Closing Thoughts on The Quiet American
March 21, 2011
I have already talked about the two kinds of imperialism mentioned and portrayed in The Quiet American. The “old” kind is exploitative while the “new” kind is “salvationist.” The former looks to exploit others and what they have while the latter looks to “save” others, e.g., save Vietnam from the Communists but also from itself, its backward self.
As portrayed, both are “bad” but the latter is actually worse than the former because it leads to even greater atrocities than the former. The latter kinds of imperialists have, as Fowler says, “good consciences” and, therefore, their policies, their actions, however horrendous or horrific they might appear, are justified. As Pyle said to Fowler after the carnage he created in the square, which took the lives of babies, old men, and women: “Thomas, you just don’t see the big picture.” Pyle meant that the murders of today were justified because he would save lives tomorrow.
But today I want to finish up with this book by talking about two different kinds of politics, a politics of greatness and a pedestrian or conservative politics. There are connections of course to the two kinds of imperialism mentioned above.
A politics of greatness is the view of politics that the political arena is or should be an arena where “the great ones” compete for power in order to undertake
“great projects.” Now, these “great ones” are those human beings who are most ambitious, those who, in Hamilton’s words in the Federalist, “love fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” These human beings are driven by a love of fame, which seems to be a reflection of a desire for immortality, at least the only kind of immortality that human beings can be certain of. The love of fame is a reflection of a desire to be or become god-like.
Moreover, the political arena should facilitate a “face-to-face” competition among these great ones, meaning a competition that is free of intervening institutions. Some of these intervening institutions would be political parties, interest groups, corporations, and even churches. The great ones should confront one another “face-to-face” and this competition should be “issue oriented.” That is, ultimately this competition should be about competing “visions,” competing views of what the best society should look like.
Hence, the “great projects” which these visionaries promise to undertake are to be far-reaching efforts to change the social, economic, and cultural character of society, changes that would permeate the society even reaching those human beings who comprise that society. As Woodrow Wilson said: “Our task is no mere task of politics.” That is, the kind of change sought goes far, very far, beyond political change. It reaches what we might call today “cultural change,” which helps explain why many today speak of “a culture war” and speak of this “war” as the most important battle being waged today, as it will determine what kind of nation we will be. This helps to explain the intensity of the rhetoric being used today and the intensity, i.e., the personalization, of the battles. Personal attacks are justified because the stakes are so high.
I remind you: this situation is the result of our embrace of a politics of greatness and, hence, the situation cannot be changed by merely calling for more restraint by political actors. It can only be corrected by embracing a different kind of politics. And, again, note should be taken that just as vicious, personal attacks are justified domestically, so too vicious, deadly attacks are justified in our interactions with other nations. Because the stakes are so high, we should strive to prevail “by any means necessary.”
As a result, we are led to commit atrocities, as Pyle was in The Quiet American. Because of his “innocence,” – i.e., his embrace of a politics of greatness as the saving of Vietnam would be a great act – Pyle is led to commit and justify a great atrocity, killing innocent women, babies, and old men.
It is crucial to underline that the atrocities that catch our attention, e.g., My Lai or Abu Ghraib, are “accidental,” are not the result of personal failings, and are not abrogation’s of an otherwise “noble” policy. Rather, they are the “logical” results of our embrace of a politics of greatness. And they cannot be avoided without changing the kind of politics we embrace or endorse.