Militarism and National Pride

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

What kinds of things should Americans be proud of?

Only since the late 1940s have we been proud of military might as a token of national strength. In a way, being a military superpower wasn’t something we asked for. World War Two started in far away places, and we joined the fighting only when our hand was forced by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (And, less noticed, because FDR increasingly came to see the war as a global, existential conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism, from which we could not in good conscience absent ourselves.)

So we had to build a war-winning machine, which we did. The scale of the task was larger than in times past, but we prepared for war in 1941 the way we always had–on the fly. These days it’s difficult, if not impossible, to recall a time when our country was not on a permanent war footing.

We didn’t used to consider war a normal part of life. Before the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, we had had a Department of War, not Defense, and we only had that intermittently, when necessary.

To put that in perspective, our country existed for 171 years without a permanent department to organize the provision of national defense. We also lacked a standing army for most of that time. But when World War Two ended, not with a clear and decisive victory for liberal democracy but with a lingering, persistent threat of conflict with the USSR, it became necessary to form permanent institutions of defense.

This was, in my estimation, a national tragedy. Our hand may have been forced, but in any case the country turned a corner and became something it had never been before, a national security state.

With the passage of the National Security Act, the resulting colossus of a defense- and intelligence bureaucracy imbricated itself with a massive network of defense industries and educational institutions. The whole thing became precisely what Dwight Eisenhower warned could overtake our national purpose–a military industrial complex.

And of course, Ike had no idea what a corporate lobbyist was, or he would have referred to them as part of the MIC too. This suave and canny battalion of retired generals grow rich promoting the business of defense–and in doing so they keep the permanent war economy humming.

Today the U.S. national security state is unstoppable. This is primarily because it is politically unquestionable. In 1981 Ronald Reagan immunized the national military budget against meaningful review, saying in a speech that defense was “not a line item expense.” He meant that defense was a fixed cost, to be paid out before the leftovers–which make up the discretionary budget–are divvied up.

You can see the legacy of this doctrine today in the way the defense budget is set aside. Although politicians give lip service to the idea that we gauge our future military to specific threats we anticipate, this argument is mocked by the way the budget is really drawn up.

As Jessica Mathews wrote in the New York Review of Books in July 2019, “For several decades, we have maintained an extraordinarily high level of defense spending with the support of both political parties and virtually all of the public. The annual debate about the next year’s military spending, underway now on Capitol Hill, no longer probes where real cuts might be made (as opposed to cuts in previously planned growth) but only asks how big the increase should be.”

Regardless of all the work that scientists, intelligence analysts and other experts put into understanding future threats against which to calibrate our military capabilities, the Pentagon spending graph simply describes an unthinking upward arrow. It represents a percentage of national wealth fixed by dogma, not intelligence, imagination or empirical information.

The uncritical conviction with which we accept this arrangement is relatively new. Americans viewed President Lincoln’s first-ever levying of an income tax as an emergency measure necessary to win the Civil War, and they were eager to turn it off as soon as the war was won.

There was no permanent income tax until the 16th amendment to the constitution was ratified in 1913. Today the tax spigot runs night and today into the Defense Department, at full blast. I’m not sure how many Americans understand how much political choice has been taken away from them by the normalization of unquestioned defense expenditures and the national security state that perpetuates them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no hippie peacenik. I served in the military. So did my dad. So does my sister. We have all fought in foreign wars. I believe in having a strong enough military to provide for a national defense. I even acknowledge that some costly overseas military commitments that were once characterized as unwelcome “foreign entanglements” have evolved into constructive alliances and real friendships. Our abiding military alliance with Germany, for example, is the world’s best guarantee that vibrant, powerful, ingenious countries will not be tempted once again into the darkness of militarized fascism.

The necessity of having a national security state is what the political scientist John Mearsheimer calls the “tragedy of great power politics.” The logic of security competition dictates that the safest place in a dangerous world is at the top of the military power order. So, if you live in a big, powerful country, you are always gunning for that goal. Second place is not good enough.

In line with this logic but without anyone voting for it, our number one national priority became military supremacy sometime between 1945 and 1947. Then, it was fixed as law. And whatever onerous job Americans take on, we take pride in doing it well. We became great military-industrialists.

I’d like to take a few minutes to think about the unseen, neglected costs of this development. What kinds of great accomplishments we had taken pride in in the past, before we became militarists?And what kinds of great accomplishments ought we to take pride in going forward? The shadow cast by our overwhelming military power obscures many other things we used to be good at and consider vital to our national character–things worthy of national pride.

Pride and patriotism have gone out of fashion with much of my tribe of progressives and communitarians. Pretty much the whole left started going silent on national pride since Vietnam, and the theme hasn’t picked up much since then. This is a mistake.

In his 1998 book Achieving Our Country, the philosopher Richard Rorty argues that national pride is essential to good politics whether of the left or right. He writes:

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely. Emotional involvement with one’s country–feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history–is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation probably will not occur unless pride outweighs shame.

Whatever causes we may have for pessimism at particular moments in history, our longer-term national faith in progress requires that we override them. “Democracy,” wrote William James, “is a kind of religion, and we are bound not to admit its failure.”

We have a deep need to believe in our country and to find reasons to be proud of it. Ideally, there should be some consensus about what these reasons are, but the pursuit of this consensus must be guided by moral seriousness. As the Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes in the introduction to her 2019 book This America: The Case for the Nation:

Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars, or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will. The endurance of nationalism proves there’s never any shortage of fiends and frauds willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to pour out the contents of old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls to violence. When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.

Liberalism, the cause on which our country was founded, is at risk of dying? That sounds dire. But, Lepore continues, more hopefully:

Liberalism is still in there. The trick is getting it out. There’s only one way to do that. It requires grabbing and holding onto a very good idea: that all people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guaranteed by a nation of laws. This requires making the case for the nation.

Notice what she said there at the end. We must make the case for the nation. Not the laws; those will be determined by the question, What is the nation for?

this america

There are three reasons, I believe, to look beyond our country’s military strength for the sources of inspiration capable of renewing our sense of national pride and making the case for the nation.

The first is that, even if military might can be seen as an intrinsically noble national characteristic, it is one that has been forced upon us by the logic of state-level security competition. As such, it is more a reflexive adaptation to global circumstances than an informed, creative choice about what our nation is for. When I think of the struggles and accomplishments that underwrite my self-respect, I think first of the things I freely chose, such as studying hard or having children, over adaptations forced on me by circumstances. Make no mistake, one’s responses to unbidden challenges are certainly a mark of character, but surely it the the things we must first imagine before pursuing them that lie closer to the glowing core of  who we are.

Second, military might is a value-neutral characteristic, neither good nor bad in itself. Abraham Lincoln built a military juggernaut between 1861 and 1865 to defend the cause of liberal democracy. But then, Josef Stalin did the same from 1941 to 1945, in the service of monstrous authoritarianism.

My point is, any country with a certain amount of resources and organizational capacity can become militarily powerful without affecting their internal character. Don’t we want to focus first on the character we are seeking to defend?

Third, and this is relatively new, militarism at the national level has trickled down to the individual level, poisoning communal life by turning every public space you enter into a potential armed standoff. The same tragic circumstances our government is forced to confront in the international arena we have voluntarily re-created in our home lives. Stand Your Ground and Guns Everywhere laws mean the citizen is now legally obliged to regard normal life as armed conflict. And it touches us at our most tender points. In public schools across the country, the normalization of mass shooter drills and the corresponding provision of armed guards make up “rational” solutions to a problem that no decent, morally literate people would ever choose. But choose it we have.

Was this what our country was created for? To promote such a robust common defense that its by-products of military chauvinism and runaway gun culture dominate our social and cultural existence?

Thomas Jefferson, our greatest rhetorical defender of freedom, thought not. In the 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, Jonathan Metzl surveys the yawning gap between where Jefferson saw our nation going and where we have actually come:

“[T]he care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good governance,” [Jefferson wrote]. A politics that spreads guns, blocks health care and defunds schools seems to have forgotten Jefferson’s basic principle. Behind these agendas are core assumptions that the happiness of a select few persons takes precedence over the care of a great many others.

All of the things that make me proud of America have something to do with care. I love Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of the National Park system. It was a grandiose but deeply humane way of caring for our natural endowment. I love Ellis Island, and the idea that our land can take in broken, desperate lives and give them a new chance. I love the creation of frontier- and Freedman schools in the 19th century. They show we cared about children, and the mind. I love Walt Whitman. He wrote a poem that said all Americans are creating and re-creating ourselves all the time. We care so much about our destinies we are always working on them, perpetually busy, as Bob Dylan would put it, being born.

In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty wrote this about art and politics and pride:

Nations rely on artists and intellectuals to create images of, and to tell stories about, the national past. Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.

And, to adapt Jill Lepore’s observation above, you can get those symbols from conscientious students of our history, or you can get them from reactionary jackboots.

In closing, here are the symbols of American greatness that get my vote. They are the wellspring of the stories I would want to have told about us. They may not describe us in our totality, but they say something vitally important about who we are at our best.

We have safe public spaces with a robust built environment that helps the most people go the most places and do useful, desirable things. There are few if any lethal weapons in my America but lots of sidewalks, bike paths, libraries and ice cream shops. The poor and infirm go into these space and are not walled off from the rich and healthy, or useful destinations. The elderly are not made to live shut-in lives after they stop driving. Cars take second place to people. That would make me proud.

Healthcare is good and accessible to all. We abandond the sadistic fantasy that says helthcare is a scarce commodity and the poor and middle class people must compete with the rich to get it. Healthcare is a human right, and we have the laws to protect it as such. Most of the world’s developed countries understand it is wrong to price people out of widely available healthcare resources.

We have great public schools, and teachers are paid on a scale commensurate with the job they do. Educating the next generation is the most important task there is in a republic. It is the sine qua non of having a great country. At a rough guess, I would say pay all public school teachers twice what they are getting now. I would be proud of that.

I could go on, but i think you get the flavor. For much of our nation’s life, we’ve been busy pioneering, creating, envisioning, becoming something bigger. As we create new reasons to be proud of our nation, I think it is worth looking back on what made us bold and inventive in the past. And then looking forward, to imagine a new republic, in which we re-order our priorities in creative, life-affirming ways.

 

This Is the End: Thoughts on Mortality and the Meaning of Life

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In his justly famous 1963 essay “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin writes this luminous passage on the sacredness of human life:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

In a way, Baldwin is presaging Bob Dylan’s sentiment, to come in 1965, that “He not busy being born is busy dying.” But we are all busy dying, as Baldwin makes clear. The important thing is to do the work that builds a meaningful life, else we are busy only dying. I’m pretty sure that’s what Dylan meant too.

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(Image: Shutterstock)

The myth that we will not die is not just an idle reflection of a childish wish, I believe. It does actual harm. It is a fantasy that decent, thinking people ought to avoid, threatening to lure us into all those diversions that Baldwin says can make us “sacrifice all the beauty of our lives.”

And it can do worse than that.

Consider the family of one rural Missouri teenager who shot and killed himself on Christmas day 2014 after being snubbed by a girl. In his 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, Jonathan Metzl, records an interview with the boy’s aunt. The boy’s family is coping with the unimaginable trauma, says the aunt, by reflecting on “the fact that we know my nephew is in heaven.”

The fantasy of heaven is infinitely useful. It can divert our minds from almost any kind of loss or tragedy. One of the difficulties the dead boy’s family had to cope with was that he killed himself with one of two handguns lying loaded near his parents’ bed, put there for “home defense.” But, the boy’s suicide “absolutely has not changed [the aunt’s] view about guns,” Metzl reports. Nor were the boy’s parents moved to change their views.

I do not mean to sound uncharitable, but using the fantasy of never-ending life to erase one’s share of responsibility for the death of one’s child–as the parents did in this case– is inexcusably sordid and wicked. It is a shameful indulgence in the kind of demeaning religious escapism Orwell notes in his wonderful 1949 essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”:

Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life.

No need to tell that family in Missouri that life is mostly suffering. I imagine it suffuses their whole existence now. But how much wiser and better prepared for life they would have been had they taken seriously the idea that their guns could very well end the only life each member of their family would ever have. “The meaning of life is that it ends,” wrote Philip Roth. Imagine life going on forever, and it means nothing.

The fantasy of immortality robs life of moral seriousness. It teaches us, among other things, that we’re all bound for a court date in the real life to come, so a great deal of thoughtlessness, recklessness, and a brutish disregard for the sanctity of this life are permissible and normal, so long as one’s pieties and religious prejudices are kept intact.

Ivan Ilyich is in physical anguish as he lies dying in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. But more traumatic is the mental realization that he had let his whole life pass by unexamined, hypnotized into believing the mass delusion that death does not exist. When he eventually senses the dishonesty in this dogma, it devastates him. At several points in his last, bedridden month of life, Ilyich rages against being “enmeshed” in a web of lies–an intricate deceit constructed by everyone around him that neither he nor they are dying.

The most heartrending part of Ivan Ilyich’s death is the depth of his estrangement from his family. At the end, when death is certain, he openly hates his wife and is coldly distant from his children. On rumination, he sees this horrible, decisive separation had its insensible germ in the decades of his “ordinary” past, as he and his family built separate, self-serving lives. They could have been building real connections based on love. (Ilyich had married for rank, his wife for money.) All those years he could have been busy being born, he was busy dying.

The prospect of dying urges us out of a transactional attitude toward others. “Only connect!” it tells us. E.M Forster knew this.

Forster’s best novels show us that binding our lives with others is not just our noblest purpose on earth, but that the act of connecting realizes life’s highest beauties and most abiding passions–the things we count as worthwhile on our deathbeds. In A Room with a View, the freethinking Mr. Emerson tries to kindle a spark between his reticent son George and pretty Lucy Honeychurch in the gorgeous Tuscan countryside. There is much more at stake than young love and concupiscence (but don’t discount those!). Love is the best, possibly only way of striking out against finitude’s meaninglessness. “We know that we come from the winds,” Mr. Emerson tells Lucy, “and that we shall return to them; that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness. But why should this make us unhappy? Let us rather love one another, and work and rejoice. I don’t believe in this world sorrow.”

But sorrow surely comes, for all of us. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a tragic reminder of what happens when death arrives unannounced. One lesson is clear. If you are going to earn your death in the way Baldwin means it, you must begin to do so in the thick of life.  You cannot wait for the ravages of the dying process to strip you of this capacity.

When Baldwin says in “The Fire Next Time” that too many of us are willing to sacrifice the beauty of our individual lives for some trumped up, death-denying ideology, he is actually understating the case. Some of us are so eager to believe that an eternal amusement park awaits us in heaven that we positively long for not just our own deaths, but a species-wide extinction that is said to be necessary to clear the ground for the fun-filled Kingdom of Heaven.

In a 2007 essay that has somehow avoided wide publication, “End of the World Blues,” Ian McEwan dissects the religious fundamentalist’s lurid fascination with apocalypse and extinction. The apocalyptic frame of mind, McEwan observes, responds to an anxiety we all must eventually feel–that (1) the world will go on existing after we die, and (2) its existence will not be fixed to any particular endpoint or purpose that gave sense to our lives (like the ones usually defined in holy scripture, such as the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem and the reign of Christ on earth). In other words, life is, and will remain, higgedly piggedly. No one knows what it is leading up to, if anything.

As Mr. Emerson puts in in A Room with a View, “There is no cosmic plan.”

This prospect is awfully hard to take while one is poised at the edge of an all-enveloping destiny that approaches with unfeeling determination–the dark eternity that will take one back into the same vastness from which one came. One wants a good story instead. I was was the star of my show for so long, we feel, it cannot be that there was never really a show to begin with. “What could grant us more meaning against the abyss of time,” McEwan suggests, “than to identify our own personal demise with the purifying annihilation of all that is.”

In other words, if I am bowing out, then the whole story, stage and all, must come to an end. As patently childish as this attitude is, end-of-the-world fantasies are ubiquitous and have had impressive staying power. Almost all “civilizations” still nurse dreams of apocalypse that exert significant control over the human imagination. “Our secular and scientific culture,” McEwan writes, “has not replaced or even challenged these mutually incompatible, supernatural thought systems.”

It is no surprise that religions provide climactic, end-of-the-world stories. That’s sort of what religions do. Oddly, though, when we occasionally see cults and other fanatics acting out their own squalid apocalypse narratives in the real world, we can easily espy the wickedness and delusion inherent in them. When Jim Jones brought his followers to drink poison in Jonestown or Joseph Goebbels killed his five children and then himself as the scenery of the Nazi pageant was collapsing around him in Berlin in May 1945, we clearly perceive their acts as evil incarnate. But when we blithely send our children off to Sunday school or Bible camp to have them imbibe bloodier, more comprehensive visions of apocalypse (replete with “earthquakes and fires, thundering horses and their riders, angels blasting away on trumpets, magic vials, Jezebels, a red dragon, and other mythical beasts,” as McEwan catalogs), we catch not the slightest whiff of the death wish wafting from them.

It’s strange.

The idea that the whole world must end with my death, McEwan observes, is a way of resisting the revocation of meaning that looms as one’s demise comes clearly into focus. If for several decades my life meant everything, how can it simply (“absurdly” is Camus’ word for it) slip back into the eternal nothingness that preceded it?

Thus we come back to Baldwin and the idea of death as a gift. If death must come into focus, wouldn’t it be nobler, more hopeful, and altogether better to use it in the service of wisdom rather than dramatize it as part of a tawdry fantasy? Isn’t the wise use of death exactly what we have in mind when we draw up bucket lists or conjure up scenes of our deathbeds to clarify our big-picture priorities?

Dogmas of immortality would have us believe that the eternal bliss that awaits us is all that really matters: whatever slings and arrows assail us in the here and now are to be discounted as mere nothings. Jorge Luis Borges draws a fundamental paradox from this view in his short story “The Immortal.” Imagine yourself living forever in heaven or hell–and Borges means really try to imagine it, eon upon eon of foreverness. Whatever your experience is in this eternity, it was determined by an infinitesimally small segment of your total existence, an aburdly, vanishingly small flash of a microsecond when compared with the cosmic span of your eternal repose. Doesn’t this make it clear, Borges writes, that even the religiously-minded person knows instinctively that it is this life that has ultimate value?

I close with his words:

I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare.  Jews, Christians and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those first hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.

 

 

 

Review of “These Truths: A History of the United States” by Jill Lepore

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

“The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable,” James Madison reflects in Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States.

But it was not so with America. We have a clear record of the founding acts. Madison himself kept detailed notes about the crafting of the constitution. There were numerous newspapers that recorded the goings on in Philadelphia in the summer and fall of 1787. The flourishing businesses that were enriching young America kept extensive books and made reports of their commerce. They thrived on, and archived a wealth of, factual information about the tastes, ambitions, and livelihoods of Americans at the time of our founding.

Perhaps most famously, three of our country’s founders, Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, wrote the Federalist Papers, 85 essays on why the Americans of 1787 should form a single nation under the constitution written in Philadelphia rather than remain in a loose confederation of independent states.

You can pick up the Federalist Papers for a couple bucks, by the way. Now that I’m in my 50s I don’t really care if I sound like a scold when I say: Please do acquire and read your own copy. Or, refrain from making any political arguments that start with, “Well, the Founders believed . . . ” If you’re going to do the latter, you must do the former. And do keep quiet if you cannot bother to acquaint yourself with the intellectual record of a country founded on a basis of literacy.

Jill Lepore, a scant two months older than I am, manages to strikes a friendlier tone than I do as she invites you to read the history of our country. She is an acclaimed Harvard scholar and writes clear, incisive, often beautiful prose so effortlessly (it seems), she has time to contribute frequently to the New Yorker. So, if you aren’t moved by my harangues to come to grips with the Federalist Papers, try Lepore instead.

I recently read These Truths, in about a week despite being busy with job, family and all the usual. It is a breathtakingly good book. This is less a review of it than a zealous appeal to read it for yourself.

These Truths

Why did Lepore write a one-volume history of the United States? A fair question. It is long–933 pages with notes, 753 without. But for Lepore, it is the through-line of our whole history that gives sense to the big question she wants to ask.

The purpose of the book, Lepore writes, is to work out a 2018 answer to a 1787 question, posed by Alexander Hamilton:

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Reflection and choice. Or accident and force. That dichotomy is the lens through which Lepore examines the whole history of our country. It is a simple device that produces magnificent clarity.

When our country began, accident and force determined (among other things) that African slaves were to be treated as property, not persons. Even as the founders debated, disputed and drew up an explicit plan for liberal democracy, they mutely allowed the growth of a parallel totalitarian regime to rule the enslaved humans in America who did not count, in Hamilton’s formulation as “men,” capable of choosing, forming, or participating in a government.

Our history is a record of the long struggle to stop pretending that this regime did not exist, and that accident and force did not frequently overmaster reflection and choice as our guiding principles.

But make no mistake, These Truths is not a simple, prosecutorial history of slavery and repression and all the ways America has gone wrong because of its original sin. It is a much more complicated and satisfying story of how Americans have, with courage and daring and vision, persisted in seeking an answer to Hamilton’s question despite the original sin and despite the wrong turns along the way. I urge you to read it.