might not think that peace and prosperity would need defending against
the pervasive sacrifice and death that characterize war and conflict.
To assume that most people, especially public intellectuals, would
prefer peace to widespread devastation, however, would be to make
a mistake. There are certain sectors of American intellectual life
spread sometimes surprisingly across what passes for an ideological
spectrum that not only find war acceptable but welcome it with
something approaching relish.
apparently, is boring and filled with trivialities. Frank Rich of
the New York Times, on September 15, almost exulted at the
change wrought by terrorism: "That fat, daydreaming America
is gone now, way gone, as spent as the tax-rebate checks, as forgotten
as the 2000 campaign's debate over prescription-drug plans, as bankrupt
as our dot-com fantasies of instant millions." Maureen Dowd
wrote of the "pampered, narcissistic culture" we have
now left behind (perhaps along with the post-ironic politics-as-soap-opera
columns at which she excelled, poor thing).
is much more exciting and consequential than mere trying to get
ahead in life. The news media love it almost to death and certainly
to excess in the anthrax scare. I haven't had the opportunity to
monitor other parts of the country, but the local TV news in Los
Angeles doesn't lead with the murder du jour, car chase or celebrity
scandal these days, it leads with war. Some of the stations have
even sent reporters to Afghanistan, and most of those remaining
in Los Angeles clearly relish an opportunity to put their reporting
skills (which are sometimes considerable despite some contrary on-camera
evidence) to use on what they can view as a real story rather than
the most interesting bit of recent '90s-bashing came from Weekly
Standard senior editor David Brooks, in an article titled "The
Age of Conflict," that overall was actually rather interesting
and perhaps almost evenhanded. In the wretched 1990s, Brooks avers,
"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."
that we have a war to contend with, presumably we can turn our attention
to more serious and consequential stuff. Brooks, along with Standard
editor Bill Kristol, has been plumping for some project any project
to restore a conservatism of "national greatness,"
rather than a petty conservatism of small government, freedom and
close attention to private lives, for about a decade now. Osama
bin Laden and his henchmen (presumably) have handed the Standard
boys a great gift.
might hope that Mr. Brooks's analysis is incorrect, but it might
not be. "The next few years will be defined by conflict,"
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 now 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."
COLOR ME BOURGEOIS
course, Mr. Brooks's delineation of the difference between "bourgeois"
and "classical" virtues is a bit arbitrary. I have nothing
against courage, of course. But I do wonder if it is most classically
expressed in he willingness to kill or be killed at the behest of
a political leader who may or may not have your best interests at
heart or even know who you are. Often it takes as much or more
real courage to resist violence or to resist those who call others
to violence than to participate in violence.
balance, however, if you accept the Brooks bifurcation, I guess
I'm a bourgeois. I'll opt for compassion, tolerance and industriousness
as building blocks of a decent society over ruthless desire and
perhaps even steadfastness (depending on how you define that sometimes
elusive concept) any day. These virtues are the path to a society
in which innovation, production, and the leisure for contemplation
essential to allowing a great culture to take root and grow have
a chance to flourish. These are the virtues that make it possible
to provide things people really need and want (as expressed by their
voluntary choices in the marketplace) in something resembling abundance.
virtues, in short, are the virtues of a civilized society the
virtues of Athens rather than Sparta. To say so doesn't imply that
it might not be necessary to defend that society from predators
and invaders from time to time. But picking fights and going out
in the world to find alleged wrongs to right (whether the alleged
victims want to be rescued or not) is not the same as defending
society from attack.
WHY DID VIOLENCE
seems pleased that the acts of terrorism have shocked Americans
out of their selfish torpor. In the Bad Old Nineties Americans expressed
a distaste for conflict and violence. "But now violence has
come calling," Brooks says.
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."
brief paragraph contains so many conclusions based on assumptions
not in evidence that it is difficult to know where to begin. To
be sure, violence did come calling on the United States, and we
have had to come to grips with the fact that millions of people
seem to hate us simply because we are Americans.
is this because the country has practiced an excess of self-reliance
and has turned its back (as a government, at least) on the outside
world to the point of ignoring it? The record of the 1990s hardly
supports such an assertion.
decade began with the Gulf War, a massive display of American military
power combined with fairly impressive coalition-building. In the
'90s, U.S. troops were committed, with varying degrees of seriousness,
to conflicts in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, none of them
exactly central to the core national interest no matter how one
defines it. American diplomats were dispatched to conflicts in Northern
Ireland, the Middle East and elsewhere to try to impose an American
stamp on local conflicts. NATO, a relic of the Cold War, was expanded
rather than dismantled, and used for the first time to fight an
offensive rather than a defensive war, sending chills into the Russians.
not exactly ignoring the world until the world comes crashing in
on us. One might even argue that all this mostly ineffective meddling
had something to do with so many people hating us. It's undoubtedly
not the whole reason, but it would be prudent to consider foreign
interventionism as a contributing factor.
wonders whether Brooks is referring to personal or national self-reliance,
but it is hardly the case that an excess of self-reliance was the
besetting sin of the 1990 in either sense. On the domestic front
the welfare state continued to grow apace without any serious move
to dismantle it in favor of self-reliance. On the international
front the Clinton era was an era of multilateralism, though not
was it foolish self-reliance that set the stage for terrorist attacks
and made us appreciate the virtues of public protection? You could
make a better case that the attacks represented a massive failure
of public protection. You could even say that sane Americans should
have been shocked out of a complacent reliance on the state to protect
our interests and resolved to regain the American tradition of self-reliance
that the passengers on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania utilized
(once they had the required information) to save any number of innocent
the initial stages of any foreign conflict, of course, self-reliance
and a determination to question our leaders and institutions are
hardly likely to be conspicuous. American presidents know the American
people will rally around them and want to believe they are doing
the right thing during any foreign conflict, even one precipitated
by American foolishness. During a conflict precipitated by an outright
attack on American soil, the first response will be to support the
president and the government, perhaps even to brand those who raise
uncomfortable questions as traitors, as some of us have discovered.
lot more Americans have purchased personal firearms since September
11, which I view as an indicator of self-reliance and an acknowledgment
that the public forces of order cannot protect us at all times and
in all circumstances so we had best be prepared to do at least something
for ourselves. That indicator aside, however, it is likely that
at least for a time the institutions of centralized governance will
be treated with more respect and given more leeway than is generally
healthy in a free society. Those of us who deplore such a development
may have to bide our time.
his credit, Brooks notes that wartime does tend to encourage conformity
and homogeneity and to discourage dissent and individuality. There
are other aspects of wartime culture that sociologist Robert Nisbet
has identified an acceleration of certain kinds of change in
society, an increase in sexual promiscuity as military people are
removed from their families for extended periods of time, and ambivalent
pressures both pulling-apart and pulling-together on family ties
and a sense of place. War tends to uproot people and undermine a
sense of rootedness and groundedness, of being an integral part
of a certain locale. It tightens some communitarian ties and frays
wonders if certain traditional conservatives who are whooping it
up for war have fully considered these aspects of wartime culture.
be sure, war for many especially young males is the ultimate
adventure, and for many people (those who survive) it remains a
highlight of their lives, a time of intense effort, commitment and
camaraderie beside which civilian life and the 9-to-5 routine pales.
(Note how the Greatest Generation never tires of reliving the Good
War, and the war envy generated among boomers.) Wartime can also
be conducive to focused efforts to complete certain kinds of projects
that may represent genuine technological advances, like the development
of radar or the atomic bomb, on an accelerated basis.
MAKING A CASE
is important for those who yearn for peace to understand and acknowledge
that war has its attractions for many (though I would take certain
people more seriously if the editors of the Weekly Standard,
for example, were volunteering to lead an irregular brigade to go
get Osama bin Laden themselves rather than exulting in the opportunity
other mothers' sons will create to pursue an agenda of National
may or may not be true that war and conflict are built into the
human genome and that the dream of a world without war is at odds
with reality and human nature. But there are decidedly aspects of
war that appeal to some aspects of human nature that most people
seem to have in abundance.
is incumbent on us, then, to remind people continually and persistently
that even if war is sometimes necessary, even if war has its attractions,
that peace is also essential to human well being. Although some
great artistic works have been created in response to war, no great
culture, whether artistic, musical or literary, has ever been built
a culture an atmosphere in which contemplation can lead to innovation,
experiment and thinking seriously about what constitutes beauty
(rather than the occasional individual works of genius) cannot
be done during the chaos of war. The great eras of cultural ferment
and progress have been eras of relative peace, when goods, tourists
and cultural innovators crossed borders rather than armies.
is possible to create the kind of wealth that has a chance to lift
a substantial number of people out of poverty the most common
lot of most human beings through most of history only in times
of relative peace and security (and, I would argue, respect for
commerce and those who undertake it). If we want to improve the
lot of those who have not yet achieved a semblance of economic self-sufficiency
we would do well to pray and work for peace as the minimum requirement.
In wars, such people's suffering tends to be multiplied, or ended
by a swift death.
while most human beings display a certain attraction for war and
the martial virtues and vices, human beings are complex creatures.
We may love adventure, but we also value the quiet times, the safe
times, the contemplative times, to spend with our families, to go
fishing, to watch the World Series, to hike, to sit by the side
of a lake, to make music with friends, to read for enrichment or
pleasure, to simply sit and think or let the mind go blank. You
can find moments for such pleasures during wartime, but they are
often fleeting and transient. The side of us that values quiet pleasures
must hope and work for peace.
current war on terrorism is an ideal conflict for political leaders
in that it encourages submission and acquiescence to expanded government
power but has no definable end. I fear, therefore, that it will
last a long time. It behooves us to use that time not only to criticize
and question the war, but to remind our fellows that peace has its
virtues and its pleasures also. We'll have ample time to develop
and test our arguments.
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