Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forlorn Hope: Lost Dreams of American Renewal

American liberals who supported the ‘war on terror’ did so on ostensibly humanitarian and democratic grounds. Yet, underlying those soothing bromides was a fantasy of American regeneration through violence. Commentators as diverse as Frank Rich, David Brooks and George Packer had contended in the wake of that an era of decadence and frivolousness had just drawn to a close. 

Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times that ‘tolerance for people with dangerous ideas seems frivolous compared with the need to stop them’. Her new ‘sense of seriousness’, as she chose to call it, allowed her to understand the ‘urgent patriotism’ of Stephen Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’. The invocation of Americans in a collective struggle with fascism was not incidental: Spielberg’s focus on World War II, seen by many as a good ‘liberal’ war, had arguably been an effort to overcome the trauma of Vietnam and resuscitate liberal nationalism. Shulevitz continued: ‘Somewhere deep in my heart, I have always longed for a catastrophe like the present one’, as it would produce a ‘collective purpose’ comparable with World War II or the ‘Velvet Revolution’. It would sweep aside all triviality, such as ‘petty political squabbling’ and ‘enervating celebrity gossip’. An op-ed in the Washington Post mused that the hijackers ‘decided to attack the symbols of American empire, financial domination, military hegemony, strangely ugly buildings housing the people who rule a strangely ugly world despite our soft hearts.’ It was this softness, the failure to make this strangely ugly world beautiful, that had brought about such bloody consequences in Vietnam, Iran, Lebanon and Somalia.

On the day that the attack on Afghanistan began, former New York Times editor James Atlas told the paper’s readers that ‘[o]ur great American empire seems bound to crumble at some point’ and that ‘the end of Western civilization has become a possibility against which the need to fight terrorism is being framed, as Roosevelt and Churchill framed the need to fight Hitler’. The alarming ease with which ‘Western civilization’ was conflated with the American empire was matched only by the implication that nineteen hijackers from a small transnational network of jihadis represent a civilizational challenge, an existential threat comparable with the Third Reich. But this was precisely the argument of liberal interventionists. Thus, the polemics of Paul Berman, shorn of the language of empire, nonetheless held that both Al Qaeda and the Iraqi Ba’ath regime updated the ‘totalitarian’ challenge to liberalism that had been represented by Nazism and Stalinism. For Ignatieff, the ‘war on terror’ was an older contest between an empire whose ‘grace notes’ were free markets and democracy, and ‘barbarians’. And for Christopher Hitchens, nothing less was at stake than secular democracy, under threat from ‘Islamic fascism’. This challenge demanded both a censorious ‘moral clarity’ and support for extraordinary measures to abate the threat.

Anatol Lieven, in his study of American nationalism, compared the post-9/11 climate in the United States to the ‘Spirit of 1914’ that prevailed across Europe on the outbreak of World War I. It is a perceptive comparison. As Domenico Losurdo illustrates in his Heidegger and the Ideology of War, that era also generated a striking martial discourse (Kriegsideologie), which insisted on civilizational explanations for war. It was then mainly thinkers of the German right who elaborated the discourse. Max Weber, though politically liberal, argued that the war was not about profit, but about German existence, ‘destiny’ and ‘honour’. Some even saw it as ‘a religious and holy war, a Glaubenswieg’. Then, too, it was hoped that war would restore social solidarity, and authenticity to life. The existentialist philosopher Edmund Husserl explained: ‘The belief that one’s death signifies a voluntary sacrifice, bestows sublime dignity and elevates the individual’s suffering to a sphere which is beyond each individuality. We can no longer live as private people.’

Nazism inherited Kriegsideologie, and this was reported and experienced by several of those closest to the regime as a remake of the ‘wonderful, communal experience of 1914’. In Philosophie (1932), Karl Jaspers exalted the ‘camaraderie that is created in war [and that] becomes unconditional loyalty’. ‘I would betray myself if I betrayed others, if I wasn’t determined to unconditionally accept my people, my parents, and my love, since it is to them that I owe myself.’ (Jaspers, though a nationalist and political elitist like Max Weber, was not a biological racist, and his Jewish wife would fall foul of Nazi race laws). Heidegger argued that ‘[w]ar and the camaraderie of the front seem to provide the solution to the problem of creating an organic community by starting from that which is most irreducibly individual, that is, death and courage in the face of death’. For him, the much-coveted life of bourgeois peace was ‘boring, senile, and, though contemplatable’, was ‘not possible’.

These are family resemblances, rather than linear continuities. The emergence of communism as a clear and present danger to nation-states, and the post-war conflagrations of class conflict, sharpened the anti-materialism of European rightists who were already critical of humanism, internationalism and the inauthenticity of commercial society. Their dilemma was different, and their animus was directed against socialist ideologies that barely register in today’s United States. Yet, some patterns suggest themselves. The recurring themes of Kriegsideologie were community, danger and death. The community is the nation (or civilization) in existential peril; danger enforces a rigorous moral clarity and heightens one’s appreciation of fellow citizens; death is what ‘they’ must experience so that ‘we’ do not.

The hope that a nationhood retooled for war would restore collective purpose proved to be forlorn. The fixtures of American life, from celebrity gossip to school shootings, did not evaporate. By 2003, Dissent magazine complained that ‘a larger, collective self-re-evaluation did not take place in the wake of September 11, 2001’ – not as regards foreign policy, but rather the domestic culture that had formed during the ‘orgiastic’ preceding decade. An angry New Yorker article would later mourn the dissipation of ‘simple solidarity’ alongside the squandering of international goodwill by the Bush administration. Yet, it was through that dream that the barbarian virtues of the early-twentieth-century German right infused the lingua franca of American imperialism.

Excerpt from ‘The Liberal Defence of Murder’, Verso, 2008