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June 15, 2002

Cracks in the Façade of the Civic Religion


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by Joseph Stromberg

It is very hard to get a clear reading on the present situation. Oh sure, there are those who write as if they know what is going on, but their commentary, on further analysis, can be seen to rest only on a wide reading of utterly conventional and predictable sources with "official U.S. party line" stamped on them. Such people are conventional extremists – a sort of Radical Middle, who trust Dubya and damn all doubters. A Radical Middle has a certain potential for being the embryo of a fascist movement, but I doubt that a genuinely fascist future lies before us.

But enough about Free Republic.

PETER, DAN, TOM, WOLF, AND THE WAR STREET JOURNAL

One reason why it is hard to weigh the present situation has to do with the "information" we get from the enthusiastically servile U.S. media. CBS, NBC, CNN, and the rest might as well move into government offices for all the critical journalism they undertake. Owing to the communications revolution, however, we need not depend on these State Department cheerleaders. Instead, we can survey the foreign press online.

It would help a great deal if more Americans read the foreign press. We are a nation whose overall ignorance of the world is probably greater now than it was in 1840. Unlike the Australians with their famous "cultural cringe" vis-a-vis England, we early hid ours under a cloak of frontier bumptiousness.

The European press, it is true, does waste some time deploring the "cowboy" style of Bush II, not to mention the frontier rhetoric of every U.S. administration since JFK, or even Polk. It is more important to see deeply into what U.S. politicians do in our name than to worry about their manner.

For now, we may leave cultural complaints to the European press. They tend to criticize America generally and are bound to confuse the good, the indifferent, and the bad. I only recommended reading outside the U.S. press. I never told you to read these foreigners uncritically.

CIVIC RELIGION AT BAY

 

Far more important than gun-toting unilateralism in U.S. policy – as a matter of cultural style – is the brute fact of U.S. imperial hegemony. This empire was not "thrust upon us," it was not acquired in a British-style fit of absent-mindedness, nor is it the result of successfully defending ourselves, ever so often, from enemies who wantonly attack us for no reason at all.

The present U.S. empire rests on the conscious work of many generations of aspiring U.S. imperialists. For almost two years I have written, in this space, about various episodes of this world-historical soap opera, and cannot repeat it all now. The short version is this: a series of successful U.S. wars have led to the present situation. The authors of these wars intended this result.

In an unusually safe position geographically, we might have built a fairly free, interesting, and productive society, or series of such societies, in our portion of British North America (plus annexations). Instead, ambitious geo-politicians put us on the road to world empire. We still have never had a proper debate on the matter.

A few months ago, some of the more unhinged Neo-Conservatives and a few high-toned humanitarian centrists began using the word "empire" in a positive sense. This wave has receded. I take it that the discussion has once again been tabled.

As my old professor William Marina puts it, in the last weeks "we have crossed the Rubicon." No one notices, the Senate does nothing, but Caesar has arrived. At least the original Caesar could speak his own native language. Alea jacta est.

Last week, the Bush administration announced the grandest claim heard in many centuries of a "right" to attack anyone, anywhere, on any "evidence." I doubt that Stalin, Hitler, or any other 20th-century villain ever issued quite so broad a self-empowering manifesto. You have to go back to the Mongol Khans, at least, to find such an open-ended claim to total global sovereignty.

Well, don't worry about it. We are good. In our hands any conceivable weapon of mass destruction could only be used for good ends. We have more of them than anyone in human history, and surely that in itself proves our good intentions.

We are the great exception to the misfortunes of the human condition. We have risen above all sin and sorrow. Certainly it is nothing extraordinary for such a wonderful nation-state-empire as ours merely to announce its right to attack anyone, anywhere, and at any time. That must go without saying.

 

WE, US, AND THEM

Of course I was being facetious just now with all those "we's." We – the actually existing American people – don't count much in these equations. We need merely believe what we are told. We need merely go on being fairly productive, so that the great Historical Mission can go forward.

Certainly we mustn't question the program.

We have great inspired leaders to handle all the difficult bits, including thinking, for us. Admittedly, they seem less great, less inspired, and less thoughtful with each new administration, but on the other hand, each succeeding administration can deploy more destructive force and less restraint. It's down to their will. Thank God, they are good.

This answers several implicit questions about the current situation. First, they – our thrice-blessed leaders – feel little need to build a fascist movement to sustain their power. This is the last thing they want. Fascist movements involve mass participation, and the thrice-born world-rulers prefer inert masses to politically involved ones.

This is too bad, really. There are still many people who believe, truly, in the older U.S. civic religion. They believe Lincoln did what he had to do, that "we" won World Wars One and Two pretty much by ourselves, that "we" overthrew the Soviets because Reagan glowered at them and outspent them. They like war memorials and wish there were more. Alas, their services in a mass-based fascist movement will likely be refused.

Second, the Great Men have done what only Kautsky predicted might happen: they have created a global mercantilist empire which they refer to, with high wit, as "free trade." Kautsky thought that major wars would lead the "capitalist" powers to form a political cartel. He did not imagine that one power might arise that could bring everything under its watchful eye.

Of course there may be some integrating and tinkering yet to come. The Great Men will delegate bits of regional autonomy to their loyal subjects. Japan and China will be allowed to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Europeans can oppress themselves further in the EU. And so on.

 

A third aspect of the present situation verges on theology. Everything now hinges on the universal sovereign Will of the One Good Power. The Will-to-Power has shed its 19th-century German Romantic vestments and springs forth clad in the best decayed-Puritan Gnostic raiment.

Will it play in Peoria? Who knows? It's been working so far.

With all that will and power consolidated in one place, it is comforting to think that our rulers are so Good and so Wise. Someone who reads only the American press might believe such a thing. Someone might be wrong.

But, hey, we are the great exception. We have done away with sin and sorrow. Just give me that old-time civic religion. Where our great leaders are concerned, power will not corrupt, and absolute power will not corrupt absolutely.

Absolutely. We must believe this. The alternative is stark and bleak.

As people, as economic movers and shakers, we Americans are not so bad. We're pretty good in fact. But if we can't be bothered to reign in the imperial superstructure that has arisen on our shores, we will be remembered for the empire's deeds and not for our sundry virtues.

On the ground of long-standing American values – as against the values of the present self-realizing elite – it seems likely that the American "project" has turned out badly, insofar as it is a political project. We might have done better to make peace with George III in 1778, when that worthy gent conceded virtually all of our demands. The United States, as an independent, sovereign republic that became an empire, is a disaster for us and a disaster for the world.

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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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