Politics and culture after September 11.
"A SINGULAR FACT OF MODERN WAR," the historian Bruce Catton once wrote, "is that it takes charge. Once begun it has to be carried to its conclusion, and carrying it there sets in motion events that may be beyond men's control. Doing what has to be done to win, men perform acts that alter the very soil in which society's roots are nourished." Catton was writing about the Civil War, but his observation applies to most wars, and it will likely apply to the war to which we are now committed.
"A SINGULAR FACT OF MODERN WAR," the historian Bruce Catton once wrote, "is that it takes charge. Once begun it has to be carried to its conclusion, and carrying it there sets in motion events that may be beyond men's control. Doing what has to be done to win, men perform acts that alter the very soil in which society's roots are nourished." Catton was writing about the Civil War, but his observation applies to most wars, and it will likely apply to the war to which we are now committed. If this conflict lasts as long as it is likely to last--as long as the president has warned us it will--it will reshape our culture and our politics. It will constitute a hinge moment in American history. We had probably entered a time of transition even before the September 11 attack. The collapse of the dot-com economy already meant that Silicon Valley and the wonders of high technology were not going to hold the nation's attention during the next ten years the way they did during the last ten. The economic slowdown had already brought one boom to an end; the next economic recovery was bound to have different growth sectors, a different personality. George W. Bush's Washington was bound to be different from Bill Clinton's. But September 11 brought the 1990s to a close all at once. And the ensuing war will mean that the next few years will not only feel different from the last few; they will feel dramatically different. Subjects that used to seem riveting will seem stale. Can anybody imagine why we cared about Inside.com? Can anybody remember what was so buzz-worthy about Tina Brown? Can anybody relive the excitement that greeted the release of Windows 95? Can anybody get interested in think tank reports on Social Security lockboxes or charitable choice? Are there liberals still intrigued by the disease of "affluenza" or the menace of corporate branding? For that matter, can anyone read Maureen Dowd without wincing? She was the quintessential columnist of the 1990s, brilliantly treating politics as a sitcom. But she has been struggling to adapt to an era in which politics really matters. "What changes after a hinge is our stories of ourselves," Joel Garreau wrote recently in the Washington Post, "Who we are, how we got that way, where we're headed and what makes us tick." Garreau interviewed psychologists who study "figure/ground" reversal. That's what you get when you stare at one of those drawings of two heads facing each other in profile; first you see a black face staring left, then suddenly your perception changes and you see a white face staring right. "What had been central suddenly has become peripheral. What had been ignorable has suddenly become central," Garreau writes. Obviously nobody knows what the future years will feel like, but we do know that the next decade will have a central feature that was lacking in the last one: The next few years will be defined by conflict. And it's possible to speculate about what that means. The institutions that fight for us and defend us against disorder--the military, the FBI, the CIA--will seem more important and more admirable. The fundamental arguments won't be over economic or social issues, they will be over how to wield power--whether to use American power aggressively or circumspectly. We will care a lot more about ends--winning the war--than we will about means. We will debate whether it is necessary to torture prisoners who have information about future biological attacks. We will destroy innocent villages by accident, shrug our shoulders, and continue fighting. In an age of conflict, bourgeois virtues like compassion, tolerance, and industriousness are valued less than the classical virtues of courage, steadfastness, and a ruthless desire for victory. LOOKING BACK, the striking thing about the 1990s zeitgeist was the presumption of harmony. The era was shaped by the idea that there were no fundamental conflicts anymore. The Cold War was over, and while the ensuing wars--like those in Bosnia and Rwanda --were nettlesome, they were restricted to global backwaters. Meanwhile, technology was building bridges across cultures. The Internet, Microsoft ads reminded us, fostered communication and global harmony. All around the world there were people casting off old systems so they could embrace a future of peace and prosperity. Chinese Communists were supposedly being domesticated by the balm of capitalist success. Peace seemed in the offing in Northern Ireland and, thanks to the Oslo process, in the Middle East. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were elected president of the United States. Neither had performed much in the way of military service. Neither was particularly knowledgeable about foreign affairs. Both promised to be domestic-policy presidents. In that age of peace and prosperity, the top sitcom was "Seinfeld," a show about nothing. Books appeared with titles like "All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization." Academics analyzed the twilight of national sovereignty. Commerce and communications seemed much more important than politics. Defense spending was drastically cut, by Republicans as well as Democrats, because there didn't seem to be any clear and present danger to justify huge budgets. The army tried to recruit volunteers by emphasizing its educational benefits, with narcissistic slogans like "An Army of One." Conservatives, of all people, felt so safe that they became suspicious of the forces of law and order. Conservative activists were heard referring to police as "bureaucrats with badges"; right-wing talk radio dwelt on the atrocities committed by the FBI, the DEA, and other agencies at places like Ruby Ridge and Waco. Meanwhile, all across the political spectrum, interest in public life waned, along with the percentage of adults who bothered to vote. An easy cynicism settled across the land, as more people came to believe that national politics didn't really matter. What mattered instead, it seemed, were local affairs, community, intimate relations, and the construction of private paradises. When on rare occasions people talked about bitter conflict, they usually meant the fights they were having with their kitchen renovators. Historians who want to grasp the style of morality that prevailed in the 1990s should go back to the work of sociologist Alan Wolfe. In books like "One Nation, After All" and "Moral Freedom," Wolfe called the prevailing ethos "small scale morality." Be moderate in your beliefs, and tolerant toward people who have other beliefs. This is a moral code for people who are not threatened by any hostile belief system, who don't think it is worth it to stir up unpleasantness. "What I heard as I talked to Americans," Wolfe wrote of his research, "was a distaste for conflict, a sense that ideas should never be taken so seriously that they lead people into uncivil, let alone violent, courses of action." BUT NOW VIOLENCE HAS COME CALLING. Now it is no longer possible to live so comfortably in one's own private paradise. Shocked out of the illusion of self-reliance, most of us realize that we, as individuals, simply cannot protect ourselves. Private life requires public protection. Now it is not possible to ignore foreign affairs, because foreign affairs have not ignored us. It has become clear that we are living in a world in which hundreds of millions of people hate us, and some small percentage of them want to destroy us. That realization is bound to have cultural effects. In the first place, we will probably become more conscious of our American-ness. During the blitz in 1940, George Orwell sat in his bomb shelter and wrote an essay called "England Your England." It opened with this sentence: "As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me." What struck him at that moment of danger was that it really does matter whether you are English or German. The nation is a nursemaid that breeds certain values and a certain ethos. Orwell went on to describe what it meant to be English. Now Americans are being killed simply because they are Americans. Like Orwell, Americans are once again becoming aware of themselves as a nationality, not just as members of some ethnic community or globalized Internet chat group. Americans have been reminded that, despite what the multiculturalists have been preaching, not all cultures are wonderfully equal hues in the great rainbow of humanity. Some national cultures, the ones that have inherited certain ideas--about freedom and democracy, the limits of the political claims of religion, the importance of tolerance and dissent--are more humane than other civilizations, which reject those ideas. As criticism of our war effort grows in Europe, in hostile Arab countries, and in two-faced countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which dislike our principles but love our dollars, Americans will have to articulate a defense of our national principles and practices. That debate in itself will shape American culture. We will begin to see ourselves against the backdrop of the Taliban. During the Cold War, we saw ourselves in contrast to the Soviet Union. Back then, we faced a godless foe; now we are facing a god-crazed foe. As we recoil from the Islamic extremists, we may be less willing to integrate religion into political life. That would mean trouble for faith-based initiatives and religion in the public square. On the other hand, democracies tend to become patriotic during wartime, if history is any guide, and this will drive an even deeper wedge between regular Americans and the intellectual class. Literary critic Paul Fussell, a great student of American culture in times of war, wrote a book, "Wartime," on the cultural effects of World War II. Surveying the culture of that period, he endorsed the view of historian Eileen Sullivan, who wrote, "There was no room in this war culture for individual opinions or personalities, no freedom of dissent or approval; the culture was homogeneous, shallow and boring." The earnest conformity that does prevail in wartime drives intellectuals--who like to think of themselves as witty, skeptical, iconoclastic dissidents--batty. They grow sour, and alienated from mainstream life. For every regular Joe who follows the Humphrey Bogart path in "Casablanca," from cynicism to idealism, there is an intellectual like Fussell, whose war experiences moved him from idealism to lifetime cynicism. There are other cultural effects. For example, commercial life seems less important than public life, and economic reasoning seems less germane than cultural analysis. When life or death fighting is going on, it's hard to think of Bill Gates or Jack Welch as particularly heroic. Moreover, the cost-benefit analysis dear to economists doesn't really explain much in times of war. Osama bin Laden is not motivated by economic self-interest, and neither are our men and women who are risking their lives to defeat him. To understand such actions, you need to study history, religion, and ethics. The people who try to explain events via economic reasoning begin to look silly. Here is the otherwise intelligent economist Steve Hanke, in Forbes, analyzing bin Laden: "Don't make the mistake of interpreting the events of Sept. 11 purely in terms of terrorism and murder. . . . The terrorists are a virulent subset of a much larger group of anticapitalists, one that includes many politicians, bureaucrats, writers, media types, academics, entertainers, trade unionists and, at times, church leaders. The barbarians at the gates are more numerous than you thought." BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT CULTURAL EFFECT of conflict is that it breeds a certain bloody-mindedness or, to put it more grandly, a tragic view of life. Life in times of war and recession reminds us of certain hard truths that were easy to ignore during the decade of peace and prosperity. Evil exists. Difficulties, even tragedies, are inevitable. Human beings are flawed creatures capable of monstrosity. Not all cultures are compatible. To preserve order, good people must exercise power over destructive people. That means that it's no longer sufficient to deconstruct ideas and texts and signifiers. You have to be able to construct hard principles so you can move from one idea to the next, because when you are faced with the problem of repelling evil, you absolutely must be able to reach a conclusion on serious moral issues. This means you need to think in moral terms about force--and to be tough-minded. During the Cold War, Reinhold Niebuhr was a major intellectual figure. In 1952, he wrote "The Irony of American History." The tragedy of the conflict with communism, he argued, was that, "though confident of its virtue, [America] must yet hold atomic bombs ready for use so as to prevent a possible world conflagration." The irony of our history, he continued, is that we are an idealistic nation that dreams of creating a world of pure virtue, yet in defeating our enemies we sometimes have to act in ways that are not pure. "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous action to preserve our civilization," Niebuhr wrote. "We must exercise our power." We have to do so while realizing that we will not be capable of perfect disinterestedness when deciding which actions are just. We will be influenced by dark passions. But we still have to act forcefully because our enemies are trying to destroy the basis of civilization: "We are drawn into an historic situation in which the paradise of our domestic security is suspended in a hell of global insecurity." Niebuhr's prescription was humble hawkishness. He believed the United States should forcefully defend freedom and destroy its enemies. But while doing so, it should seek forgiveness for the horrible things it might have to do in a worthy cause. To reach this graduate-school level of sophistication, you have to have passed through elementary courses in moral reasoning. It will be interesting to see whether we Americans, who sometimes seem unsure of even the fundamental moral categories, can educate ourselves sufficiently to engage in the kind of moral reasoning that Niebuhr did. THE GREATEST POLITICAL EFFECT of this period of conflict will probably be to relegitimize central institutions. Since we can't defend ourselves as individuals against terrorism, we have to rely on the institutions of government: the armed forces, the FBI, the CIA, the CDC, and so on. We are now only beginning to surrender some freedoms, but we will trade in more, and willingly. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, "Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. . . . To be more safe, [people] at length become willing to run the risk of being less free." Moreover, we will see power migrate from the states and Capitol Hill to the White House. "It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority," Hamilton continued. This creates rifts on both left and right, because both movements contain anti-establishment elements hostile to any effort to relegitimize central authorities. The splits have been most spectacular on the left. Liberals who work in politics--Democrats on Capitol Hill, liberal activists, academics who are interested in day-to-day politics--almost all support President Bush and the war effort. But many academic and literary leftists, ranging from Eric Foner to Susan Sontag to Noam Chomsky, have been sour, critical, and contemptuous of America's response to September 11. The central difference is that the political liberals are comfortable with power. They want power themselves and do not object to the central institutions of government, even the military, exercising power on our behalf. Many literary and academic liberals, on the other hand, have built a whole moral system around powerlessness. They champion the outgroups. They stand with the victims of hegemony, patriarchy, colonialism, and all the other manifestations of central authority. Sitting on their campuses, they are powerless themselves, and have embraced a delicious, self-glorifying identity as the outmanned sages who alone can see through the veils of propaganda in which the powerful hide their oppressive schemes. For these thinkers, virtue inheres in the powerless. The weak are sanctified, not least because they are voiceless and allegedly need academics to give them voices. These outgroup leftists dislike the Taliban, but to ally themselves with American power would be to annihilate everything they have stood for and the role they have assigned themselves in society. The splits on the right have been quieter, but no less important. Anti-establishmentarianism on the right comes in libertarian and populist forms. Its adherents have noticed that during wartime, the power of the state tends to expand. "Wars are nasty things: They make governments grow," Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform told the Washington Post. This skepticism applies not only to any new social programs that might emerge in this centralizing moment, but to proposals to strengthen the forces of law and order. "We don't like the bad guys either. But let's not sacrifice our freedoms because the FBI and CIA want more power," Norquist told the Boston Globe. Since September 11, conservatives have broken down into two camps: those who fear that Bush will go squishy on Iraq, and those who fear that he will go squishy on capital gains. The conservatives who fear that the United States won't take out Saddam are national security conservatives. They don't think it's worth getting into a big fight over reducing taxes at a moment of national crisis. They value free market reforms, but believe that right now other conservative agenda items should take a back seat to national security. The libertarian, anti-government, "leave us alone" conservatives, such as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, believe Bush should use his popularity to push through capital gains tax reductions and the like. They detest the domestic bipartisanship that Bush has cultivated on Capitol Hill. They believe that national security arguments should not be used to strengthen the hand of Washington. On balance, George W. Bush is behaving more like a national security conservative (without, of course, committing himself on Iraq). He embraces every Democrat he can wrap his arms around. He has tried to reduce partisan conflict on the stimulus package. He would not even think of raising divisive social issues. He seeks to clear the domestic front so he can focus on the fight against terror. No longer the compassionate conservative, he has, with impressive decisiveness, turned himself into a fighting conservative. WHAT THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION is now presenting, and what the public seems to want, is Rudy Giuliani-ism on a global scale. Giuliani took over a city plagued by crime and apparently ungovernable. He didn't stop to ponder the root causes of crime, or whether the '60s had sent America into irreversible decline. Giuliani is not even particularly interested in the general moral fabric of the city. He's not conservative on the social issues. Instead, he's interested in preventing acts of disorder. He is a guy who sits around with his friends watching the "Godfather" movies and reciting the lines. He simply went after the bad guys and the actual things they did to create disorder. He and his police commissioners worked aggressively to arrest people who broke the law. By doing this, Giuliani restored order, so that New Yorkers could go out and live whatever sorts of lives they wanted to lead. His approach was: Every morning you strap on your armor and you go out to battle the evil ones. It's more important to be feared than loved. You maneuver situations so as to get your rivals in the place where you want them to be. Then they have to make concessions. His instinct was always: Give me authority. Hold me accountable. For Bush, the leader of the free world, the issue is terrorism, not street crime. But now he too is engaged in the effort to restore order so that people can go about their lives. He is the one rounding up the posse, forsaking social issues and other moral debates for a straightforward act of international prosecution. He is reasserting authority to show that under Pax Americana, the world is governable. What we may end up with, therefore, is an America in which the old split between hawks and doves is no longer relevant. Instead our political landscape will have a few intellectuals on the fringes, while the main argument unfolds--to borrow Machiavelli's terms--between the lions and the foxes. Lions believe in the aggressive use of power. For them the main danger is appeasement. They worry that we will be half-hearted and never really tackle our problems. Foxes, by contrast, believe you have to move cleverly and subtly. They worry that America will act unilaterally and tear its coalition and trample upon our own freedoms. It's interesting that the people who are lions on foreign policy also tend to be lions on domestic policy, while the foxes are fox-like both abroad and at home. So we have new arguments. Do we give higher priority to cracking down on domestic terror or preserving civil liberties? Do we give higher priority to destroying all terrorist states, or to preserving our alliances? In these debates, so far, The Weekly Standard, the New Republic, and the Washington Post have made the case for the lions. The New York Times, Robert Novak, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, Barney Frank, and Jack Kemp have supported the foxes. It may truly be a strange new world. AT THE START OF THE CIVIL WAR, nobody could have foreseen how the war would alter the domestic political culture, producing a raft of legislation ranging from the Homestead Act to the transcontinental railway to currency reform. The war ended with a grand march by the Union armies through Washington, an event that symbolized America's emergence as a unified nation and a superpower in the making. "Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained," Lincoln declared in his Second Inaugural. "Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding." It's impossible to know if the renewed confidence in government that we already see will translate into a new sort of big government activism, as some liberals are predicting. There is certainly precedent for that, as writers like Robert Nisbet (in "The Present Age") and Robert Higgs (in "Crisis and Leviathan") have shown. War, Randolph Bourne observed in 1917, "is the health of the state." But history never repeats itself neatly. No one can predict the political and cultural consequences of a war, any more than the course of the war itself. But it does seem clear that we have moved out of one political and cultural moment and into another. We have traded the anxieties of affluence for the real fears of war. We have moved from an age of peace to an age of conflict, and in times of conflict people are different. They go to extremes. Some people, and some nations, turn cowardly or barbaric. Other people, and other nations, become heroic, brave, and steadfast. It all depends on what they have in them. War isn't only, as Bourne said, the health of the state. It's the gut-check of the nation. David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. November 5, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 8
Web Link: http://www.weeklystandard.com/article/1728