Endless Adagio

Let’s see, today’s reading. John Holbo directs my attention to a long summary of facts about American national security and to a subsequent thread in which a critic heroically continues to believe in whatever he wants to believe in. Matthew Yglesias wonders why key people in power (and out of it) don’t seem to believe in liberalism and democracy, and choose instead to believe that a drift to authoritarianism is what we desperately need. I check a recent Cliopatria thread, where two commenters blandly defend torture and the withdrawal of habeas rights without even an apparent twinge of conscience or concern for possible consequences. This is only scratching the surface. I could read more and more and more of this and never run out, just in the last week alone.

Some people are shrill about this, as Brad DeLong likes to put it. Some people are angry. Some are becoming more shrill, more angry. A few are perhaps finally waking to what’s going on.

Mostly I’m just feeling terribly, terribly sad. Not sad in the ordinary sense: more like a constant low-level melancholic dread, weary and resigned. As if I hear a constant loop of the “Adagio in G Minor” somewhere in the distant background.

I still don’t buy it when people say, “We’re in a dictatorship now” or “Some unspeakable and utterly final catastrophe is coming”. The situation is bad enough without having to fling apocalyptic predictions or careless hyperbole around. American society and the world have survived bad moments before, and many things which were thought or said at the time to be unbearable or final have turned out to be less so. I remember being in South Africa and going to a party with a bunch of activists during the first Gulf War and hearing about how the world was going to end, how this was the disaster to end all disasters, and similar exaggerations.

This is not to underrate just how dangerous the situation right now. Things really do seem to me to be at an unprecedented pass within the last century or so of American experience. If the United States is not a dictatorship, it nevertheless is drifting strongly to a kind of authoritarian populism. I think that’s one of the most depressing things for me at the moment.

John Holbo’s quote from J.D. Henderson, the author of the Intel-Dump post, is right on target. A sizeable plurality of Americans wanted to believe in the war in the Iraq, they wanted to have a man on a white horse ride into save them all. Most of all, now that it’s all gone sour, they don’t want to be wrong. So, by force of will, they refuse to be wrong, refuse to see mistakes, refuse to hold their leaders or more importantly themselves accountable. They want to believe what, in the end, all murderous utopians and millennialists believe: that the future they rapturously imagined has not come to pass because we have not yet spilled sufficient blood, not yet been sufficiently extreme, not yet followed every instruction of prophecy, not mirrored every sign and portent that was read in the entrails of 9/11. Some of the American public will chase that will o’ the wisp all the way to disaster and beyond. They want the world to really be a Tom Clancy fantasy where heroic figures stand against the darkness, make tough and manly decisions in the shadows, dispense with the messy ambiguities of life as it is lived by human beings, and neatly end the story with the salvation of America and the defeat of the villains.

What can you do about that kind of desire and hope? No one who believes in a better world likes to be told not yet, not today, not for you. No one wants to be told that the only thing for it is to wait, and live, and love, to do our modest best, to fight small wars and seek little triumphs. Progressives don’t like to be told that about poverty and development in the Third World: that many who are alive today will not live to see an improvement in their lot, no matter what we do. They especially don’t want to hear that the harder we try to fix some things, the more likely we are to make things worse. People concerned about the threat of terrorism and fundamentalism don’t like to hear that in their lifetime, there is no magic cure, that it won’t help to fight harder, torture more, burn up the Bill of Rights on the pyre of necessity. Nor do they want to hear that this will only make it worse.

John Holbo says that he believes that it is still possible for the Democrats to run on a strong and resolute platform against torture, against mismanagement, against popular authoritarianism, and win a majority. I’d like to believe it, too. What I’m less certain about is whether it’s possible to run on a platform whose central contention is that it is time for everyone to grow up a little, shoulder some responsibilities, face some hard facts about the world and at last understand the slow and complex engines of deliberate action and desire which might turn it gradually in one direction or the other. To stop chasing the will o’ the wisp.

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22 Responses to Endless Adagio

  1. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    I tell myself that a) there is much ruin in a country, and b) that if Vaclav Havel didn’t lose hope for Czechoslovakia in 1977, then I am not allowed to despair yet, either.

  2. hestal says:

    The argument between liberalism and authoritarianism is ancient and endless. It is old because the people who make up each position are ancient varieties of homo sapiens. It is endless because rationality can not overcome innate, internal urges and feelings.

    The only hope we have is that Varietas libertas outnumbers Varietas tyrannis and that libertas will work against its inherent willingness to hear all sides long enough to stop tyranni in their tracks.

    James Madison, no historian, and not really a politician, but rather a public servant, (politicians accrete power and excrete corruption), wrote about this very issue in Federalist 10. Hamilton spoke about it as well as did Washington in 20% of his entire Farewell Address. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes tyranni in its mental disorder descriptions, especially its Antisocial Personality Disorder diagnostic criteria. The Merck Manual echoes the APA. John W. Dean in his latest book describes Varietas tyrannis in his list of characteristics entitled “Social Dominators.” Lawrence E. Harrison, writing in “The Central Liberal Truth,” describes tyranni’s cultural effects in listing the characteristics of “Social Behavior in a Progress-Resistant Culture.”

    And you mention the Historian’s ancient placebo of “whatever this is, we have had it before, and if we got through it then, then we shall get through it again,” — perhaps the only lesson of History other than “never start a land war in Southeast Asia.”

    But Madison had it exactly right. He and other Framers realized that political parties could be dominated by tyranni, as can other social organizations, and they deliberately excluded political parties from the Constitution. These men were determined to design a mechanism whereby Varietas tyrannis would be excluded from power, but if they ever should get power, their effects would be controlled. So political parties are nowhere mentioned in the Constitution until the 24th Amendment is passed.

    Some call this a “Failure of the Founding Fathers,” the title of Historian Bruce Ackerman’s new book. Mr. Ackerman even calls the Framers “stupid,” and more niceties for this approach. But what he fails to realize, in his stupid way, is that the Framers took the technology, geography, population, society, and history available to them at the time and made their best effort to forestall what we see today.

    George Washington, no Historian, predicted exactly what we see in our nation today and he did it over 200 years ago. But we ignore him. Instead the History Channel talks about religious prophets or Nostredamus. But Washington was the prophet of prophets and we should take a closer look at what he and the other Framers were saying, because there is a lesson there for us, a lesson that will, if heeded, start us on the march to making the First Sentence of the Second Paragraph of the Declaration of Independence come true.

    All we have to do is redesign our public institutions to take into account the malevolent effects of Varietas tyrannis and build organizations that will keep him from power, and should he ever get power, keep him from doing harm. By reading Madison one can see that he came to his ideas, not because they were the best, but because they were the best possible at the time because of available technology. Washington himself is quoted along these lines by Willard Sterne Randall in his biography of the great man. We have the technology today that will permit us to use the ideas that Madison had to reject. We can easily change the Constitution to eliminate political parties and control Varietas tyrannis.

    Because, as corny as it sounds, the struggle is between Good and Evil and Evil thrives in the hearts of some men.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think one of the things that makes me feel so sad is that this ought to be one of the questions that being an American makes one an experienced thinker about. I’m enough of a believer in progress to find it frustrating that a question which seems to me to have been resolved deeply and well in the American experience is now coming to so many Americans as a novel and unreflected-upon experience. I shouldn’t have to explain to any American why giving the GOVERNMENT a PERMANENT and LEGALLY defined right to violate habeas is as UNAMERICAN an idea as you can get.

    Sorry for the caps: here I transit from being sad to being really angry. The right wants to play their games of calling treason? Ok, I’ll play too. Arguing for a legally authorized right of the executive to violate habeas in response to an ill-defined and permanent emergency is 100% counter to the foundational bedrock of American constitutionalism. Oh, you can embrace Hamilton if you like, and say this is a tension among the founders, etcetera. But I think it is a thing clearly resolved in the process of American political tradition, and to turn against it now is in fact treason to the American dream.

    It’s also historically illiterate. This is the rock on which republics have previously been smashed in world history. You do NOT give the executive open discretion to act as it will in a context of poorly defined and vaguely experienced permanent emergency. Apologists for Bush like to point to Lincoln, but his actions were in a vastly more specific and constrained emergency situation–and one that was by any stretch of the imagination vastly more dire. 9/11 touched only the smallest portion of our national being, when all is said and done; the Civil War was from root to the highest branch a fundamental crisis of sovereignity, rights, and democratic being, in every town and city.

  4. Stub says:

    I enjoyed this post. I’m roughly in agreement with both your conclusion and presuppositions (the desirability of liberal ideals like rational discourse, civic responsibility, consensus building, etc) and I’ve been hearing the Adagio for about three years. With that said, I’ve recently finished reading Schorske’s Fin-de-Siecle Vienna and his description of the crisis of nineteenth century liberalism seems applicable both to this post and to similar sentiments expressed by other highly educated moderates online (eg hilzoy, ogged, Yglesias, Marshall, etc).

    Schorske describes a Viennese society of classic liberals who experience a sudden and severe decline in hegemonic influence amidst the rise of populist movements (both on the left and the right). These new mass movements confound liberal teleological presuppositions of progress (they don’t think or act unidirectionally) and civic rationality (they appeal to a differential past with the intent of building a communitarian future), etc. Worst of all from the liberal view, they’re tremendously successful politically and quickly gain power in Vienna. In Schorske’s analysis liberal dismay at this outcome produces an aesthetics that withdraws from civic engagement, and also leads to Freud’s conceptualization of psychological man as a method of explaining liberalism’s political failure. In broad strokes this case study describes the friction that emerges when liberal ideals meet mass politics.

    Obviously the analogy between that situation and ours today is highly imperfect. But I think such comparisons might still be interesting. I don’t think we’ve seen a retreat by moderate liberals into the aesthetic sphere, which is encouraging. If anything, you might argue that aesthetic escapism is now a mass movement rather than the exercise of the elites. On the other hand, I do get a strong sense of “what is to be done”-ism in a lot of this writing. Sort of a sense of powerlessness, or the thousand yard stare (and I’m talking here about the moderate liberals, not the fire-breathers to their left who seem to me more in the populist left tradition). I think that public actors/voices who approximate a Burke-esque (by which I mean you, not Eddie Burke) rational stance are few and far between. Both the right and the left have long since realized the power of emotional appeal over rational argument in generating popular support.

    This is what surprises me when I read current moderate liberals shaking their heads at the success of fear mongering strategies (and these are in play both on the right and the left, although the right is certainly kicking it up to another level). I guess what I’m asking is: have nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century democratic mass politics ever been about rationality and measured discourse? Isn’t this ideal simply a phantasmagoria that should have dissipated with the rise of mass politics in the nineteenth century? (I’m also avoiding the problematic gender considerations here, where traditionally the rational individual is coded masculine and the emotional mass is coded feminine).

    Another related but somewhat tangential question—I’m not especially well versed in American history, and I am wondering whether US politics ever experienced a “liberal crisis” in the manner that pretty clearly occurred in western and central European democracies in the early twentieth century. In the European context such crises seem to produce avant-garde artistic movements for obvious reasons, and the US didn’t have one of those until the 1960s with postmodernism. Groovy blog, by the way.

  5. withywindle says:

    You really don’t get it … it’s not a messianic dream, it’s an attempt to keep from getting bombed, poisoned, infected, and irradiated by a large number of enemy states, their terrorist proxies, and a diaspora population of Muslims that will constitute a long-term, perhaps permanent, potential fifth column. (And since I still live in the top target zone, I do and will consider it a fundamental crisis.) The conditions of the war are not set by us, but by our enemies. Right now, the President is either doing the bare minimum, or somewhat less than the bare minimum, to keep us safe; I credit this to a combination of his liberal idealism, Christian patience, and (alas) unwillingness to spend enough for national defense. Like you, I feel a “a constant low-level melancholic dread, weary and resigned”–but I’m resigned to the depressingly likely chance that I will get blown up before the United States adopts a sufficiently resolute war policy.

    And, yes, this is nothing like resolution, and resolution will be very bloody. A dream of blood? Knowledge of the history of war. It’s a murderous business, usually involving military elites holding subject populations hostage by armed force, and being defeated by being starved to death–along with the hostage populations. With modern refinements, it’s Dresden and Hiroshima. It would be nice to avoid these extremities, and it speaks well of the president that he has tried very hard these last five years to use an astonishingly gentle and well-targeted amount of force, but there’s only so much you can do against the rising forces of evil. (Whose villainies, in the first and last analyses, are not particularly messy, complicated, or ambiguous.)

    Prophecy? No, terrible contingency. (All contingency is existentially terrible, of course, but it became more obvious on September 11.) We woke up in a labyrinth, with fatal dangers all around us, and nothing certain–save that by inaction we would die. The world came unmoored, and it is still unmoored. If there is a guardian providence over our nation, it is very subtle, and it acts through human agents.

    Tom Clancy is never the model; rather, Tolkien. Men of Gondor, sir, and the risk is always that one falls prey to the temptations of Denethor. But there are assuredly orcs out there, and an atomic Barad-dur.

    “No one wants to be told that the only thing for it is to wait, and live, and love, to do our modest best, to fight small wars and seek little triumphs.” — this is of course what I seek too, save that the small wars I think we have to fight aren’t metaphorical.

    “People concerned about the threat of terrorism and fundamentalism don’t like to hear that in their lifetime, there is no magic cure, that it won’t help to fight harder, torture more, burn up the Bill of Rights on the pyre of necessity. Nor do they want to hear that this will only make it worse.” — a curious mix and match. There is no magic cure, of course, which is why hard fighting is always necessary, torture occasionally necessary, and a recalibration of civil liberties to fit a long-term struggle against terror for the time being necessary. Civil liberties, after all, proceed from the government; we can, as a sovereign people, adjust them by lawful and constitutional means. I suppose if executive, legislative, and judiciary agree that the third degree is OK now and again, and terrorists with American citizenship stay in military prison for the duration, you’ll just have to very careful to protest the abrogation of human rights, and not speak slipshod of an abrogation of civil rights.

    “it is time for everyone to grow up a little, shoulder some responsibilities, face some hard facts about the world and at last understand the slow and complex engines of deliberate action and desire which might turn it gradually in one direction or the other. To stop chasing the will o’ the wisp.”–yes, that does sound like the policies of the current administration to me. Which indicates that your pieties are so vague as to have no particular political purchase.

    As usual, your pieties do not necessarily accord with your critique. “Messy ambiguities of life”–yes, that would be a world where the good guys have to waterboard suspected terrorists for fear of the consequences of inaction.

    “A kind of authoritarian populism”–this lacks analytical power. It could mean, oh, “the people support something I don’t like.” A good libertarian thinks medicare is authoritarian populism. A good Suth’ner will tell you Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act were terrible acts of authoritarian populism. Russell Kirk and his ilk are dubious about this whole democratic majority thang; definitely populist, and this bit about majorities passing laws will just lead to trouble.

    It also so happens that republics get murdered by their enemies. In medieval Italy, it was usually the neighboring republics that did them in, and Florence was providentially saved from the Viscontis. But Napoleonic France did the heave-ho to Switzerland, while the Austrians gobbled Venice; and Carthage as I recollect was a republic too, poor dear, so far from Moloch and so near to Rome. Sweet little Ionians, caught between the Persians and Athens; French Fourth Republic gotten by De Gaulle and paras in Corsica and guerrillas in Algiers, and all that, but also by an insufficiently strong executive (pst, France has been a dictatorship since 1958!); Czechoslovakia, Germaned and Russianed to near-extinction; Transvaal and Orange Free State annexed; the Dutch Republic-oh, they survived the assault by Louis XIV, but they turfed out the ruling patriciate and delegated power to the executive, in the form of Prince and Stadtholder William of Orange. “How long will this emergency last?” they asked in 1673, and strangely William could not tell them that “1714” was the answer, and that he would be dead before then. But a strong executive did save the Netherlands from extinction–and, gosh, they’re not an autocracy now. Republics are secular, contingent creatures, and doomed to die by any of a thousand deaths–and its historically illiterate to choose any one way as their characteristic doom. Shine, perishing republic, and all that–but, heck, Rome was declining from the get-go, and it still had a good run for the money.

    Oh, has the restriction of civil liberties yet reached 1/100 of what the British did during World War One? And tell me again, Codename V, how the British live in a dictatorship, and have been ever since 1918?

    However, do enjoy worrying about habeus corpus. I’ll worry about incineration, and we can make a lovely pair.

  6. Endie says:

    Do you mean Albinoni’s (reconstructed) Adagio? I find that *too* melancholic as a theme tune for the moment. I’m reminded of something more disturbing, scurrying and threatening like Gnomus from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or the early passages of Bartok’s Fugue for Percussion, Strings and Celeste. Or, perhaps, the Imperial March from Star Wars…

    And Withywindle, umm… it’s tricky to find which of your many, many analogies to address. What was the middle one again? But you do ask, at one point, a couple of very simple questions:

    “Oh, has the restriction of civil liberties yet reached 1/100 of what the British did during World War One? And tell me again, Codename V, how the British live in a dictatorship, and have been ever since 1918?”

    To answer your first question: yes.

    For background, I am pro-war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But in Britain we have lost several key rights in the last few years that date from Magna Carta, in a drift towards authoritaianism which is influenced strongly by State Dept pressure where not driven by the tendencies of the government involved. Your question about whether we currently live in a dictatorship is, of course, a laughable piece of high school debating. But if arrested by the police on mere suspicion of anti-government activities in Britain I can no longer rely on remedies such as habeus corpus (I can be held for weeks without charge, possibly to be extended yet further), the right to a trial by jury, the right to a public trial before a civil judge and in several circumstances the right to an appeal.

    Depending on my place of birth I may also find myself extradited to a torture-friendly country without publicity, trial, hearing or legal representation.

    I have no right to silence or to avoid incriminating myself: silence may be presented to a trial as evidence of guilt.

    I cannot rely on my rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, supposedly incorporated into UK law: these have been abrogated for reasons of “public security”.

    For the first time, I will soon, while the country is not in a declared state of war, have to carry identification papers which a policeman will be able to demand to inspect.

    The choice you and others present is a false one, intended to terrify just as much as any real bomb. Giving up civil rights will not make us more secure. The 9/11 hijackers had valid identification, after all. As were the Madrid bombers, the Istanbul bombers and the UK bombers (had they chosen to carry their British passports). They could have walked through any check short of sodium pentathol and a series of beatings (or is that what you have in mind?) Enforcing the carrying of identity papers and tracking the movements and transactions of individuals are administrative measures intended to make enforcement easier for government authorities and their civil servants. They will not stop a domestic terror attack.

    Not sure about the Tolkien bit, but, uhm, good luck in your quest to, so far as I can work out, carry the One Ring of Safety From Terror past the Orcs of People Who Don’t Look or Think Like Us to the “Atomic Barad-Dur”, or perhaps you mean that Iran’s nuclear weapons can only be destroyed in the fires of an atomic Mount Doom by hand-picked midgets? Help me out here. Can I play an elf plzkthx?

  7. Doug says:

    “What I’m less certain about is whether it’s possible to run on a platform whose central contention is that it is time for everyone to grow up a little, shoulder some responsibilities, face some hard facts about the world…”

    A voice you know from harder times than these: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

    It’s a bracing tonic, one I try to share.

  8. Timothy Burke says:


    You know, I almost used Tolkien instead of Clancy as the template that is leading people astray, but I thought it was too unfair. Perhaps not. If that’s your preferred analogy, let me tell how I see the arguments you make, withywindle: you’re Boromir, counseling the use of the One Ring against Sauron. But seriously, I bow to no one in my admiration for LOTR, but life is not like that. You insist on seeing the world that way, you’re committing yourself to a kind of race/civilizational crusade, the white warriors of the North against the dark orcs of the South. I can’t imagine a bigger misfire both in empirical and ethical terms.

    Part of my sense of dread is also that I fear what’s going to happen to me and mine from terrorism. There is a sense that we live under the cloud of a kind of low-level, constant Blitz, and yes, I feel fear and regret that this is the burden of our times. “So do all who live in such times, but it is not for them to decide. All we can do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.”

    You are right about what I mean by the drift to popular authoritarianism: that a large plurality of the voting population is willing to endorse authoritarian measures, including torture, suspension of habeas. In part they’re willing to do it because they understand the enemy in racial and “civilizational” terms, and never expect that these measures will be employed against themselves. I think history makes that a foolish expectation. I think this is precisely why the United States was so strongly founded around a constitutional ideal of checks and balances, that the drafters of the Constitution, and many Americans since, have recognized that government rarely stays within the limits expected of it when it is given fundamental new powers, and that it is therefore crucial not to give it such power if it can be helped. I think that is as fundamentally American an idea as you could ask for. (And a fundamental tenet of postwar American conservatism, to boot.) But the fact that it is in some sense “popular”, supported by many people, is what makes it powerful as an idea.

    Most of the examples of republics you cite got “murdered” by neighboring states, in classic territorial wars. That is not what this moment is, whatever it is. (Some of them were fairly dubious examples of “republics”, moreover: the Transvaal and OFS, for example.)

    I do believe that there is a role for military power here, and that there is a long and complicated struggle ahead. I think Afghanistan was the right thing to do. I think Iraq was extremely wrong for reasons that I’ve set out a zillion times here, most of them strategic and tactical objections rather than primal ethical ones.

    But the things happening with torture and habeas and so on are quite separate issues from all of that, in many ways. They not only aren’t necessary, they’re foolhardy in the extreme. You might take the long view and say, “Well, some states that resort to strong suspensions of rights survive them just fine”, but that ignores both the question of whether such suspensions turned out to be in any sense necessary (I would argue absolutely not in almost every example), and of the timeframe in which things turned out “fine”.

    But more importantly, this view simply turns its back on progress. I really would like to think that we get wiser as time goes on, that we learn more of what to do and not do (see, Hestal, I do believe in the lessons of history, or at least I’d like to). And I think we ought to know that what the Administration is now doing is a mistake. It’s narrowly a mistake in terms of efficacy: I think Bruce Schneier’s vision of security is a vastly sounder one. But it is more a mistake in terms of what is likely to come of it, the harm it will do, the dangers it poses, the fundamental assault it makes on one of the most fundamental contributions that America has made to the world, the idea of limited and constrained government, of a people whose rights precede and are sovereign over the state.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Stub, your comments are very interesting. I actually agree with your observations: I may pull them up and post around them. I do think this is the blindspot, as it were, of a lot of educated liberals, including myself. (Educated radicals, as well). To excuse it slightly, I think the reason why it exists in part is that we’re coming off a long period in which educated elites had unusual access to the power of the American state through the bureaucracy, as lobbyists, and even through the upper reaches of the executive. Where mass politics ran on a parallel but not determinative track, and where elites could feel somewhat secure about having their reasoned discourse be heard and be influential on policy formation.

    This is something of the way I think about “expertise” and its circulation–Gary Jones and I have talked about that a lot of the years, and though I don’t share some of his most pronounced hostility to experts, I think his basic framing of experts as a social class who are isolated from the general population is accurate.

    Which is part of why I don’t want to resort easily to the cry of the expert or elitist at this moment (as I think many radicals have): namely, that the people are stupid. There are a lot of things wrong with that as an answer. So instead, for me, what’s important is to ask, “What do the large number of people who think this is the right way to go think about why it is the right way to go? And what can I say that might remind them of the dangers?” There are a lot of things on the minds of those who are endorsing the shift in American governance. Some of it might be captured in Withywindle’s post here, but I don’t think so, for the most part. I think a lot of it is simply the desire to support troops, to give the executive a free hand to play, to not hurt the country in a time of war. This is one reason why I think some over-the-top anti-war rhetoric, or people who presuppose that to criticize the war is to criticize everything and all things about the GWoT, is a political mistake.

    Anyway, nice comment. I really do think I need to post separately about this issue.

  10. Doug says:

    Two further thoughts: One is a pithy reminder from Matthew Yglesias that “Liberal democracy isn’t a fluke occurrence that just so happens to have survived despite its drawbacks. It’s actually a superior method of organizing a state. The idea that the country is being run by people who don’t understand that is sad and frightening. The idea that the very same people claim to be embarked upon a grand mission to spread our system of government around the world is like a horrible tawdry joke…” (http://www.matthewyglesias.com/archives/2006/09/torture_as_investigation/) Though I wish that Matt had used a word other than “frightening.” I am through with being frightened about what this administration does; appalled, angry, furious, yes, but they will not make me afraid.

    The second is also about fear: In a recent post (http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2006_09/009559.php) Kevin Drum discusses a survey showing that since 1992, Republicans have been drawing in previously disaffected authoritarian voters by playing to their fears. These authoritarian-leaning citizens have gone from non-voters to Republican voters. And activating fear in the public sphere, according to the research Drum cites, “makes people who only have a little authoritarianism share the preferences of those who have a lot.”

  11. hestal says:

    (1) I live in the heart of Fundamentalist Texas. The Creationist Evidence Museum is just about three miles from my home. I live in an armed camp, except for me. The folks I know, many of them for nearly 70 years, live in a fantasy world. They discuss things such as Paulianity vs. Christianity. They can justify anything from their interpretations of the Holy Bible. So when I hear some folks on this blog drift away into LOTR, I guess that is Lord of the Rings, I get a creepy feeling. Everyone needs to have their own Holy Scripture, I guess.

    (2) To hear that the President is showing restraint is just plain shocking to me. Mr. Bush will break any law and tell any lie to indulge his own fantasies. He and his fellow tyranno-Christians who pray and kneel to their God daily in the White House are restrained only by the contours of their rigid beliefs. Rumsfeld wanted to build a new army when the old army was needed. Rove wants reelection. Cheney wants riches and to please his oil-begrimed friends. Bush wants a place in history beside all the other “war presidents.” And because they are incompetent they switch from one goal to another from crisis to crisis. It is possible that one of them will decide that this nonsense has gone far enough and move to clear the decks. Who knows what they will do then, but it won’t be a return to sanity.

    (3) Herr Burke’s lament about the part of our population which embraces authoritarianism is on target, but it would not be so important if our government actually represented the views of the populace. I think that the great unwashed would decide to do things differently if they were given the chance. So we change our way of expressing public wishes from infrequent elections that are highly manipulated to a frequent direct vote on what, when, where, and how by the populace. We need to move from an ideological discussion to an issues discussion and let everybody have their say. We need democracy. Then if Varietas libertas outnumbers Varietas tyrannis all will be well at home and then we can concentrate on the enemy. If we give the Fundamentalists down here a secret ballot on specific issues they will begin to drift away from the Holy Bible and LOTR.

    (4) Back to the lessons of history. Last night on the local Dallas news there was a story about many college students failing a basic civics test. Instead of teaching History, we should be teaching the American Way, and, yes, it means fighting to decide what that Way is, but we just can’t keep on wasting the time of our youth on letting them decide for themselves what that Way is.

  12. Endie says:

    “Last night on the local Dallas news there was a story about many college students failing a basic civics test. Instead of teaching History, we should be teaching the American Way…”

    So, you’re saying that American college students currently know too much about world history?

  13. hestal says:


    I am repeating what the Professors who administered the test said, and that is these students did not know very much about civics. They did not understand how our government works. To take the time to teach History rather than Civics, the American Way, is a mistake. Perhaps we can’t teach our children about the American Way because it is undefined. And lack of definition is the hallmark of Historians. They feel their duty is to unearth new sources, or new interpretations of old sources, and publish them in booktiques so that the ignorant masses can buy them to learn about History and decide what the American Way is.

    I guess I am one of those people who believes in applying what we know. Historians don’t admit to knowing anything for sure, and they never apply it. What a huge, huge, ugly, shameful waste.

  14. withywindle says:

    An opening quotation of some use: Robert Weimann, *Authority and Representation in Early Modern Discourse* (Baltimore and London, 1996), 148.

    “In fact the denigration of authority is not the only prejudice of the enlightenment. For, within the enlightenment, the very concept of authority becomes deformed. On the basis of its concept of reason and freedom, the concept of authority could be seen as diametrically opposed to reason and freedom: to be, in fact, blind obedience. This is the meaning that we know, from the usage of their critics, within modern dictatorships.

    But this is not the essence of authority. It is true that it is primarily persons that have authority; but the authority of persons is based ultimately, not on the subjection and abdication of reason, but on recognition and knowledge—knowledge, namely, that the other is superior to oneself in judgment and insight and that for this reason his judgment takes precedence, i.e. that it has priority over one’s own. This is connected with the fact that authority cannot actually be bestowed, but is acquired and must be acquired, if someone is to lay claim to it. It rests on recognition and hence on an act of reason itself which, aware of its own limitations, accepts that others have better understanding. Authority in this sense, properly understood, has nothing to do with blind obedience to a command. Indeed, authority has nothing to do with obedience, but rather with knowledge”


    You did not answer directly the question about civil liberties in Britain since World War One. This matters, since it provides a very important precedent that a liberal democratic state and gather up an extraordinary amount of power over individual liberty during wartime-and then give up those powers at war’s end, instantly. Although I gather that the pub-closing laws did stay on the books until a year or so ago, so I grant some mission creep does occur.

    British rights only marginally applied to the Irish during the IRA terror of the 1970s and 1980s; hence a certain number of cause celebres. And yet the policing of the Irish at large as a suspicious group had something to do with the prevention of Irish terror-and the spotty enforcement of the rights of Irishmen in Britain did not metastasize into dictatorship, and has gone away with the general disappearance of IRA terror.

    As to ID papers: it is my understanding that virtually all liberal democracies, save the English-speaking ones, required its citizens to show ID, passports, etc., to the authorities upon demand; it may be unEnglish, but it is hardly outside the democratic tradition.

    You present an argument of necessity: you are arguing that various measures (especially ID) are not just wrong in principle, but that they don’t work. This does, in crucial respects, undercut the argument from principle: what if they do work? More precisely, what if each of these several measures is not a magic bullet, but each make it more difficult for a terrorist act to be committed, severally deter opportunistic acts of terrorism, catch significant numbers of terrorists beforehand, reduce the number of terrorists entering the country? – what if some or all of the actions you find so objectionable were, in point of fact, necessary to catch these would-be airplane bombers this summer? What if they have already saved British (and other) lives? Why, then you could argue as a matter of principle for the same policy position—but it would be a rather messy, ambiguous, and Burkean situation.


    As I said, I am aware of the temptations of Denethor, for which I take Boromir as a variant. I rather do think it is a war of civilizations coming up, and not one of my choosing. I am committing myself to the defense of the West against a civilizational jihad. I do think, empirically, the forces of religion will slowly but surely align all those messy little details you are so fond of into a terrible simplicity-but, as I said before, I support the President’s noble, perhaps foolish, attempt to avoid such simplicities for as long as possible, and not deliberately to provoke them. As for ethics-since my empirics differ quite strongly from yours, it is your position, which I take to tempt the destruction and the enslavement of the West-and actually to increase the odds of a nuclear war in the Middle East-which I find ethically dubious.

    “In part they’re willing to do it because they understand the enemy in racial and “civilizational” terms, and never expect that these measures will be employed against themselves.”

    Why? American history was built on the successful practice of white, liberal democracy and the enslavement, disenfranchisement, and genocide of non-whites. Most regimes, including democracies, have always had their torturable classes. (In England, always the Irish.) It’s actually been a pretty good bet that you can apply racial/ethnic/religious distinctions, and keep your democracy going. Against that history, mere ethnic profiling by the police (which isn’t even our official policy yet, more’s the pity) seems trivial, and an exercise in sustainability.

    I am actually just as glad Sen. McCain exists, and his faction of Republicans, to engage in a mature debate with the administration, about the proper extent of wartime powers. I tend to disagree with him on the issues, but he plays a valuable role in preserving checks and balances and liberty. (And does, I think, rather put a spoke into the idea that popular authoritarianism is rampaging across the land.) In a pinch, though, I cannot trust any political faction that will not recognize the extent of the danger we face, and I will take the risk of losing liberty by action way over the certainty of losing liberty and life by inaction.

    And part of the point of liberal democracy, and checks and balances, is that once the people have decided something, endorsed by all branches of the government, they are extraordinarily powerful. Liberal democracy, among other things, marshals the power of millions of citizens for wartime effort. Peacetime liberty is the prerequisite, and counterpart, of wartime power.

    “Most of the examples of republics you cite got “murdered” by neighboring states, in classic territorial wars. That is not what this moment is, whatever it is. (Some of them were fairly dubious examples of “republics”, moreover: the Transvaal and OFS, for example.)” – but that is precisely what this moment is. The territorial impulse of Islam, short and long term, is precisely what is at issue. Transvaal and OFS weren’t democracies—but how were they not republics?

    “But the things happening with torture and habeas and so on are quite separate issues from all of that, in many ways. They not only aren’t necessary, they’re foolhardy in the extreme.” – Again the argument from necessity—but what if waterboarding Khalil Mohammed was a necessity (as has been stated in a recent interview) that saved the life of many? Then your argument is only one of principle, and a rather different level of ethics.

    “But more importantly, this view simply turns its back on progress. I really would like to think that we get wiser as time goes on, that we learn more of what to do and not do.” – and progress is only providence under another name, and I do not trust that sort of secularized providentialism. Contingency, prudence, study the lessons of Old Nick Machiavel.

    Actually, I do agree with you in principle that it would be a terrible thing for the US, with its essential contributions to liberty and constitutional government, to cease to exist. (We do actually share many of the same fundamental principles and goals.) My disagreements are purely contingent, empirical, and political—I do not see the threat to our liberties from administration policy that you do, and I see a far more profound threat from our enemies. I do also see the strict parallel in logical argumentation—I want to fight against our enemies before its too late, you want to save our liberties before its too late, and in both fights, not all our fellow citizens see the compelling nature of the danger. Now, while it is doubtless of small comfort to you, I am perfectly prepared to abandon my current political coalition and join yours, when I think circumstances dictate that the time has come to prune these wartime powers government is acquiring over the individual.

    “Reasoned discourse”—go back to your Montaigne, man! Put not your faith in reason.

    “Which is part of why I don’t want to resort easily to the cry of the expert or elitist at this moment (as I think many radicals have): namely, that the people are stupid.”—Good! That, I think, is the Sarumanian temptation.


    The American Way is embedded in History; civics and history need each other.

  15. hestal says:


    As a general sweeping statement, I agree that civics and history need each other. But this does not apply to the classroom. There are a limited number of hours that are being expended by students at a time of crucial brain growth and the time must be used wisely. There is no value in spending it on anything that does not enable the student to live a successful life for himself and his family and to also take part in building a better world and creating a new America with a new history and a new course of civics, and the process renews.

    So withywindle I look, probably unfairly, at your aside to me as typical of historians, that is to issue ponderous statements that sound good and wise but are of no practical value. For example, “Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” But historians don’t tell us the lessons of history and they often reject the concept altogether. For example, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Forgetting of course, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, and so on — forever and forever. So what good are historians and History? Not much.

  16. bhamati says:

    “The war of civilizations” isn’t merely a war between two civilizations, as withywindle would have it. It is also a war within each one. And the impulses, both positive and negative, seem to be tussling within each sector. The war for hearts and minds isn’t that of our Denethor/Boromir versus their Sauron – we each have our own internal conflicts; we each have hearts and minds to win.

    The streak of “kill everyone on the other side” (now, as I hear, the invasion of Iran is a popular refrain) exists on both fronts. So, believe it or not, does a deep-seated desire for civil liberties, universal fairness, and moderate reform. (The Iranian reform movement was not a myth, as anyone who actually knows Iranians understands.) It’s likely true that either civilization could destroy the other. But that doesn’t erase my concern that either civilization – and, because I love it, I’m particularly concerned about ours – could implode.

    I raise that because I think it’s not universally agreed upon. As withywindle points out, we in America have built ourselves up from a past built on rather complicated (and in part unacceptable) practices. I think, however, that democracy was built from, or upon, this past – it was evolving, but wasn’t achieved until some of the worst of those past practices were rejected by fairly universal accord. Yet any reversal of course would be not a retrenchment but a regression. We’d lose the war – within ourselves.

    I’ve been reading Richard Posner, and can’t understate how sharply my own sense of dread has been awakened by what I’ve found so far. Posner has always been labeled a pragmatist; and insofar as he’s willing to make his “first principles” economic ones, I suppose he is. But if cost/benefit analyses lead us to conclude that sometimes torture is best; that sometimes suspending civil liberties is acceptable; that any desire to stick to our principles is tantamount to a weak clinging to “pieties” (ok, that’s withywindle, but it accords well with Posner!) – well, as a liberal who’s often been accused of being a wishy-washy “relativist”, I have to say, I’m astounded. What is the foundation of our civilization if all these principles and practices are pieties, and their sacrifice acceptable when it’s expedient (or even worse, seemingly so)?

    Anyway, my point is, Posner seems quite convinced that the pragmatic approach will demonstrate that torture and so on *will* work. In this view, I assume “work” means (a) we will find terrorists and unearth their dastardly plots; (b) future terrorists will be cowed by the fact that we’re known to be tough on suspected ones in our custody (“there will be no mercy”); (c) hearts and minds abroad will be convinced by our authority and power; and (d) our own citizens’ hearts and minds will be comforted by our strength, and will rest easy in the knowledge that we are protecting our own. Isn’t that more or less what pragmatism has to offer?

    I’ll offer another take: (a) We may find potential terrorists, even though it appears that thus far we have not. (b) Future terrorists will be galvanized (and generated) by a sense that we lump a huge range of people into a category of suspects (see the “unclassified report” on the “cause celebre” aspect). (c) Tentative movements for reform, moderation, and Western style advancements will be quelled (when it’s clear they’re not even followed in the West). (d) And, perhaps most importantly, the hearts and minds of our own citizens will be hardened (see the upsurge in hate speech against American Muslims, whether “assimilated” or not), and popular opinion will turn ever more hawkish, more undemocratic, and more irrational.

    Which leads me to presumptions of “stupidity” of people. I have to admit, that is usually my first response to what I see and read. Upon reflection, though (and mostly based on personal interactions – which may be anecdotal, but at least keep me from being foolishly reductive), I come to think that people are more confused, more ambivalent, more suspicious of authority (whether it’s “good” expertise or “bad” punditry), and more persuadable, in a way, than I’d like to allow. This is equally true of the many Muslims I know (not just American ones, but those I know from my years of living in Europe) as of us. I guess that brings me back to the “hearts and minds” thought, however stale that might seem, that I first raised. We are, most of us anyway, hanging in the balance…

  17. back40 says:

    “his basic framing of experts as a social class who are isolated from the general population is accurate”

    My most recent efforts have involved the study of group problem solving in which teams of heuristically diverse experts perform better than the individual members in 99% of cases. There is still the rare instance of a lone expert hitting a home run, but they usually whiff.

    I don’t think that better experts can be made some how. The ones we have are as good as they can be. It’s just that there is a limit. They only get so good, and that isn’t good enough to be of much use. Maybe we can hack them some day and give them a brain boost or something, but until then I suggest collective cognition by diverse teams – expert or not.

  18. Stub says:

    Prof. Burke, as a former student of yours I completely geeked out at the suggestion of addressing my comment in a further post. With that said, I’m interested that my comment evoked for you the broad concept of expertise. Although it wasn’t immediately on my mind as I wrote the comment, expertise, as a premiere technology of both fin-de-siecle modernity and our current situation, provides an interesting comparison in this context.

    First, though, I am uncertain that the “educated elite” as a whole are alienated (or being alienated) in the US society today, as you seem to suggest. Certainly the categories of liberal and progressive intellectual are thoroughly alienated, but there are plenty of educated elites who are generally satisfied with their current influence on and relation to the state (Yoo, Perle, Kristol, Wolfowitz, Reynolds, etc etc, the list is considerable). The arguments they put forth to support current policies like torture and aggressive war follow the rules of rational discourse rather well, even if they are ultimately (in my opinion) quite pernicious. At the same time, I think these arguments also succeed because they draw on deeply felt emotions like fear and distrust of the other, which I would imagine are not rational ideals. And with this observation I’m not trying to say that these thinkers are “failed rationalists”; rather, I’m hoping to question the premise that the educated elite is somehow less emotional or free of the irrational in comparison to the “mass public.” I also don’t mean to imply that this is a dynamic particular to conservative intellectual elites, as a cursory glance at the responses of educated readership on left blogs like talking points or unfogged should demonstrate. I would argue that the rational/irrational elite/mass binaries have always been misleading. Didn’t these distinctions emerge with the ascendancy of liberal intellectuals as a method for claiming specialized expertise and as justification of technocratic power? At the very least, if the distinction isn’t completely false, the categories work dialectically such that they can’t easily be separated.

    This doubt of the mass/elite split was a subtext in my original comment. With this said, even if the foundational principles of the educated elite are ultimately false, I completely agree with Gary Jones if he argues that experts constitute a separate social class in modern society. The claim to specialized knowledge seems like a fundamental organizing principle of modern society. Experts/elites themselves certainly work to maintain their distinction from mass society, and I would even say that most contemporary mass culture also reifies the separation of the expert and mass, the rational and irrational (to reference pop culture, see the enigmatic Grissom on CSI, or House MD, etc).

    At the same time, it seems to me important to separate expertise from reductive analogies to the educated liberal elite. I would love to hear your thoughts on the dynamics of expertise, but it seems to me that expertise is perfectly capable of supporting nonliberal and even utterly irrational ideals (look no further than the role of engineers in fascist regimes). Also, in the command of liberals, expertise can also support a dis-integreation from political society as well as a claim to power within it; to return to the Schorske case study, Freud is certainly making a claim to expertise, but his expertise has a counter political ingredient– for him politics is reduced to epiphenomenon of psychic forces.

    Sorry if this response is a little inchoate, I’m still trying to work some of this stuff out.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you’re on to something more here too. My sense is that some of what happened in the run-up to war, and continues to happen in the public sphere, is an intramural struggle between elites. One reason I’d caution some conservative intellectuals and elites who are playing the populist card is that I’m not sure that they understand how much it’s likely to bite them in the ass if they’re not careful. (I tend to understand at least some identity politics on the left in the same way: an intramural struggle within an elite, not between an elite and a populist constituency outside of it.)

  20. mbw says:

    While I agree with the overall thrust of your post, I am bothered by your characterization of Bush supporters who lightly sacrifice traditions of civil liberties central to liberal polites and US tradition as “want[ing] to believe what, in the end, all murderous utopians and millennialists believe: that the future they rapturously imagined has not come to pass because we have not yet spilled sufficient blood, not yet been sufficiently extreme, not yet followed every instruction of prophecy, not mirrored every sign and portent that was read in the entrails of 9/11.”

    I would guess (I don’t have real evidence) that most Bush supporters of the sort you are talking about approach issues of terrorism and politics in general in a fashion that is cognitively much closer to yours and mine than your reference to utopia and millennialism implies. I.e., they accept that there are no perfect or permanent solutions to terrorism, that tradeoffs inevitable, that means should be reasonably tailored to achieve identifiable ends, etc. Addmittedly, within this cognitive framework, the people in question approach apply it much more crudely than you do (and than it should be applied) and also simply (and, I would agree wrongly) give too little weight to the legal apparatus of liberty (both for its own sake and as an instrumental tool for keeping your society from screwing up too badly) too much weight to the value of force and violence, etc. And, of course, there is the resistence to contrary evidence and wishful thinking; but one doesn’t have to be a millenial utopian to be afflicted with these tendencies.

    Obviously, you are not contending that a majority of even extreme Bushies are millenial utopians who don’t think rationally about policies at all, and I am not suggesting that the tendencies you point to play no role at all in the mind set of a substantial fraction of American voters. However, the rhetoric I quoted and some other similar rhetoric in your post suggests that you are characterizing (a substantial fraction) of the other side as more different from “us” in underlying world view than they really are.

    I had somewhat similar concerns about a post of yours I remember reading during the 2004 election campaign. (I’m going by memory so I am almost certainly distorting your post at least a bit and there is a small chance that my recollection is totally spurious.) As I remember it, you were responding to the limited effect on Republican voters of the already obvious (to some of us)incompetence of the administration’s planning and execution of the Iraq war. Referring to people you knew in your home town, you suggested that some people had a value system that places much less importance on competence than you and other members of the intelligensia/new economy/upper middle class did. You pointed out that, the alternative values these people favored, such as fortitude, acceptance of fate without bitterness, etc. were, in fact praiseworthy, even if they differed from the sort of competence needed to make good foreign policy. My personal reaction at the time (I didn’t submit a comment) was that while there was some accuracy to your characterization, it was highly overdrawn. I felt that most small-town, conservatively religious, echt red staters would agree that that valued fortitude etc. but would find it extremely condescending to be described as not valuing competence as much as you did. Moreover, I felt that these individuals could reasonably claim that they did value competence, with that word having much the same meaning you and I would give it. They simply placed more emphasis on having the correct general approach and gut feels as a component of competence than on educated technical expertise. Moreover, while this approach is, in your and my opinion, inadequate as an account of the competence needed to run the country, it is not off the wall. I was reminded of two examples: 1. Winston Churchill was arguably wrong on just about every technical issue he addressed in his life (e.g., gold standard in the 1920s, invading Normandy vs. fighting in Mediterranean in WWII) but his correct gut feel on a couple of key issues made him ultimately a more competent leader, even by purely technical standards, than his opponents. 2. In the mid-sixties a bunch of hippies (to simplify the description) arrived at a more competent Vietnam policy than McNamara, the Bundys, the Rostows, etc.

    Just to be clear, both emotionally and intellectually I approach political issues very much as you do. But I fear that you are drawing a sharper, or, rather, philosophically deeper, distinction between us and some of our ppponents than is justified.

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s more that I think people are giving in to a logic of political outcomes that resembles what utopians and millennialists often operate from: that the reason an extreme political strategy has not yet had its promised payoff is that it is not yet extreme enough.

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