“I was willing to gamble, too–partly, I suppose, because, in the era of the all-volunteer military, I wasn’t gambling with my own life. And partly because I didn’t think I was gambling many of my countrymen’s. I had come of age in that surreal period between Panama and Afghanistan, when the United States won wars easily and those wars benefited the people on whose soil they were fought. It’s a truism that American intellectuals have long been seduced by revolution. In the 1930s, some grew intoxicated with the revolutionary potential of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, some felt the same way about Cuba. In the 1990s, I grew intoxicated with the revolutionary potential of the United States.
Some non-Americans did, too. “All the Iraqi democratic voices that still exist, all the leaders and potential leaders who still survive,” wrote Salman Rushdie in November 2002, “are asking, even pleading for the proposed regime change. Will the American and European left make the mistake of being so eager to oppose Bush that they end up seeming to back Saddam Hussein?”
I couldn’t answer that then. It seemed irrefutable. But there was an answer, and it was the one I heard from that South African many years ago. It begins with a painful realization about the United States: We can’t be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war. That’s why a liberal international order, like a liberal domestic one, restrains the use of force–because it assumes that no nation is governed by angels, including our own. And it’s why liberals must be anti-utopian, because the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time. That’s not to say the United States can never intervene to stop aggression or genocide. It’s not even to say that we can’t, in favorable circumstances and with enormous effort, help build democracy once we’re there. But it does mean that, when our fellow democracies largely oppose a war–as they did in Vietnam and Iraq–because they think we’re deluding ourselves about either our capacities or our motives, they’re probably right. Being a liberal, as opposed to a neoconservative, means recognizing that the United States has no monopoly on insight or righteousness. Some Iraqis might have been desperate enough to trust the United States with unconstrained power. But we shouldn’t have trusted ourselves.”
Hilzoy adds, wisely, “It’s not just that we aren’t the country Beinart wanted to think we were; it’s that war is not the instrument he thought it was.” I suggest reading Hilzoy’s post all the way through; it’s very good.
But I want to go on to another thought here. Yesterday I wrote about nonviolent resistance and quoted from an article in the Spring 2007 issue of the American Buddhist magazine Tricycle â€” available to subscribers only â€” called â€œThe Disappearance of the Spiritual Thinkerâ€ by Pankaj Mishra. It begins:
â€œI NEVER KNEW A MAN,â€ Graham Greene famously wrote in The Quiet American, â€œwho had better motives for all the trouble he caused.â€ After the disaster in Iraq, Greeneâ€™s 1955 description of an idealistic American intellectual blundering through Vietnam seems increasingly prescient. People shaped entirely by book learning and enthralled by intellectual abstractions such as â€œdemocracyâ€ and â€œnation-buildingâ€ are already threatening to make the new century as bloody as the previous one.
It is too easy to blame millenarian Christianity for the ideological fanaticism that led powerful men in the Bush administration to try to remake the reality of the Middle East. But many liberal intellectuals and human rights activists also supported the invasion of Iraq, justifying violence as a means to liberation for the Iraqi people. How did the best and the brightest–people from Ivy League universities, big corporations, Wall Street, and the media–end up inflicting, despite their best intentions, violence and suffering on millions? Three decades after David Halberstam posed this question in his best-selling book on the origins of the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, it continues to be urgently relevant: Why does the modern intellectual–a person devoted as much professionally as temperamentally to the life of the mind–so often become, as Albert Camus wrote, â€œthe servant of hatred and oppressionâ€? What is it about the intellectual life of the modern world that causes it to produce a kind of knowledge so conspicuously devoid of wisdom?
What is it about the intellectual life of the modern world that causes it to produce a kind of knowledge so conspicuously devoid of wisdom? Wow, that’s a question, isn’t it? Where do overeducated twits like Doug Feith and Paul Wolfowitz and Condi Rice come from, and how the hell did they get put in charge of foreign policy? They may be articulate, and they have Ph.D.s and impressive resumes, but they don’t have the sense God gave onions.
THE POWER OF secular ideas–and of the men espousing them–was first highlighted by the revolutions in Europe and America and the colonization of vast tracts of Asia and Africa, and then with Communist social engineering in Russia and China. These great and often bloody efforts to remake entire societies and cultures were led by intellectuals with passionately held conceptions of the good life; they possessed clear-cut theories of what state and society should mean; and in place of traditional religion, which they had already debunked, they were inspired by a new self-motivating religion: a belief in the power of â€œhistory.â€
It took two world wars, totalitarianism, and the Holocaust for many European thinkers to see how the truly extraordinary violence of the twentieth century–what Camus called the â€œslave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropyâ€–derived from a purely historical mode of reasoning, which made the unpredictable realm of human affairs appear as amenable to manipulation as a block of wood is to a carpenter.
Shocked like many European intellectuals by the mindless slaughter of the First World War, the French poet Paul ValÃ©ry dismissed as absurd the many books that had been written entitled â€œthe lesson of this, the teaching of thatâ€ and that presumed to show the way to the future. The Thousand-Year Reich, which collapsed after twelve years, ought to have buried the fantasy of human control over history. But advances in technological warfare strengthened the conceit, especially among the biggest victors of the Second World War, that they were â€œhistoryâ€™s actorsâ€ and, as a senior adviser to President Bush told the journalist Ron Suskind in 2004, that â€œwhen we act we create our own reality.â€
These are the same people who have pathological confidence in themselves, of course. As Peter Birkenhead wrote, “Pumped up by steroidic pseudo-confidence and anesthetized by doubt-free sentimentality, they are incapable of feeling anything authentic and experiencing the world.” Perhaps its a class thing; perhaps these are people who have lived lives so buffered from failure and the consequences of misjudgments that they never learned a healthy respect for failure and the consequences of misjudgments.
History as an aid to the evolution of the human race seems to be most fully worked out by the respected Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. Writing in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks after the invasion of Iraq, Ferguson declared himself a â€œfully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang,â€ and asserted that the United States should own up to its imperial responsibilities and provide in places like Afghanistan and Iraq â€œthe sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.â€ In his recent book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), Ferguson argues that â€œmany parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule.â€
Ferguson has a regular column at the Los Angeles Times. And he’s a classic overeducated twit.
But back to Pankaj Mishra:
IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE now how this all began, how, in the nineteenth century, the concept of history acquired its significance and prestige. This was not history as the first great historians Herodotus and Thucydides had seen it: as a record of events worth remembering or commemorating. After a period of extraordinary dynamism in the nineteenth century, many people in Western Europe–not just Hegel and Marx–concluded that history was a way of charting humanityâ€™s progress to a higher state of evolution.
In its developed form the ideology of history described a rational process whose specific laws could be known and mastered just as accurately as processes in the natural sciences. Backward natives in colonized societies could be persuaded or forced to duplicate this process; and the noble end of progress justified the sometimes dubious means–such as colonial wars and massacres.
Pankaj Mishra is arguing that this view of history is a kind of secular thinking, and it is, but not purely so. I’ve been reading Mark Lilla’s book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. I blogged about this book here and here. Very briefly, Lilla writes about the nexus of politics and religion in western civilization, particularly since the end of the Reformation and the publication of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. I’m not all the way through it yet. But he seems to be building an argument that messianic religion as a habit of mind continually re-asserts itself and seeps into secular thought. So we have public intellectuals who may or may not be followers of religion or believers in God, but who still think in messianic terms. However, instead of looking forward to the Second Coming, secular messianic thought sees history building toward some politically and economically ideal future as if compelled by natural law.
Some might argue that any kind of messianic thought is religious, but defining religion that way would make Christopher Hitchens the bleeping pope.
Lilla’s book suffers a bit from a narrow understanding of religion, IMO. But perhaps that’s me. As I wrote a couple of days ago, east Asian religions as a rule think of time and events, cause and effect, as circular rather than linear. The revered Zen master Dogen Zenji (1200-1250) presents linear time as a kind of delusion; see Uji. If you don’t perceive time and history as linear it’s hard to be messianic. However, as I’ve said elsewhere, certainly Asia has seen its share of mass movements bent on shaping history — China under Mao comes to mind.
Pankaj Mishra continues,
This instrumental view of humanity, which Communist regimes took to a new extreme with their bloody purges and gulags, couldnâ€™t be further from the Buddhist notion that only wholesome methods can lead to truly wholesome ends. It is in direct conflict with the notion of nirvana, the end of suffering, a goal many secular and modern intellectuals purport to share, but which can only be achieved through the extinction of attachment, hatred, and delusion.
Indeed, no major traditions of Asia or Africa accommodate the notion that history is a meaningful narrative shaped by human beings. Time, in fact, is rarely conceptualized as linear progression in many Asian and African cultures; rather, it is custom and religion that circumscribe human interventions in the world. Buddhism, for instance, in its emphasis on compassion and interdependence, is innately inhospitable to the Promethean spirit of self-aggrandizement and conquest that has shaped the new â€œhistoricalâ€ view of human prowess. This was partly true also for many European cultures until the modern era, when scientific and technological innovations began to foster the belief that manâ€™s natural and social environment was to be subject to rational manipulation and that history itself, no longer seen as a neutral, objective narrative, could be shaped by the will and action of man.
It was this faith in rational manipulation that powered the political, scientific, and technological revolutions of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it was also used to explain and justify Western domination of the world–a fact that gave conviction to such words as progress and history (as much ideological buzzwords of the nineteenth century as democracy and globalization are of the present moment).
Now we circle back to Peter Beinart and other prominent “public intellectuals”:
The great material and technological success of the West, and the growth of mass literacy and higher education, produced its own model of the secular thinker: someone trained, usually in academia, in logical thinking and possessed of a great number of historical facts. No moral or spiritual distinction was considered necessary for this thinker; not more than technical expertise was asked of the scientists who helped create the nuclear weapons that could destroy the world many times over.
I should note, to be fair, that Robert Oppenheimer had studied eastern religion, particularly Hindu.
IT IS STRANGE TO THINK how quickly the figure of the spiritually-minded thinker disappeared from the mainstream of the modern West, to live on precariously in underdeveloped societies like India. It was left to marginal religious figures such as Simone Weil, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Thomas Merton to exercise a moral and spiritual intelligence untrammeled by the conviction that science or socialism or free trade or democracy were helping mankind march to a historically predetermined and glorious future. But then, as Hannah Arendt wrote, â€œThe nineteenth centuryâ€™s obsession with history and commitment to ideology still looms so large in the political thinking of our times that we are inclined to regard entirely free thinking, which employs neither history nor coercive logic as crutches, as having no authority over us.â€ [emphasis added]
We don’t often think of history as a crutch. Maybe we’ve become a little too obsessed with remembering history so we don’t repeat it. Since the invasion of Iraq we’ve argued whether Iraq is World War II or Vietnam or some other historical relic rattling around in our national attic. What we don’t do so much is try to understand Iraq as Iraq. Of course, we don’t remember our history as-it-was, either, but as we want to believe it was.
In America, religious and political ideology have always been interconnected, but in recent years we’ve taken this interconnection to absurd degrees. For example, the above-mentioned Niall Ferguson argues that America is more productive than Europe because our workers go to church more often than their workers. This begs the question — why is productivity a more “religious” virtue than, say, spending more time away from work to be with family? I think what we’re really seeing here is less about religion and more about voluntary submission to the authority of churches and employers.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for a public intellectual like Ferguson to make that connection. That requires thinking outside the box, and our public intellectuals are like a priestly caste charged with maintaining and protecting the box.
Peter Beinart may be trying, however. “[L]iberals must be anti-utopian, because the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time,” he said. Exactly. But we’ve got a job ahead of us explaining that to the rest of America.