Podcast • May 19, 2011

Simon Schama: this “imperial calamity” we inherited

Simon Schama, the silver-tongued historian, is indulging me with a further reflection on this “imperial calamity,” as he put it, that we Americans seem to have inherited from his other country, Britain. There is no ...

Simon Schama, the silver-tongued historian, is indulging me with a further reflection on this “imperial calamity,” as he put it, that we Americans seem to have inherited from his other country, Britain. There is no way out, he seems to conclude — no relief from the burdens and sorrows of empire. I am wondering: what teaches a great power that its time is running out? “Bankruptcy!” he exclaims, about the British experience. In the American struggle with strategic decline, Schama says, there will be no silencing the “neurotic insistence” on American exceptionalism, and no cure for “the testosterone of fury.”

“Obama’s whole project, which is incredibly difficult to bring off, is basically to be the manager of declining expectations. Now you can’t go to the hustings and say to the people: my plan for the future of the Great American Republic is that we become more ordinary, that we run foreign policy on the cheap, and have a humble posture in the world. You really have to educate the American public in a more realistic way about what’s possible in the American future — but not in an election year. As we say, good luck on that, mate.”

My other country is a small island, 60 million population. It took a long time — I grew up in a period of declinism, really, where we got used to runs on the pound, botched fiascos — a long, bloody, somber education in our limitations. But there was something always about the British temper that was historically ironic. At least when I grew up, notwithstanding the gorgeousness of Churchillian rhetoric, there was also the sense that history is a kind of tableau of the tragic irony of overreach; even Thucydides saw that.

Irony is in very short supply on Capitol Hill, and it’s regarded as a kind of jaded, European admission of defeat. We’ve got back now to our founding fathers. The only figure among the great founding fathers who had no problem with irony at the same time as he had no problem about envisioning a great continental democratic future was of course the peerless Benjamin Franklin, who did put all those things together in an un-defensive way. And we’ve just blocked that ever since.

I suspect I’ll be long since gone to the buttercups and the tombs of my fathers, but in the end — and I guess the question is more about imperial Rome — we will simply, over a long period of time, become accustomed to our limitations. And at some point in the future there will be some Edward Gibbon sitting in the ruins, meditating on the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, and nailing it.

Simon Schama with Chris Lydon at Columbia University in NYC, May 12, 2011.

Podcast • April 29, 2011

Maya Jasanoff: This Empire We Inherited

Maya Jasanoff is letting me lay down my how-did-we-become-an-empire obsessions before a rising star among imperial historians. She teaches the Harvard course on the British Empire. William Dalrymple calls her “a bit of a genius” ...
Maya Jasanoff is letting me lay down my how-did-we-become-an-empire obsessions before a rising star among imperial historians. She teaches the Harvard course on the British Empire. William Dalrymple calls her “a bit of a genius” for her big new book Liberty’s Exiles — representative tales of the 60,000 English loyalists who fled the independent United States after 1783 and remade Britain’s fortunes around the world in a century-plus of glory. My questions are: how did we Americans — with anti-imperialism in our revolutionary roots, in our sentimental DNA — let ourselves in for the burdens and sorrows of empire, the corruption and disrepute of empire? And what should we suppose is our chance of escaping the fate of empires?

The start of Professor Jasanoff’s answer is that global ambition, maybe hubris, were written into the American story, into Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty,” from the beginning. The end of it is that the United States — assuming the British mantle in the 20th Century, fighting on old British battlegrounds (Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt) in the 21st — finds itself now roughly where Britain was in 1900, Boer War time. That is: powerful, wounded, demoralized, rightly worried about a gathering of forces against us and perhaps even a cataclysm of World War I proportions.

She does not like my polar cartoons of the British empire — which gave the world Shakespeare, Milton and the rules of law and commerce in, say, Niall Ferguson‘s fond fancy; or else “the worst war crime in the history of the species,” as David Rieff once put it to me. The real pity of the American empire, she’s saying, is that half-wit slogans — “freedom” and “democracy” — for military and oil adventures have made cynics of us all about what a privileged society might share with others. It’s another sad difference between the American and British Empires, Maya Jasanoff notes, that we do not believe in our mission enough to debate it, or call it by its proper name.

I think the divergence between rhetoric and reality is much greater for us now. I think that what we’ve really forgotten here is that being a republican nation-state is not incompatible with being an empire, that in the era of our founding, being an empire was what America aspired to. Now we tend to dupe ourselves by saying we’re a great democracy, we’re a great republic, we’re promoting that around the world, when plainly our own democracy is very much in trouble and plainly our role in the world is not quite as benign as we like to think.

In Britain there were always the critics, there were always people challenging empire, there were also always the people lauding imperial intervention. But I don’t think anyone would be in disagreement about the fact that Britain was an empire, that Britain was involved around he world in these ways, that this was central to what being British was being about. And I think that there’s a kind of honesty in that, for all its bleakness if you don’t like the idea of empire. I think you have to applaud the kind of honesty that goes into saying this is who we are and this is what we’re doing. It allows for a degree of public debate and engagement with what it means to be an empire that we are really lacking in America right now.

Maya Jasanoff with Chris Lydon at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, April 28, 2011.

Podcast • March 1, 2011

Parag Khanna: Why Nobody Runs the World

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Parag Khanna. (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3) Parag Khanna — the young freelance adventurer, noticer and scorekeeper in geo-politics — broke the news in the mainstream press three ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Parag Khanna. (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3)

Parag Khanna — the young freelance adventurer, noticer and scorekeeper in geo-politics — broke the news in the mainstream press three years ago that the United States’ “unipolar moment” had expired in the ruins of Iraq. Who Shrank the Superpower? was the cover headline on Khanna’s debut in the New York Times Sunday Magazine — counting on top of military costs the loss of American moral and economic “soft power” in the era of George W. Bush’s unilateralism. Globalization, as Parag Khanna argued in his first book, The Second World, had become a three-way street, meaning that aspiring peoples between the “first” and “third” world (think: Venezuela, Turkey, Kazakhstan) had the choice now of modernizing with the financial and technical help of (1) the U.S. (2) China or (3) Europe– and that the American route was looking less and less attractive.

The title of Khanna’s new book, How to Run the World was slapped on with deepest irony, or perhaps cynically for the airport racks, because it suggests the opposite of his essential point: that power in the world has devolved into a possibly benign anarchy as in the Middle Ages — that what looked like a “unipolar” world at the end of the Cold War has become not so much a “multipolar” as a “heteropolar” system today. The power of states (and the United States) continues to ebb, and the non-state actors include a mismatching multitude of impulses and institutions, public and private — including the stateless statesman George Soros, the Arab money pool known as Dubai, Cameron Sinclair and his Architects for Humanity, the Catholic Church and Al Qaeda. Nobody runs a networked world, and nobody is about to:

We still accord this privileged status, intellectually or otherwise, to the nation, the state, the territorial, that bounded geographic unit, as if, if and when a terrorist group or a company really does become as important as a state it would become a state. That’s not true at all. We are in a trans-national, trans-territorial sort of space globally, in which Royal Dutch Shell is perfectly happy not being a state as such. It has a global footprint and global operations. The Gates Foundation does not have to be a state to influence policies of hundreds of countries when it comes to public health. George Soros calls himself very proudly a stateless statesman, because of the diplomacy that he conducts everywhere on behalf of the causes that he holds dear.

So to me the idea that something is becoming like a state is a linear projection, a teleological assumption that more power means becoming more like a state. That’s not what the new Middle Ages, as I’m calling it, is really going to look like. Religious groups and religious actors, even those in the world of Islam who want a global caliphate, are really thinking much more about spreading that geography and community of belief, more than they’re thinking about what straight-line borders are they going to put down on a map. So I think we have to be very imaginative about what forms about identity and power are going to shape the 21st Century and focus ever less on just who is a state and who is not a state. …

Parag Khanna in conversation with Chris Lydon.

Podcast • December 21, 2010

Mark Blyth (2): 2011 Will Be Worse… and Life Will Go On

Mark Blyth is back in the pub tonight, played by Sean Connery, as usual, and demonstrating again how far a man can go in political economy just by talking fast and infallibly with a strong ...

Mark Blyth is back in the pub tonight, played by Sean Connery, as usual, and demonstrating again how far a man can go in political economy just by talking fast and infallibly with a strong Scots’ accent.

The Democrats in Washington have taken up again their modern mission: cleaning up a Republican mess in America, for which they will get no thanks in 2011 or 2012, says our corridor mate at the Watson Institute. The Tea Party rebellion demonstrates anew that American voters are crazy but not necessarily stupid: when they see debt and deficits skyrocketing and unemployment still climbing, the Republican campaign writes itself, and wins. “You don’t get any credit for putting an emergency floor in the building when the roof is still falling into the basement. That’s what the Democrats have done for the last two years, and will keep doing.”

Mark Blyth is a man of rough opinions, as you’ve gathered, on top of learning and experience. The civilized expert world has decided, he notes, that “austerity” is to be the bad idea that governs economic policy in 2011. “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working,” is the rule. It won’t work, Blyth says. It won’t even be sustained, because democracies (like Ireland, maybe even the US) have discovered that they’re paying twice for the meltdown: first through the bank bailout, second through service cuts on the altar of the austere. Sooner or later, he says, the holders of sovereign debt will “take a haircut” but that day of reckoning could yet be years away. At the end of the day, he is telling us, the American economy has staying power that a lot of nervous Americans forget. This sounds like the Mark Blyth version of the line attributed to Bismarck, that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” Is not the empire at risk, I am asking…

MB: It depends on what you mean by “empire,” right? This is the funny thing about American Empire. As an immigrant to the United States, along with hundreds of millions who have done it over the past hundred years, it’s this funny empire that people keep wanting to join. It’s a really weird thing. The Italians are the best at this, they got six US military bases on their soil that fly unimpeded missions to Afghanistan and God knows where else, whatever the Americans want to do, and then they come over here, probably flying Business Class to get here, and then moan about the American Empire. It’s a strange creature, this one.

CL: Some of them come here to get out of range of American foreign policy.

MB: When the British had an empire you knew where you stood. You had no rights, you had only responsibilities. We owned the stuff and you got shat on. When the French had an empire it was even clearer. This is a very odd empire where you get preferential trading agreements, better access to markets, technology transfers, and then all the sort of benefits that go along with hanging around in the dollar club. Oh, and then we’ll also do this thing called NATO where basically we’ll bankroll your militaries for 35 years and we’ll keep it going 20 years after the Cold War because it’s just a good idea. If you had to design an empire from scratch and you could do whatever you want, this would not be it. This is a seriously funny empire.

One example of this. So let’s go into Iraq for oil, right? Okay… But if you went out in 2002 and went on the spot market, and basically bought oil future contracts at about $36 a barrel, you could have bought the entire Iraqi oil stock for one quarter of what we spent on the war. This is the stupidest empire the world has ever seen. If there really was an empire, it should have fallen years ago.

Next time, perhaps: Mark Blyth on the post-bubble blues, reflecting on the ruins of the equity and tech boom (1987-1997) and then real estate and housing (1997-2007): “There’s a whole conversation we could have sometime about whether the model for investment banking is bust. I personally think it is, and it’s not coming back. So saving the banks was maybe wrong for different reasons than people thought.”

Podcast • December 14, 2010

Chris Hedges: We’re Missing Our Safety Valve

Chris Hedges, among those anxious prophets to whom attention must be paid, is a sort of George Carlin without the laugh lines. Grim obituarist of our empire, democracy and culture, the ex-New York Times war ...

Chris Hedges, among those anxious prophets to whom attention must be paid, is a sort of George Carlin without the laugh lines. Grim obituarist of our empire, democracy and culture, the ex-New York Times war reporter is gabbing with us here about the smothered conscience of power: the Death of the Liberal Class, in the title of his new book.

A minister’s kid in New England, then a literature student at Colgate and Harvard, Chris Hedges came to see his fellow liberals running a fool’s errand. The job was to represent — in churches, media, labor unions, universities and the arts — as much virtue as was viable in an aggressively commercial, unequal and unjust world. At best the liberals worked a narrow zone of correction and commentary. In a new century, imperial excess, permanent war and the sharp polarizations of wealth, power and income seem to have driven everybody off the island, one way or the other.

We’re talking about Tom Friedman of the New York Times, for example, and Judge Richard Goldstone, two classic liberals. Friedman walked off the island to marry George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. His hideous claim for the war on the Charlie Rose Show in 2003 — his “suck on this” rationale that sodomy-rape of Iraq by American troops was an appropriate way to pop a “terrorism bubble” — was dredged from the darkest, least speakable of Rumsfeld-Cheney dreams. But Friedman is still an opinion monger at the New York Times, and people who read him casually keep telling me he’s a “liberal.” Richard Goldstone, on the contrary, was frog-marched off the island precisely for staying in character — as a fearless fact-finder and judge in human-rights cases in his native South Africa, also in Rwanda and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Goldstone was a world-standard of conscience and the law until the UN council he chaired found that Israel had executed “a deliberately disproportionate attack” on Gaza at the end of 2008, “designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorize a civilian population…” It was a judgment that made Goldstone a pariah, first among establishment liberals.

Perhaps it was never graceful or quite respectable to be a liberal. The only good liberals, it seems in this conversation, are dead liberals who kept their distance from power: Orwell, supremely; Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; the pacifist Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker soup-kitchens; the independent journalist I. F. Stone; Julian Benda, the French writer whose Treason of the Intellectuals anathematized the thinkers between the World Wars who adopted the politics of class, party and tribe. But Chris Hedges is rueful, too, about a world with fewer and fewer engaged and half-way trusted rationalists in the public square. He’s missing those late, unloveable but maybe indispensable liberals. Not least he mourns journalism, for all its faults: “With the death of newsprint,” he is telling us, “we’re losing a whole cadre of people who are trained to go out, report stories, have them fact-checked, publish them. The end result was to build a public discussion around verifiable fact. When we lose those skills of reporting, all discussion becomes — from the left, from the right — emotionally driven. Verifiable fact no longer becomes the foundation of public discourse.”

Podcast • November 16, 2010

Najam Sethi: A Pakistani Prescription for Af-Pak Peace

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Najam Sethi (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3) Photo: Juliana Friend Najam Sethi is the man any of us would want to know in Pakistan. He’s the man we ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Najam Sethi (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Photo: Juliana Friend

Najam Sethi is the man any of us would want to know in Pakistan. He’s the man we might like — on a very brave day — to be. He’s got the voice of a reasonable Pakistani patriot, also of a free-wheeling American sort of peacenik and liberal. Standard bearer of independent elite journalism in Pakistan, Najam Sethi has been arrested and jailed in the 70, 80s and 90s by Pakistani governments of different stripes. In the last few years he’s had death threats from Taliban thugs, too. Always his “offense” is that gabby critical openness we like about him.

There are people, oddly enough, who call Najam Sethi a stooge for the US and India, but listen here to his denunciation of American ignorance, neglect and hypocrisy; and consider the most appealing case I’ve heard directly for Pakistan’s interest. What Pakistan needs is a friendly “good Taliban” regime in Kabul, Najam Sethi is saying. What it cannot abide is an Islamist trouble-maker, or a foothold for Indian mischief.

I am asking my American question: why not bug out of an Afghanistan war we wouldn’t want to win; and, while we’re at it, end a dysfunctional affair with Pakistan that has produced mainly white-heat anti-Americanism. It’s a thought that doesn’t tempt him — to leave a failing democracy of 180-million people in an anti-American frenzy, with nuclear weapons and a mostly young population. “If you leave that,” he says, “… you ain’t seen nothing yet.” The American exit from Afghanistan will be slow and drawn-out. A good withdrawal will depend on a joint American-Pakistani mission to isolate “good” and “bad” Taliban from “bad” Al Qaeda — and then shoo-ing Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan — dead or in flight to Yemen.

My main concern is not patriotism or nationalism. It’s that Pakistan should not fall victim to imperialist policies by Pakistan’s military or by the Pentagon in the region. I’d like to see a prosperous, safe, secure, secular Pakistan. I’d like to see a rollback of radical political Islam. I think if you don’t give the Pakistani military a certain degree of security, it is capable of adventures in the area ruinous for Pakistan and for the region. I’d like Pakistan to build peace with India. I’d like the Americans to withdraw from Afghanistan. I don’t mind if the Taliban rule Afghanistan. But I would mind very much if they began to export their ideology to Pakistan. I’d certainly like to see the Pakistani military taking its rightful place beneath the civilians, not above the civilians. And I’d like to see the civilians in Pakistan flourish and prosper. The good news here is that civilians now across the board want to redress civil-military relations. They’re not happy with the Pakistan Army’s military adventures in India and Afghanistan. The civilians want to build peace in the region. They want to aid and they want to trade, and they want to build an enlightened country. And I want to be part of that process.

Najam Sethi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown, November 4, 2010

Podcast • September 17, 2010

Andrew Bacevich: how war without end became the rule

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Andrew Bacevich (43 minutes, 20 mb mp3) Andrew Bacevich is the soldier turned writer who’s still unlearning and puncturing the Washington Rules of national security. The rules have ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Andrew Bacevich (43 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Andrew Bacevich is the soldier turned writer who’s still unlearning and puncturing the Washington Rules of national security. The rules have turned into doctrines, he’s telling us, of global war forever. He is talking about the scales that have fallen from the eyes of a slow learner, as he calls himself — a dutiful, conformist Army officer who woke up at the end of the Cold War twenty years ago to the thought that the orthodoxy he’d accepted was a sham.

Andrew Bacevich’s military career ran from West Point to Vietnam to the first Gulf War in 1991. The short form of the story he’s been writing for a decade now is: how unexamined failure in Vietnam became by today a sort of repetition compulsion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington Rules is Andrew Bacevich’s fourth book in a project to unmask American empire, militarism, over-reach and what sustains them.

Podcast • October 19, 2009

Chris Hedges: Requiem for the Reading Republic

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. When I got to the New York Times (some years before Chris Hedges) in the late Sixties, Alden Whitman had the bad news moniker, writing obits of great figures for the paper of record. When Alden Whitman knocked on your door for a long interview about your life, you were supposed to know it was almost over. It’s Chris Hedges’s gig now, observing all of us. After most of 20 years as a war correspondent with the Times, Chris Hedges in 2003 charged his paper and others with “shameful cheerleading” for the war in Iraq, and left to study up again on ancient history, theology and classic literature, and to write his own classic, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. In his new jeremiad, Empire of Illusion, pro wrestling and pornography are the bookend spectacles in a parody culture all around us now — the grotesque joke representations of power and eros in the end times. I find these resonant arguments, from the rare daily-news ace who’s trained himself also in the long view:

To believe somehow that we are the culmination, that time is linear, that we are progressing morally, is to ignore human history and human nature, and essentially to remain in a state of infantilism. That’s what illusion is about. If we had an understanding of what the dying days, the twilight hours of great civilizations were like we would be able to see all the flashing lights, the warning signs around us. But I think that the illiteracy which has gripped the country (a third of this country is either illiterate, or is technically literate but doesn’t read anymore); that shift from a print based culture into an image based culture, the belief that how we are made to feel is a form of knowledge, propaganda being a kind of ideology — these are the hallmarks of a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states are image based, spectacle based states.

We have set the ground for a seamless transfer from a democracy into a kind of corporate state. With the corporate state always comes the rise of the surveillance or the security state. We lack the capacity, having been unmoored from print, and relying on skillfully manipulated images, to fight back… We see it in the environmental crisis; we are literally destroying the ecosystem that sustains the human species; the gap widens between the illusion of the world we think we live in, and the reality of that world.  What you’ve done is render huge segments of the population into a kind of childishness which makes them emotionally, intellectually and psychologically unprepared for what it is they are about to face. They will react like all children, which is to reach out for demagogues who promise a new glory, vengeance and moral renewal.

CL: What survives of American hegemony if in fact it’s over?

CH: Well, it is over. We can’t continue to borrow, to sustain either a level of consumption or the empire that we demand. It’s just a question of when, and how do we respond. I don’t think learning to live without the piles of junk that have been bequeathed to us by consumer culture is going to impoverish our lifestyle. I don’t think that learning a new humility as empire is dismantled is a negative. We will have to learn another language other than the language of force by which we speak to most of the rest of the world, certainly those in the Middle East. It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of hope or a life of meaning or a life of richness; it just means a different kind of life. The danger is not grasping this reality. That’s the danger. if we’re not prepared for this reality, if we continue to live as the most delusional nation on the planet, than we we will end up like Yugoslavia. The war in Yugoslavia was caused by the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia — it vomited up figures like Slobodan Milosevic; the Weimar republic did the same; did the collapse of Czarist Russia…

What remains? I think that unfortunately American culture (or cultures, for we once had many cultures with their own iconography and aesthetic, and a decentralized press that gave expression to local communities) was dismantled and destroyed in the 20th century and replaced with mass corporate culture… The drive of corporate culture was to implant the need for consumption as a kind of inner compulsion. Drawing on Freud, it was about manipulating people, appealing to subliminal desires and anxieties, often creating those anxieties, to fuel a kind of wild orgy of consumable products that were supposed to sort of ameliorate our alienation and atomization and loneliness and despair. And all of that is falling down around us. And yet we haven’t recognized that reality. It’s not unique. There’s that emotional incapacity to understand how fragile the world is around us and how rapidly it can disintegrate. I think having been a war correspondent, and having lived in societies that did disintegrate, I’m much more conscious. I can walk in my supermarket and imagine all the windows knocked out and the shelves bare and the neon lights hanging, because I’ve seen it. There’s that dual capacity to see how swiftly and quickly any society can collapse.

CL: We elected a president who promised literally a kind of transformation. I don’t want to to argue Obama politics, so much as just to ask: is transformation an illusion?

CH: Well, we elected a brand. We elected a presidential candidate who campaigned, like his rival, primarily on a personal narrative. You had rallies where people were chanting slogans like “yes we can,” which they stole by the way from FedEx-Kinko’s. It was campaign by experience: it was a very effective way of making us feel a certain way about a candidate. But Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state anymore than George W. Bush threatened the core of the corporate state.  That has been more than evidenced by Obama’s willingness to continue the looting of the American treasury, the largest transference of wealth upwards in American history. In the 17th century in England, speculators were hung. In our society they are given tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, and they run the government.

Chris Hedges in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 8, 2009.

Podcast • August 28, 2009

Jackson Lears: on Obama’s Sorrows of Empire

Jackson Lears‘ cultural history, Rebirth of a Nation, from the Civil War to World War One, is the flip side of Louis Menand’s dazzling take on the same period, The Metaphysical Club (2001). Menand wrote ...

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Jackson Lears‘ cultural history, Rebirth of a Nation, from the Civil War to World War One, is the flip side of Louis Menand’s dazzling take on the same period, The Metaphysical Club (2001).

Menand wrote about the invention of Pragmatism. What became known as the American philosophy was conceived deliberately as an antidote to the unbridled passions that had just taken more than 600,000 American lives and nearly broke the Union.

Lears is writing about the war virus that survived the pragmatists’ “cure.”

Menand’s heroes were Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and John Dewey.

In Lears’ rueful reconsideration of the story, Teddy Roosevelt reemerges as the poster-face of the era: the first captain of American empire and true ancestor of the bathetic George W. Bush.

The first Gilded Age and its lingering effects are almost reducible to a contest of ideas and temperaments between a great teacher and his student who became a giant president.

“Unless we keep the barbarian virtues,” Teddy Roosevelt wrote in 1899, “gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”

William James, who’d tutored Roosevelt at Harvard, made precisely the opposite point in The Moral Equivalent of War (1910) : that the claw-and-fang ferocity that bred the species was now undoing us. “And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the sciences of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity.”

Vice President Roosevelt promoted the US war in the Philippines (1899 – 1902), then as President inherited the waging of it.

James — in league with Mark Twain, Samuel Gompers, Andrew Carnegie and others — denounced America’s colonial venture, anticipating the over-the-top curses of President Obama’s onetime pastor in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright. “God dam the U.S. for its vile conduct” in the Philippines, said James, our greatest public intellectual. American intervention would destroy “the one sacred thing in the world, the spontaneous budding of a national life” among the Filipinos. “We can destroy their ideals, but we can’t give them ours.”

But this story of the two cordial enemies, Professor James and President Roosevelt, is just a piece of the contest over Republic and Empire, as old as the European settlement of the continent: were we to be a city on a hill, or an empire of liberty? It is an argument that raged recently through the punditry around the war in Iraq, with Paul Krugman, Jon Stewart, Gore Vidal and Andrew Bacevich in what could be called (but never is) the Party of the Republic, and Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, Robert Kagan and Tom Friedman in the Party of Empire. It is a story as current today as Barack Obama’s difficulty reconciling the health of the people (call it: healthcare for all) and extended war in Afghanistan.

Jackson Lears explains that he undertook his new book “in sadness and anger” in 2003, asking why Americans keep talking themselves into faraway wars of choice – to wit: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – knowing the horrific price in blood and treasure and reputation. Lears’ answer took him back more than a century to an American longing for regeneration after the Civil War: it’s a longing to start over, maybe to be born again, one-by-one and as a nation, to exercise a manly, muscular Christianity, with a wispy wish that maybe war makes us stronger, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

In our conversation, Lears’ answer extends to a melancholy reflection on the Obama doldrums of August, 2009:

JL: Like a lot of other people, I was moved profoundly by the victory of Obama. Moved to tears, in fact, about the sense of possibility that this seemed to restore. I kept thinking about the term ‘deliverance’ — I thought of this as a deliverance from a nightmarish period in our history, and a period where really there had been a kind of unfolding coup d’etat, [the Bush administration] running roughshod over civil liberties and certainly the republican tradition. And Obama seemed to promise, certainly in his campaign rhetoric, a fundamental departure from the kind of imperial abuses that Bush and company had specialized in and had deployed so effectively and relentlessly while they were in power. Obama seemed to promise deliverance. That was the word that came to mind for me. And regeneration, of course, along with that.

CL: You’re putting a lot of those Obama hopes in the past tense…

JL: I don’t see the kind of leadership that Obama had a mandate to provide. He could have made more things happen, certainly with respect to health care, and could have taken command of the debate and framed it more effectively rather than bending over backwards to create this bipartisan solution that I think is an utter delusion when you are dealing with the kind of rabid free market ideologues that are left on the Republican side, now that all of the moderates have been defeated by Democrats.

I am very dispirited by this—I haven’t given up hope altogether because I think that Obama represents, in some ways, the soft imperial side of the American imperial tradition rather than the hard Teddy Roosevelt side. He represents the Woodrow Wilson side, the side that, at least, sees war as a last resort, rather than something that is actually desirable. It is less bellicose in rhetoric and it can be persuaded to sit down and talk about things in ways that the more extreme militarists cannot. Nevertheless, in its very benign quality, the humanitarian interventionist argument can be quite seductive and ultimately quite dangerous as well, and that is what I fear I see happening in Afghanistan…

I am concerned that even as he embodies a more multicultural and more pluralistic perspective, and certainly a more diplomatic perspective than a militarist one, his willingness to talk to Iran, for example, is a sign for some cause for hope. But I also think the universalist aims — the old Wilsonian tradition — is not dead by any means: we can go marching abroad in search of monsters with the best of intentions and those adventures can go horribly awry. There is a great deal of hubris involved in either case, it seems, whether you are taking the harder line or the softer line.

Jackson Lears in conversation with Chris Lydon, New Brunswick, NJ and Boston, August 27, 2009.

Podcast • March 5, 2009

Fred Kaplan on the Neo-Cons: Daytime Dreamers

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Fred Kaplan and James Der Derian. (61 minutes, 28 mb mp3) Fred Kaplan: a short history of bad ideas Fred Kaplan, the “War Stories” columnist at Slate, reminds ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Fred Kaplan and James Der Derian. (61 minutes, 28 mb mp3)

Fred Kaplan: a short history of bad ideas

Fred Kaplan, the “War Stories” columnist at Slate, reminds us in his trashing of the Bush-Cheney neo-cons, Daydream Believers, not only that his barbed book title comes from T. E. Lawrence, but that Lawrence had aimed the dagger at his own over-reaching imperial self.

“All men dream: but not equally,” Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

In our studio / classroom with James Der Derian‘s global security students at Brown’s Watson Institute, Fred Kaplan extends his argument about “a few grand ideas” that “wrecked American power.” Among the bad ideas, in Kaplan’s reading, were the oversold “revolution in military affairs” and the Rumsfeldian dogmas it spawned about the political utility of super-high-tech weaponry. Another one, he says here, was the notion that United States came out of the Cold War stronger — not perhaps unhinged by the loss of a balance wheel in world affairs. Kaplan’s conversation picks up where Parag Khanna‘s left off, as to the sins of the Bush years and the depth of the Obama predicament today:

The U. S. Government’s recent actions — the willful disregard of international treaties, the documented instances of torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the often-arbitrary detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the illegal “renderings” of suspected terrorists on foreign soil, the harsh treatment of civilians under the occupation of Iraq, in the eyes of some the fact of the occupation itself — have undermined America’s authority as a moral or legal arbiter.

Quite apart from questions of war, these actions have also tarnished America’s stature as a beacon of democracy. In many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, the word “democracy” is now discredited. Sadder still, the smattering of individuals and movements struggling for Western-style reforms shun association with the United States, knowing it would only hurt their cause…

Fred Kaplan in Daydream Believers (Wiley), p. 197

There’s a great cameo appearance here by Sergei Khrushchev, historian son of the late Soviet Premier Nikita and a longtime fellow at the Watson Institute. Quoth Sergei:

Sergei Khrushchev: the old illusion

About Afghanistan, what is happening now reminds me, one by one, of what happened with the Soviet Union. Soviet generals were against the invasion of Afghanistan. But then after, when they entered there, each two months, they said: an additional division… and maybe we will take over. At last it was finished with 150,000 [troops] that could not control Afghanistan at all. The biggest mistake, what I think is happening now, is this illusion — and your illusion also — that anybody can control Afghanistan. Nobody can control Afghanistan from outside, because we are alien and they will be united against us.

Sergei Khrushchev with Fred Kaplan in James Der Derian’s seminar at Brown, March 4, 2009.