Tag Archives: democracy

History Is Still Over (For Now)

28 Apr

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care taking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

So ends The End of History, a 1989 essay by Francis Fukuyama that later evolved into the seminal work on what the end of the Cold War meant for the world. Due to his grandiose phrasing, Fukuyama has spent most of the past three decades being misunderstood by most people who try to comment on his theory.

This isn’t to say his article was right about everything—no one ever is—but it got a lot right in its explanation of how alternatives to liberal (meaning capitalist, relatively free) democracy have basically been exhausted. The original article accounts for basically every counterpoint people have tried to raise since. Countries that don’t fit that liberal democratic title are still very much in history, fighting and struggling in ugly ways. Fukuyama accurately diagnoses the explosive potential but limited appeal of radical Islam, and also China’s rise as a powerful authoritarian state ultimately more interested in commercial power than some violent takeover. While he shows some hope for a different path, he also recognizes that a fascist-nationalist cause in the then-Soviet Union “has not played itself out entirely there.” (And, despite Putin’s recent maneuvering, present-day Russia is still a long way from taking serious steps down that road.) Fukuyama’s later works worry about the dangers of genetic engineering, suggesting a world in which Silicon Valley manipulates humanity enough that it upsets the balance. That still may be a valid concern.

No doubt others who don’t really know what Fukuyama was saying will say the rise of Donald Trump and various European anti-establishment movements will upset the liberal order, but the paragraph at the top of this post shows that Fukuyama was all over this, too. “Make America Great Again” just screams “powerful nostalgia,” and that sentiment is even more palpable in better-defined movements like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France. His diagnosis of our ills rings true: bourgeois societies replaced philosophers with data-crunching policy wonks, back-to-nature pushes with spurts of carefully managed ecotourism, and the consumer standards created by old gatekeepers for shopping and even news-gathering with curation by an algorithm. Too much contemporary art is vapid self-expression or thinly disguised political sloganeering, instead of an aspiration to perfection or wonder; too much of “philosophy” is just a negation of previously constructed philosophy without aspiring to a genuine alternative. No wonder that, as someone drawn to philosophy as an ordering project for human life, I’ve found the somewhat fringy right—and occasionally the left, when it stops trying to fight last century’s wars—a far more fertile ground for serious philosophical debate than anything mainstream for some time now.

So are we all going to lapse back into history? Possible, I suppose, but I’m not convinced. We may or may not like the form it takes, but some fusion of democracy (however thinly ritualistic it may be) and capitalism still seems like the only realistic way of ordering an advanced society. Revolt may simmer, but for now, revolution is dead as an agent of dramatic social change. If the 20th century taught us anything, it was that the proletariat never really coalesces into a unified popular force; there are too many things dividing it. While Bernie Bros and Deplorables may have enough shared hatred of The System to collaborate on occasion, their worldviews are too diametrically opposed to ever form a lasting alliance. I expect most of the rebels who attain power (including Donald Trump) to be more or less co-opted by the mainstream, and if they don’t, the revolt by the bourgeois—the still large, still politically powerful middle and upper middle classes—will be swift.

Like Fukuyama, I’m rather ambivalent about all of this. I won’t pretend not to enjoy the creature comforts of life in a liberal democracy, and will readily admit that, more often than not, I’ve been a winner in its meritocratic system. It gives a lot of people an effective ladder to comfortable, happy lives, and that is the source of its ability to outlast other ideologies, and by and large a win for humanity. Its allure will endure for the foreseeable future. But it all goes back to the Answer to Everything: thinking that this way of life is all there is amounts to a dangerous misreading of human nature, and that push for more—for greatness, for glory, for God in whatever form that might take—will forever loom beneath, looking to stake out a distinctive identity or even a soul. Anyone who fails to take that seriously, as an awful lot of mainstream commentators have lately, will reap what they sew.

“The sterility of the bourgeois world will end in suicide or a new form of creative participation,” Octavio Paz writes in the closing lines of The Labyrinth of Solitude. Lately, I’ve been telling myself to try to make sure the tasks I do are acts of creation, such as they can be. We are all world-builders, not mere consumers, and every step we take to use the knowledge we accumulate toward productive ends will help ensure that something healthy emerges from those inescapable desires for greatness and achievement. Sterile conformity will eventually dissolve into something far uglier, and many critics of the system probably won’t realize what horror they’ve unleashed until it’s far too late. Without some healthy renewal, history may end in a much more definitive way.

American Dream, American Reality

15 Jul

What to do with the American Dream? On the Fourth of July I busted out the red, white, and blue attire, not out of irony, nor to follow a herd of over-the-top ‘Murica bravado that seems to think wearing certain clothing is a sign of patriotic superiority. No, it was an honest statement of belief: for everything this country gets wrong, it’s an exceptional place to be.

As I’ve written before, I’m both deeply committed to the Dream and an unapologetic critic of what it tries to do. My loyalty is conservative in nature: I’m unable to come up with any more plausible ordering principle for a society short of a fanciful revolution, and we all know how that worked out for those who tried it in the 20th century. It has withstood the demise of most competing ideologies, and it helps unite a giant, disparate nation. It taps into some fundamental aspect of the human psyche, and even when the revolts are abortive, its spirit can be found from Havel to Bolívar, from Tiananmen to Tahrir.

In a Mexican park back in 2010, I released myself from any obligation to a sense of political destiny. Ever since, I’ve oscillated between rallying cries for the Dream and building a bunker to guard myself against its impending doom. I wonder if and when its real weaknesses will come out into the open and doom the project, and what will happen in the aftermath. The question of our times is whether this abstract dream is enough to keep a nation united and strong. It’s supple enough to deal with changes over time, but runs a risk of vagueness and hypocrisy, should the Dream ever sour. It’s both human destiny and a sure disaster, a center broad enough that can unite the spectrum behind a governing vision or send it all into chaos as it narrows political reality into a stultifying elite class.

These questions became real during my final two years at Georgetown, a surefire incubator of the American elite. It’s not quite Harvard Law, and there are plenty of Hoyas who take roads less traveled, but let there be no doubt: most of its graduates end up on top of the heap, either in politics or business or in institutions that shape culture, from academia to the media. The trouble is that so few people who come out of these places recognize their status, or stop their relentless pursuit of dreams to meditate on what it means to be an elite. Sure, there are efforts to tell people to “check your privilege,” but these are often too wrapped up in a left-wing agenda to say much to most of the people involved. Many who are have worked (or been spoon-fed) their way up never really recognize how far they’ve come; others, born into the upper middle class comfort of those who rose up in a previous generation, don’t see it for what it is. It just seems natural, and with a dominant culture that emphasizes a comfortable suburban home as the peak of Americana, they don’t realize how out of step their experience is with the national mainstream.

This isn’t to say most of these people take their comfort for granted. Thanks to an uncertain economic climate, they’re understandably fixated on keeping what they’ve got. The upper middle class will defend its status with every weapon at its disposal. (Witness the looming war over enforcement of the Fair Housing Act in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision.) In fact, they’ll win these wars because they mostly don’t see themselves as an entitled upper class, born to rule; they just see themselves as normal people defending what they’ve earned. And who could blame them? When liberal ideals collide with realities family life, the ideals usually wind up dead.

The superstructure of American politics reflects an underlying post-World War II cultural unity, where a consistent majority conforms to a few cultural touchstones that define what it means to be an American Dreamer. The U.S.’s two-party system, built on this consensus, all but guarantees governance by a meritocratic party of the center. For all the foaming mouths, and some noble exceptions aside, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties have much more in common with each other than they do with the bases for whom they claim to go to war. On the whole the arc trends leftward, given the cultural power of the media to shift the debate, but the Republican Party’s donor class is all on board, and we have it to thank for the likes of Mitt Romney and John McCain. The unity is clearly political, but even more significantly, it’s cultural. Any vocal opposition comes from libertines and libertarians who may be a bit radical for the center as a whole, but speak the same language and tend to be the vanguard for what may come. As guardians of rights and freedoms, they speak to that Dreamy consensus behind it all.

These powerful Dreams emote freely, play off simple passions and make the most basic ones the foundation of a culture. In a way, this is impressively universal: who doesn’t want to be free? But if the only thing we stand for is some vague cry to freedom with few details beyond, it runs the risk of playing to the lowest common denominator, and of course the cheap buck. Confronted with big questions about why we’re here, we shrug our shoulders and mumble a few platitudes about freedom, the arc of history, and gut instincts for what is right and what is wrong.

The result is a mass culture that reflects the vague morality. I certainly don’t pine for some past age of unquestioned moral absolutes, but most people don’t realize how much agency they now need to carve out a coherent narrative for themselves. Many abdicate on this responsibility, and it’s more than a little amusing how basically everyone, no matter their politics, winds up complaining about the ills of popular culture while sucking it all up anyway. It’s a natural outgrowth of the political, social, and economic world we inhabit, and with such a monolithic underlying morality, it’s a chore to pick good and bad things out of it without blowing up the whole enterprise.

And so people throw up ad hoc, incoherent barriers for themselves and their children, from sex to tolerance of violence to where we do our shopping to the groups of people we commune with. For many this is not a reflective process; one just puts up personal barriers based on family tradition and a few life lessons. Others (here I include my own childhood) play around the fringes, consciously sheltered from mass culture to varying degrees. Those who have a solid counterculture (usually of a religious nature) to fall back on can stay there, but most people, lacking such anchors, will drift back into the center of the stream at varying paces, and with varying qualms. We’re all sellouts, but considering an alternative would be far too radical, far too disruptive of this comfort in which we’ve ensconced ourselves.

Same as it ever was? Perhaps; it’s only right that we have to negotiate many of these things for ourselves, learning as we go. It can be an edifying, educational process. But economic and social trends seem to suggest that the wealthy and well-educated are much better at this than those who are not, and this only leads to increasing divides and discomfort over the proposed paternalistic solutions. There’s also something particular about this modern age, with blurred lines between public and private life and the intrusion of technology into most every facet, that makes healthy separation from the dominant culture that much more difficult.

This reality eats at many talented and thoughtful people, forced to negotiate the schizophrenic relationship between mainstream culture and our ambitions. We want to do great things, but to do so, one has to play on the mainstream playing field—a realm that immediately imposes conformity and chokes off the most daring dreams. Abandon that center and you’re a fringe figure who can only speak for one little area, a provincial afterthought who will generate little more than a cult following. And for all your efforts to convince yourself that you’re not running away, that you’re cultivating something worth keeping here in your own little corner of the world, the center may still come knocking and swallow you up.

It’s an old critique of democracy, one that resonates from Aristotle to Tocqueville to Nietzsche, and it holds up because it works. Democracy requires room for minority rights and clean avenues from the bottom to the top, or else it will calcify into a tyrannical majority, perhaps even totalitarian in its reach. Bread and circuses may amuse the masses for a while, but there’s no escaping the hunger at the heart of human nature that will push people to hunt for something more. Unless we medicate it away with enough drugs, I suppose.

And so we are left with an achingly slow fin de siècle. The continued suburban sort broke down the illusion of a solid white middle class that was the core of the postwar consensus, and an increasingly diverse nation has growing numbers who, quite understandably, find fault in that old ideal. For now, at least, we lack the existential threats that inspired past spurts of national pride; sure, al-Qaeda and its ilk make for a decent foil, but they’re no Nazis or Soviets, and we can go about our business most days without worrying too much about them. American wars, when not fought by drone, are now fought by a professional class of (largely low-to-middle-income) kids who do our unfathomable dirty work and let us sleep at night without a second thought. Atomism triumphs, with everyone retreating to their own little like-minded communities and getting their news only from those who agree. Kiss goodbye any overarching ideals, any inspired movements beyond whatever is fashionable for the pro-liberty vanguard. We are all ants within the leviathan.

It’s a paradox: even as the mass culture swallows all, people find it harder and harder to bridge their gaps. The early field for the presidency in 2016 is a sign of this exhaustion. The frontrunners, two scions of political dynasties, are relics of an old era. Even if they succeed in the short run—if Hillary Clinton gives new meat to a liberal agenda that has lost its fight outside of the courts, or Jeb Bush re-unites the two wings of his party that strain against one another in the image of Ronald Reagan—they are the end of the road. We’re so out of ideas that the most “fresh” voices on either side include an old guard socialist and a real estate mogul who has cast aside the dog whistle for the bullhorn. It’s hard not to argue that they’re the politicians we deserve.

And yet we’ve been here before. “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change,” writes Octavio Paz. The American meritocracy, for all its imperfections, on the whole fosters steady, healthy cycles of turnover in the ruling class. So long as it continues to function at a reasonable level and people believe it works, there’s no reason to expect a sudden crash.

Maybe I’ll shrug and join the machine, follow this nation toward its destiny, whatever that is. Maybe I’ll deem it all doomed and look to carve out my own, distinct version of the Benedict Option where I can live in peace with those who matter as everything crumbles around me. Most likely I’ll settle for the nuanced view and muddle through, at times working with the Dream, at times pulling back. It’s all a cycle, after all, and no one knows what the endgame will look like. We may not know where we’re going, but we can have some idea how to go about that journey, and we know why we must. Those two little facts make all the difference.

American Adolescence and the Illusion of Control

27 Jun

“‘God save us always,’ I said, ‘from the innocent and the good.’”

—Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Iraq is a mess. The advance of radical Sunni militants has the country going to pieces, and the blind lack of reason in the tangle web of alliances now has the United States and Iran effectively on the same page. The comparisons to Vietnam have never easier for those who enjoy the policy wonk obsession with historical analogies. Not surprisingly, the American public is rather jaded with all of this; no one has much energy for a new war or nation-building mission, and would prefer to sit back and watch all of this play out.

A lot of people in our political classes and punditocracy don’t like this. (Here’s David Brooks’s lament from Friday’s New York Times as a clear example.) It’s not really a partisan thing, either; both the neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists see it as a problem. The U.S. is reneging on its role as a world leader, and as a beacon of democracy and capitalism; this weakness will empower its rivals around the globe, from Russia to Iran to the Sunni radicals now on the rise. We could have had this, they say; if we hadn’t screwed up here or there in the past ten years, things would be better now. We could have been in control, and if we’d just flash our muscles and prove our “credibility,” we’d be able to turn the tide.

If only geopolitics were that easy. No: reality is far more troubling, far beyond anyone’s control. No one is calling the shots because no one can call the shots. Sure, there’s some collusion here and there, and the good old boys networks naturally emerge among people with common interests and aspirations to power.  But through it all, there is this blind faith that the buck really does stop at the top; that, by virtue of holding certain offices, people really can decides outcomes near and far. The vast majority of the time, they can’t. Some people can fake it well for a while, and appearance can be half the battle, but things are often more tenuous than they seem. Reality is so much more fragmented, so tied up in the agendas and whims of various middlemen and self-interested actors who see the world in an entirely different way. It’s a complex web of incentives, pushing people here and there, amounting to a “thing” only on a level of abstraction.

The realm of ideas does matter, and it’s hard to be rosy when looking at things on that level. People scream “do something” left and right, whether it’s in Libya or Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite the noble efforts of many soldiers and dedicated public servants, we never seem to make things better, no matter how hard we try. If we never get it right, what on earth fuels the delusion that this time will somehow be different? We hear cries that the U.S. needs to arm the “right” people, as if there were black and white distinctions in this realm; as if all our interests somehow aligned. They don’t. Recall how “our people” in Iraq wound up being corrupt wannabe aristocrats; “our man” in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has gone down the same road. They operate by a different logic, a different set of incentives, and in turn make their way down a different path.

The trouble is that, no matter how viciously we may take apart the illusion of control, the alternatives also tend to operate in a realm of idealism no less divorced from reality. When a nation is as powerful as the United States, inaction is also an active policy. The U.S., one might recall, was minimally involved in direct intervention in the Middle East prior to 9/11. Instead, the U.S. propped up the status quo and let its global culture leech into every little village. This benign reach was, in a way, far more threatening than the complete arsenal of the American military. There was no easy target for anger, no obvious threat: just that steady loss of control, the destruction of a worldview with things as simple as pop music and suggestive clothing. The U.S. could pull every last soldier out of the Middle East, withdraw every dollar it pays into its despotic regimes, and it would still be implicated, somehow, in whatever happens next. Such is the power of Western culture and U.S. hegemony on the world stage.

This is, of course, the U.S.’s great conundrum: it is founded on the belief in ever-greater freedom, in an ongoing quest for the realization of the self. Old cultural artifices have no place here. Over two centuries after its founding, the U.S. has proved wildly successful in exporting that dream of liberty. It’s successful because it taps into a fundamental aspect of the human psyche, one that comes out most clearly in adolescence: the urge for a bold assertion of self, an individual independent of old constraints, capable of authoring one’s own fate. It’s a necessary spark, and the resultant blaze of passion fuels many of humanity’s greatest achievements. Can any of us imagine our lives without it?

Like any human urge, though, it has its dark side. It risks naïveté, consumed by the belief that this quest for freedom is the only thing. The old roots don’t die so easily, and often are an essential part of the rebellion itself. (When compared to Latin America, the U.S. owes much of its relative economic success and political stability to the Enlightenment-influenced, more bourgeois British colonists; our southern neighbors, born of the Counter-Reformation and hierarchical Spain, faced rather different troubles from independence onward.) It can’t be dropped into other places and made to take root with a few quick brushstrokes that empower the “right” people. It has to be organic, not only in the foundation of the movement but in its creation of new institutions. The two buzzwords that dominate all sensible international affairs theory nowadays are “incentives” and “institutions.” If they’re not in place, nothing can follow.

The death of great dreams is never easy, and the threat of declinist hysteria may be the most serious danger to U.S. politics in the coming years. Now more than ever, Octavio Paz’s words ring true. History did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but instead died somewhere in the sands of Iraq or among the peaks of Afghanistan, ever that graveyard of empires. At long last the worldwide ideologies have exhausted themselves, and while several linger in attenuated forms, they might yet be defeated by the forces of reality. Perhaps now we can arrive at more realistic nations in the Middle East, instead of things drawn on the back of a napkin by Europeans in 1916. The coming sort will no doubt be bloody, but precious few nations can claim a peaceful birth, and for all its flaws, the international community is better equipped to enforce some standards of decorum and decency now than it ever has been in the past. Frustrating as they can be, the idealists still have a key role to play on that front.

“Now we’re finally the same age,” wrote Roger Angell immediately after 9/11. “None of us is young this week, and, with death and calamity just down the street, few of us vicarious any longer.” He was playing the world-wise old man, one who’d seen wars and death in his then eighty years, teaching us kids a thing or two about how to handle one of those terrible reminders that we have no control. On an individual level that may have been true, but for the U.S. as a whole, it never quite worked. From Watergate to Vietnam to 9/11, people claimed that hubris would be the ruin of the innocent belief in the American world project, but it never really did. People forgot, moved on, and continued with that noble mission to mold the world in the American image.

Maybe, just maybe, Angell’s words finally ring true. Maybe that adolescent stage is now over. It was a glorious stage, one of national greatness and awesome wealth and considerable influence. Only those who serve a higher God would want to trade away that power of living in the moment. That illusion of control might have come as close to reality as it ever has. But the U.S. isn’t young anymore. We have a history now, and after touring the world and running down its streets, brashly proclaiming we’re the kings of it all, perhaps it’s time to head home for a bit. Perhaps it’s time to settle down and find a job; maybe not a glamorous one, but one that keeps us afloat and lets us do some good in the neighborhood, when and where it makes sense. We’ll never be free to be left alone; such is the life of a global citizen. But we can make sure our own house is in order before trying to save those of people we don’t really know, and we can use our soft power to make sure our little contribution—that youthful spark—remains a worthy aspiration. Maybe, then, a sane international order might emerge. Or maybe I’m just as much of a dreamer as the idealists I scorn. I’ll take my chances.

Dead Greek People IV: A Democratic Empire

25 Oct

The ancient Athenian democracy was a bundle of contradictions. It was a realm of endless political disputes, yet it endured for several hundred years with only minor interruptions. It was premised on citizen participation, but people who weren’t citizens were perhaps more excluded in Athens than the masses in any other city. It gave a lot of power to people of simple pleasures, yet it produced more brilliant (and fairly elitist) philosophers and artists than any other ancient city.

The man who best shows the confusion of ancient Athens was probably Pericles. The son of wealthy nobles, Pericles came along in the 400s B.C., and while Athens didn’t have an executive leader, he was repeatedly re-elected to one of the ten spots for generals at the command of the armed forces, and there was no doubt he was calling the shots. He was a great patron of the arts, a brilliant orator, and a skilled commander of his troops. He was the architect of a grand military strategy that put Athens at the head of a union of Greek city-states. Under his watch, Athens built those monuments on the Acropolis that still stand today. He was also a democrat par excellence, defeating many of the more conservative voices in Athens with his brilliant rhetoric. This led to some members of the Athenian intellectual class to charge him with being a populist, as they worried that vesting so much power in the whims of the people would open up a Pandora’s Box.

To be fair to his critics, they had a good point. With Pericles at the helm, Athens was in good shape; he could manage all the popular sentiment, and he had the talent to keep every camp more or less happy. The problem was that people like Pericles don’t come along every day, and after he died, Athens lurched through a pair of coups and a bunch of mediocre leaders. This was especially troublesome considering that Pericles got Athens tied up in a major war against Sparta, a conflict that would decide which city-state was in command of ancient Greece. To understand what’s going on there, we’re going to need some help from someone named Thucydides.

Thucydides was the world’s second great historian. The first one was Herodotus, another Athenian who did a lot of traveling around the known world and recording everything he heard and saw. Thucydides, on the other hand, painted himself as a much more detached observer. He prefaces his History of the Peloponnesian War with an announcement that he’s trying to be as objective as humanly possible. No spin, he claims; just the facts.

The war juxtaposed democratic Athens with the famously warlike Spartans. This isn’t to say the Spartans were barbaric; in fact, they had plenty of erstwhile admirers among the Athenian intellectuals, including the likes of Aristotle. The Spartans were efficient, hardworking, and didn’t let angry mobs mess around and slow up the entire political system. They’d been an Athenian ally in the wars against the Persians, and aside from some occasional detours, the two Greek powers had managed to coexist. But with Pericles’ Athens slowly expanding its influence across the region and developing a legitimate empire, many of the smaller city-states began begging Sparta to stand up to them. In time, the Spartans agreed.

Thucydides wasn’t afraid to lay the blame at the feet of Athens. In fact, after his failures as a military commander (about which he was very honest in the History), he was exiled from the city, which leads one to wonder how genuine his supposed neutrality could have been. But in the end he had enough loyalty to Athens that he never showed any bitterness, and he never openly questioned his city’s imperial project. Nothing underscores this more than his account of Pericles’ famed funeral oration delivered over the bodies of a bunch of dead Athenians. This is the Athenian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, a speech designed to say the dead have not died in vain, as they are fighting for a project far greater than any of them, in the preservation and advancement of a nation dedicated to the highest good. (In fact, the parallels are dead-obvious, and Edward Everett, the man who rambled for two hours before Lincoln showed him up with ten simple sentences, explicitly mentioned Pericles.) It was a reminder of the uniqueness of the Athenian project, even as the city mired itself in imperial wars.

One of the most famous moments in the History occurs some time after Pericles’ death from the plague. A couple of Athenian generals go to visit the neutral island of Melos, whose people are ethnically related to the Spartans. The rather grumpy Athenians tell the Melians that they had better submit to Athens, or else they will destroy them. The Melians complain that this is most unjust, and the Athenians sneer at their appeal to justice. The generals then utter the most famous line in international relations, and the founding line for political realism: “The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Between this line and his refusal to explicitly condemn any moral failings of the Athenians or Spartans, Thucydides is often cast as a hardcore realist, earning praise from the likes of Hobbes and Nietzsche. Still, I’m going to cut Thucydides some slack here, and say he’s been misinterpreted. To get this, you need a much more subtle reading of the History. Before the Melian incident, things are going swimmingly for the Athenians. They’re holding true to Pericles’ grand strategy, which involved a more-or-less defensive war of attrition that would slowly beat the Spartans into submission. After they lose their moral compass and start beating people up haphazardly, things go to pieces. Immediately after slaughtering all the Melians, the Athenians launch an incredibly stupid campaign in Sicily, a total disaster that completely turns the tide of the war. Like so many other empires, they’d overplayed their hand, fallen too deeply in love with power, and were ruined. In the long run, the Melians were right: morality mattered, and the Spartans came to the defense of their Melian brethren and made Athens pay for their overreach. The strong cannot simply do as they can, and at the very least need to take a longer, more careful consideration of the consequences.

Thucydides’ dispassionate devotion to fact made him a model historian. At the same time, however, no matter how much people try to be neutral, they never quite manage it. The details they choose to include, and the structure they adopt, can reveal an awful lot about their actual opinions. Thucydides’ History reads much like one of the great Greek tragedies, with the hubris of the Athenians leading to the demise of a once-great empire. His account shows both the promise of the Athenian democratic project, and just how tenuous it became after Pericles dropped dead. But even after the Spartans ended Athenian dominance over Greece, the city endured, and we’ll save that story for next time.

Part 5: Alexander the Great’s Conquests and Epicurus

Image of the pontificating Pericles from Wikimedia commons. Bust of Thucydides from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2008/02/more-thucydides-please/

Dead Greek People II: A Project Is Born

8 Oct

This is Socrates. Socrates was the first of the great Athenian philosophers of that city’s Golden Age, and thus gets blamed for pretty much everything that came afterwards. To be fair, Socrates asked for it.

Or so it seems, at least. We don’t know all that much about the real Socrates. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, none of his writings survived, if he even had any. Instead, we have to rely on a lot of other people—namely, Plato, whose dialogues usually involve Socrates making fools of several debate partners. Because of this, it can be hard to separate the real Socrates from Plato’s rather idealized version of him, and to know which ideas are original to Socrates, and which ones Plato might be sticking in his mouth.

Still, there are worse things that could happen to a person than having Plato become one’s interpreter. Plato quite clearly loved his mentor, and did everything in his power to immortalize his thought. Seeing as we’re still talking about him 2400 years later, it worked out pretty well.

Socrates was nicknamed “the gadfly” because, much like small annoying insects, he went around bothering and questioning everyone. While Plato and Aristotle founded academies and spent much of their time with people with somewhat similar interests, Socrates would chat up anyone. No one’s presuppositions were safe from Socrates, and that is what made him so radical: while he clearly enjoyed spirited debate with other philosophical folks, he wasn’t one to retreat to some ivory tower.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone likes people who go around questioning everything, and Socrates made himself some enemies. Eventually, he was put on trial for promoting false gods and corrupting the youth. (People do tend to get rather defensive over their faith and their children, even in a city like Athens, which was incredibly tolerant for the time.) His critics accused him of sophistry, or the preaching of confusing immoral nonsense designed to undermine the order of things.

Socrates was tried by a jury of several hundred Athenians, and he put on a show. He professed his own ignorance, and explained how he’d devoted his life to resolving the paradox of how he could be the wisest man on earth (as an oracle had once called him) if he also knew how ignorant he was. He played games with his accusers and was completely unrepentant for his alleged crimes, jokingly suggesting his “punishment” should involve free meals for the services he’s offered. Even after he’d been convicted, the general assumption was that he would just run off into exile, and the Athenian authorities were quite content to look the other way and let it happen. Much to everyone’s annoyance, however, Socrates had different ideas.

If we are to believe Plato, Socrates’ refusal to run stemmed directly from his relationship with Athens. He had no desire to make a mockery of its legal system, and he couldn’t imagine a contented life in another city. Only in Athens could he find as much freedom to pontificate as he did, and it was only because a substantial number of its citizens knew of his sincerity that he was allowed to go as far as he did in challenging everyone’s assumptions. (The vote to convict him was a narrow one, and he had plenty of people who were willing to fight for him.) People aren’t really sure if he was a supporter or a critic of the Athenian democracy. Some of his pupils and supporters hadn’t held it in very high esteem (including Plato, with his philosopher-kings), and one could easily see Socrates as a martyr for regime change, trying to show how perverse the Athenian system was. (How could majority rule be any good if it sentenced the wisest man on earth to death?) In my completely un-expert opinion, however, this only gets at part of the truth; Socrates is too complex to be a political revolutionary, and nothing more. He probably did intend to point out some of the flaws in democracy—he was an eternal critic, after all—but in spite of that, his loyalties never flinched. His refusal to leave stemmed from his love affair with his city of Athens, even though he knew it was far from perfect.

He didn’t have much desire to grow old and wither away, either. Socrates saw his body as something of a prison for his mind and his soul, and he believed that a life lived in accordance to virtue was far more important than a long life. The ultimate proof of this, he figured, was a willing embrace of death. And so Socrates drank the poisonous hemlock juice and died at the age of 70.

By most standards, Socrates’ choice was a crazy one, and akin to suicide. The Greeks found him just as nuts as we would today. But if he’d done the “rational” thing, we wouldn’t remember him all that much. Socrates’ scheme (or, perhaps more accurately, Plato’s scheme) was to suggest that humans should hold themselves to a higher standard. Socrates’ story is a celebration of the power of civilization. He needed a city like Athens in order to live the life he did, and only in a culture that respected his freedom to explore great ideas would he be immortalized. Humans are flawed, certainly, but they have some potential to move toward justice, and the difficulty of the project in no way invalidates it.

It’s easy to throw stones at Athens today. We can point out the abuses of slavery, the subjugation of women, and the failed military campaigns, and make a pretty good case that the ancient Athenians weren’t all that enlightened. We could gripe about how that one city has come to dominate the foundations of Western philosophy ever since; isn’t it just a lucky accident that the thought of one city wound up being perpetuated across the known world by the conquering armies of Alexander?

Perhaps. Other parts of the world developed their own robust philosophies, and some of them survive in some form. The Athenians of the fifth century before Christ had plenty of influences, both Greek and non-Greek. Still, it’s hard to fight the notion that something different was happening in Athens when Socrates began his project.

Aeschylus, an Athenian playwright who predated Socrates somewhat, might have the answer. In his Oresteia trilogy, Athens is just like any other place, and is ruled by the Furies, who are rather shrill goddesses whose idea of justice always involves vengeance and endless cycles of violence. Thankfully, Athena, the goddess for whom Athens is named, sweeps in and spares the hero, Orestes, from such a nasty fate. Reason comes into being, trials are henceforth conducted by juries instead of vindictive goddesses, and everyone goes home happy. Athens put on Aeschylus’ plays every year as part of a big civic festival. The Athenians were more than a community of producers trying to sustain themselves, or even an honor-bound band of brothers pledged to defending said community; they were willing to reach for something even greater.

The Athenians didn’t get it right all the time, as they showed with Socrates’ trial. But at least they tried. In 399 B.C., that alone made them revolutionary.

Next: Aristophanes and Diogenes

Image from New Religion and Culture Daily. The painting is called “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Luis David.

A New World Disorder

3 Sep

Let’s take a step back from the Syrian intervention debate for a moment here, play some pop poly sci, and explore what the ongoing crisis means for world politics. Put simply, it could well be the end of the post-Cold War Pax Americana, and a sign of a much more complex world. Of course, some people have been talking about this for a long time. The most famous is probably Fareed Zakaria, who wrote a bestselling book about it five years ago. As early as the mid-1990s, Samuel Huntington was imagining creative new ways in which people might fight each other, absent any Cold War ideological battle lines to separate each other.

The people making these arguments usually framed them against the narrative of the hegemony of liberal democracy and capitalism, made famous by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. It was a great title for grabbing people’s attention, though it also led a lot of people to misunderstand him. We’ll save that argument for some other time and say that, quite simply, things looked pretty good if you were a proponent of liberal democracy and capitalism at the end of the Cold War. The communists were done for, and authoritarians were falling across Europe, Latin America, and even in a few other places. The European Union was taking the next step, NAFTA was in the works, and the Gulf War had shown that no one could really mess with the United States military. In an increasingly interconnected world, there were no obvious alternatives. Sure, there were some angry Muslims out there who weren’t too fond of liberal modernity who might blow a few things up, and yes, democratization would have to come in bumps and lurches in many places. But it was hard to conceive of another ideology that might be applicable to the entire world. The biggest questions were over how to make all that integration happen—would it simply be economic, or political as well?—and how to deal with the people and countries that didn’t take off on the right path right away.

Fast forward to 2003 or so, and the narrative still pretty much applies. Yes, some angry Muslims blew some things up, but the U.S. pursued them into Afghanistan and knocked off their patrons and made its message pretty clear. The rest of the world pretty much had the U.S.’s back. The E.U. had itself some shiny new coins. Democracy was lurching ahead in Latin America and in Africa; only in the Middle East were things not really showing signs of moving in the “right” direction. So the U.S. went in and tried to do something about it.

Ten years later, we know that didn’t work so well. Iraq is no shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and if anything, the invasion simply added to the regional instability. Though it did little to truly undermine global capitalism, the financial crisis was very disruptive for the countries that had been bankrolling the march of liberal democracy. This was especially true in the troubled Eurozone, though the United States had its own set of issues, especially as the country in the lonely throne atop the world order. The failures of the Bush Era now evident, Barack Obama was elected to usher in a new foreign policy; two years after that, voters decided they didn’t much care about foreign policy when the economy was still not moving much, and in came the Tea Party—which, whatever else one might say about it, by in large has little interest in the nuances of geopolitics. The global vision seemed to be collapsing in on itself, as everyone was too busy dealing with their own crap to bother with saving other people.

A few months later, though, there was reason for hope again. Finally, the dominoes were beginning to fall in the Middle East: spontaneous, popular protests began to weaken the entrenched autocracies, the most notable being Egypt, a regional power. Killing Osama bin Laden was a nice cherry on top, too. Hey, maybe the dream wasn’t dead after all. When it became clear the popular revolt in Libya was going to need a bit of a nudge to knock off its ugly autocrat, the U.S. and its friends were happy to lend a hand. Once again, freedom was on the march.

Fast forward again, and the hopes of the liberal democrats have again gone unfulfilled. The Libya intervention effectively destabilized Mali. Egypt’s “revolution” now looks more like a series of coups coupled with huge protests, and no one has any idea what the endgame will be there. Perhaps even more significant now, though, is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has shown he is willing to fight to the death in his own civil war. The worldwide debate over how to respond shows just how troubled the world order is:

-Existing international institutions have no real mechanism to react. There is no way to punish chemical weapons users from some sort of international, objective position up on high. This position does not exist.

-No rising power yet has the power or the interest to lead its own effort, with one—Russia—actively opposing any action. If the world intervenes, it will be the U.S. (maybe with France tagging along) or no one.

-A war-weary portion of the American public—including Rand Paul’s wing of the long-united, pro-intervention Republican Party—has no interest in geopolitical questions, and thinks the U.S. should mind its own business.

-The neoconservatives—John McCain, Lindsey Graham—on the other hand, are obsessed with geopolitics, and want the U.S. to take the lead, knock out Assad, and set the Middle East on a course to peace. Failure to do so, they believe, will embolden the likes of Russia and Iran, and let an evil dictator stay in power. The word they repeat ad nauseam is “credibility.” If the U.S. says it will act and then does not, the American reputation will be tarnished forever, they say. (Of course, they never bother to mention what happens after the U.S. asserts its credibility by lobbing a few bombs at Damascus, unless they want an all-out invasion and occupation.)

-As of this writing, is hard to know what Barack Obama thinks. Has he called for a vote on Syria—something he did not bother to do with Libya—for strictly political reasons? It makes total sense from that perspective, as it exposes the rifts in the Republicans, makes them complicit in the march to war if and when things do go wrong, and gives him an easy out if Congress somehow actually rejects his proposal.

However, I suspect Obama is genuinely conflicted on this, which may be why he’s passing the buck and actually (gasp) following the Constitution instead of attacking at will. On the one hand, he does believe most of what he said back when he gave his Nobel Prize address; good liberal that he is, he wants to believe the world can punish evildoers and those who violate international law, and he knows the U.S. is the only country that can really do that. But this is also a man who ran as someone who’d learned the lessons of Iraq: that it will be difficult not to escalate from a “surgical” first shot, that this will inevitably be seen as taking a side in the conflict, and that a rebel victory could very easily bring hardline Islamists to power, creating a far bigger regional headache than Assad ever was. Given the difficulty of the question, some dithering is understandable; the problem is that the dithering makes him look at best indecisive, and at worst a total cynic.

And so it becomes clear that the new world order is anything but the hegemony of liberal democracy. It hasn’t been a clash of civilizations, a la Huntington: there have been hints of that, and there may be future threats of that, but Huntington’s worry about “Islam’s bloody borders” was misplaced. It was the bloody interior of the Islamic world that would make it all apparent. We’re left with Alawites and Sunnis and Shias and secularists all shooting each other (with Christians as the collateral damage), all tangled up in bizarre webs of alliances. (Here is a helpful chart that makes everything clear.)

This thing shows how laughable it is to imagine an overarching narrative here. Some people might lament lost chances: if only the U.S. had stayed out of Iraq, or gotten it right, or—to take a more hard-line stance—nipped off all of these disruptive Middle Eastern revolts before they upended a stable, if autocratic, region. I don’t buy it. Autocracies never last, and the allure of “freedom” is always there, especially in such an interconnected world. The revolts would have happened, sooner or later. Likewise, the U.S.’s window of dominance is going to end sooner or later: if not because of military defeat, simple demographics make this clear enough. (I’m not saying the U.S. will fall from its spot as the foremost international superpower anytime soon; given my doubts over the stability of autocracies, I think China has far more serious issues than the U.S. does that it will have to deal with sometime down the line. I’m simply saying that U.S. power for international military influence is shrinking, and will probably continue to shrink.)

And so we’re left with our new world order, which, it turns out, is not some sort of march toward destiny (be it of liberal or a communist or a religious variety), but a mess of regimes rising and falling all over the place and dragging people into webs of intrigue worse than my high school love life. It isn’t pretty, but no one can accuse it of being boring, and as horrible as conditions may be in Syria, this is also (by historical standards) a pretty peaceful time. That might last; it might not. Further integration and democratic advance remain a real possibility, probably worth supporting when they do not require extreme exertion. (See Myanmar, for example.)

But that also might not happen, and any student of international politics must understand that, for sanity’s sake. We’re left with a diverse world full of interesting messes, and while this shouldn’t cause us to give up all hope of changing it, we do have to respect its complexity. If that makes us traitors to this America messianic mission of converting the world, then so be it. We are not slaves to the fate of humanity: we are free to carve out our own little communities of contentment and choose only the battles that we cannot avoid or that we know will not consume us. We can only control so much.

Edit: Ross Douthat has come out with a good, measured piece that wrestles with some of these themes.

The Coup in Egypt: Ten Questions and Answers

8 Jul

Mohammed Morsi is out in Egypt, and the military is busy trying to put together a new government. I am no Egypt expert, but I have a decent theoretical background in foreign affairs, so I’ll grapple with the crisis on that level. If the conclusions are depressing, well, welcome to the world of foreign affairs. Here are ten questions and answers about the recent events along the banks of the Nile.

(Also, a special thanks to my old college classmate, A.L., who has done an excellent job of trying to weigh the various arguments from a critical distance while many of his fellow Egyptians seize upon certain talking points and run with them. He’s done as good a job as any news source of collecting information and doing what he can to explain things to the rest of us.)

1. Is this really a coup d’etat?

Some defenders of Morsi’s overthrow have been leery of this word, and it certainly has a sinister air to it. But it very much meets the standard definition of a coup; the real question is whether the different circumstances surrounding this one make it any more justified. This one had plenty of popular support—a circumstance that, while not unheard of, is not common of coups. The military also hasn’t shown any desire to (directly) hold power via a military junta. Not all coups are created equal; they simply involve the military removing the head or heads of state. They can be bloodless and immediately hold elections, or they can be brutal and lead to a junta, but they’re still coups.

2. By that definition, wasn’t the initial overthrow of Hosni Mubarak also a coup?

Yes. During the initial uprising, many protesters claimed “the army and the people are one.” They quite clearly knew the military had the power to play kingmaker in Egypt. The problem is, the army and the people are not one: the military is an institution with its own set of interests that may or may not align with the rest of the population. When Mubarak finally lost his legitimacy amid the Arab Spring, their interests did align, and the army was all too happy to oblige the protesters and show the autocrat the door. They were allies of convenience.

3. So is this a revolution or not?

By the technical definition of a revolution, no, not at all. A true revolution doesn’t just throw out the man at the top; it fundamentally alters the power structure of the regime. It tosses out the old ruling class and puts a new one in place. There has not been any of that in Egypt. Mubarak, after all, was a military man who kept order in Egypt for decades. He was forced out by the military when he became a liability to maintaining that order. He may have fallen of his own accord had the protests gone on, but the military (for very understandable reasons, even if one is skeptical of the role of the military), sought to make the transition as smooth as possible. It wasn’t easy, and the generals went on to oversee an election that ostensibly transferred power to a new leadership. But through it all, the generals held the trump card.  Morsi committed the fatal error of believing it was a revolution, and that the social order had been upended. It was not. Had he stayed in power long enough to further consolidate his position, he might have been able to strip the military of its political role, as occurred in a number of Latin American countries over the past few decades. But even so, that would have been more of an ordered transition than a revolution.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Revolutions are, frankly, overrated. The U.S.’s worked, though it required an incredibly bloody civil war some 90 years later to properly consolidate itself. A few in eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War produced happy democracies, though they came under some very unique geopolitical circumstances. Just about all the others have killed a lot of people and resulted in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Most democracies emerge through a careful, perhaps even frustratingly slow, managed transition.

4. Is the coup a threat to Egyptian democracy?

More than anything, it just reinforces the fact that, in spite of that one election, Egypt has a long way to go before it becomes democratic in any real sense of the word. Opponents of the coup are quick to claim it undermines the democratic transition. Surely, they argue, it would have been better to wait, allow Morsi to continue to discredit himself, and let him be voted out in the next election. The problem was that it was hard to tell if Morsi had much interest in an actual democracy. The Brotherhood did an excellent job of convincing people (the military included) that it was going to play by the same rules as everyone else. Many of their actions since—running a presidential candidate when they said they would not, ramming through a new constitution, purging the judiciary—suggest otherwise. The difficulty comes in trying to figure just how far they were planning to go in flouting these rules, and there is no clean line between “democratic” and “autocratic” actions (people accuse American presidents of the latter just about every day, and not always without reason). I will defer to people with more knowledge of the situation to answer the question, but one’s opinion on the coup will turn on one’s beliefs about the Muslim Brotherhood’s motives. Now that they are out of power, we may never know how far they planned to go.

5. How will the Brotherhood react?

This is the million dollar question. If they find a way to work with the new government put in place by the military, all may yet end well. History, however, is not encouraging. “Unity” governments that are formed against groups of certain ideologies almost inevitably invite violence, as the excluded group takes up its only remaining means of protest. Given the size and political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, they would prove a formidable opponent. The early returns, with dozens of protesters shot dead, are not encouraging for a civil discourse. This could get very ugly very quickly.

6. So is it best to just trust the military in power and let them crush any opposition as they see fit, a la Pinochet in Chile, then transition back to democracy in an orderly way in a decade or two, once things have settled down?

Well, if you’re willing to live with the inevitable bloodshed and human rights violations and call them regrettable necessities of progress, I suppose it’s an option. There is a key distinction, however: Pinochet was fighting an ideology (communism) that, in time, came to be discredited and ultimately rejected by most of the planet. Barring some truly apocalyptic event, it’s hard to imagine anything that could similarly discredit Islamism, which bases its appeal in an interpretation of the word of God, not the postulates of a nineteenth-century German philosopher. They are entirely different animals. That said, the Islamists do base a lot of their appeal on their organization and effective social programs. If the Egyptian state could actually provide those services, interest in the Brotherhood might wane. But, to my knowledge, rising wealth is not really correlated with decreasing faith, and the process could take decades. This would be quite the gamble, even if the moral issues are left out.

7. In that case, we can’t give the military a carte blanche. Shouldn’t we get it out of politics right now?

No doubt the military has long been an impediment to democratic development in Egypt, and it may continue to be. They exist to perpetuate themselves and keep the military aid from the U.S. flowing in, and little else. But, for all their issues, they do guarantee some measure of order, and it’s impossible to imagine a democracy emerging from utter chaos. And right now, the military probably is the only thing keeping Egypt from utter chaos. To their credit, the generals have made an effort to conduct their coups about as smoothly as possible, and their presence might be needed again if the mobs rise up against some future president, whether to protect that figure or again negotiate a transition. They can’t do this forever, though; sooner or later they will begin to lose legitimacy if their solutions aren’t working. It may already be happening.

8. Wow, this sounds like a mess. Maybe they just should have lived with Mubarak?

This argument commits the conservative fallacy of believing that things will always stay the same. All autocracies come to an end. Mubarak would have died someday, or perhaps committed some even more heinous crime that would have had people after his head. The regime may have appeared quite stable, but sooner or later, its day of reckoning would have come. Even the most brilliantly designed autocracies (Mexico in the 20th century, for example) cannot last forever. Liberal democracy is the only form of government that has proven consistently capable of allowing for peaceable democratic transitions. The problem is that building a robust liberal democracy is very, very hard.

9. What should the U.S. do?

Very, very little. Recognize whoever is in power, encourage them to bring other voices to the table and adhere to international law, and little else. The U.S. is already perceived as meddling in everything, and has been accused of supporting each and every side. In a conflict in which no one has the obvious moral high ground, no good can come of throwing American power around and choosing sides. Egypt’s future belongs to the Egyptians, not the U.S., and recent lessons should have taught the U.S. that there is only so much it can do to shape the course of events in other countries’ domestic politics.

10. What should Egyptians do?

First and foremost, they should remember that national politics is not destined to determine happiness. They should go on with their lives, to the extent that raging mobs allow them, and work together with their neighbors with the full awareness that the state may not be able to provide much of anything—services, food, security—in the immediate future. If they pull together, Egyptians need not descend into some Hobbesian all-against-all state of nature. Back when Mubarak came down, there were stories of neighborhoods banding together to police themselves and maintain some semblance of order. That is the best defense mechanism people have. When it comes to maintaining some semblance of order in life, mobs in the street are nowhere near as effective as boring, local political activity, though I concede that this may not  always be possible under the compulsion of tyranny or amidst a civil war.

That is, I fear, where Egypt is headed. I pray I’m wrong, and hope the military and its transitional government can find some way to bring the Islamists back to the table.