Thoughts on How We Think About Politics
March 19, 2011
In reading a book by a colleague about what he calls the conservative foundations of liberalism, in which he argues, not uniquely or originally, that modern liberalism cannot sustain itself without the help of “forces” or “phenomena” that are “pre-modern,” he argues that the foreign policy pursued by the Bush administration – and perhaps other administrations as well – was saved or redeemed by “prudence.” That is, that foreign policy was not ideological even though it was too simplistic to be successful.
Now, in thinking about what I did not agree with in regard to this argument, I made a “discovery” which seems worthwhile. According to my colleague, and of course many others, the atrocities that have been committed by Americans in pursuit of its foreign policy are what might be called “accidental.” That is, they are not indicative of American values and are, usually, the result of “one-off” events, such as My Lai or Abu Ghraib. As my colleague says of people like William Kristol and Dick Cheney, they are “decent human beings,” unlike those whom we consider to be and who consider themselves to be our enemies. Even the war in Vietnam, by this reasoning, becomes a “noble” adventure.
I have been rereading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American as I am once again teaching it this semester. Greene saw in the context of Vietnam in the early 1950s what may be called two kinds of imperialism, the old imperialism that aimed at exploitation, and the new imperialism that aimed at salvation, e.g., “saving” Vietnam, both from the Communists and from its backward or undeveloped self. Greene’s English protagonist, Thomas Fowler, says at one point while debating the American protagonist, Alden Pyle, that he would prefer the imperialism of exploitation because, unlike the new imperialism, the exploiters did not have “good consciences.” Hence, they did less damage in the end than those who came to “save” a particular country.
Now I think this may be expressed best with an aphorism that became well known during the Vietnam war, viz., that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” This can be applied to the whole country because we were not only saving Vietnam from the Communists but also intended to save it from itself, that is, to modernize it, to develop it, which of course requires destroying the “old Vietnam.” Reflections of this mindset are visible in our extensive bombing campaigns in both North and South Vietnam and in what was called the “strategic hamlet” program under which thousands and thousands of Vietnamese were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated where they would be safe and away from the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. In many cases, the old hamlets, that is, the homes of the Vietnamese were destroyed quite literally.
What this means is that it was our overall policy in Vietnam that was the atrocity or was atrocious. It was such because given our intention to “save” Vietnam we had to destroy it, one way or another. And this means that the other, more visible atrocities, those events that even we the American people had to admit were atrocities, were not accidents at all. Rather, they merely reflect the character of the overall policy itself.
This also means that my colleague’s recommendation or endorsement of an
“activist, interventionist foreign policy” moderated by prudence is quite fanciful insofar as such a policy requires that we commit atrocities because the policy itself is an atrocity. We disguise this from ourselves in numerous ways, one of them being using euphemisms like an “activist, interventionist foreign policy,” rather than calling it what it is, viz., imperialism. Further, it seems to me that perhaps any “activist” politics, as we understand this term, leads to the commission of atrocities because such a politics is, itself, an atrocity.
Could this be what Machiavelli was teaching us? That is, Machiavelli wrote, in essence, something like the following: “Hey, I want the things that most human beings want, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I want a political order that will guarantee some security, some liberty, and some prosperity. But I know what you have to do in order to get these things and these requirements are quite severe, including even inhuman cruelty [as practiced by Hannibal and others]. I wish it were different but it isn’t. The good only comes out of the bad as justice only comes out of injustice. All great political orders are founded in crime.” [Think of American slavery here, as well as the “displacement” of the Native Americans.]
Could this also be the meaning of saying, favored by many conservatives that “there is no such thing as a free lunch?” I think it might be. Could it also be that this was recognized by such men as Plato and Aristotle, as well as such men as Augustine and Aquinas, and led them to try to deflect human beings away from what might be called “a politics of action?” Plato tried to deflect men toward contemplation or philosophy, while Aristotle tried to deflect men toward the pursuit of happiness, a pursuit that would end beyond the political arena in living a life of leisure. And both men endorsed a kind of political order, the polis, which would be limited, if only by its very size, with regard to the kinds of actions it could undertake. Or so it might seem.
Anyway, it could be that the political “problem” is in fact what we would call an “activist politics” and the puzzle is to find a way to “deactivate” politics so that human beings do not commit atrocities, and especially not with good consciences. If this is correct, then it may be said that decency is not or will not be enough because even decent men who undertake an activist politics will be led, willy nilly, to commit or endorse or approve atrocities, as we have seen with regard to the war on terror and the practice of torture. And insofar as this is true, then it must be said that those who call themselves and consider themselves “realists,” “hardheaded realists” at that, are actually quite polyannish in that they do not see the political problem clearly, if at all. They endorse, they even embrace a politics of action and think that this embrace can be moderated by that decency which almost all human beings possess. This way of thinking reminds me of an essay by D. H. Lawrence or an essay about D. H. Lawrence in which the author said that the limitations of Benjamin Franklin, i.e., the American founders, were that he, Franklin, thought the deviant tendencies of the human soul could be controlled like home grown gardens could be controlled, with the erection of a white picket fence. Ah , if only it were so easy to control or moderate the political passions of human beings.