Monday, May 2, 2011

the forever war

Josef Mengele died a happy old man, living in comfort with a family in a beautiful slice of South America. He drowned; I guess some might take solace in that. If you require a belief that justice is done on earth, slit your wrists.

Osama bin Laden is dead, and so our culture has made the curious decision to return to the world of 9/12: outwardly confident, showily defiant, wrapped in assertions of our power-- and yet, pecking and cawing beneath it all, the dirty bird of our fear. I don't know of a surer sign of a weak nation and a frightened people than so many working so hard to signal their toughness. It's true all the time: those who work to show you they're strong are weak. And as we assemble more and more little insults-- I'm sure bin Laden's ghost is all tore up that you won't call him Mr., Bill-- to add to the grand narratives of American power and moral vengeance, all those little lessons we learned in the aftermath of 9/11 shrivel and die. It's black humor, but it is funny, the way that our media (especially the supposedly free new media of blogs) parrots the administration's version of events, and each commentator tries more desperately than the next to find some new angle to degrade our enemy. (That he may have used his wife as a human shield-- which I don't know, by the way, and neither do you-- seems to me to be largely insignificant, when you consider he murdered thousands of innocent people.) We can't merely secure our goals, we have to "win." We can't merely win, we have to emasculate our enemy.

You should be reminded of all the wrong turns we took following 9/11, and you should be worried now. Even if you don't feel a little discomfort at national glee over human death, you might remember how much these moments have cost us and will continue to cost us. There's no wondering if this action was legal; nobody cares. That's the sort of thing successful terrorists do to a free people.

Liberalism is the self-limiting discourse. In the small-l, classical liberalism, Enlightenment-values sense that I'm told all American political ideologies share, liberalism is not just a philosophy but a critique of all philosophies. In its only true form, it undercuts itself always, sets its own boundaries, and holds its own dictates to be immutable rules never. You can't go to war for liberalism; such a thing is a contradiction in terms. You certainly can't be a warrior for liberalism. And liberalism can't ever win, not really. If you ever find yourself in the kind of position that calls itself victory, liberalism tells you to question what happened, to never stop in asking questions. If you've really won, if you stopped and stood in a place you call victory, you've ceased to represent liberalism. It is a slippery, frustrating commitment, the commitment to liberalism. There's nowhere to stand. Ever.

There is no such thing as righteous violence and no such thing as confident liberalism.

We have longed for the declaration of victory, and this event, which has changed very little, gives us the pretext to do it. That this collapse into the symbolic is understandable makes it no less scary. Behind it all, the ceaseless, oppressive force of the cult of Obama pushes and pushes. I have never witnessed anything like it in my life, the way this man has become venerated by people who are ordinarily discriminating. At the height of Bush's popularity, I often wondered if the hero worship could go any deeper. But now I know that there's always another side, and here it is: so many liberals who so bitterly rejected the tenor of those times are now weeping and beating their breasts with adoration for our dear leader. I never cared much about what was American, but it is true that leader worship is un-American. It is true that it is antidemocratic. It is true that it illiberal. American progressives largely don't care, though; that was Bush. This is their guy. So much for them.

When people speak of Obama as a potential liberal Reagan, I ask them to really think about what they are saying. The problem of Reagan isn't just his policies. The problem is that the very idea of a fawning attitude towards a president gives us nothing. I like Obama's policies a lot more than I do Bush's. That does not make me forget the essential wisdom of distrusting authorities, and particularly our executive.

Have you seen pictures of him? Always this same face, always-- that gentle, beatific smile. What you have here is that rarest kind of man, the real true believer. The kind that really and truly believed that the murders he committed where blessed by god. There isn't anything that you can do to such a person; you can kill him, but you can't possibly puncture the emotional armor of his zeal. Bin Laden went to his grave assured that he had been right all along, right about everything, and that his project carried with it the objective blessings of human order. Print all the nasty newspaper covers you want of him, and sacrifice your dignity in summoning a Two Minutes Hate; it only feeds the monstrous ideas that created him. I'm sure he enjoyed the moment of his martyrdom.

Here is what history should teach you: every great act of evil in the history of humanity, every one, was committed by people who were certain. Certain that they were right, certain that they understand the world, certain that they had unique access to the truth, certain that they could plant their flag on one right thing, and take their stand. In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, you had this strange and constant assault on the various relativist boogiemen that, we were told, threatened our way of life. Few people asked what sense it made to complain about the Derridas of the world when it was men like bin Laden, who was as far from a relativist as any could ever be, who had committed the crime. But such talk was inconvenient. We had our own certainty and our own righteousness and the time was not for asking about root causes but instead for planting our own flags.

You'll likely find an opportunity to feel solidarity with someone who is usually your political enemy, in the coming days. Some shared moment where you look over to someone who you know you disagree with, and say, "we got 'em!" and along with everybody else in the office, you feel all one, for a little while. Here's Conor, celebrating that unity. He means well. Unity is just conformity wearing a nicer dress. And I have to say to Conor at this moment what I had to say, after five and three quarter hours of weakness, on September 11th: I don't want to be unified with you. Not in this. Not behind the righteousness of violence. Not in the orgies of nationalism. Not in anything. Not at the moment when so many ask for unity, because those are the moments when the refusal of unity is most necessary. That, too, is liberalism: dissent in the heart of all things. The scariest word I know in politics is consensus. You should flee from it, if you find it.

That the good people in America want desperately to feel proud of the country again, I can understand, although "my country" is a concept I walked away from years ago. That people feel tremendous anger against a horrific person who committed inexcusable crimes, I understand. And that I am tempted to take up the flag and get with the communal program, I can't deny. I'm human, after all. But I know how things start, and I know that, within the crowds of people crowing and whooping and letting forth with anger, hides the most dangerous impulse that ever resided in the human heart.


  1. Well, I guess this will now be the best thing written about the topic.

    Though: "Every great act of evil in the history of humanity, every one, was committed by people who were certain." Uh? ... I can think of about 20 different ways that this isn't true, though I see your point.

  2. Name some! I'm eager to hear it.

  3. I don't know, Michel Foucault intentionally infecting people with HIV? A soldier conscripted into an army who goes along with a civilian massacre because he's terrified of reprisal (i.e. he's committing an evil act but not out of certainty; if anything, he's certain that it's wrong). Though I suppose "great act" implies something "more" evil ... obviously it's a tired example, but Eichmann? Was he acting out of passionate certainty?

    Anyway, "People who were certain" ... certain about what? About first principles? About their reasons for committing evil? About the evil act as it's being committed? One finds certainty, confusion, vagueness, partial insanity, and a thousand other subjective states among both pacifist relativists (who can also commit evil acts, oddly enough) and cheerleading war-mongers.

  4. There is no such thing as righteous violence and no such thing as confident liberalism.

    The next time you whine about being marginalized, just remember that it's because you hold stupid and marginal opinions like this one.

  5. Perhaps the difference is semantic. You'll concede that the Nazi project was not undertaken by relativists, though, right? Eichmann was an instrument; Hitler was a believer. Joseph Stalin believed in Bolshevism. Mao thought he was doing more for the Chinese people than any other ruler in history. The Inquisition tortured and murdered in an ecstasy brought about by their feeling of God's love. American settlers committed genocide against the native population with the assured understanding that Manifest Destiny was ordained from above and that their victims were less than human. On and on....

  6. Ah, but I love the margins, Phil, I always have. It's where I reside.

  7. been waiting for this post. thanks for writing it.

  8. Oh I definitely concede that much (as I mentioned, I do in fact see your point).

    But to say "every great act of evil" ... I don't know. Yes, Bin Laden was a believer; Hitler was a believer; I'm not so sure that Stalin believed in Bolshevism by the end; the atrocities of the Inquisition were primarily carried out by civil/royal inquisitors (the ecclesiastical courts tried to stop it) ... but then there were, e.g., plenty of evil Roman emperors who weren't passionately certain about anything except their own licentiousness. And in any case, almost all of the evil acts contained within each "great evil" was committed by someone who was not passionately certain, which is an important distinction to make.

  9. There is no such thing as righteous violence and no such thing as confident liberalism.

    Tell that to FDR, sophomore.

  10. I disagree with somefeller's tone, but I admit that I too wonder how FDR (or Kennedy) fit in with that claim.

  11. I was looking forward to this post (and to Larison's future post on this) so I didn't have to feel alone in not being excited about death.

  12. Maybe you guys missed the "small-l, classical...that I'm told all American political ideologies share" part. Not big-L, American Liberalism, of the FDR sort, which hardly can be said to be shared by the whole country.

    On the other hand maybe you're talking about WWII, which, well, you're not the only people in the world to think it was righteous violence.

  13. "Unity is just conformity wearing a nicer dress."

    False. One cannot feel unity and solidarity with someone politically or culturally different from oneself? How easy would it be to find counterexamples to this bald assertion? Privileged white northerners fighting on behalf of black slaves? Jews from different countries fighting alongside each other in the 1944 Warsaw uprising, with a language barrier between them. I could go on.

  14. the line paul h. picks up on has itself quite a 'certain' tone: 'Every [...] every one'


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