Joseph R.


Joe Stromberg will be on vacation next week. His column will return on Tuesday, December 28.

December 14, 1999

Truth or Consequences
in an Age of Empire

Empire is not like the weather, which is sometimes said to be the subject of much talk and little action. Generally, Americans don't even talk about empire, so they're not likely to do anything for or against it. That is a shame, since the existence of a world-saving and world-straddling American empire surely does things to them, whether they know it or not.


The late classical scholar and Tory MP Enoch Powell wrote in 1988 that US policy in Europe had rested on two pillars. The first was that Soviet Russia and the eastern bloc "were bent upon the invasion and conquest of Western Europe." The second was that "the invasion had been averted, and still continued to be averted" by the Americans' commitment to resort to nuclear suicide in response to it. Both notions were "contrary to reason and observation," said Powell. The whole thing was like "the proof that elephants roam the railway lines because throwing bits of the Times out of the carriage window keeps them at bay."1 Let's see Mr Karl Popper "falsify" that – without looking into the premises!

The American variant of this logical trap has to do with the farmer who planted a money-losing crop (rhubarb? alfalfa?) to keep the wolverines away. Asked if this made any sense, he said, "You don't see any wolverines, do you?" And it works. There is no ethnic strife going on in Kosovo. There is no ethnic cleansing going on in Kosovo. See? It's easy. Bang, bang – NATO's silver hammer came down on their heads – and now they all just get along.

Or maybe not. It has begun to trickle into the mainstream press that all might not be well at the scene of recent triumph. And this is where an important technique of diversionary mystification comes into play, something which the redoubtable Robert Whitaker refers to as "liberal facts." These are things that are true for a season and then go off into the Orwellian memory hole before anyone has a chance to question them. Most people are too polite, anyway.

A subcategory of liberal fact might be called the "necessary qualifier." If – day after day – stories come in which call the happy ending of the late Balkan unpleasantness into question, there's only one thing to do: Use the Force, Luke. Who wants to hear "A Serbian grandmother and three children were killed by Albanian – what? motorists? – today"? Much better to tack on the words "in apparent revenge for previous Serbian genocide" – before Mr. and Mrs. American Gothic, out there in the heartland, get the wrong idea.

And what are the merits of such cases? Who knows? A layman would get the idea that certain peoples in southeastern Europe have never gotten along. While a professional Balkanographer might make some sense of it, even he can't have had an easy time of it. I am indeed grateful that there are Balkanologers – it saves the rest of us from having learn the same South Slavic language in several scripts.

All of this was literally academic before the imperial social workers, mad bombers, youthful optimists, and telescopic philanthropists in Washington and at NATO HQ got into the act. I'm sure it mattered a lot to some people in places like Cincinnati, whose ancestors came from that part of the world, but emotional involvement in Old World controversies may not be the soundest basis for an American foreign policy. See George Washington's Farewell Address.


I don't, myself, actually avoid mirrors. I even smashed one up recently, so it could go in the trash (double-bagged, mind you). I didn't worry much, because I'm grandfathered in on the seven years of bad luck. But our present flock of foreign policy makers ought not to go around mirrors, ever. They might catch a glimmer – deep in the reflected background – of how the world views their grandiose moral pronouncements. They might even notice some of their many declared and undeclared "enemies" picking around in the rubble. In a really big mirror they might glimpse – way off to the side – some of those Iraqi children, whose mortality rates have mysteriously shot off the scale since that other late – and ongoing – unpleasantness.

But why go on? I don't think these are the most reflective people in the world. They don't have to think a great deal about what action to take, as long as it's action. For them, inaction – noninterference – is the only forbidden thing. This is because they have a preselected ideological slot for every incoming bit of data which resembles a peg. If it doesn't look like a peg, they hammer it in anyway with that silver hammer of theirs.


How does this work? Simple enough. Someone, somewhere, invades the neighbors. The policy boys (or girls) just leaf through World Operating Manual, vol. 2 (Worldville: Last Remaining Super-Power Press, 1999) until they come to "armed invasions, good and bad." From "good invasions"they will be referred to "general platitudes"- such as "deplore loss of life," "express hope for peaceful resolution," "refer to high-minded public documents" (Pericles' Funeral Oration, Gettysburg Address, UN Charter). They now crank up their global platitude reconciler and issue a statement covering their backsides and ignoring the US role in bankrolling and training the armies in question, or even planning invasion for them. This works just fine when good powers invade bad powers, or even merely unimportant ones (US-Indonesian relations somehow come to mind).

But what if the criteria on pp. 1203-1216 show them they have a "bad invasion" on their hands? Things are still pretty straight-forward. Policy jockeys can go to "Munich, 1938" – always a favorite – or look under "how to tell if foreign rulers are Hitler all over again." This is usually enough to get the press campaign of vilification going against the foreign miscreant, whoever he is, poor fellow. He probably is a minor league despot with an unpronounceable foreign name, which Dan and Tom can deliberately mangle on the evening news.

Hitler, Schmitler. They must now convince all those troglodytes in Congress and the self-centered heartlanders, who have no more vision than to mind their own business, that a vital American interest – or at least an inoperable American abstraction – is at stake. In volume 3, Opinion Management and Matching Foreign Policy Kit, in the same series, they can review the useful summaries of press campaigns against David Koresh, Randy Weaver, Saddam Hussein, and Manuel Noriega. I know these fellows had their faults, but only the latter two spent much time on the US payroll. (See the manual under "disgruntled former employees.") Our policy-makers won't have to worry much over mere details and "facts." As the deconstructionists like to tell us, interpretation is all. Anything can be spun. If the bad invader attended Texas Baptist College in 1951, they can spin that into clear evidence of abiding evil. Of course, the same fact would be evidence of a long-standing commitment to high ideals in the case of a good invader. Some day, this whole method will be laid bare, I'm certain, in The Screw-Up Letters, the imaginary memoirs of one of the minor demons who make US foreign policy the entertaining and lethal spectacle we have come to know and wish we didn't. And policy "wonk": isn't that kind of like that British word, or am I thinking of that funny internal combustion engine?


"Post-modernism" – for those who have been trying to avoid it – is all about the relativity of truth, or indeed the non-existence of truth. I don't think it's true, but so what? I might be my very own "hermeneutic" community, so my truth would be true for me but maybe not for a lot of people like Smith and Jones and Wallace – but I stop here lest my list of hypothetical persons be taken as evidence of ethnic bias. Of course, the "absences" and "silences" being as important as what's in the "text," I suppose I am guilty of all the things I didn't say as well. All it takes, really, is one bone-idle, overtheorized lit prof to expose the crimes of us all.

The Marxist-tinged deconstructionists enjoy relating post-structuralism, deconstruction, and the other fads to the conditions of life under "late monopoly capitalism." How late? Five minutes? Two weeks? Or – for the Germans especially – a century? Yes, indeed, late capitalism makes us live in "seriality," sliding in and amongst our different, decentered selves. Question: Is Mr. Darwin answerable for these signifyin' monkeys?

A nice try, fellows, but I think most of us know that if you kick a ball, it goes somewhere, and this will be true in Spain, Waziristan, or South Boston, and we needn't send observers around to study it. The interpretive community of physicists may believe this, too, but their belief as such is not the basis of this particular truth. In fields which deal with human action things are a bit more contested than in basic ("naïve") physics, but I think this has do with the social scientists' failure actually to study human action rather than with the impossibility of arriving at useful truths about these things. But I cannot do a commercial here for Ludwig von Mises and Austrian Economics, and I move on.

I'm further afield than I usually go in this space, but bear with me. Taking a leaf from the Marxists' book, I assert that such mind-numbing phenomena as "de(con)struction" have a necessary, organic relationship to "late US foreign policy." What could be less controversial? Who lied to whom about the Bay of Pigs? Or about that funny spy plane before that? Or about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin? Or about who did what to whom in Kosovo? Was it the people who lied to the rulers? Did a wayfaring band of mummers and gleemen do it?

After fifty years of American globaloney – to use that Old Right word – who could be surprised that some observers have been so unmanned (or unwomanned, as the case may be) as to doubt the existence of any forms of truth at all? Surely some of you remember the famous issue of National Review in the late sixties which featured "government documents"allegedly refuting the Pentagon Papers? You will recall that when the hoax was exposed, the Buckleyite response was, in effect, "Well, given that the Vietnam war is a really good idea, documents like the ones we made up ought to exist." So it's not just the left which rejoices in the relativity of truth.


I think it was that wonderful old Catholic reactionary Sir Arnold Lunn, who used to write in National Review (strangely enough) about the problem of "selective indignation." Colossal massacres in "newly independent" African "nations" routinely passed below the radar screens of the alert western media, which only noticed them if there was a cold war angle, but a handful of demonstrators shot in South Africa became the crime of the century, repeated endlessly until the South Africans committed some new ones. Now it isn't that the South African approach to crowd control was good or even morally neutral. The point is the selectivity whereby massacres of hundreds of thousands of people elsewhere on the continent were seen as uninteresting. Today, anyone who bothers to read the South African press will find reason to wonder if there is very much truth or reconciliation in the report issued by Bishop Tutu's commission of the same name. The report is simply an assignment of all blame to one party in the recent "struggle."

And perhaps that's true enough. And perhaps no Kosovo Albanian said as much as a discouraging word to a Serb until late last year, but I doubt it. Such matters require a lot of careful study to sort them out. This is why we have social scientists, historians, and other practitioners of the academic sorceries. It was formerly thought that serious scholarly work might get us closer to the truth even in fields where the so-called "scientific method" (really, only the method of natural science) might need replacing with methods appropriate to the study of human action.

Anyone who watched MSNBC during the Balkan bomb festival must have noticed the pained look on the faces of real Balkan scholars, who knew that Uncle's and NATO's agitprop presentation of the underlying issues rested on ignorance, deception, and wishful thinking. I don't think the President took time to feel their pain, however. As for the targets, he wouldn't much care if a bunch of religious fanatics killed themselves – by getting in the way of some bombs in Belgrade. I reckon that's selective synaesthesia or something.


Sure there is. But method is important in the social sciences and the natural sciences alike. A methodological tip is in order: You will never, I repeat never, get near the truth of anything by taking government statements at face value. This probably goes double for the government alluded to, once or twice, in this essay. This is important to remember the next time Uncle starts stirring up selective indignation about misdeeds overseas that require our immediate attention. You have to remember that, collectively, Uncle and his friends form their own interpretive community, one with zero interest in any truths other than missile throw-weights, the physics of jellied petroleum, and the benefits of Open Door mercantilism to their friends in business (yes – there are "good" capitalists just as there are good invaders).

So, yes, we can believe the future's ahead and truth can be found. The post-modernists can't see it. I bet Uncle Sam is blocking their view. He's big that way. As for the Marxists, now is as good a time as any to thank them for keeping the useful term "mystification" in circulation.

[1] Enoch Powell, "The Decline of America," The Guardian, December 7, 1988. 557

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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 is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Tuesday on

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