Saturday, November 25, 2006

Gonna lay down my burdens

Got in late last night from the Thanksgiving trip, and picked this up from Pastor Dan.

He wants to say it says, in part, what he's been saying all along; and he's certainly entitled to. I want to say the same thing about other parts; but I'm mindful of the statement by Will Durant, that wise people say things so clearly and intelligently that we think we've thought the same thing before. This essay is simply that remarkable. For example:

“Defining Victory” [an editorial previously published in the National Review, which also published this essay] describes the post-9/11 world in terms that have since become familiar. First, it insists on a war that has no definite enemy and no foreseeable end. Short of one-world despotism or universal brotherhood, the U.S. cannot literally defeat “all those who mean to do our people harm.” To trim the hyperbole, NR goes on to name five examples of potential enemies (plus, in later editorials, Saudi Arabia) but does not explain how the list was generated or whether it is even complete. The reader gathers only that we should threaten or go to war with an unspecified number of troublesome nations.

Second, the editors use the term “war” in a purely figurative sense. At the time of the editorial, the U.S. was not at war with Syria, Sudan, or Iran nor, realistically speaking, with any other nation on the list. No matter how vulnerable or despised, no Muslim nation can be turned into a sacrificial substitute for bin Laden. Nor, no matter how often incanted, can the phrase “at war” be made to describe an actual state of affairs. A rhetorical bludgeon designed to compel assent to certain policies, it begs the question of whether war is advisable in the first place.

Third, “Defining Victory” does not identify a casus belli. Neither Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, nor Sudan attacked us on 9/11. Later debate would focus on the legitimacy of preventive war as a defense against future threats. All foreign nations, however, by definition pose hypothetical threats; at some point, those threats become so remote, trivial, or contingent that preventive war cannot be distinguished from an aggressive war of domination. By urging belligerence against nations with no known designs—to say nothing of any capacity—for harming the U.S., “Defining Victory” surely advocated crossing that point.
Who can argue with such clear-headedness, such clarity of insight? This is the problem with belligerence in a nutshell, or with war as "therapy," as Richard Cohen advocated. The only logical answer to that claim is a question: therapy for whom? But the conclusion of this catalogue is the best, indeed, the most unbelievable part:

Finally, the editorial defines “victory” in terms of a goal—regime change—that war advances only incidentally. War by itself cannot cause regime change. To overthrow and replace a government militarily, one must either invade and occupy a country (a technique that works best when the occupier has made a policy of slaughtering civilians en masse, as in Dresden or Hiroshima) or else so punish the civilian population that they rise up against their government. By saying, incoherently, that the United States was “at war” with a list of regimes, NR gave no indication of what policies it was actually touting.
Would have been nice if somebody had mentioned that before we attacked Iraq, huh?

By the way, what is the mission today? This is the newest excuse for the war now, I hope you've noted: the "troops" know they have a "mission," and they are dedicated to "seeing it through." Which is just as amorphous and meaningful an argument as the metaphors Mr. Bramwell accuses the National Review of relying on. Indeed, this entire escapade has been a war on metaphors, by way of metaphors. Perhaps in that way, this has been the first post-modern war: it is both self-reflexive and "meta" at the same time, a perfectly slippery fish that we never quite catch, never quite release.

Pastor Dan notes that conservative ideology, at least as Bramwell defines and analyzes it (and to be fair to Bramwell, he is identifying not the conservatism of William F. Buckley, but a "contemporary conservatism." These distinctions are important.) is basically a metric for determining who's in, and who's out. This, of course, is one of the classic uses of a group. But there's something else here, it seems to me: there is still, in this analysis as in any other, a refusal to grapple with what the "Big Idea" means to the "little people." The analysis here is quite penetratingly clear:

As it happens, the broader conservative public supports Bush for very sensible, non-neoconservative reasons. Those reasons just happen to be poorly informed. For example, many believe—including an astonishing 90 percent of soldiers serving in Iraq—that the U.S. invaded to retaliate against Saddam Hussein for his role in the 9/11 attacks. Now that Saddam is gone but Iraqis are still giving us trouble, they reason, we must kill them before they kill us. If Americans understood that soldiers were dying not to kill the bad guys but to prevent them from killing each other, Bush’s popularity would evaporate.
But it never quite makes the point that those soldiers who are dying are really human beings. Of course, that is what soldiers are for. Everybody knows that.

Because we have all, at some level, bought into the "Big Idea."

I sometimes think this is why Jesus spoke in parables. Not merely because they were memorable (clearly they were; an important trait in a non-literate society); and not merely because they were metaphorical (the lesson of Sunday school) or deliberately provocative and paradoxical (pace Dom Crossan), but because they are so difficult to turn into "Big Ideas." No one is going to plunge into war behind the woman who found the lost coin; or the Prodigal Son; or the Good Samaritan; or the Unjust Steward. We can barely figure out what Jesus really means (although some us have thought we can), much less rally 'round his explications of a mustard seed as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, or a pearl of great price. No one is going to rush into battle with a picture of a field or a pearl on their battle standard. The parables are all about the quotidian: women sweeping up, sheep going astray, weeds being planted with crops, sheep being separated from goats. There's no grand rallying cry there; indeed, we had to create our own. As Leonard Bernstein wrote: "God made us the boss/God gave us the cross/We turned it into a sword/To spread the word of the Lord!/And it was good! (Yeah!)/And it was good! (yeah)/And it was GODDAMNED GOOD!" He got the sentiment right, but the history a bit wrong: we gave God the cross; and after a few centuries, when Christianity had risen to the level of empire, we took up that cross again, and then turned it into a sword. But the only time Jesus mentions a cross in the gospels, he describes it as a burden. And the only time he mentions a sword, he says one is enough for all 11 disciples. Not exactly the stirring stuff of martial dreams.

The parables, instead, are about ordinary life: about women (!) making bread (with yeast! corruption! impure! everybody knows God prefers unleavened bread!), or about discoveries which must be kept secret, or about sons who defy all the laws and traditions of Moses and Abraham, and yet are welcomed back by their fathers. His parables are about unclean things and ordinary things and obnoxious things, not the grand symbols and ideals of Empire. But wait, see if this sounds familiar:

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.

Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace.
In the end, Bramwell is merely making the argument of Rome: that peace comes through a faith in the sequence of piety (he mentions Christianity favorably, although I imagine he and I would quarrel on what "Christianity" means), war, victory, and peace. It's simply that he understands war, victory, and peace are slightly more complex matters than those he critiques think they are. But he certainly is not offering an alternative of peace through covenant, nonviolence, and justice. Indeed, he would clearly consider me (who agrees with Paul) a hopeless idealist, if not a Pollyanna.

However if you read Bramwell carefully you might say that I am wrong; and perhaps cite this passage to support your conclusion:

The notion of a crisis of the West, however, grossly overestimates the importance of ideas; indeed, it requires an unphilosophical and almost paranoid ability to treat ideologies (most conspicuously, liberalism) as living, breathing omnipresences to which intentions, tactics, strategies, feelings, disappointments, and conflicts can all be attributed.
Again, this is so clear-sighted and rational that I cannot argue with it. Indeed, one can make this same critique ring loudly true against left blogistan. But I don't need to argue with it; it is my point in a nutshell. Because this is as close as Bramwell gets to making any reference to real people, outside of the ideas they adopt and try to live by.

Ideas are critically important. The ideas of Rome, proclaimed in marble and building and statuary and even city layout and design, were pounded into the heads of inhabitants of the Empire as surely as advertising jingles and desperate desire for unnecessary goods are pounded into our heads, to reach a crisis point every year about this time. Bramwell sides with Rome on this one (and this is beginning of what Pastor Dan considers the heart of Bramwell's argument):

Still others eulogize local attachments and ancestral loyalties. They invoke a litany of examples: family, church, kin, community, school, the “little platoons” in which Burke found the basis of political association. Celebrating such “infra-political” institutions may well have made sense in the 1950s, the high tide of American nationalism and federal government prestige. At most other times, however, ancestral attachments are dangerously subversive. The U.S. could not have survived had it not ruthlessly extirpated the ancestral loyalties of both natives and newcomers; Great Britain suffered endless civil wars before the great constitutional oak that Burke praised took root; the West itself succeeded precisely because it cut short the reach of the extended family or clan. Ancestral loyalties are the curse of uncivilized peoples, most especially in the hypermnesiac Middle East. Most ominously, praise of local attachments now comes in the guise of multiculturalism, perhaps the most insidious threat to a just order today. Not for nothing did communitarianism become a left-wing vogue.
Certainly Jesus makes much the same argument (I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother), but Jesus was talking about devotion to God above all else, not 19th century notions of nationalism (which Bramwell seems to take as some kind of Platonic ideal of human organization, rather than a result of the peculiarities of European history). Bramwell is positively Roman in his outlook: all local and even familial concerns, must be viewed through the lens of empire, else civilization itself fails. Again, everything must be subsumed into service to the Big Idea. But ideas are not human beings; ideas are not alive, do not draw breath, do not have legs and hearts and lungs; ideas do not even die. In precisely that much "V" was right: ideas are bulletproof. But that's because ideas aren't alive. AS Jesus said: God clothes the flowers of the field and feeds the birds of the air; surely God will take care of you, too. Not your ideas, or even your ideals: simply you. Ideas are not more important than people. Surely if his teachings were about anything, they were about that.

"How should we then live" is the question everyone is chasing. The problem is, no one is considering how people live, when pursuing the question. How people ought to live is of great concern to a great number of people who never consider the conclusions should apply to them. How we ought to live is the province of the Big Idea, the one that always applies to thee, but never quite to me. How we should live is the province of parable and quotidian mystery, and turns me to thinking about my life and what I am doing. How conservatives ought to behave is of great concern to Mr. Bramwell; even how they ought to be punished. On this, he understands quite rightly that anyone's reach in that matter, will necessarily exceed their grasp; and that's not what a heaven's for:

Worse, no reckoning will be made: they hope in vain who expect conservatives to take responsibility for the actual consequences of their actions. Conservatives have no use for the ethic of responsibility; they seek only to “see to it that the flame of pure intention is not quelched.” The movement remains a fine place to make a career, but for wisdom one must look elsewhere.
Religion, after all, is responsibility; or it is nothing at all. And religion is about the quotidian, and our daily responsibilities there. At least, that's part of my understanding of Christianity, and the gospel message.

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