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.

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Chronicles, January and February 2010

When I wonder what’s gone wrong with the USA in recent years, I often come back to the idea that many of my countrymen have succumbed to a sort of mass narcissism.  US news outlets and public figures seem to believe that they have; when any sort of anti-Americanism anywhere in the world makes news, few voices with a national audience dare to go into depth about what might drive people to act against the USA or its citizens.  It’s as if the American public could not tolerate any reference to itself except in the form of a continuous stream of unrestrained flattery. 

Thus the US media often depicts acts of violence against Americans, be they acts of war carried out by enemy combatants or acts of terrorism carried out by private individuals, as if they were not only unjustified, but unmotivated.  Since we are not to admit that there is anything about the USA that could possibly be seen as unattractive, we are not allowed to say that anyone could have a reason, even a bad reason, to attack Americans.  When Americans are attacked, therefore, the attacks appear in the news not as the deeds of people who are driven to respond to some or other event or policy that has angered them, but as things that exist independently of any sort of cause-and-effect.  In that way, the attacks are taken out of time and are presented to the public as entities that have always existed and will always exist.  Thus we have obsessive coverage of  security lapses, even very minor lapses such as the gate-crashers at the White House last year.  An attack might be lurking nearby, seeking an opportunity to occur.  We must therefore be ever more on guard against attacks, which means in practice that we must be ever more submissive to the demands of the security apparatus and its masters.  Mass narcissism thereby leads to mass degradation. 

The two most recent issues of ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine both contain pieces that challenge this narcissism.    Ted Galen Carpenter’s article in the February issue about US torture policies that took shape under the Bush/ Cheney administration and that continue under Obama and Biden cites reports that show those policies to be the main motivation for foreign fighters who went to Iraq to fight Americans in the years after 2003.  It’s a shame Carpenter’s article isn’t online; the whole thing is a powerful indictment of torture, and of advocates in the Bush and Obama administrations. 

The January 2010 issue carries a column in which “paleolibertarian” Justin Raimondo says that his job as editor of antiwar.com is complicated by the fact that most of his readers and many of those who write for the site are on the political left.  He is often puzzled by his readers’ unwillingness to accept the conclusions of their own arguments.  So, “For years, opponents of endless military intervention in the Middle East have been warning that our actions will lead to ‘blowback,’ a term used by the CIA to indicate the old aphorism that ‘actions have consequences.'”  Thus far Raimondo and his readers are in agreement.  However, when Raimondo suggested in a recent antiwar.com column that Major Nidal Malik Hasan may have acted on behalf of al-Qaeda when he massacred fellow US soldiers at Fort Hood, he was deluged with harsh criticism.  Unwilling to see the shooting as the major’s attempt to retaliate for US policies that had killed his fellow Muslims, many fans of the site insisted that the attack was orchestrated by the US national security apparatus to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment and rebuild public support for the wars in Afghanistan.  The mainstream press, meanwhile, tried in those early days after the massacre to ignore Major Hasan’s religion and his record of vehement opposition to US Middle Eastern policy, instead peddling the theory that as a psychiatrist he “had, in effect, ‘caught post-traumatic stress disorder, the very affliction it was his job to ameliorate.  According to this theory, the warfare-induced stress experienced by his patients had rubbed off on Hasan to such an extent that he went ballistic.”  The PTSD-by-proxy theory may preserve our national narcissism, ascribing the attack to a cloud of mental illness that drifts from one person to another, giving us an excuse to dismiss any questions about what we as a people may have done to provoke it.  Raimondo is having none of it:

[T]he facts are these: Major Hasan was perfectly correct in stating that the United States is embarked on a war against Islam, and that no one who is a practicing Muslim can consider taking up arms against his fellows in this fight.  All pieties to the effect that we’re on the side of the “good” Muslims notwithstanding, the United States has been fighting what is essentially a religious war.  Is it an accident that we’re currently occupying two Muslim countries, and are threatening to make war on a third?

Of course, the September 11 attacks didn’t have to be the first shot in a “clash of civilizations,” as the famous phrase goes.  We could have treated Osama bin Laden and his crew the same way we treated the Mafia and other criminal gangs from the land of my ancestors:  not by invading Italy, but by targeting their leaders, tracking them down, and pursuing them relentlessly until they were all captured or killed.

Later in the same column:

The horror of my left-liberal readers at the arrival of blowback in the form of Major Hasan is understandable, but the denial of reality is self-defeating and, as I have shown, self-contradictory.  You can’t say a “civilizational” war is a bad idea because we’re not prepared to accept the consequences, and then, when the war commences, refuse to accept the consequences.  We do indeed have a “Muslim problem” in this country as a direct result of our crazed foreign policy.  That is the lesson of the Fort Hood massacre, and denial won’t get us anywhere. 

Raimondo goes on to draw further conclusions.  We can sustain “our crazed foreign policy” only if we adopt an equally crazed domestic policy, and create “Muslim-free zones” wherever there are potential targets for sabotage or terror attacks.  I suspect that Raimondo intends the construction “Muslim-free” to jolt readers by its similarity to the Nazis’ word Judenrein.  Nor does Raimondo see this nightmare scenario as an impossiblity: indeed, he declares that “Another attack on the scale of September 11 would effectively lead to the de facto abolition of the Constitution, the disappearance of liberalism, and the end of any hope that we can rein in our rulers in their quest to dash the American ship of state on the rocky shoals of empire.”  The very leaders who speak to us only in words of the sweetest flattery may be preparing us for a future of servitude.  The very media enterprises that treat us as if our sensibilities were too delicate to endure a word of criticism may be preparing themselves for a future under the direction of a ministry of propaganda.

The American Conservative, September 2009

american conservative september 2009One of the traits of this magazine is a tendency to grandiose theoretical explanations.  That’s one of the things I like about it; I’m into grandiose theoretial explanations myself.  It isn’t scholarly publication, and few of its authors have academic reputations to defend, so that tendency is not always restrained by the standards that keep theorizing under control in academic journals.  Sometimes that means that the magazine runs a provocative, bold idea that might not have survived heavier editing; sometimes it means that it runs something that’s just plain cheesy quality.  Again, I’m a pretty cheesy guy, so that’s okay with me. 

For example, this month Ted Galen Carpenter points out that Americans by and large are quick to view political disputes in foreign countries in a romantic light, seeing the ghost of Thomas Jefferson in all sorts of unlikely figures.  The next piece, by John Laughland, picks up on this same theme, explaining this American tendency as a sign of the influence of the philosophy of the Enlightenment.  Laughland writes that “the key to understanding the West’s love of revolutions” is Westerners’ characteristic desire to believe that “politics can and should be a story with a happy ending.”  This desire has run rampant in the West ever since the thinkers of the Enlightenment undermined the traditional Christian belief that the cosmos was ordered in a hierarchy, that justice was to be found in that hierarchy, and that the ruler’s power should be limited because the ruler was subordinate to God.  Laughland identifies Immanuel Kant as “the greatest of all Enlightenment philosophers,” and summarizes Kant’s theory as a belief that ordinary reality is unknowable, but that the highest reality is “the categorical imperative- an abstract universally valid proposition that becomes real when it is willed.”  Proceeding from these rather drastic simplifications, Laughland declares that:

The attraction of Enlightenment liberalism, therefore, is the result of a deep emotional need for a philosophical sytem that enables man to create a reality in a universe he does not understand and thereby to escape from the difficulties of the world by believing that everything will turn out all right in the end.  Lacking a real belief in the afterlife, it also holds that the drama of human salvation is played out in this world, in history and politics. 

Again, this is a severe oversimplification, but it has a certain plausibility.  Where Laughland really goes off the rails is in his closing section, in which he argues that Enlightenment liberalism has an “objective ally” in Islam:

[B]ecause it has no priesthood, Islam, and especially Shi’ism, is fundamentally a “democratic” religion comparable to Puritanism and other forms of Presbyterianism.  There is no established hierarchy; the Koran must be read equally by all.  Of course Allah is supreme and Islam demands absolute submission to Him; on the face of it, this seems the opposite of the liberal model in which the individual is subjected only to himself.  But this very submission is egalitarian, creating a mass of individuals who are equal in their abstractness.  Moreover, God’s will is [merely] will, it has no correlation with natural law as in the Christian or Jewish traditions.  Islam is therefore a profoundly voluntarist religion.  Because Allah is absolutely transcendent and unknowable, he is like the Kantian thing-in-itself: mere command. 

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Chronicles (four issues)

My subscription to this ultra-ultra conservative publication ran out a couple of years ago, but they keep sending it to me nonetheless.  I suppose they really mean it when they say they believe in tradition. 

November 2007: Gregory McNamee remembers his friend Edward Abbey, alternately acknowledging his faults (“Was he a racist?  Undoubtedly, at least after a fashion”), even praising him for what others might regard as faults (the fact that Abbey “never bothered himself with developing a coherent politics apart from that most old-school of tenets: The individual trumps the collectivity, the collectivity is always suspect, freedom is the sine qua non of existence, the world is a fine place and worth fighting for.”)  Lefalcon’s idol Srdja Trifkovic compares the current phase of the US occupation of Iraq to the USSR’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Ted Galen Carpenter analyzes likely consequences of Kosovo’s “independence,” bringing up the six members of the Kosovo Liberation Army caught planning to attack Fort Dix. 

January 2008: Clyde Wilson looks at what it would mean if the USA were indeed a “Proposition Nation” as some like to say, finding that the consequences of such a belief are quite brutal; Kirkpatrick Sale argues that the time has come for the states to secede from the USA; Sale and Tobias Lanz sympathetically review books propounding a new agrarian vision; and Srdja Trifkovic finds the American Empire compromised, even paralyzed, on every front, and concludes that the best thing for the USA would be for this paralysis to continue indefinitely.

February 2008: Leon Hadar looks at calls for Washington to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and finds “Another Middle East Fantasy.”  “America’s role as facilitator of a potential peace accord [can] only be achieved if and when the Israelis and Palestinians reach the conclusion that the costs of continuing to fight have become so high that they require agonizing compromises over Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees, and the Israeli settlements.”  For all its influence, the American government is in no position to create a situation from which this cost-benefit anaysis would flow.  A recent case of “Honor Killing” in Canada, coupled with the Canadian establishment’s panicked attempts to prevent public discussion of the case, prompts a brief note calling for “more open debate in Canada” about immigration policy.  Chronicles editor (and classics PhD) Thomas Fleming discusses neoconservative ideas about domesticating Islam and taming Muslims, finding these ideas to be delusions that have issued in disaster, most recently in Kosovo’s “independence.”  Gregory McNamee provides a miniature biography of Billy the Kid, a surprisingly fresh and informative little sketch.  Roger D. McGrath writes about his favorite western movies, Clay Reynolds about his least-favorite specimens of the same genre.  Taki Theodoracopulos tells a story about an English judge who fined him the equivalent of $400,000 for the offense of explaining the origins of some words derived from Greek.  John Willson reviews a favoriable biography of Senator Joe McCarthy, adding hgis own fervent commendation.  Andrei Navrozov explains his multiple marriages by quoting an alleged Russian proverb to the effect that a man should marry three times- the first time for no reason, the second time for love, the third for love.  And Srdja Trifkovic finds in Kosovo’s “independence” a catastrophe of global dimensions.   

March 2008: Gregory McNamee discusses the immiseration of the average Mexican over the last few decades, connecting it to the mass migration of her citizens northward.  McNamee argues that this migration is not only a result of Mexico’s declining standard of living, but in several ways a cause of it.  William Lutz reports on educational controversies in Texas.  Taki provides his usual story of boozy life among the jet set, then tacks on some chilling facts about Kosovo.  A review of Chilton Williamson’s Immigration and the American Future focuses on ways in which mass migration of unskilled workers increases economic inequality.  A review of a biography of Dick Cheney appears under the headline “A Self-Made (Mad)Man.”  And Joseph E. Fallon points out the similarities between the ongoing massacres in the Sudanese region of Darfur and the Ethiopian region of Ogaden.  “Why the outrage over Darfur, but not over Ogaden?  There are three reasons: Islam, oil, and China.”

The American Conservative, 5 November 2007

A particularly good issue of this always-surprising publication.

The cover story, “The myth of the oil weapon,” explains why the market is a better guarantor of a steady flow of oil to western states than military force could ever be.  “Secular Fundamentalists” offers a pitying account of a recent convention of atheists.  “The Creativity Conceit” picks up one of the magazine’s recurring themes, that Americans have no inherent advantage over people of other nationalities in intellectual work and that research and development operations are likelier to follow production facilities than production facilities are to rise up as a consequence of a concentration of R & D shops.  “There’s something about Barry” describes recent attempts by advocates of every possible shade of American political opinion to claim the late Barry Goldwater as a precursor, then argues that he was essentially a man of his time, not a prophet of any current movement.  Elsewhere in the issue, Pat Buchanan points out that Rudolph Giuliani disagrees with him on every political issue of the day; Daniel Larison argues that our government can be honest about the Armenian genocide of 1915 only if we are willing to end our alliance with Turkey, which is to say, if we are willing to renounce our single most important startegic asset in the middle east; Philip Giraldi reports on a belief, apparently widespread among his former co-workers at the CIA, that Dick Cheney is directing the US government from an underground command post attached to his house; John Laughland says nice things about Vladimir Putin; Ted Galen Carpenter analyzes the misunderstandings among the leaders of the USA, China, and Taiwan, warning that war between the US and China is quite likely as long as the US continues to interject itself into the China/ Taiwan standoff; and A C Gancarski praises Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, among other things for its echoes of Magnetic Fields’ song “Born on a Train” and Green Day’s “Wake Me When September Ends.”