American Adolescence and the Illusion of Control

“‘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.

JFK, 50 Years Later

Fifty years. I haven’t been alive for half that time, yet I can’t escape the shadow of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A macabre spectacle that still rivets, judging by the number of books and TV specials that have come pouring out in the run-up to today’s anniversary. His celebrity and his promise still captivate millions, to say nothing of the mysteries surrounding his death and the conspiracy theories that cannot themselves die, no matter how many government commissions try to shoot them down. There is just enough question, just enough suspicion, that even hardened skeptics can be forgiven a moment of doubt. (A teacher at my high school enjoyed telling us of how he’d once taught a year-long course on the Kennedy assassination. I have no doubt he had enough material to fill that year.)

It is never hard to eulogize a charismatic man. His family’s legacy has made him a hero of the American left, one who asked us to commit ourselves to the betterment of our country. He was a war hero, promised us a man on the moon, a more democratic world, and managed to cut taxes and reach out to marginalized groups at the same time. A few on the right have even tried to appropriate him due to his stance on communism. (Indeed, a Marxist Mexican professor of mine once dismissed Kennedy as “very, very conservative” because of the Bay of Pigs…) JFK still resonates because he was everything we like to imagine this country is: youthful, vigorous, full of hope and optimism while firm in the face of crises. Not that he was without his failings, but they were of the forgivable sort, born of well-intentioned ambition and a love of life.

Kennedy’s legacy is linked to the dream—and, in all likelihood, a delusion—that a longer life might have altered the course of the next two decades. Maybe he could have kept the U.S. out of Vietnam, perhaps been able to guide the nation through the Civil Rights Movement and the other changes of the 1960s without the violence and unrest that burdens their legacies. It is all too easy to use his death as the turning point that separates the booming post-war era from the tumult of the late 60s and the 70s. As 9/11 is for me, so 11/22 is for my parents: the day when all our illusions of a well-ordered world dropped dead. A fall from grace exacerbated by his youth, his glamour, and his family’s march toward royal status. Once again, as this superb New Yorker piece shows, we have a Greek tragedy on our hands.

In realms filled with love and wishful thinking, the cynics will emerge as well. Some paint JFK as the George W. Bush of his day, desperately trying to re-make the world in America’s image. They note his botched invasion of Cuba, the brinksmanship of the missile crisis, his elaborate aid programs in Latin America that were followed by a bunch of coups, and a refusal to look “soft” on Vietnam: American foreign policy at its worst, the hell-bound road of enlightened intentions. They point out his failing health and his sexual exploits as counterpoints to the slick image we tend to remember. (In Georgetown, one can go on a walking tour to visit all of the houses of his mistresses.) They label him a mediocre president, now exalted only because he was made a martyr by a mad commie with a gun. (Yes, yes, and maybe the Mob and the CIA and LBJ…)

From a distance, both stances appear wanting: Kennedy’s grade as commander-in-chief remains incomplete, cut short before anyone could have truly known. (Pick just about any prominent president and try to imagine what their legacy would have looked like if cut off after just two and a half years.) We’re bothered by that doubt, that uncertainty, that what-could-have-been. We like crisp endings to stories, the heroes and villains made clear. JFK did not leave us with a definitive answer, and we’re left fighting over the scraps.

The JFK remembrances come in the same week of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the few moments more important in American mythology. A speech by another president whose life was cut too short, though his legacy is a bit more secure. Most every president invokes American ideals; some live up to them, while with others, it’s empty talk. They emphasize a project, a plan for a nation that rises above all others because of what it allows its people to be. Whatever JFK would have become, he never got there, and it galls us to no end.

The sober part of my mind tells me that Kennedy’s allure is all wishful thinking; that our fascination with his unfulfilled promise and his troubling death lingers over something that should have been buried long ago. But burying the past comes with the danger of forgetting its lessons; lessons that we should be able to assess without too much pain, fifty years after the fact. And while the debates over the political lessons may never end, there is something else that should not be lost: the emotion. The rawness of the moment, the shock of death, the eternal struggle to make sense of what has transpired. That we cannot forget. As Roger Angell wrote in the aftermath of 9/11:

Now we’re all the same age together. None of us is young this week, and, with death and calamity just down the street, few of us vicarious any longer.

While that moment will fade in time, in turn overrun by the next great tragedy or shock, it lingers as one of those moments that made us react viscerally—and, hopefully, search our souls before thinking of the best way forward. This is what it means to belong to a nation, however much or little we may like what it stands for. We hope these moments are rare, but when they do come, it’s worth asking not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. A nation is its history, but that history lives on, and can be bent in any number of ways. Our choice, then, comes in how we respond to tragedies that take people from us before their time. Whether it’s the loss of a president or someone a bit closer to home, that time will come, and those choices can be the ones that define lives.

The Reading List

I have been lax in blogging, so it’s time to get back into the game. What follows is a list of some of the works that have most profoundly affected me over the years. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things that I probably shouldn’t, but here you go: 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Some classics can be dry, certainly, but some immediately reveal why they have endured for centuries, and deserve to endure for many more. Few works are more universally applicable to most any situation, and often in ways that conflict with the popular image of the title character, thanks to Cervantes’ sharp wit. I had the added benefit of taking an entire college course on this one that was taught by a brilliant professor, which probably helped me see a few more things than I would have if I’d picked it up on my own.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. With graduation season upon us, I’ll be writing a longer post about this one in the coming weeks.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I read both of these in high school and haven’t really touched them since, so I’m not sure if they’d have the same impact today. The styles are radically different–one is a lyrical and very real story of racial tension and forgiveness in South Africa, while the other is a punchy work with absurd layers of allegory, but both did a lot to expand my consciousness about the world around me.

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. What is it about Latin American writers and solitude? At any rate, this book is best known for its exploration of the Mexican identity, but I though it was at its more profound in the later chapters, when it opens up in an even deeper meditation on human nature. On the intellectual side of the ledger, this was my most rewarding discovery during the semester I spent in Mexico City as an undergraduate.

The Bill James 1984 Baseball Abstract. Yes, seriously. As it is, Bill James is (with apologies to Roger Angell) the most insightful baseball writer out there, and there are plenty of bits of brilliance about the game. But this is more than a baseball book; it is a book about how to think about things on different planes, and for a young sports fan, it presented its ideas in a way that was clear and easy to apply to a real-world scenario. I revisit parts of it time and time again.

Honorable mentions: Freedom and “Farther Away” (a New Yorker essay) by Jonathan Franzen; Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; the New Yorker‘s collection of reflection essays on 9/11 (most notably, Roger Angell’s); “Leaving Washington” by Patrick Deneen; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (I’m curious to see the new movie version); The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt; and Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. I’ll also throw in the “Harry Potter” series; I know it’s not great literature, but I did grow up with the books and draw certain insights out of them, so they deserve to be acknowledged.

I grew up generally indifferent as to whether books were considered classics or not, but I’ve been finding those so-called canonical works more and more relevant of late. For example, I read The Odyssey when I was fairly young, and though I enjoyed it, only in the past few years have I come to appreciate how far it reaches. I read War and Peace when I was way too young to get most of it–it was more so I could be That Kid who read War and Peace in 6th grade–and have not gone back to it yet, but from what I gather in reading about it since, I’m guessing I would really like it. Some day. It’s a similar story with The Bible. I was not raised within the Christian tradition, and I think that let me have some critical distance from it; as a result, I have only ever found it richly layered and compelling, and I think most intelligent readers should be able to appreciate its merits, even if they don’t believe it. Classics often get dismissed these days as stuffy or unrelated to contemporary life, and while many have their limits (what doesn’t?) and certain works are not for the faint of heart, tackling them with the right mindset can be very rewarding. I’d advocate for a healthy balance between past wisdom and present insight, but there’s little point in forcing oneself to read something that one does not want to read, and one never knows where one might stumble across the most relevant works.

That should do for my list, at least until I wake up in the middle of the night and think, “how could I forget Book X?!” Feel free to share your own in the comments.