Apr/May 2010 Salon

Old Vinegar in New Bottles

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Edward Hallett Carr was a British historian who wrote, among other subjects, about the early Soviet Union, the period between the two world wars and, not least, a superb study of history itself. I've recently reread his book about the inter-war period, 1919-1939, that attempts to explain the failure of Europe and the United States to fashion a new international order that would prevent the very things that did occur with the rise of fascism and Nazism. It's an interesting subject, but Carr has a way of making anything he writes about seem interesting and even something more.

Because he is more than just a chronicler of events with a little analysis thrown in, Carr traces the attitudes and polices that gave rise to the stupidities that followed the conclusion of the first European conflagration, a holocaust in its own right if one looks at the number of dead, almost all soldiers, millions, sometimes tens of thousands in one battle. Carr takes us all the way back to the Middle Ages to get at the roots of the thinking or lack thereof that produced that kind of carnage and the disaster that was to follow twenty years later, though then far worse for non-combatants than for those in the militaries.

As I said, all interesting stuff, but not a book I picked up for a second time to shed light on our present world and its own stupidities. But, much to my surprise, I found in Carr's analysis of a period now almost a full century past a template over which the blunders of the last ten or twenty years fit as nicely as an old glove.

Carr reminds us that in the early twentieth century international affairs were the purview strictly of professionals frequently acting in secret, and that was the way most people thought it should be. But the debacle of the first world war exposed the failure of that kind of diplomacy and enabled Woodrow Wilson's more idealistic, though no less disastrous, approach to foreign relations. It looked like a new and more democratic policy at the time, but from Carr's wider point of view it was actually the old medieval, utopian way of seeing things that had supposedly been routed by the Enlightenment. But that new way of thinking had then itself been contested by socialism and other social and political movements of the nineteenth century.

For Carr the pendulum swings between realists exemplified by the government bureaucrat—a conservative who insists the way things have been done is the way they should continue to be done—and the utopian who believes that if enough people want things to change for the better it will change, even to the point of bringing about a communist or other kind of millennium. For the utopians the facts are secondary to the purpose. Never mind that many of the new nations Wilsonian ideals created had no direct or even historical idea what democracy meant; democracy was the best way to live and democracy would transform them.

As I say, after a few chapters, this started to sound familiar. So, I took the template of Wilsonian idealism and over it placed the template of the neo-conservative agenda George W. Bush was identified with and came up with a surprisingly neat fit. The battle cry for the war in Iraq, once the "facts" of WMDs and Saddam Hussein's support for al Qaida were no longer tenable, became to bring the benefits of democracy to the Middle East—almost a word-for-word repetition of the Wilsonian goals to "make the world safe for democracy" and his post-war policy of offering, if not imposing, democracy on the parts of Europe that were supposed to be clamoring for it.

George W. Bush was no Wilson, of course, but he was a handy vehicle for the neo-cons whose policies he came to espouse who maintained over and over that human beings are born with a yen to live in a democratic state, by which they mean pretty much our own republican, elective and, most importantly, free-market system. The facts of another nation's history and traditions are bothersome but not insurmountable. All mankind thirsts for freedom. Our job, indeed our God-given mission, is to give them the opportunity to slake that thirst at the pure well of American-style free enterprise and representative government.

The disasters that have ensued from pursuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to free their peoples from tyranny and bring them Western-style government has, happily, shaken the faith of many Americans in the wisdom of crusades of this kind—an appropriate word; weren't the original crusades attempts to bring Western values to the non-believers of the Middle East?

It gives one pause at first, using the word "utopian" with regard to the Bush administration, but as Carr sees it utopian—as opposed to fact-driven—is what that kind of policy amounts to, i.e. an ideal- or idea-driven agenda.

Next I decided to put the previous, Clinton administration under the same template and see how it matched up or failed to match up. I was scarcely over the frisson that had accompanied my realization that Bush-Cheney-Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld were utopians than it struck me that the progenitor of this strain of contemporary American politics, more or less constant for the twenty years preceding the George W. Bush administration, was Ronald Reagan. By contrast with Bush-Cheney, Reagan now looks like a pragmatist, but it was he who convinced the electorate that God was indeed backing our jockeys and implemented as best he could a policy of brutal adventurism abroad in the name of democracy and a return to free-market free-for-all domestically. The current depression in which we are mired has its roots in Reagan initiatives against government regulation and in behalf of unfettered corporate capitalism.

It was Reagan who spoke about America being a Golden City on a Hill and the Soviets as the Evil Empire. After a decade of disastrous pragmatism in the ‘70s, Americans gobbled up this kind of rhetoric, as if eager to return to the missionary zeal that had gotten us involved in a war in Vietnam from which we had exited with our tails between our legs.

George Bush senior brought us full circle, driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait, after which we were treated to a Caesar-like victory parade, chanting, We're number one! But the elder Bush was a pragmatist at heart. So was Ross Perrot, the man who cost GHWB his reelection, along with an economic downturn that seems piddling by the last years' events. As a result we got eight years of Clinton who, perhaps more than any other modern president, was pragmatic to the point of ineffectual.

I think all this is worth saying because we have a tendency to associate idealism/utopianism with well-meaning if misguided good guys and realistic pragmatism with those of evil intent. And usually the idealistic eggheads are arguing for liberal—or, as they are known now, "progressive" ideals—while the realists are hell-bent on nothing more than making lots of money.

Plato, the original utopian if you leave out the Book of Genesis, was unashamedly cynical in the methods he advocated for running his ideal state—essentially a more efficient version of fascist Sparta. Plato was all for lying to the hoi polloi about religion, for instance, because, as he cynically put it, religion is a useful tool for keeping them in line.

The neo-cons, supposedly products of a Platonist who taught them at the University of Chicago, seem far more airheaded than the ancient original. Their utopian notions of a new world order are as divorced from present and historical realities as anything the communists or fascists came up with or, for that matter, the End Days of the religious fundamentalists. Even Reagan kept loonies like these at arm's length. It was 9/11 that gave them their opportunity to insinuate themselves into international policy-making, championed by Vice-President Cheney, who seems to have been a late convert to their cause, unless he was just using them to further his own agenda.

In any case, it's not a bad idea to rethink these matters from time to time, see them fresh through the perspective of someone like Carr. The truth is frequently counterintuitive. Those who do the most harm can be the very people who seem to espouse the noblest causes. Just because the consequences of a policy are death and destruction on a massive scale doesn't mean the theory behind it isn't utopian. There is no moral privilege attached to either realists or utopians. The only test that matters is who benefits and who suffers. We should beware the temptations of both pragmatists who disdain anything but chauvinistic gain and utopians who promise us a better future when that promise involves the means justifying the ends.

So far Obama seems to be a return to Clintonian pragmatism, with the same inclination to please everybody, starting with his biggest contributors on Wall Street. I've begun to suspect the only way we ever get real change in the White House is if the occupant arrives there by accident, the way Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman did. But even that possibility is diminished by the more rigorous vetting process modern vice-presidential candidates undergo. To give him credit, Obama did say he would do whatever we force him to do. But the only people who have put any real pressure on him are the ones who occupy corporate suites. God help us when we get the next "utopian" in the Oval Office. He or she may finally bring on the Goetterdammerung Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz seemed to be itching for.


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