An End to Nonsense

November 1, 2001 Tags: Academia

An End to Nonsense

Mini Teaser: An End to NonsenseByline: Owen HarriesSomeoneâ€"was it Nietzsche? Henry James? Lionel Trilling?â€"hasobserved that those who lack the imagination of disaster are doomedto be surprised by the world.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

An End to Nonsense
Byline: Owen Harries

Someoneâ€"was it Nietzsche? Henry James? Lionel Trilling?â€"hasobserved that those who lack the imagination of disaster are doomedto be surprised by the world. Until September 11 such a lack wasvery prevalent in the Western world. While it was particularlycharacteristic of liberals, with their belief in progress andperfectibility, it was by no means confined to them. Indeed, inretrospect, the emergence of a species of optimisticconservativesâ€"a term that until our time had been close to beingan oxymoronâ€"may come to be seen as a distinguishing feature ofthe last decades of the 20th century.
In any case, many people of many political and temperamentalstripes were taken by surprise by the awful disaster of September11. That they were was clearly evidenced by the widespreadinsistence that the acts of terror in Manhattan and Washingtonmarked the beginning of a new era, that the world would never bethe same again, that everything was changed and changedutterly.
With all due respect, this was and is nonsense. It reflects not thereality of the matter but the difficulty that intellectualshabitually have in distinguishing between the state of their mindsand the state of the world. It also reflects what the philosopherJohn Anderson termed the “parochialism of the present”, acondition resulting from a combination of ignorance of history andan egotistical insistence on exaggerating the importance of eventsthat more or less directly involve oneself. Horrifying andatrocious as the acts of terror were, it should be remembered thatthey have happened at a time when people who experienced the Sommeand Verdun, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, are still alive.
Far from marking a sharp break with the world in which we have beenliving for the last decade, this act of terror was an event withwhich that world had long been pregnant, and there had been manyurgent and well-informed warnings of its imminent delivery. Norwere the reasons for such warnings hard to discern. Once thediscipline imposed by the superpower rivalry of the Cold War ended;once the authority and control of many nation-states began to beseriously undermined by transnational and subnational forces; oncethe movement of people became easy and virtually unmonitored in anincreasingly “borderless” worldâ€"and all these things happenedin the last ten yearsâ€"the opportunity for terror increasedgreatly. And as globalizationâ€"which is to say, the Westernizationof the worldâ€"proceeded rapidly, producing both fear and powerfulresentment as it undermined traditional cultures and authority, themotive for terrorism also strengthened greatly.
The point has often been made that terrorism is the weapon of theweak, of the losers. In this case, terrorism has been employed bymembers of some (not all) other civilizations whoâ€"on religiousand cultural grounds, and because the bases of their authority andpower are threatenedâ€"furiously reject and oppose the triumph ofWestern ideas, values, institutions and enterprise. Unable eitherto compete with the West or to hold it at bay, they vent theirhatred and despair by terror. Again, the likelihood of thishappening was clearly foreseen, notably, though by no meansexclusively, by Samuel Huntington.
What happened in September was not that the world changed in somefundamental manner, but that, in the most dramatic way, a group ofideas and assumptions about the world that had come to prevailamong large sections of Western elites was shown to be at bestinadequate and at worst utterly false. First and foremost there wasthe assumption that the world was moving rapidly and surely towarda benign, market-driven interdependence; that a positive-sum gamewas in progress in which all would benefit and friction would besmoothed away. With the triumph of the West, too, there came thebelief that liberal democracy was destined to triumph rapidly andmore or less universally. (As his views first appeared in thismagazine, I should emphasize that this was not what was argued byFrancis Fukuyama in his justly famous “End of History?” essay.He allowed for long holdouts against democratization in substantialparts of the world. Still, the reception given to his views andtheir subsequent vulgarization no doubt reflected and contributedto the attraction of the more simplistic version.)
Speaking of simplistic, there was also the complementary beliefthat traditional power politics had become old hat. As that humanweathervane, William Jefferson Clinton, proclaimed, “the cynicalcalculation of pure power politics simply does not compute. It isill-suited to the new era.” It was asserted that“geo-economics” (a term that first saw the light of day in thismagazine, incidentally) had allegedly displaced geopolitics, andthat economic wealth and “soft” power were replacing violenceand coercion as the ultimate currency of “the globalvillage.”
There was, too, the long-standing liberal belief, given a new leaseon life by the end of the Cold War, that enmity between peoples wasthe result of misunderstanding and ignorance rather than of genuineconflicts of interest. Once these were removed by education andincreasing contact in a multicultural world, it was assumed,harmony would prevail.
In the United States the ideas outlined above usually go under thelabel “Wilsonianism”, after the President who so vigorouslypromoted them. They are not, then, exactly newly minted and,indeed, they were already pretty shop-soiled when Wilson took themup. The “universal interdependence of nations” was proclaimedby Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848. And longbefore that the belief that proximity and interaction would promoteharmony was sufficiently prevalent for Rousseau to feel obliged tocontradict it, observing of the states of Europe in the 18thcentury that their condition was such that they “touch each otherat so many points that no one of them can move without jarring allthe rest; their variances are all the more deadly, as their tiesare more closely woven.” As for the alleged obsolescence of powerpolitics, that is a belief that was widely subscribed to a centuryago, on the eve of the Great War.
Especially at a time when American faith in these ideas hasreceived a body blow, it is worth bearing in mind the remarkabledurability of such notions. Unfortunately, there is truth in theremark that a truly bad idea never really dies, and in FrankJohnson’s observation that “Utopia is always an importantcountry, always one of the Great Powers.” One can predict withgreat confidence that these beliefs will survive the presentsetback and before long will again be advanced as exciting newtruths.
But for the immediate future the Wilsonian set of assumptions isnot going to be convincing or useful. The belief that conflict isdue to ignorance and misunderstanding has been exposed yet againfor the nonsense it is. (In today’s world, no two groupsunderstand each other more fully than the Israelis and thePalestinians, unless they be the Protestants and Catholics ofNorthern Ireland.) Far from being adequate for dealing with Osamabin Laden and the Taliban, “soft” power was partly instrumentalin creating them; military power of the old-fashioned kind, as wellas intelligence and technical knowledge, which have always beenimportant sources of power, are needed to destroy them.
But if Wilsonianism is at least temporarily discredited, what willreplace it? Well, there is another foreign policy tradition thathas figured prominently in American history, one that has beenbrilliantly delineated by Walter Russell Mead: the “Jacksoniantradition.” Some historians have taken issue with Mead for usingthe Jacksonian label, but what is important in this context is notthe label, but the substance. The mindset that Mead describes isimmediately recognizable and convincing as that possessed by alarge segment of the American people. It is populist, not elitist;characteristic more of men who drive pickup trucks and HarleyDavidson motorcycles than of college professors or journalists.(One of the most moving sights in Washington is that of themile-long parade of motorcycles on Memorial Day, carryingleather-jacketed, tattooed men and their wives from all over thecountry to pay tribute at the Vietnam War Memorial. It is usuallysparsely attended by the capital’s residents and scarcely writtenabout by journalists.) It is a mindset that is unabashedlypatriotic and America-centered rather than cosmopolitan. It regardshonor as important and is unforgiving toward those it considers tohave behaved dishonorably. It suffers not at all from a sense ofguilt or angst, and it does not subscribe to the view that truthand morality are relative concepts.
Jacksonianism is normally preoccupied with American domesticaffairs and is reluctant to get involved abroad. But oncecircumstances force it to become involved, it is determined toprevail; and it is prepared to be ruthless in order to do so. It isprepared to bear pain, and to inflict it, for the sake of causes itbelieves in. As Mead puts it, “Jacksonians see war as a switchthat is either ‘on’ or ‘off.’ They do not like the idea ofviolence on a dimmer switch.” Jacksonians do not think much interms of exit strategies or negotiated peace settlements.
People of this persuasion and temperament are not necessarilycallous or cruel, but as between humanitarian obligations and thesecurity of their country they have a clear sense of priorities.They would readily subscribe to the view of things once enunciatedby Dr. Johnson in, as it happens, the year the United States wasborn: “If a madman were to come into this room with a stick inhis hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but ourprimary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We shouldknock him down first and pity him afterwards.”
This “Jacksonian” way of looking at things obviously has itslimitations. It is not very suitable for dealing with genuinecomplexity and ambiguity, for it is a view of the world that haslittle patience for the color gray. On the other hand, it isinvaluable for cutting through a lot of cant and prevarication, andit is indispensable when there is in fact a straightforwardconflict to be won.
It is a way of looking at America’s dealings with the rest of theworld that has not been over-represented at the presidential levelin the 20th century: Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and RonaldReaganâ€"until now that has been about it. But one senses that thistradition may be well represented in this Bush Administration.Indeed, given his Texan background and what we know about histhinking, the President himself may adhere to many of its preceptsand assumptions. The Jacksonian tradition may be even betterrepresented in the person of Rudy Giuliani. One certainly hopesthat his rejection of a donation from a Saudi prince that cameaccompanied by an offensive sermon represents the authentic mood ofthe country.
Some would say that it does not. Writing in the New York Times inmid-October, for example, Maureen Dowd maintained that a people whountil a few weeks ago had lived in “a paradise of trivia,wallowing in celebrity, consumerism and cosmetic surgery” nowinhabited “a paranoia of trivia”, as the fear of envelopescontaining white powder spread. Perhaps. But observing America froma great distanceâ€"which may not altogether be a bad thing at atime like thisâ€"it seems to me that such a judgment sells theAmerican people short. The citizens of New Yorkâ€"a city thatembodied the culture of celebrity and consumerism more than anyotherâ€"responded to the events of September 11 in a way that didnot suggest that they had been fatally enfeebled or renderedparanoid by having lived trivial lives. Having observed the modusoperandi of the American media at close quarters for 18 years, Isuspect that the anthrax “panic”, being a good story, has beenoverplayed.
I believe that the American people have grasped the enormity of theinsult that the United States has suffered. They have registeredthe unrelenting hatred of America that gave rise to it, which inturn has generated a visceral and implacable demand not only forjustice but for revenge, and not only toward the particularterrorists responsible but for destroying the will and capacity ofinternational terrorism generally and all who help sustain it. Theyrecognize that negotiation and compromise are not options indealing with fanaticism, that they amount to nothing but anappeasement that is bound to fail.
If this mood is sustained and this resolve holds, what will havehappened will not be so much the entry of America into a new erabut the end of a brief pause when euphoria and illusion flourished.It will mean a return to an older, more sober, and above all morerealistic state of mind about the world.

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