Thursday, October 11, 2012

Politics vs. Reality

One of my favorite expressions from the commentariat of our time is “reality-based”. This is most commonly applied to foreign policy, and it is used primarily by people who consider themselves reality-based. That is, it's an excellent example of self-styling. And the use of this expression immediately calls up the question, does this mean that everyone else is non-reality based? And if so, what is their alternative world view? Obviously, the very use of the term implies that there is something seriously wrong with people who don't fit into the category. They might be insane, even!

So what does the term typically mean to the people who use it? According to Wikipedia, the term “reality-based community” is used to describe people whose “opinions are based more on observation than on faith, assumption, or ideology”, and “who believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality.” Wow – sounds like a bunch of Ayn Rand followers, doesn't it? Taking reality as it is, and working from that basis, vs. creating our own reality. And it's actually a very good question – philosophically and in terms of issues like free will, cycles of history, etc. There have always been arguments as to the extent to which events are really under anyone's control – an individual's or a group's. Perhaps what appears to be “control” is just an illusion – the way a toddler will work away at the “steering wheel” of a kiddie car or carnival ride when there is actually no relationship between his efforts and the outcome. When a given political movement, or ideology, is in acendance for purely historical/cyclic reasons, the people who advocate that movement or ideology feel like they're on the winning side, and that their efforts are paying off – the world is finally coming around to the way it ought to be. But then comes the fall, and the crash... and other movements and ideas take over. Was it anyone's fault? Who gets credit? Who gets blame?

History is full of instances where one could look on and say “Lo, how the mighty have fallen!” Think about ancient empires... about the French kings... Napoleon... the British Empire... the Soviet Union... Nazi Germany... and so on. Think, in anticipation, about the American Empire, if you like. In each case, that which was thought to be all-mighty and unstoppable crumbled to dust, and not necessarily as the result of having been vanquished in war. Top-heavy systems of any sort will tend to collapse of their own weight. Systems based on tyranny, slavery, and oppression have built-in flaws. Systems built on collectivism can't last indefinitely because they defy human nature. Systems based on “perpetual” anything (economic growth, technological progress, war, etc.) are doomed to failure because the one thing they depend on is finite; it has limits.

But these are all long-term considerations. In the short term, almost anything is possible – for a while. Does anyone seriously think a system like North Korea's can last indefinitely? And yet it has lasted from the end of World War II up to now (though, admittedly, not without plenty of help). How long can our national debt continue to grow? How many more wars can we add to the ones we're already fighting?  (I notice in today's paper that we now have troops in Jordan, on the Syrian border.)  And so on. It can take a long time for any system – even the most distorted and debased – to collapse. And once it does collapse, it can even take a long time for whatever replaces it to fully restore the prior “standard of living” -- at least in some areas. (Note that many former colonies in Africa have yet to recover from their “liberation”.) Plus, there are always vested interests in whatever system is in place – people who will fight like demons to keep things just as they are. These are the real “conservatives” in any system – which makes me think that our labels are just the reverse of what they should be. Our “liberals” will do anything to preserve the welfare state that started with the New Deal, whereas our “conservatives” would like to junk the whole business.

Then you have foreign policy – and back to the “reality-based” concept. What is “reality” when it comes to foreign policy? Better still, what are the many varieties of unreality? What are some examples of non-reality-based thinking? Let's list a few:
  • American-style democracy is the best political system ever devised, and thus deserves to be emulated by all other nations.
  • The “American Experiment” was not an accident of history or of historical cycles, but was ordained from on high.
  • All people world-wide are interested in, and value, democracy (including its basic elements, like voting and representative government).
  • Religious, cultural, historical, and political barriers to accepting democracy should be challenged and done away with in as expeditious a manner as possible.
  • Political values should always predominate over religious and cultural values. I.e., the secular and the “global” should always be preferred to the parochial and provincial.
  • Our system will work just as well anywhere else in the world as it works for us. [This is, of course, assuming it actually works for us.]
  • It is the destiny of America to be an agent of change for the rest of the world. [Note how much this resembles an idea the Soviet Union had.] [Note also that this is an explicit piece of Romney's platform.]
  • Political and diplomatic persuasion are OK, but subversion, assassination, and war are more efficient and unambiguous, thus should be preferred.
  • The lives of foreigners are not worth as much as the lives of Americans. In fact, they aren't worth even a tiny fraction as much. [This is curious, because if it's true, why are we so anxious to confer the blessings of democracy on such worthless creatures?]
  • Foreigners (especially of the “third world” type) don't have feelings. They also don't have any real culture, their customs are ridiculous, and their languages are nothing but a series of grunts.
  • If foreigners insist on remaining religious even after receiving all the blessings of democracy, then the only religions they should have are either Protestantism or non-orthodox Judaism. Islam, even though monotheistic, should be considered “evil” (at least that's what we tell our military).
  • If people don't know how to run their own countries, it's up to us to run them for them.
  • The ideal is for the U.S. military to replace all national militaries in countries that we occupy. Or, at the very least, for their militaries to be subordinate to ours, and to only be involved in trivial local police actions.
  • Even a country that seems to be making progress can backslide. Therefore, we must continue to station our troops there in perpetuity. [This is assumed to be true for Germany and Japan, so how can it not be true for Iraq and Afghanistan?] [And on the domestic side, note that many Southern states are still officially on probation when it comes to civil rights.]
  • The American Experiment has shown that religion, culture, local customs, and ethnicity are not important. Therefore we will have no patience with similar things elsewhere. (We get along perfectly well without them; why can't they?)
  • Other things that are not important include geography, climate, soil, and natural phenomena. As we have shown, these can all be overcome with technology and determination.
  • The ultimate goal of foreign policy is to make everyone look, think, and act like an American.
  • A related goal is to bring all nations into a single global, unified, one-world government. [This will, presumably, be headed up by the U.S. Dream on!]
  • The single exception to the above is that Israel must be preserved at all costs, as a secular but religiously- and ethnically-based state. Any conflict between any of the preceding principles and Israel must be resolved in favor of Israel.
Wow, that was almost too easy. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, as they used to say. And I'm sure that many more illusions, delusions, and psychotic symptoms could be added.

I must say, the above list reads like a catechism for anyone in the foreign relations business, especially on the military side. And the amazing thing about it is that the list has remained, basically, unchanged since the first Marines were sent into some tropical pesthole to suppress some native rebellion. The perennial contradiction in our attitudes seems to be that while other peoples and nations are intrinsically inferior to us, they ought, nevertheless, to be expected to adopt, with glad hearts and open arms, not only our political system but everything else about our culture. It's this “inferior but deserving” image that explains so much of what is grotesque in the history of our overseas escapades.

But how about “reality”? Is that as easy to define, or to provide examples of? We had, back in Henry Kissinger's day in the sun, something called “realpolitik”, defined as (Wiki again) “politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises.” Hmmm... that sounds more Nietzschean than Randian. Nietzsche was into power, whereas Rand was into ethics (conflated with morality) with a secular, “reality” base – namely, what is “Man” and what is appropriate to Man? Working from an “is” to an “ought” -- the age-old task of applied philosophy, if you will. (And wasn't all philosophy “applied” in this sense up until recently, when it was taken over by epistemological deconstructionists and metaphysical anarchists?)

So let's just say – to keep it real simple – that reality-based foreign policy would start with premises as to what is Man, and what is appropriate to Man, in the most general or universal sense. Then we would have to, fairly quickly, start sorting out particulars from universals. Are all other cultures equally “man”-like, therefore equally worthy (of not being attacked or interfered with), or are some of them degenerate, oppressive, and opposed to people's realizing their full potential – and therefore in need of “help”? Now, the Americanist premise is, clearly, that few, if any, other nations or cultures are worthy, and certainly not qualified to be put on the same level as America... and therefore all are in need of our help, advice, and solicitude... or, if that fails, to have the crap beaten out of them. Now, we will let places off the hook that are enough like us to get a passing grade – which means Europe most of the time, and parts of Latin America and East Asia. But everybody else had better watch out! “Don't make us come over there!” 'Cause we're the cops of the world, or at least the fed-up moms (Hillary Clinton being the poster child for that idea).

There's no use trying to minimize the impact of Americanism on our foreign policy. Look at what happens when something truly outrageous happens overseas. Anyone remember those Buddha statues in Bamiyan that were blown up by the Taliban? I think that had as much to do as anything with our willingness to attack and invade Afghanistan after 9/11 – because that was “intolerance”, and surely we can't have that... anywhere on the planet! Similar arguments were made to bolster our invasion of Iraq, if you'll recall.  And now we have the shooting of that young girl in Pakistan, by the Taliban -- which, all by itself, adds ten years to our planned sojourn in that fine place.  I'm not saying these incidents were necessary as excuses – but anything that helps with the propaganda is a good thing. (More mundane, and more fictitious, excuses can be used as well. Remember the “babies and incubators” myth that helped get us into Kuwait? You don't always need a “Gulf of Tonkin incident”, leave alone a Pearl Harbor.)

So let's say that our foreign policy baseline makes a 180-degree turn from Americanism, nationalism, empire-building, neocolonialism, etc. to an ultra-tolerant, and (some would say) isolationist point of view. Is that more “reality-based”? The Romney camp is right now accusing the Obama administration of indifferentism when it comes to issues of terrorism, Islam, and the like – when, as everyone knows, we're still on a mission from God in the Middle East. But what if crusader zeal is inappropriate in our time? Are traditionally neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland more “reality-based”? They certainly suffer less from the scourges of war. If we became as “isolationist” as everyone accuses Ron Paul of being, wouldn't we be better off in nearly every “real” (as opposed to idealistic) way? But on the other hand, wouldn't that also reinforce a kind of cynicism or indifference to the general welfare of the human race? And, aren't there things still worth fighting for – as in Just War Theory? Wouldn't an isolationist baseline require us to think a bit more before starting a war? Ah yes – the demands on the intellect that being “reality-based” would require. Much better to just stick with mass hysteria, delusion, and the madness of crowds. 

And clearly, reality simply isn't good enough for the ideologues of this world. Here's another quote from Wiki, attributed to (allegedly) Karl Rove: “That's not the way the world really works anymore... We're an empire [note the terminology!] now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” In other words, either lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way, but in any case forget all about this “reality” nonsense. Well... all I can say is, if Iraq and Afghanistan represent our “creating our own reality”, then we need a different approach to reality.

What's ironic about all this is that it's always the “conservatives” criticizing the liberals for wishful thinking when it comes to domestic policy (and, by implication, human nature). How, for example, could you ever imagine that welfare would not be habit-forming? Same with entitlements. If you allow people to vote money out of other people's pockets into their own, how are they not going to take advantage of that? And so on. And yet when it comes to foreign policy... and I hate to say this at election time, but... the “conservatives” among us seem to be even more delusional, and less reality-based, than the liberals.

And yes, if being one of “history's actors” is your top priority, then fine – you can join other “actors” like Attila, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and others... all of whom wreaked much more destruction than any possible good they might have done. The “study” of history's actors mostly results (or should) in the conclusion that we don't want to be anything like them, or be anywhere near them. And yet again – going back to Nietzsche – if it really is all about power, and nothing more, then we should hold these people in awe, and not even mind if they ultimately fail. The idea is to have fought... to have exerted oneself against mediocrity, against the bland, compromising “reality” of other people. The true man in this case is one that accepts no limits – either on himself or on human nature in general. I will conquer, and anyone who cannot keep up can just lie down in the mud and die. Human nature, if it exists at all, exists only to be changed – to be improved upon. Isn't this the premise behind every totalitarian, every collectivist system? Isn't this what Orwell was talking about? (And isn't it also what Huxley and Skinner were actually hoping for – but in a “soft” form?) (And it is notable that the only “utopias” that work are the ones that involve compromise. Socialism does work, up to a point – but communism, historically, does little but destroy.) 

So liberals imagine, and create, their own reality on the domestic side, and seem at least somewhat skeptical on the foreign policy side (perhaps as a bit of residual scar tissue from Vietnam)... whereas conservatives imagine, and create, their own reality on the foreign policy side, but are totally realistic and level-headed when it comes to domestic policy. This over-simplifies the situation, no doubt, but I think it's basically the case. So neither side can accuse the other of being non-reality-based, lest they be judged. I imagine – and yeah, you saw this coming, right? -- that libertarians and paleocons are the most truly reality-based among us... and yet they have differing values and priorities, and come to different conclusions at times. The libertarians want to restore individual liberty, which they identify with the true, natural state of Man... whereas the paleocons want to restore tradition and morals, without which (they contend) life would be “nasty, brutal, and short”. Both, however, want to reduce the size, scope, and power of government – and given what I pointed out above about systems, that only seems reasonable. A historical paradox is that big government seems to bring out the worst in individuals, whereas small government brings out the best individuals, and anarchy can bring out the worst individuals. Perhaps, after all, we're just back to talking about moderation – but moderation not based on political compromise, but on a realistic assessment of human nature.

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