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.