Friday, January 17, 2014

The fall of the modern state

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books arrived today, and I immediately sat down to read the third installment of Mark Danner's long piece about Donald Rumsfled, Errol Morris's documentary about him, and the Iraq War.  Unfortunately I can't link it for you because it's for subscribers only, but I'm hoping Danner plans to publish the whole series as a book.The events he described are only a decade old, but they seem much further away.  Barack Obama came to office determined to put the epic battles among Boomers behind us, and in some ways he has managed to do so.  It is rather striking how little attention we pay to the utterly disastrous eight-year tenure of George W. Bush, even though, from where I sit, it created the world we now live in just as surely as Franklin Roosevelt's had created the world into which I was born in 1947.  In the dedication of my new book I thank Roosevelt's generation for the world they left me.  I do not think anyone will ever write a similar dedication to George W. Bush--certainly not in 2078, 69 years after he will have left office.

Every generation, alas, takes its parents and grandparents achievements for granted.  Thirty years ago psychologists expected young men and women to parent their children the way they were parented.  It is now clear that they were far more wrong than right: parents much more commonly focus on giving their children what they did not get, while assuming that their own inheritance will pass on like magic.  GI parents generally focused on providing their Boomer children with the material abundance they lacked, and were shocked when their children found themselves without a moral compass and had to look for their own.  Today, Gen X parents obsessively watch over their children's every move, the exact opposite of the style of the Silent generation, who were too busy in the 1960s and 1970s discovering individual freedom in midlife to worry about what their children were doing at all.  As it is with families, so it is, alas, with nations.

The Bush Administration stated its view of history in its infamous national security strategy of 2002, a blueprint for a new world.  "For most of the twentieth century," it read, "the world was divided by a great struggle over ideas: destructive totalitarian visions versus freedom and equality.
That great struggle is over. The militant visions of class, nation, and race which promised utopia and delivered misery have been defeated and discredited. America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few.We must defeat these threats to our Nation, allies, and friends."  Yes, it was true: by 2002 liberal capitalist democracy was still standing, while both Fascism and Communism were nearly completely consigned to the dustbin of history.  Unfortunately, the neoconservatives believed in a kind of capitalist Marxism: they regarded this development as an inevitable product of history, not a great achievement of several generations of Americans and western Europeans, much of which was already eroding away.  That was the only way that they believed--as Danner reminds us--that a quick invasion of Iraq, followed by an immediate American withdrawal, could produce a western-style democracy with limited government and low taxes.   In fact, Iraq--and, we now know, much of the Middle East as well--was seething with sectarian conflicts that would make the establishment of a stable democracy impossible.  The Middle East now looks more like Europe in the first half of the 16th century than Europe and America in the 20th.

The process that created the world into which both George W. Bush and myself were born had begun several centuries earlier, based on the idea that human reason could transform human affairs.  That insight was at least as important as the idea of the rights of man in creating the modern world.  It could, and was, applied by authoritarian governments like the Prussian monarchy and Napoleon's empire as well as by more democratic ones.  And it was enshrined in our Constitution, with its injunction to "promote the common defense and provide the general welfare," as well as the authorization to pass any laws "necessary and proper" for the carrying out of the essential functions of government.   What was far more important, however, as the nineteenth century progressed and turned into the twentieth, was the shared belief in human reason and science as the source of truth.  That was so generally established by the 1930s that Franklin Roosevelt stressed the need to supplement science with moral values, to make sure it served the true needs of mankind.  That is what he tried to do.

Last week I watched the new, two-hour American Experience about the year 1964--the year that Strauss and Howe identified, correctly, as the beginning of the last Awakening in American life.  Although the show included some rather over-the-top Boomer academics, I thought it was generally excellent, because it was about new ideas emerging on both the left and the right to destroy the postwar consensus.  The Beatles, the Mississippi Summer freedom project, the Berkeley protests that began that fall and The Feminine Mystique spoke for the Left; the Goldwater campaign spoke for the right.  And as Theodore H. White hypothesized in a remarkable passage in The Making of the President 1964, the Goldwater campaign was in the long run perhaps the most important political development of the year.   Certainly Phyllis Schlafly and Richard Viguerie  glowed with pride as they remembered the beginnings of the movement that made them so successful--and that did so much to undo the Enlightenment vision of a world ordered by reason.

By the time of the invasion of Iraq, the United States had been stripping away the modern state for more than twenty years.  That showed in the way the invasion was carried out--with ludicrous assumptions, as Morris shows, substituting for the massive forces (probably at least half a million men) that would have been needed to establish order in most of a country of 25 million people.  The Bush Administration would believe anything to make its dreams come true, and it tried to sponsor Achmed Chalabi, who is widely thought to have been an Iranian intelligence agent, as the new Iraqi leader, only to find that he had no traction.   Anwar Al-Maliki has turned out to be a reliable Iranian ally as well.

Danner remarks at one point that the Bush Administration threw away the American people's reflexive support for foreign wars.  That in fact had been ebbing since Vietnam, and Bush senior only revived it briefly in 1990-1 by carefully limiting his objectives.  In any case, our withdrawal was inevitable.  We no longer call upon the mass of our young people for foreign wars--just or unjust--and we have now raised two generations who know little or nothing about the history of foreign relations or the role that war has played in shaping the world.  That is another legacy of the Boom generation, which banished those topics from the historical curriculum.  The Middle East will now have to look after itself.

John Kerry, born late in 1943, is now showing a real example of old-time statesmanship.  He struck the deal to destroy Syria's chemical weapons and he is trying--almost certainly in vain--to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  He is, like me, an Ivy League graduate from the 1960s, the son of a diplomat, and a vetaran of the Army (although my service did not involve any combat, as his did.)  He knows what being Secretary of State is about--and I think he is showing that his predecessor didn't.  Alas, our Gen X President, who sadly has shown no real aptitude for or interest in diplomacy, is probably much more representative of what lies ahead.   Reason no longer anchors our domestic politics, or world politics.  That will have many consequences.


Larry said...

As usual, great insights David. I'm posting a piece on my blog Monday that touches on some of this even if the theme is aimed at corporate corruption and its effects on our democracy. I would like to add your piece here as recommended reading for my audience if I may.

ed boyle said...

How to explain the different approaches from one prophet generation to the next?

Superficially we could explain this in a cyclical manner of say 800 years with 200 year subsections similar to the 20 year subsections in generational theory.

In US history The time from Puritan settlement(Purtian generation (1588-1617) to the revolution Compromise generation 1767-1791 lasts 200 years and two complete generational cycles. The land is settled as colony but is also a testing ground for old world ideas of religious freedom and new ideas of government. Call this time Spring.

In the 19th century America begins to step out of the shadow of Europe and become a great power as one of the Europeans, challenging eventuially the industrial might of Great Britain which develops on the basis of the new ideas of scientism and experimental reason.
In the 20th century the USA becomes an economic and military superpower with a massive technological and economic base, allowing others to become satellites of growth around itself and exporting its original ideals of freedom and rationalism. If we were to take the time from 1792(Birth of Prophet Transendentalists(Lincoln, et. al.) to 1943 Boomer birth. we have this time frame about covered. Call this phase summer. The high point of the USA. Lincoln and Roosevelt fall in this era.

After the War we have a slow dissolution of America's concentration from its ideals. It becomes in reality a corrupt empire based on the military industrial complex warned of by Eisenhower and in fact created to win WWII. Its governing system looks more and more unmodern and its size and commitments abroad become unwieldy. The very strengths of rational achievement from the Founding Fathers, i.e. technolgy and science become its weakness, an obsession with the newest technology in order to obtain market share and military preponderance globally and a focus on US fate as being a God given order defining world welfare. Missionarying for Human rights, Market capitalism, etc. as the end of history regardless of the cost on human life, including torture abroad and an increasingly despotic plutocratic economic system at home with a total surveillance state to ward off the enemies a paranoid superstate has engendered. Call this phase Autumn. We are about halfway through with maybe 10 years left and perhaps a conflict with a powerful China. If you are right it was a short Saeculum with Arab wars as the Crisis War. The next Saeculum (or 2nd half of Autumn)should see a clear decline in America's external power(or a total despotic control over the Eurasian continent after brutal fight with China/Russia) and the well being of its citizens and the fall of its ideals in terms of government. Perhaps a military dictator as in old Rome could eliminate the Republican form of govt. with emergency powers to save the country from a war crisis and then keep power through a hereditary monarchy to stop the general chaos in the country and put through reforms in terms of governmental structure, eliminating welfare state, bloated military, reforming the country into several regions, investing in infrastructure, eliminating corrupt politicians and simplifying tax codes.

ed boyle said...

(a bit more)

After this phase the next two saeculum(2100-2250 or 2300) would be of course Winter phase which would be, as in Rome dedicated to conspicuous consumption by the few, massive population decline, attacks from within and without and a massive structural decay. USA would eventually cease to exist and be dominated regionally by various other powers, Latin Americans, Chinese, Europeans, Arabs, Africans, religious fanatics of various stripes, all depending on which region one lives in. Life might be brutal and short, not least due to lack of modern technology (Peak Oil/Coal/Gas) and severe climate change.

So in this picture we get the idea that history in terms of an 80 year phases cannot exactly repeat itself exactly because a particular civilization goes through a longer cycle. Bush's statements of idealism seems grotesquely hypocritical in terms of the more modest ideals of a Roosevelt. The country's goals have become more obviously cynical and self-serving. The Pursuit of happiness of the constitution has been transformed by the industrialized marketplace to mass consumerism(no more "citizen" as during WWII we are now called "consumers") is just money grabbing at all costs. More, more, more and poverty of the masses be damned. So such a modest nice guy like Obama can in such times spy on every person on the planet with impunity and send drones out to kill off wedding parties in Pakistan and sleep well at night in such a phase. But obviously such a phase always fades into the next one and such an Orwellian "1984" type doublespeak existence cannot last.

David Kaiser said...

To Larry: of course you are always more than welcome to link any post of mine.


Joseph Young said...
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