First, an admission. I’m addicted to Bob Woodward’s big, thick books about current affairs. You can buy most of them for a penny online. Sure, you have to pay three or four bucks for shipping, but I enjoy the small delusion of thinking I’m only paying one U.S. cent. So much history, almost for free.
I’m aware of Woodward’s limitations. As Christopher Hitchens once said, Woodward often functions as a mere stenographer to the rich and powerful. They speak, he writes, the dutiful court historian.
Joan Didion went even farther, castigating Woodward for being morally autistic. He simply couldn’t apprehend the monstrousness of pernicious acts so long as they were being related to him by a powerful man sitting agreeably for an interview. Woodward just wrote them all down, fact after deplorable fact. You must read Didion’s (in)famous 1996 review of Woodward here, in the New York Review of Books. I took my own measure of Woodward’s deferential side in my review of Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987. (It may very well be the only Kurt Vonnegut-inspired review of a Bob Woodward book on the internet. Go ahead–treat yourself!)
But I still like Woodward immensely, if “like” is the right word. There is manifest value in having a technically competent journalist abroad in the land with a wide interest in our society, in-depth knowledge of Beltway politics, and excellent access to powerful figures. What Woodward ends up writing in his big, thick books is the fabled first draft of history that we entrust to journalists. An English-reading Martian newly arrived, wishing to get a grip on who we are, could profitably begin with a dozen or so of Woodward’s books.
But still, I was disappointed with Woodward’s 2010 book Obama’s Wars. This is partly because I was prepared to be disappointed. I actually read the book in order to be disappointed. This will take a moment to explain. Barrack Obama is a political hero of mine, and I wanted to understand how I could continue to admire him despite two despicable decisions he made as president.
First, he saved the rich and powerful of Wall Street with the bank bailout of 2009. With no trace of shame, Obama arranged for the poor and middle class to pay off the wealthy so they could continue doing their jobs of, well, being wealthy. This move was, and remains, morally profane. Don’t get me started.
Obama also gave in to the allure of killing that tests all war-time presidents. Here was a man who campaigned on a promise to reverse war-time powers engineered by George W. Bush that he believed violated due process–primarily GTMO and the Patriot Act. We cannot fight a just war, Obama the candidate argued, if we claim tyrannical powers like the authority to spy on Americans without a court order or imprison whomever we please on a no-man’s land bereft of law.
But presented with the opportunity to step up drone strikes on suspected terrorists around the globe, Obama conveniently forgot the legal distinctions that had so fired his conscience as a candidate. His drone force targeted several Americans for assassination, and he even boasted he had gotten “pretty good at killing people.” The same man who earlier could not countenance the wiretapping of U.S. citizens without a court order somehow found it acceptable to kill them with rockets. In this way Obama well and truly earned Cornel West’s condemnation as a loyal servant of the neoliberal power order he pretended to defy.
Clearly politics is a bizarre game. Obama did these horrible things, but I still regarded him on the whole as a decent man who tried to govern through reason. I still do.
All presidents fail, and a surprising number of them fail at exactly the thing they say they will do for the country. Reagan ran on the promise to shrink government, reduce the budget, and eliminate the deficit. Ask any Reaganite, and they will say these were pillars of his presidency. Yet he immediately and dramatically did the opposite of all three of them. His admirers, though, recall him fondly for the principles he espoused and probably still advocate them.
So I cracked open Obama’s Wars already aware of the large-scale hypocrisy that I guess we all show when it comes to our political heroes. We like who we like. I suppose I will always love Obama for his ability to preach noble principles of law and governance to us, the heirs of a slave country founded in blood and human bondage. Even his worst decisions as president can’t dim the brilliance and magnanimity he embodied for me. At his best, Obama offered–yes–hope that we will someday, in James Baldwin’s words, achieve our country.
But back to Woodward. His book about Obama is limited in all the usual ways, and it showcases one glaring flaw to boot.
Obama’s foreign policy was all about context. He thought Bush Junior had skewed our entire international agenda to Iraq, the alleged epicenter of the Islamic terrorism we were fighting around the world. Obama thought this view was wrong in two ways, one obvious, one subtle.
First, Iraq was not the epicenter of Islamic terrorism that our global war was supposedly designed to combat. If that war had an epicenter, it was still in Afghanistan. We had misspent trillions of dollars, thrown away thousands of American lives, amped up new terrorist groups, empowered Iran, alienated old allies, and drastically worsened the security of the entire Middle East, all for the wrong war. Our war-fighting focus needed to be on Afghanistan.
Second, as becomes clear in Obama’s Wars, Obama believed, unlike Bush, that America was not existentially threatened by Islamic terrorism. The sooner we reset our global strategy to reflect this assumption, he thought, the sooner we would restore our power and credibility. This is the deepest insight Woodward pries out of Obama. Some of the thinking behind it appears on page 363. Woodward reports:
During my Oval Office interview with the president, Obama volunteered some extended thoughts about terrorism: “I said very early on, as a senator, and continued to believe as a presidential candidate and now as president, that we can absorb a terrorist attack.”
I was surprised.
“We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever, that ever took place on our soil, we absorbed it and we are stronger. This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient.”
This is possibly the most important thing Obama believes about America, because it means we should still try to be a country of peace. Woodward, though, does exactly nothing with this revelation.
The entirety of Obama’s Wars is about the narrow process carried out by the national security apparatus of shifting military effort back to Afghanistan. It’s riveting Belway drama, but it barely touches on Obama’s dramatic expansion of drone warfare, our seminal involvement in Yemen’s civil war, or the quiet but drastic increase of direct action by Special Operations forces around the world. It gives no account of Obama’s (mostly failed) effort to close GTMO–a cornerstone campaign promise–or his high-level public diplomacy in the Muslim world to salvage America’s image as a freedom-loving democracy that defends human rights.
All of Obama’s war-fighting decisions were shaped by these issues, but Woodward ignores them. He also fails entirely to consider Obama’s “Asian pivot.” The pivot was a broad package of foreign policy initiatives aimed at improving trade with Asia and taking some of the oxygen out of the global war on terrorism. It was conceived as much to show what America was not doing as what it was doing on the global stage. A huge part of what Obama wanted to accomplish with the pivot was to demonstrate that America had moved on from 9/11 and that we cared more for cultivating trans-pacific ties in trade, culture, and technology than in stoking the old tribalisms of the Middle East.
Woodward’s big, thick book, in other words, should have been 300 pages longer than it was. Had he taken the time to put Obama’s thinking into strategic context–and to consider all of the president’s wars, not just the ones in Afghanistan and the Beltway–the job might have stretched out another year. Then Woodward could have written a proper ending to his book, namely in May 2011, when U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. But instead of coming to an end, Woodward just stops writing, something teachers have been telling me since the seventh grade not to do.
Luckily, though, all we have to do is wait for his next big, thick book.
Helen Schulman’s new novel, Come With Me, is set in contemporary Silicon Valley. It engagingly portrays the ways high tech wizardry increasingly shapes our lives.
Reflect for a moment on our habits and routines. We are always switched on, working or at least available for work. Our attention is chronically divided by personal devices. Our choices of products or dating partners are framed for us by artificial intelligence. Our language is determined by the tropes of text messaging and Twitter. Our personal histories are uploaded into the cloud, along with everything else, available for streaming in broadband. In fact, we are not full members of a community these days unless our life is thoroughly mediated by technology.
And yet we go on being human underneath it all. Although we are possibly crippled by our brave new way of living, we may be unable to choose any other way at this point. The digitization of human life may turn out to be a bell that cannot be unrung.
Indeed this balance between the contingency and irrevocability of human life is the main theme of Come With Me. It is a story of how we drift or wander into lightly-made choices and then live out dramas whose storylines are determined by the cumulative, swirling consequences of those choices. Life starts out as an unreflective lark and then, to steal a line from Orhan Pamuk, we awake to find we have been living other people’s dreams. How did we get here?
Come With Me tells a story of how one family got there. The heroine, Amy, is a 40-ish public relations specialist recently employed by Donny, the boy-genius son of a friend. Like everyone else in Silicon Valley, Donny is working on a way to enhance then monetize some aspect of the human experience. His idea is a kind of virtual time machine that will let people go back and explore virtual versions of their lives, constructed out of the digital traces they constantly leave in the cloud.
Amy’s husband, Dan, is a former print journalist, now an out-of-work schlub on the verge of a midlife crisis. Their 16-year old son Jack is a California dude, easy going but Stanford-bound and therefore probably on the cusp of achieving some kind of tech genius himself. It’s the way of things in the Valley.
Jack’s eight-year-old brothers, Thing One and Thing Two, are not-so-identical twins. Yin and yang, they are object lessons in the heartbreaking, multitudinous ways childhoods can go wrong when smart, ambitious parents let digital technology do the babysitting so they can stay immersed in the adult world, writing code, having affairs, and that sort of thing.
In fact everyone in Come With Me is a Type, a persona that might well have been synthesized from trenchant magazine articles about the digital world’s transformation of real life. One of the characters, Jack’s best friend Kevin, literally is such a concoction, a profile cribbed from a 2015 Atlantic Monthlycover article about teen suicides in Silicon Valley.
Schulman’s weakness in selling her characters, though, is balanced by the excellence of her storytelling and the timeliness of her themes.
The plot of Come With Me hinges on three pivotal days in the life of Amy’s family. On the first day, Amy is introduced to Donny’s business idea, a digital interface with the cloud that lets the user explore alternate multiverses–ways her life might have turned out differently than it did with even the slightest adjustments to her choices and circumstances.
Amy is shaken to discover that she has deep misgivings about the way life really has turned out, misgivings she didn’t know were there. In a lightning flash of existential uncertainty, she comes to hate Donny for dangling before her all the what-ifs of past boyfriends and an abortion that need not have happened; visions of core happiness guarded by random strangers, ruined by intimates and the drubbing of endless domestic responsibilities. Life, she realizes, would be better left as an undisturbed, irrevocable fact. Or maybe not. She can’t tell.
The reason she can’t tell is because she doesn’t know exactly what is happening with her husband, Dan. But what is happening comes into full view on day two of the story. Dan, who has, for two decades, been a kind of colorless but faithful backstop against passion and drama–the ideal father, in some ways–reveals himself to be a defeated man in need of new sources of meaning. As usual for men of a certain age, “new sources of meaning” actually mean a new piece of ass.
The owner of the ass in question is Maryam, who used to be a man. Interesting twist, that: anything is possible in our virtual-real world. A journalist, Maryam believes in causes. She persuades Dan to come with her to Japan to cover the neglected aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Dan spends money he and Amy don’t have to travel there, sleeps with Maryam, and botches his cover story so badly that Amy can see from 2,000 miles away what Dan is doing, the scale of the disaster he has wrought. This happens on the same day Thing One is expelled from school for (successfully) gambling on Magic the Gathering and Jack’s best friend Kevin kills himself. Amy deals, but then reaches the end of her tether.
“She screamed [into Dan’s voice mail]: ‘I know you’re there! You’re texting me, you stupid asshole! Coward!!! Pick up the fucking phone!'”
Day three is the day of Kevin’s funeral. Dan returns from Japan. All the virtual strands of the plot come home to Silicon Valley to root themselves in the real lives of the characters. The reader is made to behold some durable truths about humans, which survive even the most thorough digitization of our lives. I won’t spoil these, except to say that Schulman seems to believe the way we live now complicates Tolstoy’s observation that happy families are all happy in the same way, unhappy families unhappy in myriad different ways. Many families may actually split the difference these days, given our new tools for achieving self awareness.
Come With Me is a novel about our Zeitgeist, similar in scope and ambition to Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 The Corrections, and it is almost as good. It is very much a novel of right now. It tries to make us see how our lives are caught inside the tumbler of contemporary history, and there is simply no way of predicting the shape they will have when they come out.
And we impose this uncertainty on ourselves. We choose it, up to a point, just by allowing our lives to be mediated 24/7 by digital technology. In placing a bet that technology will continue to improve human life–something it has done for the last 5,000-odd years–the only return we can be assured of is the increasingly radical uncertainty of the next moment in history. We have no idea whether Moore’s Law will accelerate the profits of improved knowledge or the disorientation of enhanced fantasy and plain old error.
Early in Come With Me Schulman observes that Philip Roth, like the generation of he-man novelists he belonged to, tried to write in a way that would cheat death. She got Roth completely wrong. “The meaning of life is that it ends,” he wrote, and believed.
But the story and the themes of Come With Me get Roth exactly right where it counts–on the elusiveness of knowing what humans are up to. Try as you might to understand those who shape your life; try as you might to understand even yourself, and you will hit a bottom layer of guesses–incomplete, misdirected attempts at answers. This is how Roth put it in The Human Stain:
There is truth and then again there is truth. For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.
The part of Come With Me that should give us pause is this: Donny created the what-if machine because he wanted to help people comprehend their lives as they actually happened. He thought if he could let them view all their past roads untraveled he might heighten their interest in, maybe even deepen their understanding of, their present predicament. But all those roads untaken also opened up onto unknowable terrain and unpredictable consequences. There was nothing firm about them. All Donny really did was to multiply the ways in which “there is no bottom to what is not known,” as Roth put it.
The way we live now means we will not just carry on making ordinary mistakes about ourselves, but we will actually use technology to create new ways of being wrong. So that should be fun.
Last week the Trump administration warned federal employees they weren’t allowed to bad mouth the president while on duty because it would violate the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act is a 1939 law that bars government workers from campaigning for a candidate while on the job.
It’s a sensible law. Of course civil servants should not draw wages to do anything other than the job they were hired to do.
This week’s memo, though, is an obvious attempt by the president to abuse executive power. People do talk, including civil servants. Trump’s desire to police their conversations is based on the childishly stupid premise that he is already running for office and therefore off limits as a topic of discussion.
Every first-term president since the Hatch Act was passed could have made this argument but didn’t. Why not? One can only speculate. One glaring reason might be that it would take a catastrophically insecure and narcissistic personality to imagine one might benefit from this kind of curb on free speech. And although we have had many deeply flawed presidents since 1939, we have had none who could match Trump for insecurity and narcissism.
Well, in any case, I’m off the clock at the moment, and so I thought I would share a few choice words about Trump’s garish stupidity and thuggishness. They aren’t my words. I could certainly come up with some, but I thought I would let a few of my favorite authors do the talking instead.
So, without further ado, enjoy these observations on Trump.
Trump is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac. . . . [He] is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of 77 words that is better called Jerkish than English.
Philip Roth, novelist
He still has not visited U.S. troops deployed to a war zone — although he has spent 72 days at Mar-a-Lago and 58 days at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club. . . . So much for Trump’s conceit that he is pro-military. . . . He has no understanding of what soldiers do or the honor code by which they live. His idea of military service is marching in a parade — and he is peeved he couldn’t have one in Washington this Veterans Day. Through his words and deeds, the commander in chief shows his contempt for the men and women in uniform.
Max Boot, military historian, Republican strategist
And the basis of democracy is that everyone can be criticized — particularly our leaders. We don’t have a monarch, a supreme leader, a dictator for life. We’ve got a person who is temporarily in charge of the government, and when he makes an error it is mandatory for a free press to call it out. To try to delegitimize the press whenever it criticizes the president, it’s really the reflex of an autocrat, of a tin-pot dictator in some banana republic, and not worthy of a democracy like the United States, where the president serves at our pleasure and can be criticized just like anyone else.
Steven Pinker, linguist, psychologist
Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic.
George Will, conservative commentator
He’s a jackass.
Bill Kristol, conservative commentator, editor, The Weekly Standard
I join my family for Thanksgiving and have a great screaming fight with my Republican father, who yells at one point, “Donald Trump is not an asshole!” I find this funny but at the same time surprising. Regardless of whether or not you voted for him, I thought the president-elect’s identity as a despicable human being was something we could all agree on. I mean, he pretty much ran on it.
David Sedaris, writer
Trump bluster[s] incoherently like the ignorant, fact-disdaining, vainglorious bully he is.
Richard Dawkins, biologist
Donald Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, often shamelessly so, and it’s tempting to call him a liar.
But that’s not quite right. As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth — and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn’t interested in convincing anyone of anything. He’s a bullshitter who simply doesn’t care.
Trumpian bullshit serves not only as a test of elite loyalty, but as a signifier of belonging to a mass audience. The big, beautiful wall that Mexico will allegedly pay for, the war on the “fake news” media, Barack Obama’s forged birth certificate, and now the secret tape recording that will destroy James Comey are not genuine articles of faith meant to be believed in. Their invocation is a formalism or a symbol; a sign of compliance and belonging. The content is bullshit.
Matthew Yglesias, journalist
Comparisons between Trump and Hitler are wrong, Amis argues, because the US president actually resembles a different fascist: Hitler’s ally Mussolini. . . .[Amis] recalled seeing the slogan “Mussolini Is Always Right” on Italian bridges in the 1970s.
“Trump is that crazy, and that boastful, and that deluded,” Amis said. “Even Mussolini had a few good years before he lost it. But people like Hitler and Stalin wanted to change human nature. That’s what totalitarianism is. Trump doesn’t want to make a total claim on you as an individual. He wants to stay in power, and that’s about it.”
From an interview with Martin Amis, English novelist
Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.”
Ta Nehisi Coates, journalist
Trumpism is not just the usual mendacious special pleading for the super-rich. In fact, Trump cares little about policy or policy ideas or, for that matter, any ideas at all, even bogus or illusory ones. He only cares about self-gratification and self-glorification. His towering ego is his only ideal. But his megalomania is about more than his narcissism – for his fortune and his family riches, and his criteria for powerful leadership, have long-standing links to organized crime. Donald Trump is a racketeer, loyal neither to principles nor persons.
We are a nation of rugged individualists, we tell ourselves. We struggle alone and unaided on the great playing field of life. If we work hard, we succeed. Life is a meritocracy.
My favorite version of this myth, one which I believe in on sunny days, is Walt Whitman’s. America is a vast country of open skies, Whitman believed, offering endless opportunities for work to whoever wants to earn a living. In turn, what we do with our labor helps make us who we are.
All work is dignified work, continues this myth. The way we earn our living is a means of leaving our unique mark on the world. Work expresses a will to power, because it gives us the best tools we will ever have for fashioning a part of the world to accord with our wishes. Here is Whitman, singing of this strong spirit and its uniquely American character:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs
All very good. Whitman is lyrically feeling his way around a philosophical distinction Hannah Arendt will make between labor and work in The Human Condition. Labor, which Arendt says is something we have to do to, repeatedly and (seemingly pointlessly) to sustain ourselves, work is an intrinsically interesting activity that engages our mind and leaves behind a durable object in which we can take pride. It is what Whitman is referring to as the special thing that belongs to each worker “and to none else.” Meaningful work makes us who we are.
Capitalism in America came to conflate Arendt’s ideas of labor and work. The effusive joy of “I Hear America Singing,” reflects how lucky Whitman thought we were in this convergence. In a booming, bumptious America, no matter how you labored, it also counted as work. When Whitman wrote “I hear America Singing,” if you could walk out into an American morning and do your job, you were, without even thinking about it, helping build a great and noble nation. You were part of a living poem.
But with professionally specialized work, came wealth as well. Building the streets, railroads, cars and ships that made us who we are also made profit, some of which was passed along to the worker in the form of good wages. For quite a long while, trades-based work made Americans prosperous even as it guided them toward becoming their essential, poetic selves.
Now fast forward a century. It is the 1970s. Two decades have passed since the post-World War Two boom started to fuel new, increasingly profligate patterns of consumption. Americans have come to measure the value of their work, not in the mark it made on the world, but in the marginal amount of wages it brought in. The sacred thing that could belong to each of us was no longer a trades-based identity, but raw purchasing power. Buying stuff was the whole ballgame now. The advent of all-out consumerism de-sacralized work. It meant that all that mattered was whether our job brought us more stuff than the next guy.
Now anyone with even a single Marxian bone in her body has already recognized this unfolding story as the grim tale of alienated labor. American capitalism had come to reverse Whitman’s happy dilemma. With the rise of consumerism, no matter what kind of work you did, it also counted as mere labor–the rote execution of tasks to gain spendable wages.
Here is Gore Vidal, who had more than one Marxian bone in his patrician frame, from a 1972 essay. Vidal is discussing what it meant to work and earn one’s living in our great land, where purchasing power was now paramount:
Although the equality of each citizen before the law is the rock upon which the American Constitution rests, economic equality has never been an American ideal. . . . A dislike of economic equality is something deep-grained in the American Protestant character. After all, given a rich empty continent for vigorous Europeans to exploit (the Indians were simply a disagreeable part of the emptiness, like chiggers), any man of gumption could make himself a good living. With extra hard work, any man could make himself a fortune, proving that he was a better man than the rest. Long before Darwin the American ethos was Darwinian.
Now jump ahead to 2009. It has been 60-odd years since consumerism took over our culture, and nearly 40 since Vidal penned his jaded observations on this development.
An overtly Darwinian political class has arisen in America. It views the unbridled competition for wealth with full-bodied approval. With Ronald Reagan setting its mood and Milton Friedman drawing its economic curves, the new Republican Right promoted for three decades the idea that the true purpose of work was to pursue pure, unmitigated self interest in the form of higher wages. Scrap for all you can, says this dogma, and society will take care of itself. Taxation, a threat to one’s pile of wages, is legalized theft, says the new Right; resist it with all your cunning. Look out always and everywhere for Number One. Greed is good.
Margaret Thatcher put the words in Reagan’s mouth that he was not quite smart enough to come up with to summarize this view: “[T]here’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
As I say, it is 2009. Tony Judt, an American historian, lies dying in his bed, and he is thinking about how far America and Britain have run with Thatcher’s idea. A friend, a Holocaust historian, is helping him write his last book. Judt has this to say about living and working in America, where most industrial jobs have fled overseas, wealth inequality now equals China’s, and median life expectancy hovers just below Bosnia’s:
Many Americans are well aware that something is seriously amiss. They do not live as well as they once did. Everyone would like their child to have improved life chances at birth: better education and better job prospects. They would prefer it if their wife or daughter had the same odds of surviving maternity as women in other advanced countries. They would appreciate full medical coverage at lower cost, longer life expectancy, better public services, and less crime. However, when advised that such benefits are available in Western Europe, many Americans respond, “But they have socialism! We do not want the state interfering in our affairs. And above all, we do not wish to pay more taxes.” . . .
The presumption in the American Bill of Rights–that whatever is not explicitly accorded to the national government is by default the prerogative of the separate states–has been internalized over the course of centuries by generations of settlers and immigrants as a license to keep Washington “out of our lives.”
The suspicion of the public authorities, periodically elevated to a cult by Know Nothings, States Rightists, anti-tax campaigners and–most recently–the radio talk show demagogues of the Republican Right, is uniquely American. It translates an already instinctive suspicion of taxation into patriotic dogma. Here in the US, taxes are typically regarded as uncompensated income loss. The idea that they might (also) be a contribution to the provision of collective goods that individuals could never afford in isolation . . . is rarely considered.
How did we get here from Whitman’s broad, sunny morning that saw happy workers doing interesting jobs and building a great country? Whitman felt great patriotism for the quality of life we were building in our land. It was possible, he thought, to be a fulfilled individual and contribute to a great society. Whitman saw these projects as complementary, completely harmonious with each other.
But our political culture today posits that true patriotism lies in the naked pursuit of economic self-interest. Seek the most wealth you possibly can. Whatever normative questions arise in the hubub will be addressed by the functioning of free-market forces. Will people get sick? Of course, and doctors will charge whatever they can to cure them. Intrepid, rational actors will, if they deem a sufficient financial need, pool some of their wealth to pay for a market-based hedge against medical costs. They don’t need the government to fund or organize this service for them. The rational individual pursuit of wealth will always find efficiencies that elude bureaucratic do-gooders.
The foundation of this rugged individualist political culture is the belief that people must seize basic services directly from nature; they must not allow governments to intervene in providing them. Government always screws up the provision of services and, with no competitors to curb them, overcharge to boot. It’s a mess.
But rugged individualism is based on a blind disregard of what government is. In the state of nature–best and most clearly imagined by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan–there are no governments, or even society–Maggie Thatcher would have loved it. Each individual has the natural right to use lethal force to protect her life and property. There are no rules outside the biological imperatives, primarily to eat and defend what is yours. You need little imagination to picture such a life in Hobbes’ famous terms. The universal, natural right to use lethal force would make life “nasty, brutish and short.”
To escape this hell, we form the Social Contract. Each individual surrenders the right to lethal force, entrusting it to a mutually recognized governing authority. This voluntary transfer of the right to use force is why, in almost all developed societies, the police and soldiers have all the guns. It is not an ideal setup, because a wicked government could use the guns against us, but we have consensual politics to try to ensure the legitimacy of our all-powerful government. It is much, much better than the state of nature.
I’ll come to the point. Americans have never committed fully to this contract. Because we have an undying suspicion of the government’s motives, which we refuse to treat therapeutically through politics, we retain the right to use lethal force. We retain it just barely–through the highly disputed Second Amendment to our constitution–but we retain it nonetheless. And this scotches the whole deal of the Social Contract. This tiny sliver of daylight between us and the Social Contract keeps us in the realm of savages, which is, for some reason, where we think we ought to be.
Why did I open this discussion by talking about work, labor, wages, consumerism and medical insurance? Because those things reveal in uncontroversial terms something that is deeply shameful–and therefore, I would hope, controversial–about our national character. We value and enjoy living in a violent, Darwinian society. We believe life should be a real contest, with real winners and losers.
To take just one indication of this attitude, which I’ve already touched on, medical care: we have much more than enough money in our country to provide medical care to everyone. The way we keep it out of the reach of millions of citizens is a deliberate choice. It reflects a national consensus that life should be like a reality TV show but really real. We want to enjoy watching the spectacle of people trying their hearts out and coming up short in the game of life. We are not a sufficiently decent people to choose to care for people instead. As long as we have a safe perch from which to watch the show, we want life to be nasty, brutish and short for those not clever enough to recognize the game or not strong enough to escape to the next level.
Often, when there is a mass shooting in America I rerun a blog post of mine in which I try to remind Americans that we like it here in the big leagues of violent chaos. We like gun violence. We like mass incarceration. We like the reality-TV contour of our national spectacle. We accept death and fear and hopelessness as acceptable costs for holding on to the romantic, outdated dream that life is a struggle that cannot be insulated from the law of the jungle. Take a look at the things we value and the things we don’t: we want the law of the jungle, or at least an enticingly real simulacrum of it.
Our spectator love affair with gun violence is just the tip of the iceberg. Our national journey has taken us taken is to a place where we work primarily to consume, where we regard the taxes we pay as a pointless ripoff, and where we fervently want life to be a Darwinian struggle, something that can only be kept up by artificial means.
Five books on America’s declining place in a chaotic world
BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Metropolitan Books, 2008
Fred Kaplan, Daydream Believers: How A Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, John Wiley and Sons, 2008
Richard Haas, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, Penguin, 2017
Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017
Chris Hedges, America: The Farewell Tour, Simon and Schuster, 2018
“Everyone has a home,” wrote Philip Roth in the novel American Pastoral; “that’s where the troubles begin.” Americans have always been inclined to believe the opposite–that home is a safe, tidy place and threats come mostly from abroad. These days, though, the suspicion is creeping up on us that the chaotic, warring world is not so much going to hell around us as it is following our lead or repaying our crimes. Once seen as a city on a hill, our homeland is actually host to the darkest pathologies that can afflict a free people, and they are bringing our country down.
There have been other powerful, visionary empires before the United States, and they all managed to die slow, deliberate deaths that seem, in retrospect, entirely avoidable. From Athens and Rome to the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, the great powers of history brought on their own ruin, step by step.
Chris Hedges, author of the 2018 book America: The Farewell Tour, believes there are lessons to be learned from the demise of past empires. “There is a familiar checklist for extinction,” he writes. “We are ticking off every item on it.”
What is the lay of the land that Hedges surveys? Hieronymus Bosch might have painted it himself:
The idiots take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless, unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor, and project economic growth on the basis of myth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil and the air, slash jobs and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on the citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrow of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. Idiot professors, “experts” and “specialists” busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttresses the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore and fantasy.
Is it really as bad as all this? Isn’t Hedges being slightly hysterical? I’m not sure. He certainly tends toward pessimism. The inspiration for his book was, he notes, On Suicide, by Emile Durkheim. But in addition to Hedges’ book, I’ve read four others recently on the decline of American power, and they all provide sound, sober arguments that make America: The Farewell Tour sound plausible.
The first is from the Boston College historian and former U.S. Army officer Andrew Bacevich. In The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Bacevich argues that the United States has committed three strategic errors of overreach, and unless we retrench behind more realistic goals, our power will fade into terminal decline.
First, our people are addicted to limitless consumer power, which commits us to an expansionist foreign policy aimed at extracting maximum resources and labor from all parts of the globe. Second, we have accepted the lopsided expansion of executive power that comes when an expansionist foreign policy causes a permanent national security crisis. Put briefly, we have normalized the institution of a wartime presidency, which hollows out our democracy. Third, we valorize military power as the best means of achieving our national goals.
The American people have fallen in love with military force as the ultimate arbiter of greatness. In 2010 the Pentagon cooked up a wonderful phrase for the kind of power we seek to wield: “‘full spectrum dominance’–unambiguous supremacy in all forms of warfare.” In other words, Bacevich points out, “Sustaining American global preeminence, rather than mere national security, became [the DoD’s] explicit function.”
I think when the Pentagon starts pushing out slogans begging to be affirmed by the line from the movie Team America–“America, fuck yeah!”–it is time to pause and listen to critics like Bacevich. If you wish to learn more about his analysis of our infatuation with military power, you can read my review of his 2013 book The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.
After our Blitzkrieg rout of Saddam’s third-rate army wrested control of Iraq from the Baathists in 2003, a scruffy collection of insurgents managed to defy the expectations of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz that peace, law and order would magically follow our military victory in Iraq. There was no need for an occupation plan, they reasoned, because, once the Mesopotamian landscape was cleared of Baathism, the blessings of American democracy would descend like rain.
Iraq went to hell, as we all know, and when the United States pulled out its combat troops in 2011, it left behind a divided, unstable country that in no way met the criteria we explicitly sought to establish in troublesome countries in waging the War on Terror. Yes, we deposed Saddam and stopped Iraq’s development of WMD, but in so doing we greatly empowered Iran, a significant backer of terrorist groups and sponsor of Iraq’s liberated Shia majority, and helped create a whole new Sunni terrorist organization, ISIS, whose goals and capabilities largely align with al-Qaeda’s. (ISIS has become the only Islamic terrorist organization to attack the United States since 9/11.)
We also aggrieved our main regional ally and second-largest NATO member, Turkey, by enticing Iraq’s Kurds to pursue independence. Turkey has been fighting a bloody counterinsurgency against its own restive Kurds (who live next to Iraq’s) since 1985, a war that has cost 40,000 lives.
How did we crown Iraq and its neighborhood with such peace and security? By believing our own propaganda, Kaplan argues. This is the main thrust of Daydream Believers. Specifically, Kaplan writes that U.S. leaders distorted and vastly overvalued the lessons we promoted about our military success in the First Gulf War of 1991. Coming as that war did on the heels of decades of defense research advocating the efficacy of “systems warfare”–the use of speed and precision to collapse an adversary’s centers of war-fighting power–American generals and statesmen suddenly thought they had a means for achieving “instant victory” under a variety of war-fighting circumstances.
But every war is different (Kaplan has reported on many of them), and one of the main factors contributing to the success of the Gulf War was the United States’ application of the Powell Doctrine. The Powell Doctrine, developed by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, is the axiom that military power should be used only (1) in overwhelming measure, (2) for clearly defined war objectives that are (3) tied to a clear exit strategy.
So, the stunning technological success of the Gulf War was only half the story; the other half was that the United States had taken care to define such clear, modest war termination criteria that our chances for success were greatly enhanced before we even fired the first shot. It also helped immensely that we led a multinational coalition that was acting with the legitimacy that only a UN Security Council resolution can confer. Plus, Iraq was far from a military peer. In other words, it was almost the perfect war.
Our new image of invincibility was, then, one fatal daydream. We thought we were sitting unchallenged atop what President George H.W. Bush called the “New World Order.”
The other fatal daydream was that when 9/11 steeled our determination to defend ourselves, we presumed we had the moral prerogative to wage war anywhere in the world against any foe, with or without international backing. The delusion of military supremacy fed our righteous anger, resulting in our invasion of Iraq, the first (and so far only) time we have waged “preventive” war.
Kaplan’s book documents in excruciating detail how dissimilar the global War on Terror has been from the Gulf War, the conflict that gave rise to America’s ambition of launching military adventures across the globe that would achieve “instant victory.” Our military power is still substantial, but we wrecked it, Kaplan argues, by trying to apply it to unachievable war objectives. As a consequence, we now face a host of potential adversaries emboldened by perceptions of how easy it can be to stretch us beyond the breaking point.
For Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official, all the bad news Kaplan delivers is true, plus there is this: The unipolar New World Order has given way to a chaotic multipolar system in which America is speeding toward its own decline rather than buttressing policies that might preserve our position as a world leader. This is the message of Haass’s 2017 book A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.
Before I offer a precis of Haas’s main idea, let me make a painful confession, which I believe sheds light on Haas’s argument. It has to do with Vladimir Putin. Putin is a lying, thuggish autocrat who has very likely ordered the cruel assassination of several of his opponents. He goes on TV to smirk about the enemies he has killed. It pains me to give him credit of any kind. Yet I believe Putin offered a deeply compelling diagnosis of the U.S. role in the increasingly chaotic world order when he addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2015.
At that time, a new wing of ISIS was springing up in Libya, a country NATO had forcefully “liberated” from Muamar Qaddafi. Qaddafi thought he had made himself right with the world’s power order when he gave up his WMD program in 2002, but NATO still went after him in 2011. It had something to do with protecting civilians in what looked to be the next episode of the Arab Spring. You’d have to ask them. In any case, thousands of Libyan civilians have died since the NATO intervention, and the killing remains “rampant.”
Meanwhile, Iraq was a failed state, ruined by the U.S invasion. Syria was dying, killed off by a horrific civil war. ISIS was born in the bloody security vacuums of these two former countries. A whole generation of people’s lives had been ruined. They had no hope for jobs, schools, health care, or in many places, adequate food, shelter or water. Millions of refugees flooded the region. The vast scale of this chaos and misery would not have been possible without the United States’ actuating belief that it was (1) morally legitimized and (2) sufficiently militarily powerful to invade Iraq and cow its neighbors into accepting democratic “reform,” which was the distal cause of the Arab Spring. Recall that Washington’s explicit goal in invading Iraq was to transform the entire Middle East region. Some transformation, said Putin before the UN:
“Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster — and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life,” Putin said through a translator. “I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?”
I wish these words had come from the mouth of a decent, sincere statesman. But the fact that they came from Putin makes them no less true. The United States has played an outsized role in destabilizing the world order and immiserating millions of human beings. All because we thought we were right enough and strong enough to spread our “way of life” through the use of military force, often unilaterally.
Haass’s book provides the cautionary tale that U.S. officials should have borne in mind before they chose to invade Iraq or spread democracy by force around the world.
Although Haas catalogues a great variety of security challenges that have sprung up since the United States began to squander its power, there is a single bright line of argumentation that runs through most of the book. It is that, under the United States’ leadership after World War Two, the world’s democratic powers abandoned the Westphalian principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, to everyone’s peril.
It started, of course, with the best of intentions. After World War Two, Europe formed a political alliance that sought to guarantee peace by giving each member state a stake in its neighbors’ domestic affairs. This became the European Union. The founding act of the EU was a move made voluntarily by France and Germany to erase the conditions that had chronically led to war by guaranteeing each had access to the other’s (long coveted) natural resources.
Haas argues persuasively that this well-intentioned move eventually evolved under U.S. leadership into a doctrine enshrined by the UN in 2005 as the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P. R2P basically says that should a state flagrantly abandon its responsibility to protect its own citizens, a UN-backed coalition may intervene to do so. This is the ultimate form of interference in a country’s domestic affairs. I argued in a clumsily written 2005 paper that this doctrine justified NATO’s 1999 military intervention in Serbia and Kosovo.
By constructing a liberal justification for attacking morally delinquent countries, however, the West has opened a Pandora’s box of potential military adventurism. Even the most idealistic countries will sometimes use the chivalrous doctrine of R2P as a screen for pursuing their own interests.
Worse, R2P scares Vladimir Putin to death, and he is determined not to be overthrown by the West’s armed crusade for democracy. Since Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” of 2003 and Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” of 2004, Putin has viewed every “color revolution” in the making as the thin end of a Western wedge to unseat him from power under the guise of protecting universal democratic rights and norms. He has since fashioned his own bastardized version of R2P as a deterrent to the West. Under Putin, the Kremlin reserves the right to intervene abroad to protect the rights of any and all ethnic Russians. (Millions live in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, NATO members all.)
A highly salient point that Haass illuminates in passing but does not quite underline is the nature of Russia’s war aims in Syria. Russia has been fighting alongside the (highly repressive) Syrian regime since 2015 openly and expressly to defeat the concept of R2P. If the United States and its pro-democracy allies cannot be persuaded through diplomacy or by witnessing the painful consequences of their military adventures to stop breaking functioning countries–repressive as they may be–Putin has decided to defy their military power with his own. There are lots of reasons Russia is fighting in Syria, but the main one is to contain America’s ambitions for widespread regime change and military democratization.
The most fascinating book I’ve read this year, on the present topic or any other, is Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. It is a stunningly insightful book that explores the roots and various forms of existential resentment people around the world feel at the unmet expectations of liberal globalism.
Look at the nationalist, authoritarian movements of today, says Mishra, and notice this about the relationship between those movements’ leaders and their loyalists: “[D]emagogues of all kinds, from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to India’s Narendra Modi, France’s Marine La Pen and America’s Donald Trump, have tapped into the simmering reservoirs of cynicism, boredom and discontent” that mark the hopeless and the alienated.
Thanks to mass culture and mass communication, the world is now populated with an inordinate number of individuals who feel superfluous to the very systems that shaped their dreams of comfort, order and prosperity. Mishra sees this disaffected class as an echo of the 19th century’s romantics and anarchists, of whom he notes:
The most commonplace and potent accusation these spokesmen of the disgruntled levelled against their rulers was hypocrisy: this much-advertised promise of happiness through material comforts was deceitful since only a small minority can achieve it, at great expense to the majority.
Almost everyone under 50, including the great majority of Americans, is now a prime candidate to be “a young man educated into the sense of hope and entitlement but rendered adrift by his limited circumstances, and exposed to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy while coerced into hectic national emulation.”
The world is undergoing a crisis of vastly diminished expectations. No one has done nearly as well out of the New World Order, the End of History, or the Information Revolution as we’d been led to believe we would. Rather than wealth proliferation through the Invisible Hand, we have McJobs and the miserly accumulation of capital in international tax havens by the .01 percent. Rather than the rational end of totalitarianism, we have nominally free, democratic people following and admiring nationalist strongmen. Rather than information setting us free–because it so passionately “wants to be free”–we find big data recruited faithfully into the service of our corporate masters, special interest ideologues, trolls, pranksters, and ad men whose only scrutable motive is to manipulate our perceptions of reality. Truth is now up for grabs in a way postmodernist philosophers of the 1980s and -90s could only have dreamed of.
Mishra’s unique contribution to the ideas I’ve read in the last few books is to document the ways we Americans are of this grim, chaotic, underperforming world, not set above it by our enlightened politics or superior military strength. Read it, twice, to discover the fascinating intellectual history of our predicament.
All of which brings us back to Chris Hedges’ jeremiad, America: The Farewell Tour. Hedges’s thesis is that the United States has suffered a corporate coup d’etat, which has debased our political culture and thrown our society into a death spiral.
America: The Farewell Tour catalogues the symptoms of our Kierkegaardian sickness unto death in unflinching terms. We are a society marked by mass incarceration; senseless, routine gun violence; lethal drug addiction; record-high suicide rates; falling wages and the evaporation of meaningful work; pornography-driven sadomasochism; gape-faced illiteracy and celebrity worship; junk food mania; wanton, irreversible pillage of the natural world; life-ruining gambling addiction; and, as Bacevich also highlights, a sick infatuation with military power and conquest.
All of this is enabled and underwritten, Hedges argues, by two magical beliefs that are now woven into the fabric of our society: (1) that anything is okay as long as someone is making money off it, and (2) that a religion of personal salvation can instantaneously transform an individual life and remove it from the hell we have allowed our society to become. Everything is okay because our lives are safely in the hands of profitable corporations and a saving God. The corporate state survives, indeed thrives, Hedges writes, because of these profane magical beliefs. And when the power of the truth is displaced by the power of such “higher” beliefs–things we believe in steadfastly no matter what the evidence against them–we create a world in which, as Dostoevsky observed, anything is possible.
When Ulysses S. Grant sat down to write his memoirs in 1884, he needed the cash. Rather, his wife needed the cash. Grant was sick and destitute, and he knew Julia Boggs Grant would be a widow soon. He did not want her to live in penury after he was gone.
Grant had no idea he was a gifted writer. The prose that came from his pen during the last year of his life was natural and engaging–a real surprise. When Grant’s editors received his drafts, Edmund Wilson relates, they were amazed at how little work his copy needed.
For anyone like me, who has spent years struggling to write, Grant’s off-the-cuff performance inspires a little envy along with grace. It’s like a story of a man who, in his sixties, takes up the fiddle to squawk out some Bluegrass and discovers the thing is actually a violin and he can play Beethoven on it. Some people just have it.
In one of my first posts to this blog, I praised Orwell’s four reasons for writing, which he lays out with admirable clarity in the essay “Why I Write.” Scaled down, they are the same reasons I write–for notoriety, pleasure, to record events, and to advocate a political point of view.
Writing, it turns out, is a deeply satisfying, because deeply subversive, act. If you use it to discover your own mind, you can never be bought by the established powers. They cannot buy you with TV. They cannot buy you with flavor-engineered food. They cannot buy you with religion. You don’t have to be the prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow was to make the same life-affirming discovery he did–that we are eligible to be noble.
Writing, I believe, cannot fail to lead you to your better self.
Recall Huck Finn. He only decided not to give Jim up to the authorities after he had written a letter saying he would. When he saw his own words on paper, he tore them up, determined that he would rather go to hell than do the right thing and return Jim to his Christian enslavers. Jim would not be tortured, and Huck would not be bought by the establishment.
If you try hard enough to set down what is in your mind, you can actually defy mass culture, which is the Big Brother of 21st America. You can make the humane choice that Erich Fromm invites us to make in his landmark book To Have Or To Be?–living your own life, defined, not by your possessions, but by your thoughts and relationships. You need not accept the counterfeit life shaped for you by product designers, ad men, focus groups and SUPERPACs.
This call to high-minded rebellion may sound pathetically comical coming from a hillbilly-bureaucrat-failed-philosopher like myself, but it is not. Writing, like any creative act, awakens and recognizes the human eligibility to be noble. Recall Winston Smith, the hero of Orwell’s 1984, as his rebellion is just taking root. He is nothing but a cowed, isolated automaton made callous by Big Brother’s propaganda machine. What is his seminal act of defiance that saves him from inhumanity, from fake life? What is the sin that brings on his inquisition, torture and death? Writing. He has been secretly keeping a journal. The journal is what he is trying to hide from the surveillance cameras the first time we encounter him in his apartment in 1984.
What do Huck Finn’s letter and Winston Smith’s journal have to do with Ulysses Grant and his unexpected writing prowess? The saving power of writing–its ability to elevate human decency above crass materialism, egoism, or blind conformity.
Writing is inextricably linked to one’s motives, which I believe are always part of the essential project of discovering and creating oneself. In his preface to his memoirs, Grant lays out his reasons for writing, with touching understatement. For such a long book, about such an eventful life, Grant’s memoirs are introduced with a bare minimum of throat clearing, only about a page. And yet Grant reveals so much. His preface in full:
“Man proposes and God disposes.” There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.
Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication. At the age of nearly sixty-two I received an injury from a fall, which confined me closely to the house while it did not apparently affect my general health. This made study a pleasant pastime. Shortly after, the rascality of a business partner developed itself by the announcement of a failure. This was followed soon after by universal depression of all securities, which seemed to threaten the extinction of a good part of the income still retained, and for which I am indebted to the kindly act of friends. At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money. The work I found congenial, and I determined to continue it. The event is an important one for me, for good or evil; I hope for the former.
In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side, other than the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due. There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers and men engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, of individual, company, regimental and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.
The first volume, as well as a portion of the second, was written before I had reason to suppose I was in a critical condition of health. Later I was reduced almost to the point of death, and it became impossible for me to attend to anything for weeks. I have, however, somewhat regained my strength, and am able, often, to devote as many hours a day as a person should devote to such work. I would have more hope of satisfying the expectation of the public if I could have allowed myself more time. I have used my best efforts, with the aid of my eldest son, F. D. Grant, assisted by his brothers, to verify from the records every statement of fact given. The comments are my own, and show how I saw the matters treated of whether others saw them in the same light or not.
With these remarks I present these volumes to the public, asking no favor but hoping they will meet the approval of the reader.
U. S. GRANT.
MOUNT MACGREGOR, NEW YORK, July 1, 1885.
Grant’s modesty is enough to make one cheer his good luck at being such a natural writer. Why did he write? For the reasons he says–for the money. To wrap things up before he died. To put his perspective on the record.
In his opening sentence Grant implies a whole philosophy of history, and it happens to be the humble one Tolstoy propounds in War and Peace–that life is too fluid and complex to take shape according to our individual choices. Compare, if you will, the narcissistic, unthinking bluster of George W. Bush’s political memoirs, Decision Points. Grant stands, well, not so much like a giant, but like an adult to Bush’s childish mind.
And if that’s not impressive enough, Grant claims no special power inherent in his perspective as General of the Union Army and President of the United States. His memoirs are just one version of history, which may clash with or do injustice to others’s recollections of the same events. He casts the writer’s die and hopes his book ends up doing some good. He admits it might not. All he can claim in the end is that it seemed important to him to write it.
Grant thanks his friends, and he recalls with fondness the help his family gave him. Although he is writing on a deadline imposed by his own approaching death (so was Orwell, as he typed out 1984), Grant unleashes no Sturm und Drang, only quiet decency.
His work done, Grant died one week after finishing his memoirs. He was a great writer.
A professor of mine used to say, don’t bother debating your opponents over terminology. Let them have the terms they want; get to the heart of the dispute.
Apt advice for discussing “socialism,” at least here in America. The average American’s understanding of the term has been so warped by ignorance, mass culture, and the collective guile of several presidential administrations that it is safe to say almost no one here actually knows what it means. Many Americans do, of course, know what they mean by “socialism”–perhaps a meme about not being able to choose one’s doctor in Canada, or anything that goes on in Venezuela. Americans’ cartoon ideas of socialism are so lively it would feel unkind to dissect them. And so I won’t.
The purpose of my essay is not to try to help anyone understand what “socialism” really means. It is rather to demonstrate that our country already has socialism as it is popularly understood, and the version we have is for dummies. Time and again, our government’s interventions in the free market serve to award political power and economic advantages to the numerically tiny class that already has those commodities in great abundance, and it fools us dummies into feeling, not just good about the whole arrangement, but patriotic and self righteous. There goes America, we say, pride swelling in our hearts, rewarding the intrepid few who fight their way to the top of the heap.
In other words, I am here today to illustrate the truth of Gore Vidal’s 1972 quip that in America, we have socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. Vidal was exactly right.
How can this be? Well, consider first the one thing that really steams us when we start thinking about “socialist” practices–tax-and-spend handouts that remove economic risk and therefore incentivize economic dependency and other kinds of bad behavior by the poor.
This is the moral hazard argument. We reason thus: If the maternal state steps in to stay the hand of the child reaching for the hot stove, the young sprout will never learn what the real danger is and therefore won’t be able to navigate a world fraught with risk. Excessive mothering produces poor pragmatic reasoners. A better society is attained if the state keeps a cool paternal distance and allows hand-burning to occur at its natural rate.
Our thought leaders often bring this idea to life with a cast of despicable stereotypes, such as the “welfare queen.” If we taxpayers keep unstintingly laying out lavish cash benefits for the welfare queen, where will her lifestyle of merry procreation stop? With us propping up her signature bad habit, it is no wonder she gathers so many other unsavory behaviors around her–drug use, absentee fathering, urban grammar.
Our elected officials’ most common way to frame moral hazard is the perennial topic of “entitlements reform.” The state, they say, must stop abetting the bad behavior of poor people through handouts. Our war-strapped budget simply cannot keep doling out food stamps and WIC peanut butter to anyone holding out their hands to receive these riches. Sooner or later, such profligacy will sink even our great ship of state.
But guess what kind of handouts we can afford? Much larger ones that keep the rich afloat as they do the necessary and heroic work of growing the economy. The kind of work Ayn Rand thinks we should be doing. The great bank bailout of 2008 was one such instance of massive corporate welfare. Rather than letting giant banks taste the consequences of the subprime mortgage crisis they created, our government urgently rushed cash to them, on the argument they were too big to fail. Thanks to the $700 billion authorized by the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, many bank presidents who had been facing ruin in 2008 kept their jobs and were even able to restore their multi-million dollar bonuses in 2009. Emergency stabilized!
What else makes us think of socialism? Why, federal jobs programs, of course–big, bloated organizations of make-work day laborers who in fact accomplish nothing. If we just avoid tinkering with the labor market by creating fake jobs, real jobs would arise naturally from a rational demand for them. Market conditions will of course produce a bit of see-sawing in the employment rate, but that’s life in a dynamic, highly developed economy. Workers who are both disciplined and flexible will prosper even on the choppy sea of technological change and supply-and-demand variability.
What we don’t want is anything like FDR’s New Deal, which created jobs and whole new employment agencies out of thin air. Like cash handouts, this kind of market intervention invites moral hazard, conditioning workers to believe they deserve jobs and they can plan a future. But free-market orthodoxy says workers should not learn to kneel and sup at the trough of public funds. They must roll up their sleeves and make themselves useful to America’s private wealth creators in whatever way the market demands.
It’s nice thought, but it ignores the fact that our government in fact runs a massive jobs program, for gentlemen only, in defense and security. This program is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. In 2013, according to the Washington Post, our government payed out $100 billion for intelligence (just one sector of defense), 70 percent of which went to private companies, which are supposed to be the avatars of capitalism.
While I admit such companies may cultivate impressively skilled work forces and even develop significant capacity to innovate, the point to bear in mind about them is that they exist because they do precisely what we rugged capitalists say should never be done–they find a richly-endowed a teat of public expenditure and fix their mouth firmly to it. Scale seems to make a difference in how we view this behavior. The “welfare queen” who pulls in a few thousand dollars a year from the public trough is a parasite, but the CEO of a large defense firm who strikes a vein of billions is a good man doing good things for the country.
Just bear this in mind the next time you hear a rich old senator like Mitch McConnell go on about the need to reduce entitlements. He’s talking about the welfare queen’s entitlements, not the defense contractor’s. (Still less those of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whos won a $2.5 billion entitlement last week through corporate tax relief.) And he’s taking money from ad men who are paid to make sure we taxpayers never draw a parallel between the two.
Which brings me to the next feature of socialism for dummies–pointless, undisciplined government spending. The histories of socialist countries offer numerous object lessons in the inefficiency of ideologically driven spending. These range from the silly to the tragic. As socialist governments created “industrial cities” throughout eastern Europe in the 1940s and -50s, they spent much more on building theaters and “literary halls” than venues of low entertainment. This in deference to Marx’s doctrine that happy, fulfilled workers would naturally wish to exercise their minds at the end of the day by writing literary criticism. What the workers wanted, but didn’t get (at first), was bars. They did get them, eventually, but only after socialist governments had wasted millions on theaters that went unused and eventually sprouted with weeds.
Anyone who has read Orwell’s Animal Farm can recall the animals’ (really just the pigs’) decision to build a large windmill to power their barn, reduce their labor and ease their lives. They spend the better part of a year putting their excess labor power into building the windmill only to have it collapse in a storm because it is poorly designed. Badly demoralized but still undaunted, they pick up the pieces and try again, still without a plan, oblivious to the fact that they’re throwing good money (or its equivalent in labor) after bad. Why do they do it? Their ruling class has determined they must. For the animals to carry their socialist project of liberation through, they must build this technological marvel. It is a sacred priority, declared by the pigs.
We also do this in America. Our defense and security jobs program is permitted by the people to grab lavish amounts of cash to spend on contract cost overruns and even projects that go nowhere. To take just the latest and most glaring example, in June 2017 the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built by Lockheed, had reached cost overruns of $406 billion despite having met none of its development targets. It was originally scheduled to be fielded in 2008. It is still fumbling toward partial capability in late 2018–ten years overdue and counting.
Why do we allow so much of our tax revenue (and, let’s face it, borrowed sovereign wealth) to sluice into the coffers of Lockheed and other defense giants to no good purpose? There are the usual grubby political reasons, of course, most of which have to do with pork. No politician in his right mind will vote to defund a Lockheed contract if he has constituents who benefit from it.
But the overarching, unassailable reason we allow such profane waste is an ideological one. The defense of our country is a sacred value, and we cannot put a dollar figure on it. This is what Ronald Reagan meant in 1983 when he said that “defense is not a budget item.” There is no amount of money we won’t spend on defense, even if it means slopping billions over the side of the public trough, to be supped up by billionaire CEOs and their millionaire minor coteries–American heroes all.
Often I think most Americans believe socialism is nothing but tax-and-spend government. Taxing and spending is actually what governments are for. But whatever. I’m not going to try to argue. (If you’re at all curious about this line of thought, read Stephen Holmes’ and Cass Sunstein’s excellent 2000 book The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes.)
What I have tried to argue today is that our government does tax and spend, pretty lavishly on some things. The vast majority of what gets spent, though, goes to the rich, those who have learned how to feast on the state’s largess while insisting to us of the 99 percent that they’re just smarter and harder working than us and therefore deserve to be at the top of the capitalist heap. This is a lie. You should not believe it. Our capitalist masters live on socialist entitlements, but they have convinced us we should worship them as heroes of rugged individualism. This is socialism for dummies indeed.