, the USA continued in its desire to expand its influence.  The only change was that the restraint that fear of its erstwhile rival had once imposed was now gone, and America’s warlords were free to choose their battles to suit their own convenience.  

Fifth, Carpenter’s use of “America” as the subject of so many sentences masks a reality.  Expressions like “America went to war,” or for that matter “the USA continued in its desire to expand its influence,” create a vague impression that the country itself, or perhaps its inhabitants as a body, act as a single entity.  In fact, the country itself has no desires, and most of the population resolutely ignores international news.  The It is a particular class of Americans who want to expand their influence by means of the American state, to expand their influence over foreign countries and over their less privileged countrymen.  For this reason, the decades of restraint that the Cold War imposed on US foreign policy did not form a habit.  The habits that lead to the formation of that policy are the striving, self-seeking habits of the members of America’s power elite.

The rest of the issue includes pieces that address several of these points.  An attempt to give substance to the concept of a “normal country” may be involved in profiles in the same issue of two twentieth-century sociologists, Ivan Illich and Robert Nisbet.  Illich identified as a radical; Nisbet as a conservative.  Each was profoundly distrustful of the modern bureaucratic state; each saw market capitalism as dehumanizing, as merely another face of totalitarianism.  For Illich, “institutionalized education is the enemy of learning; cars are immobilizing; modern medicine makes people sick; and the creeping medicalization of life is deeply unhealthy.”  Bureaucracy is dangerous, not because it is occasionally inefficient, but precisely because it is extremely efficient, so efficient as to render its clients unable to imagine life without the benefits it produces and its functionaries unable to imagine life without the structure it provides.  Affluent westerners thus arrive in countries poorer than their own, perhaps with noble intentions, but inevitably in the role of “‘salesmen’ for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.”  This salesmanship takes many forms, some of them relatively benign, but many of them an exacerbation of the worst effects of the West’s chief exports to the world, money and weapons.    

For Nisbet, small communities where life is lived face-to-face give life meaning.   Nisbet saw big government, big business, and big bureaucracies of all kinds as forces that annihilate small communities.  The moderns are left as atomized individuals, isolated from each other and condemned to empty lives.   Tradition, Nisbet argued, is the force that invests community life with meaning.  Nisbet saw sociology itself as a tradition, and hoped that it could help to transform liberalism and modernity:

Against what he saw as this dubious backdrop, Nisbet marshaled not only the tradition of conservative pluralism but also the tradition of sociological thinking. As expounded by thinkers like Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, Nisbet argued, sociology teaches the value of seeing human beings as men-in-society, not as lone creatures in conditions of rational abstraction. Sociology thus exposes the liberal social-contract tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls for what it is: an attempt at omnipotence based on disregard for the social sphere that can provide only a distorted picture of the human animal. 

But that does not mean conservatives should abandon the liberal project altogether. Far from it. For Nisbet, the basic values of modern liberalism—the dignity of the individual, the moral sovereignty of the people, and the possibilities of reason—are noble and defensible values vital to Western civilization, worthy of conservatives’ defense. Liberalism has only faltered to the extent that it has become unmoored from the social traditions in which it emerged. The great expounders of modern liberalism, like John Stuart Mill, were right to value what they valued—but they were wrong to imagine that a healthy form of individualism could blossom anywhere without reference to social organization. With that in mind, the task of conservatives is to reassert the importance of context—of vibrant and plural social organization—for the proper flourishing of liberal commitments.

“The symbols of liberalism, like the bells of the church, depend on prejudgments and social tradition,” Nisbet wrote. “In large part, the present crisis of liberal thought in the West comes, I believe, from the increasing loss of correspondence between the basic liberal values and the prejudgments and social contexts upon which the historic success of liberalism has been predicated.” Nisbet wanted to save liberalism from itself, and to do so he understood the necessity of saving things that seem illiberal: tradition, authority, hierarchy.

The fifth point, that the power elite seeks its own interest, is in the background of a review of Timothy Carney’s Obamanomics.  Carney focuses on Mr O’s leading financial sponsor, General Electric.  The review includes these paragraphs about GE:

Chapter 9, “GE: The For-Profit Arm of the Obama Administration,” is worth the price of the book and provides a perfect case study. Just days after Obama’s inauguration, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt wrote to shareholders, “The global economy, and capitalism, will be ‘reset’ in several important ways. The interaction between government and business will change forever. In a reset economy, the government will be a regulator; and also an industry policy champion, a financier, and a key partner.” Translation: Washington will subsidize our industry, provide grants for our research, and mandate our products for environmental reasons. Kaching! “The company makes light bulbs and refrigerators, sure,” writes Carney, “but it also has a finance arm, a transportation arm, a healthcare arm, a communications arm, and more. The above letter from Immelt reveals what these arms all have in common: they all reach out for government favors.”

Let us count the ways. GE launched its own PAC to solicit donations from its employees for candidates “who share GE’s values and goals.” Unsurprisingly, Obama received more money from GE employees than any other politician. Immelt now sits on Obama’s economic recovery board and enjoys a weekly phone call with White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee. In the past decade, GE has spent more on lobbying than BlueCross, Exxon, or Altria, the owners of Philip Morris. Former Sens. Trent Lott (R) and John Breaux (D) lobby for GE. And former Rep. Dick Gephardt, tribune of the working man, lobbies for NBC Universal, which as we go to press is a subsidiary of the GE conglomerate. If by any chance Obama forgets to ask himself “What would Jeff Immelt do?” before signing legislation, GE has recruited Linda Daschle, wife of that authentic North Dakotan voice of reform, Tom, as another of its lobbyists. 

Where’s the profit in all this influence? For one, GE has been investing in “carbon offset” assets that have almost no value unless the Obama administration institutes its cap-and-trade energy plans. Sure enough, HR 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, is a GE lobbyist’s dream come true. The bill aims to provide manufacturers with “incentives” to sell energy-efficient appliances. Those enticements would mean that GE stands to reap $75 of taxpayer money for each dishwasher it sells until 2013, $200 for each refrigerator, and up to $300 for each hot-water heater. As an added bonus, GE gets tax breaks and billions in loan guarantees for its wind-power projects.

More egregiously, GE lobbied for the ban on its own incandescent light bulbs, a reliable product that for more than a century has turned a profit and employed thousands of factory workers in Kentucky and Ohio. Why would they do that? So they could blame “government regulation” for closing down their costly American plants, of course. GE manufactures its more expensive fluorescent bulbs—generally hated, but now federally mandated—in China and the Philippines.

Also in this issue are two pieces about religion.  Dermot Quinn defends the late Christopher Dawson, an historian much esteemed in his day whose outspoken Roman Catholicism has dimmed his star considerably since his death in 1970.  Also, William S. Lind’s piece about Pope Benedict XVI’s outreach to conservative Anglicans includes some extremely interesting facts about the history of Western Christianity before the Reformation.  Evidently Lind hopes that the Catholic Church will get “back to normal,” meaning that it will return to its condition before the sixteenth century.  For example:

Before the Council of Trent (1545-63), which begat the Counter-Reformation, Rome’s hand rested lightly on national churches. For example, we think of the Roman Catholic Church as having a single rite, after Trent the Tridentine Rite and following Vatican II the sad and dispiriting Novus Ordo. Before Trent, Rome allowed a vast variety of rites, as she would again. England alone had three major rites and a host of minor ones in a country of 4 million people. Rome saw no problem as long as the rites for communion services followed what Dom Gregory Dix called “the shape of the liturgy.” Anglicans might again chant in the litany, “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.”

Pre-Trent, the same decentralization reigned in other matters as well. Kings generally had a good deal of say in who became a bishop. The Church might “volunteer” to pay some form of tax to a needy monarch. (After all, Church lands might make up a third of his kingdom.) When, occasionally, a Pope would overreach, king and bishops would come together to oppose him.

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