I have been swamped for a while. Countless distractions... including a kitchen remodel (argh.) And planning for the August trip to Japan and China. Sorry to have neglected you all for a while.
This means things have accumulated. So what follows will be one of those ill-disciplined (and too-long) but possibly entertaining rants, as I hurry to finish up the present series.
Invite The Neocons Home: Part IV
AN APPETITE FOR VENGEANCE
Want to understand where today’s “red-blue culture war division of America” began?
Way back in the eighties -- the Reagan era -- American politics seemed polarized, but nothing like this. Indeed, when I lived in Britain, from 86 to 87, and in France from 90-91, I often remarked how Europeans appeared to define themselves - and all their views - according to primly-prescribed party lines, while Yanks -- even politicians -- seemed more eccentric and individualistic in defining themselves and their views.
For a while, pragmatic and undogmatic America seemed somewhat immune to one of the most perniciously persistent human tendencies -- the ever-present temptation to define ourselves and others according litmus lists and membership in lockstep clans. The ruination of many a great nation, this curse of oversimplification seemed to have abated for a while. Only now it is back with a vengeance, threatening to undermine and overwhelm the nation of Franklin, Edison and Ike.
So, where do we look, in order to grasp the etiology of a despicable and nation-splitting social disease called Culture War?”
A PLETHORA OF DIAGNOSES
Well, you could focus your attention on a rising hostility between rural and urban citizens.
Or ponder any recent electoral map and allow instant pattern-recognition to reveal the obvious. That we are witnessing a re-ignition -- or phase three -- of the American Civil War. The revenge of the Confederacy.
Or else you might scrutinize the weird “education hump,” in which both the least and the most educated tend overwhelmingly to swing democratic, while support for the GOP clusters pretty tightly around an average of three years of state college. (With a few glaring exceptions, of course... the cluster of right wing intellectuals who are the core topic of this series.)
Especially telling is the reaction attributed to Karl Rove, when he was confronted with this “hump” -- featuring the defection of nearly every American citizen with a smidgeon of advanced learning, including most of the highly-educated US officer corps. Paraphrasing, Rove essentially shrugged and sniped - “I guess there’s such a thing as knowing too much.”
To which one might respond. “Maybe a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
From another, more psychological perspective, who could fail to notice the recent surge in anti future and anti-science romanticism? I have made a strong case that this worldwide reaction encompasses not only our purported foes in Islamist fundamentalism, but also millions within our own country and civilization. Neighbors who share a deep fear of the approaching era of Homo technologicus. An age when human beings may rise rapidly in power and understanding, to become (for better or worse) apprentice gods.
(While we must oppose the retro-nostalgists, who call for an end to scientific ambition and engineering-based progress, can you honestly blame them for feeling uneasy? Worry about the possible cost of headlong progress is not limited to right wingers and religious fanatics. Fear and hostility toward the future also motivates many on the left, for example. Nor are all of their concerns and questions invalid! Though their answers nearly always are.)
Related to the psychological hypothesis is the biochemical theory... that Culture War is a manifestation of a nation-wide surge of addiction to the most widely available and abused drug of all -- self-righteous indignation.
Of course, cynics have their own, favorite explanation for Culture War.
Greed. Pure and simple.
Indeed, the last decade or so can certainly be viewed as a Great Kleptocratic Raid upon our civilization, led by a new clade of rapacious and secretive co-conspirators who have used every trick of power and influence to (for example) circumvent longstanding rules concerning government competitive contracting, using the trumped-up excuse of “terrorism”... as if any combination of mad bombers could match a fingernail of the threat once posed by real adversaries, during the Cold War, an era when contract rules were strictly enforced, and when legislative “pork” was pure and lean, compared to today’s snorting hog fest.
(Lest I be called a “class warrior,” or pinko, for even raising this spectre, I will post a more detailed elaboration on this particular view of culture war below, in comments.)
THERE IS AN INTELLECTUAL SIDE TO NEOCONSERVATISM
All of these theories make some sense in their own ways, just like the one hundred and forty views of Mount Fuji. And yet, even taken together, they are incomplete when it comes to explaining the disease of Culture War.
For example, in spite of their collusive power and relentless vampiric greed, the new plutocrats could never a movement make. Nor - despite taking over most mass media - could they persuade enough millions to vote for their shills and puppets, so that a lagniappe of cheating could swing power into their laps.
Not without plenty of persuasive cant and razzle-dazzle diversions and lots of incantatory legerdemain.
In other words, not without help from some really smart servant-savants.
No, if you are talking about Neoconservatism as a fully developed mantric system, filled with polysyllabic incantations worthy of Marx or Augustine or Machiavelli, then you need to examine the REAL “neoconservatives”... which I do in some detail elsewhere. The shamans and priests who waved their arms about and conjured up the excuses. The rationalizations. The rallying cries. The lengthy missives that allowed millions of decent “ostrich conservatives” to pretend that this was still the party of Barry Goldwater.
How did the priesthood form? And where did it get the tart, acrid taste of relentless resentment that made it so effective at stirring hatred toward “liberals”?
I KNOW THESE GUYS. DON’T YOU?
Here I want to discuss one small, crackpot theory, but one with big implications. For, you see, when I look at fellows like Paul Wolfowitz and all his pals, Adelman, Perle, Nitze and their ilk, I cannot help but sense that I know these guys. I knew the archetype, from many years spent on-campus. I recognize some of their travails and the patterns of their sufferings, their triumphs. And it leads me to offer yet another hypothesis... more of a story than anything I can actually prove.
I suggest that the neoconservatism that we see today -- in all of it’s bilious rancor, steaming vitumen and no-prisoners hatred -- had true roots in a bitter separation and divorce that took place at our universities decades ago, when, like bitter-exiled husbands, the conservative intelligencia stormed off to get lonely new apartments and then grumble into their beer, together. Muttering about ex spouses who were poisoning the minds of the kids.
That is how it must have felt when America’s conservative academics faced the confrontational left in the sixties, seventies and well into the 1980s. Raised on notions of collegial argument and scholarly disputation, they soon learned about the power of self-righteous indignation from a militant wing of liberalism that had some very good reasons for wanting social change... but that had no sense of political humility, whatsoever. No awareness of the tragic lessons of hubris.
Don’t you lefties out there dare to deny that your side committed awful excesses. Whenever conservative scholars dared to lift their heads, or to speak out with “yes... but...” they faced a potential firestorm. Shouts, at minimum. Demonstrations and even trashed-offices. Outrages of - at-minimum - rudeness and immaturity that sometimes tipped into outright criminal assault.
Indeed, despite all of the good works wrought by liberalism, across a century of progress, the lefty indignant tendency to push “political correctness” was the dark and pernicious side of a worthy movement. Pushed by a noisy few, “PC” gave conservatives something to point to, every time they wanted to diss “liberals.” Moreover, it stoked, in each new neocon, a sense of being the romantic, underdog victim of tyrants.
Eventually, things grew so hot that -- one after another -- the scholars of the right simply left campus, altogether. Carrying with them the bitterness of any exiled divorce’ -- banished from any further contact with the kids.
IN EXILE... FINDING NEW FRIENDS
I remember witnessing some of these forced departures, and the cries of glee from shortsighted demonstrators, when this or that conservative academic hastily departed, finding shelter at (for example) the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation. Faux-academic milieux where fellows and scholars got to pretend they were still professors. How that amused the victorious PC police, back on “real” campuses.
Silly-ass fools. For it is a sad truth about human nature that we always preen, exaggerating the value of our triumphs and underestimating the intelligence of those we have brought low.
One unexpected side effect was that conservative think tanks acquired not only fresh brain power but also unprecedented ferocity of focus. And not only because the newborn neocons brought with them boatloads of anger.
They became focused and coordinated teams also because the fat cat donors paying the bills at these conservative institutes were only somewhat interested in theory, after all. To a much greater degree, financial backers of the Heritage and other neocon foundations demanded new pragmatic tools for the acquisition and utilization of power.
(Well, after all, these are "faux" campuses. Only bright fools would call them academia.)
And so, gradually, supposedly libertarian groups like the Cato Institute began redefining “markets” and “freedom” and “regulation” in order to suit the needs of he-who-pays-the-piper. Until, today, Cato scholars honestly cannot imagine a market-cheating monopolist they won’t make excuses for.
Not even glory days under Ronald Reagan slaked this increasingly adversarial hunger for ever-greater influence. For example, the chief lesson that neocons learned from the Iran-Contra scandal was not the one moderates might expect -- that open accountability is a good and desirable corrective force in American life.
No, the lesson learned -- with fierce determination -- was that genuine power must encompass all branches of government.
Go to those earlier links, if you want to follow this tale further. But for now, we are at the point of asking the pertinent question.
How can we best cure this sickness? Especially now that a few of these bright apologist-nerds are starting to stand up, blinking in dismay and asking “what have I done?”
NEXT TIME: A SOLUTION -- INVITE THEM HOME AGAIN