Saturday, January 22, 2011

Out of Ideas

I've already discussed this notion that the terrorists – or whatever you want to call them – have “won” by forcing us to turn our country into a police state. My point was, how can they consider this a good outcome if they see nothing wrong with a police state? The Taliban in Afghanistan exerted a degree of control over the citizenry that the Maoists could only dream of. Nor have they “won” by making us feel, and act, less like “ourselves” -- because, again, they have no use for liberty and, as far as they're concerned, we've always been part of the colonial, oppressive, infidel Western alliance. That is, they have always found us distasteful, so if we have, of late, become a bit more distasteful to ourselves, well, that's a fairly marginal concern.

But there is one area where they can definitely, and with justification, claim that they've “won” -- but it's a bit on the abstract side, so it isn't going to impress too many people over here. And this is in the realm of moral superiority... the moral high ground... as opposed to hypocrisy, and being “no better” than anyone else – including the colonial powers of old, with all of their various instruments of oppression. You see, because we are, as I've previously discussed, an ideational culture – a nation founded on ideas rather than the traditional verities of race, creed, and ethnicity – ideas are our strong suit and our weak suit at the same time. They are our strong suit when they are, first, intrinsically valid, and, second, of general applicability to at least our own populace. They are also our strong suit when, in those instances where they are found to have validity and applicability to other societies, they are spread to those societies through peaceful and non-coercive means. In other words, there's nothing wrong with “spreading democracy” the old way – through example and through information (as opposed to propaganda)... and through genuine aid and assistance. But the down side of all this is that we, at some point, developed the idea that anyone who didn't see things our way – for whatever reason (cultural, religious, etc.) had to be forced to... or at least forced to go through the motions, pretending to see things our way even if they didn't. It was a case of “forced conversion”, if you will. In other words, our zeal to remake the world in our own image overcame the caveat that should have gone along with it -- “only if the world is willing”. Because even if our ideas are superior – not just good for us and no one else – that superiority is fatally compromised when force is used, the way charity is fatally compromised when it is taken over by the government. So while we might claim the moral high ground... some sort of moral superiority... within our own borders, the minute we try to export our ideas through force they lose all moral claims, and become just another oppressive system, as far as the objects of our exertions are concerned. So we wind up with countries around the world aping things like free elections, representative government, division of powers, etc. just to keep us happy (and mainly to keep all that aid money flowing). But do they believe in any of it? Possibly some do. But the majority seem to be gaming the system we have set up, to get as much out of it as possible without having to make any real investment – and let's face it, this is a traditional response of the “third world” to colonial incursions. During the Cold War, they gamed both us and the Soviets about equally – and some places managed to game both at once (India and Egypt come to mind).

So it would be easy enough to accuse third world governments of hypocrisy, corruption, and chicanery, but at least some of this is in response to our own hypocrisy. I don't know, but I'd be willing to bet that there is more corruption in Iraq now that there was under Saddam... and more in Afghanistan than there was under the Taliban. Not that those regimes were anything to brag about – but they did manage to keep the lid on in certain respects. Even China has an agile response to corruption in high places, regularly executing people who, in this country, would, at worst, lose their job but then wind up with a book deal and a fat contract as a consultant or “commentator”.

The point is that the other side – whoever it happens to be at the time – can do us the most damage, in a sense, by exposing not only our folly (which is plain enough to see) but our loss of moral stature. And don't get me wrong – loss of moral stature on the international level is not the same as loss of moral stature domestically. The government could, in theory, continue to serve its own citizens fairly well while acting in a crude and ham-handed manner overseas. And this is not only because ideas that “work” here don't work elsewhere – although that is part of it. It's the very act of coercion... the patronizing, paternalistic notion that if only these primitive, superstitious natives could only see what democracy is all about... that corrupts and contaminates. Because those people may dimly understand some of the ideas, but what they most definitely understand is what's happening right before their eyes. We may feel like “idea people” at home around the fireplace, but in the war zone it's nothing but bombs and bullets – and that's what people see, and that's usually all they see. There was a cynical saying during the Vietnam conflict -- “When you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” But of course, we weren't talking about “hearts and minds” at all, but the ability to play-act... and to smile, and bow, and grovel, and think about how to get rid of us as soon as possible. And we see much the same thing today in Iraq and Afghanistan. How many of those people are really our friends? How many believe in what we are doing, and in what we (supposedly) represent? I think in most cases all they're trying to do is keep their butt in one piece, and wait until we leave (if ever), at which point they will cheerfully revert to type – whatever that is, for better or worse. We're always shocked at the speed with which a place will regress, like it was on the end of a rubber band, the minute our influence wanes. Likewise, the European colonial powers were undoubtedly a bit shocked when they saw how quickly sub-Saharan Africa reverted to tribalim. “And here I thought we'd taught the natives a thing or two.” It turns out that a few thousand years of culture is a more difficult thing to vanquish than anyone thought. Weren't all the EU members supposed to be some kind of blended, generic European by now? And yet the Germans still act like Germans, and the Greeks still act like Greeks, and so on. This must be very frustrating for the globalists and one-worlders. Even in this country, Southerns just won't quit being Southerners -- a great source of frustration for the cultural elite.

So to get back to the terrorists for a moment – are they the first group that has succeeded in seriously eroding our vaunted moral superiority? Well no – the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong did a pretty good job of it as well. And please notice that this is primarily a “relativistic” argument. Did the “Cong” treat people any better than we did? I tend to doubt it. But on the other hand, no one expected them to. There were no pretentions, and where there are no pretentions there can be no hypocrisy. The moral damage – the demoralization – that we suffer in our ill-advised efforts overseas is based on the discrepancy between our claims and the reality – i.e. the reality that they see, not the reality that we see here at home or pretend to see in the war zone. In other words, it's relative, not absolute. But ironically, it's at least partly our absolutist attitudes about our ideas and customs that leads people elsewhere to point out the discrepancies. There's nothing more annoying than a hypocritical Puritan, in other words. Normal human failure we can tolerate – but this trampling all over other people, and cultures, in combat boots, in the name of “ideas”... well, that simply can't be borne.

And it's not as though we were pure as the driven snow up to Vietnam. There have always been sharp discrepancies between our words (ideas) and our actions, in all wars and at all levels (including, I might add, our own Civil War). But in most cases we had at least clarity of purpose on our side – even if those purposes might have had a delusional quality. We bailed out Europe twice in 30 years... and G.I. Joe was busy handing out Hershey bars. OK, fair enough. If there are atrocity stories (about us) from the two World Wars, they are considered extreme deviations from the norm, and a contradiction to our entire purpose. But then came Vietnam, and things got a bit more murky. The mission, goals, and strategy were vague, and got more vague as things went along – and sure enough, this led, right down to the grass-roots “grunt” level, to demoralization and to events like My Lai. And don't think that the opposing side was not fully aware of all the “domestic politics” revolving around the war... and don't think they didn't do all they could to aid and abet the anti-war movement. But their main weapon – other than home-front opposition to the draft – was demonstration of our hypocrisy, and that we had sunk into a moral pit over there – again, relatively speaking... relative to our stated goals, priorities, and values. They didn't have to claim that they were better – only that we were no better... that we had failed miserably in living up to our alleged status of moral superiority, which gave us the right and the obligation to be the world's policeman. And in fact, another tactic that comes into play in situations like this is that, when we encounter an enemy that has no concept of "the rules of war", we tend to regress to their level -- in other words, we become what we behold. We were able to resist this moral hazard to a great extent in dealing with the Japanese and the North Koreans (and Chinese), but got sucked in in Vietnam (remember ear collecting?) and are getting sucked in in the Middle East as well -- further evidence of our hypocrisy! Now the enemy can brag that we behave as badly as they do, and that this is to our discredit (but not to theirs).

And you would think, or hope, that that one lesson (Vietnam) would have sufficed – but clearly it didn't, because here we are again, “up the Big Muddy” in Iraq and Afghanistan... and sharpening our bayonets for Iran as well. Because, well, this time our goals are clear, and we know our duty, and, besides, they attacked us, didn't they? I mean, Iraq didn't, but they could have... or they cheered when someone else did... or something. And Iran? Look what they did to our poor diplomats, and to Jimmy Carter (heh heh). And Afghanistan gave aid and comfort to the enemy – or at least the Taliban did, even though the enemy was mostly from Saudi Arabia, which is our trusted ally, even though they are the heart and soul of Wahabism, which has sworn vengeance on the infidel (us) and on the “Israeli entity”. Etc. etc. Are our mission, goals, and strategy in the Middle East really any clearer than they were in Vietnam? (At least there we could claim to be fighting communism, which is a political system, rather than "terror", which is an emotion.) Do we have any more of an “exit strategy” -- or do we have one at all? I think the point is, we have gotten into the habit of war – and when you're in the habit of war, morals are no longer an issue, and in fact ideas of any sort are no longer an issue. The only thing we use ideas for any more is as a kind of cover for our actions overseas – but the deception is so transparent that we may as well not bother. In fact, the main reason for keeping things on an ideational level is to placate certain portions of the home front – people who will do certain things for “a good cause” but not just for the old, ancient reasons of power, loot, and love of conquest. We have yet to admit to ourselves that we have become those sorts of people – even though the rest of the world is startlingly consistent in this assessment of us. (This is one reason why I think we should stay in the U.N., for example – how else are we going to get feedback?)

But as I said, this sort of victory remains abstract, and has minor diplomatic consequences at best (like Tony Blair being brought up on war crimes – if only!). It's not going to change things in a tangible way until we start paying attention to what everyone else is saying. But as it is, we're more likely to believe someone like Dick Cheney than someone like Osama bin Laden, when it comes to reasons for the “war on terror” (or the terrorists' war on us, AKA jihad). And we're more likely to continue using ideas, and delusions of moral superiority, as a cover for doing whatever we please in the world – because without those justifications, where would we be? Just another country? Just another colonial empire? Which means, no longer favored by God (assuming we ever were), and subject to the same dreary life-cycle phenomena as all other empires in history? It might even force us to take a good, hard look at precisely where we are in the classic empire life-cycle – because, to all appearances, we're over the hill and well on our way to a thundering fall. But all of this is too upsetting, so we go into denial... and continue to smoke the opium of forgetfulness and oblivion – that opium of ideas and moral pretense.

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