Posts tagged Randolph Bourne

Damn the facts–full speed ahead!

As far as I can tell, Jamie Kirchick, assistant editor for The New Republic,[*] has devoted most of his young professional life to becoming exactly the sort of bright boy at the The New Republic whom Randolph Bourne had in mind when he wrote The War and the Intellectuals, and who, decades later, would make the best and the brightest into a bitter national joke. In any case, here’s something from his latest, a TNR blog post on Barack Obama’s relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his recent speech on race:

Finally, what concerns me most about the Wright controversy isn’t the Pastor’s racist statements or even his unhinged views of Israel. I don’t think Obama agrees with any of that nonsense. What concerns me is the sort of comment that Wright made about Harry Truman’s ending World War II, that We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. This smacks of the Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Nation magazine wing of the American left that Democrats serious about this country’s security (and winning in November) should not want within 100 miles of the next administration.

— James Kirchick, The Plank (2008-03-21): Thoughts on a Speech

Let’s set aside, for the moment, Rev. Wright’s confusion about personal pronouns. I didn’t bomb Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and I don’t think that he did, either. But that’s apparently not what Kirchick has a problem with. What he has a problem with is what such statements about the U.S. government smack of.

But, Mr. Kirchick, no matter what it may smack of to mention it, isn’t it true that the United States Army bombed Hiroshima?

No matter what it may smack of to mention it, isn’t it true that the United States Army bombed Nagasaki?

No matter what it may smack of to mention it, isn’t it true that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed somewhere around 210,000 civilian men, women and children — about 70 times the number of civilians killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

As far as I can tell, nothing that has provoked Jamie Kirchick’s outrage here is actually, you know, false. Perhaps he thinks that these are facts which it is rude to mention in public. But if being taken for serious about this country’s security (which is TNR-speak for this government’s wars) requires not mentioning them–that is, if being taken for serious requires silence or dissembling about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people for the sake of a shared vision of American power, then it is well worth asking just who the hell these assholes are who we’re supposed to prove our seriousness to. And what their notion of seriousness really amounts to. And why anyone should think she has to prove a damned thing to them.

(Via David Gordon, via Lew Rockwell 2008-03-23.)

* You may remember Kirchick from an earlier piece he published in TNR during the late unpleasantness.

Further reading:

American Stasi

(Via feministe 2007-04-01.)

Michelle Malkin has decided to start a movement. A movement complete with a poorly-written manifesto (actually an open letter of sorts) and a poorly edited mash-up that grafts their sentiments onto a climactic scene from Spartacus (a classic work out of Red Hollywood about a slave revolt in the heart of an ancient republic swiftly degenerating into a decadent empire). Malkin’s movement will take the side of the powerless. They will stand together in solidarity against the lords of the earth and thus throw of the yoke of their oppression. Together, this uprising of sensible moderates and small-government conservatives will smash the mighty power of the Council on American-Islamic Relations by fearlessly rising up and daring to take action. And by taking action, I mean becoming Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter for the surveillance and enforcement arms of United States federal government.

No, seriously.

You do not know me. But I am on the lookout for you. You are my enemy. And I am yours.

I am John Doe.

I am traveling on your plane. I am riding on your train. I am at your bus stop. I am on your street. I am in your subway car. I am on your lift.

I am your neighbor. I am your customer. I am your classmate. I am your boss.

I am John Doe.

I will never forget the example of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who refused to sit back on 9/11 and let themselves be murdered in the name of Islam without a fight.

I will never forget the passengers and crew members who tackled al Qaeda shoe-bomber Richard Reid on American Airlines Flight 63 before he had a chance to blow up the plane over the Atlantic Ocean.

I will never forget the alertness of actor James Woods, who notified a stewardess that several Arab men sitting in his first-class cabin on an August 2001 flight were behaving strangely. The men turned out to be 9/11 hijackers on a test run.

I will act when homeland security officials ask me to report suspicious activity.

I will embrace my local police department’s admonition: If you see something, say something.

. . .

I will support law enforcement initiatives to spy on your operatives, cut off your funding, and disrupt your murderous conspiracies.

I will oppose all attempts to undermine our borders and immigration laws.

I will resist the imposition of sharia principles and sharia law in my taxi cab, my restaurant, my community pool, the halls of Congress, our national monuments, the radio and television airwaves, and all public spaces.

I will not be censored in the name of tolerance.

I will not be cowed by your Beltway lobbying groups in moderate clothing. I will not cringe when you shriek about profiling or Islamophobia.

I will put my family’s safety above sensitivity. I will put my country above multiculturalism.

I will not submit to your will. I will not be intimidated.

I am John Doe.

— Michelle Malkin (2007-03-28): The John Doe Manifesto

It can’t be denied that the grave and gathering threat of sharia law being imposed on American community pools and government monuments must be resisted. And it’s certain that Red State America will have to be brave to stand up and snitch about the disconcerting behavior of religious minorities and people who seem like foreigners–especially when all they have to protect them is the most powerful government on the face of the earth, or for that matter in the whole of human history. I guess it takes a real rebel to become a collaborator.

Happy belated Fool’s Day.

Unfortunately, this is real.

Meanwhile, here’s the latest from 1919:

The classes which are able to play an active and not merely a passive role in the organization for war get a tremendous liberation of activity and energy. Individuals are jolted out of their old routine, many of them are given new positions of responsibility, new techniques must be learnt. Wearing home times are broken and women who would have remained attached with infantile bonds are liberated for service overseas. A vast sense of rejuvenescence pervades the significant classes, a sense of new importance in the world. Old national ideals are taken out, re-adapted to the purpose and used as the universal touchstones, or molds into which all thought is poured. Every individual citizen who in peacetimes had no living fragment of the State becomes an active amateur agent of the Government in reporting spies and disloyalists, in raising Government funds, or in propagating such measures as are considered necessary by officialdom. Minority opinion, which in times of peace was only irritating and could not be dealt with by law unless it was conjoined with actual crime, becomes with the outbreak of war, a case for outlawry. Criticism of the State, objections to war, lukewarm opinions concerning the necessity or the beauty of conscription, are made subject to ferocious penalties, far exceeding [in] severity those affixed to actual pragmatic crimes. Public opinion, as expressed in the newspapers, and the pulpits and the schools, becomes one solid block. Loyalty, or rather war orthodoxy, becomes the sole test for all professions, techniques, occupations. Particularly is this true in the sphere of the intellectual life. There the smallest taint is held to spread over the whole soul, so that a professor of physics is ipso facto disqualified to teach physics or hold honorable place in a university—the republic of learning—if he is at all unsound on the war. Even mere association with persons thus tainted is considered to disqualify a teacher. Anything pertaining to the enemy becomes taboo. His books are suppressed wherever possible, his language is forbidden. His artistic products are considered to convey in the subtlest spiritual way taints of vast poison to the soul that permits itself to enjoy them. So enemy music is suppressed, and energetic measures of opprobrium taken against those whose artistic consciences are not ready to perform such an act of self-sacrifice. The rage for loyal conformity works impartially, and often in diametric opposition to other orthodoxies and traditional conformities or ideals. The triumphant orthodoxy of the State is shown at its apex perhaps when Christian preachers lose their pulpits for taking in more or less literal terms the Sermon on the Mount, and Christian zealots are sent to prison for twenty years for distributing tracts which argue that war is unscriptural.

War is the health of the State. …

— Randolph Bourne (1919): The State

The Gift of Reading

Happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s some holiday reading, as a gift from me to you. World War I may not seem like the best topic for the season, but, well, that’s what I’ve been working on lately.

  • At Dulce Et Decorum Est today, you can read a powerful review essay by Phil Shannon, on the Soldier’s Truce of Christmas, 1914 (which I first encountered a year ago, through Kevin Carson’s blog.)

    It was the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas. It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers’ truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.

    Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the enemy, exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of no-man’s land between the trenches.

    Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.

    Stanley Weintraub’s haunting book on the Christmas Truce recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as an aberration of no consequence, but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.

  • Some time ago, I put up a copy of Randolph Bourne’s most famous essay, The State, online at the Fair Use Repository. Lots of people had already posted extracts from The State online in all kinds of different forums (usually under the title War is the Health of the State). But as far as I know the Fair Use edition is the only complete online transcription. (The others usually omit Part II, Bourne’s analysis of American politics and the party system.)

    In any case, the more topical news is that I’ve just added two more of Bourne’s essays on the war — essays which, unlike The State, were published within Bourne’s own lifetime. These both come from his time writing for Seven Arts: The War and the Intellectuals is from June, 1917, and A War Diary is from September, 1917. Unfortunately what was true of the Sensible Liberals and New Republic columnists of 1917 could just as easily have been written last week.

    The results of war on the intellectual class are already apparent. Their thought becomes little more than a description and justification of what is already going on. They turn upon any rash one who continues idly to speculate. Once the war is on, the conviction spreads that individual thought is helpless, that the only way one can count is as a cog in the great wheel. There is no good holding back. We are told to dry our unnoticed and ineffective tears and plunge into the great work. Not only is everyone forced into line, but the new certitude becomes idealized. It is a noble realism which opposes itself to futile obstruction and the cowardly refusal to face facts. This realistic boast is so loud and sonorous that one wonders whether realism is always a stern and intelligent grappling with realities. May it not be sometimes a mere surrender to the actual, an abdication of the ideal through a sheer fatigue from intellectual suspense? The pacifist is roundly scolded for refusing to face the facts, and for retiring into his own world of sentimental desire. But is the realist, who refuses to challenge or to criticise facts, entitled to any more credit than that which comes from following the line of least resistance? The realist thinks he at least can control events by linking himself to the forces that are moving. Perhaps he can. But if it is a question of controlling war, it is difficult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground. The ex-humanitarian, turned realist, sneers at the snobbish neutrality, colossal conceit, crooked thinking, dazed sensibilities, of those who are still unable to find any balm of consolation for this war. We manufacture consolations here in America while there are probably not a dozen men fighting in Europe who did not long ago give up every reason for their being there except that nobody knew how to get them away.

    — Randolph Bourne, The War and the Intellectuals ¶ 12


    The penalty the realist pays for accepting war is to see disappear one by one the justifications for accepting it. He must either become a genuine Realpolitiker and brazen it through, or else he must feel sorry for his intuition and be regretful that he willed the war. But so easy is forgetting and so slow the change of events that he is more likely to ignore the collapse of his case. If he finds that his government is relinquishing the crucial moves of that strategy for which he was willing to use the technique of war, he is likely to move easily to the ground that it will all come out in the end the same anyway. He soon becomes satisfied with tacitly ratifying whatever happens, or at least straining to find the grain of unplausible hope that may be latent in the situation.

    But what then is there really to choose between the realist who accepts evil in order to manipulate it to a great end, but who somehow unaccountably finds events turn sour on him, and the Utopian pacifist who cannot stomach the evil and will have none of it? Both are helpless, both are coerced. The Utopian, however, knows that he is ineffective and that he is coerced, while the realist, evading disillusionment, moves in a twilight zone of half-hearted criticism and hoping for the best, where he does not become a tacit fatalist. The latter would be the manlier position, but then where would be his realistic philosophy of intelligence and choice? Professor Dewey has become impatient at the merely good and merely conscientious objectors to war who do not attach their conscience and intelligence to forces moving in another direction. But in wartime there are literally no valid forces moving in another direction. War determines its own end–victory, and government crushes out automatically all forces that deflect, or threaten to deflect, energy from the path of organization to that end. All governments will act in this way, the most democratic as well as the most autocratic. It is only liberal naïveté that is shocked at arbitrary coercion and suppression. Willing war means willing all the evils that are organically bound up with it. A good many people still seem to believe in a peculiar kind of democratic and antiseptic war. The pacifists opposed the war because they knew this was an illusion, and because of the myriad hurts they knew war would do the promise of democracy at home. For once the babes and sucklings seem to have been wiser than the children of light.

    — Randolph Bourne, A War Diary § 4

  • Third, I’ve also added a series of essays from 1915, which I discovered thanks to Carl Watner’s essay on nonviolent resistance in the most recent Journal of Libertarian Studies. The exchange began with Bertrand Russell’s The Ethics of War, which appeared in the January 1915 number of the International Journal of Ethics. Russell condemned the war and argued If the facts were understood, wars amongst civilized nations would case, owing to their inherent absurdity. (Meanwhile, in one of the more baffling parts of the essay, he did some utilitarian hand-waving to try to offer some rather despicable excuses for wars of colonization and the attendant ethnic cleansing. As usual, good anti-war instincts are betrayed by prejudice when utilitarian pseudo-calculations are allowed to intrude.) Ralph Barton Perry objected to Russell’s criticism, at least as applied to the ongoing war, in Non-Resistance and the Present War. Russell wrote two more articles. One of them a direct rejoinder to Perry, published as The War and Non-Resistance–A Rejoinder to Professor Perry in the IJE. The other, probably the best essay in the exchange, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, under the title War and Non-Resistance. Of particular note is Section II, in which Russell considers how Britain might be defended from a foreign invasion with no army and no navy, using only the methods of non-violent passive resistance. Although Russell doesn’t quite realize it, the answer he offers amounts, in the end, to doing away with the central State and its organized machinery. With no levers of centralized power to take hold of, the invaders would find themselves in possession of little if anything. Anyway, it’s well worth a read.

Read, and enjoy.

May your holidays be full of light and warmth, joy in fellowship, comfort, and peace.

Quidditative essence

In a remark on my last post on Iraq, Sam Haque points out:

The situation is that occupation forces have taken for themselves the role of guardians by and large without the consent of those who they are ostensibly protecting.

— Sam Haque, comment (2006-05-10) on GT 2006-05-08: Why We Fight

This is true, and not just of the situation in Iraq. It is as accurate and concise a description as you could make of what governments do for a living, always and everywhere. It’s war that brings this into the sharpest relief, because the normal restraints on brutality are released, the beneficiary-victims are strangers in a faraway land, and the public intellectuals and the official press line up to shout down any serious challenge to the progress of war aims. But war and occupation are only the starkest and most explicit expression of what State power essentially means, not just with bombers and soldiers and tanks, but also with every spook, cop, G-man, prosecutor, jailer, and hangman whose paychecks we are forced to cover. Consider, for example, the local cops in New Britain, Connecticut, who protected the hell out of an 11 year old boy and his mother in the name of serving a drug search warrant without interruption, or last week’s riot and reign of terror by Mexican police asserting their authority to protect and serve the people of San Salvador Atenco, whether they like it or not.

The State is, as Catharine MacKinnon says, male in the political sense. But not only because the law views women’s civil status through the lens of male supremacy (although it certainly does). It is also because the male-dominated State relates to all of its subjects like a battering husband relates to the household of which he has proclaimed himself the head: by laying a claim to protect those who did not ask for it, and using whatever violence and intimidation may be necessary to terrorize them into submitting to his protection. The State, as the abusive head of the whole nation, assaults the innocent, and turns a blind eye to assaults of the innocent, when it suits political interest — renamed national interest by the self-proclaimed representatives of the nation. It does so not because of the venality or incompetance of a particular ruler, but rather because that is what State power means, and that is what the job of a ruler is: to maintain a monopoly of coercion over its territorial area, as a good German might tell you, and to beat, chain, burn, or kill anyone within or without who might endanger that, whether by defying State rule, or by simply ignoring it and asking to be left alone.

Or, as Ezra Haywood once put it, A cruel kindness, thought to be friendly regard, assumes to protect those who, by divine right of rational being, are entitled, at least, to be let alone. We are not among wild beasts; from whom, then, does woman need protection? From her protectors. And so it is for us civilians, facing the doorkeep before the Law.

Further reading:

State of grace

The outstanding problem of the Progressive-dominated American Left is that they do not believe that the State exists. I don’t mean that they think it is a nullity; rather, they do not think that it exists in the same concrete plane of reality as the rest of us, or operates with the constraints in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue that the rest of us have. One Leftist who did see things clearly was Randolph Bourne; as he put it in The State (a bitter reaction to the eager embrace of World War I by most of his former colleagues in the American liberal press):

Government … is synonymous with neither State nor Nation. It is the machinery by which the nation, organized as a State, carries out its State functions. Government is a framework of the administration of laws, and the carrying out of the public force. Government is the idea of the State put into practical operation in the hands of definite, concrete, fallible men. It is the visible sign of the invisible grace. It is the word made flesh. And it has necessarily the limitations inherent in all practicality. Government is the only form in which we can envisage the State, but it is by no means identical with it. That the State is a mystical conception is something that must never be forgotten. Its glamor and its significance linger behind the framework of Government and direct its activities.

— Randolph Bourne (1918): The State § 1 ¶ 9

I mention this because I know so many people who are otherwise perfectly sane, who understand human limitation and the dangers of concentrated power, who suddenly blank out as soon as the humans in question have government business cards and the power in question is the most systematic and reliable form of power available — access to enforcement powers of the State. Here’s an example that I noticed just today, which I picked out precisely because it’s so mundane: it turns out that there’s been something of a scuffle between Level 3 Communications and Cogent over networking contracts; hardball business dealing has led to a disconnection that left people unable to communicate with web hosts and other Internet services on the wrong side of the break. Well, that sucks, to be sure, but what’s the first thing that consumer groups shoot for on hearing about it?

However, as the Net has evolved from an academic and research curiosity into a vital part of the world’s commercial and communications infrastructure, some have called for a basic set of rules that would keep traffic flowing.

Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, compares the state of today’s Internet to the development of roads, or the creation of national telephone networks 100 years ago. Government acted in both cases to ensure the free flow of economically important traffic, he said.

There comes a point where some of these functionalities, such as the seamless interoperation of the Internet, are too important to leave to the private interest of businesses, Cooper said. We like to think that people won’t do antisocial things, but when push comes to shove they will defend their economic interests even at the expense of the public.

My problem is not with the negative things that Cooper says about busineses; many libertarians might dig in and object at that point, but I think he’s right to point out how businesses often do things that are foolish or destructive in pursuit of narrowly private gain. My problem is with the inference he draws from this: he goes from businesses sometimes make bad decisions about how to use this resource, to government ought to make the decisions about how to use this resource. But the premises only support the conclusion if you have shown that government control would not make things worse. And that brings us to important questions that Cooper has left unanswered, because — not believing in the mundane existence of the State — he left them unasked. We have to ask, If these things are too important to leave to the private interests of business, then why the hell aren’t they too important to leave to the political interests of the government? And if the typical run of people have enough of a capacity for antisocial behavior that they’ll defend their economic interests even at the expense of the public, why the hell don’t you think that, when push comes to shove, they’ll defend their political interests even at the expense of the public? No answer is forthcoming, because government is being thought of as an anonymous and benign force to be harnessed, rather than the real actions of real people blundering their way through.

If there’s anything of real value in Leftist economic analysis, it’s the way that the Left insistently points out that businesses are not large automata; that they are run by people, that people are limited in knowledge and are also easily corrupted when they have a great deal of power to gain at the expense of others. As a result, large corporations with critical resources often act in ways that are foolish, selfish, exploitative or destructive. If you’re trying to understand the economic world while ignoring the fact that it is made of people you will always go seriously astray. But if there’s one thing that’s been going wrong with the Left’s economic analysis during the past several decades (basically, since the 1930s, when Marxism and Progressivism each rose to the top of the heap in the radical and reformist wings of the Left), it’s the way in which they have refused to apply exactly the same analysis to the agents of the State. If it’s vital to remember that people run businesses, it is even more vital to remember that people run the government. And that is exactly what is being forgotten, because it is covered over by the shimmering mystical glow of the State. If Leftists are willing to call out cheerleaders for business when they fetishize the anonymous, undirected forces of the market and their supposedly reliable and benign march towards equilibrium, then they had better stop being cheerleaders for the State, and stop fetishizing the anonymous, undirected rules of the government and their supposedly reliable and benign pursuit of the public interest. That ain’t how it works now (just pick up any newspaper) and — this is the important part — it ain’t how it would work under any government. Bureaucracies are run by fallible human beings blundering their way through no matter what the party in power is; in the government they face the same knowledge problems and incentive problems that corporate bureaucrats face. In fact, they face even more severe knowledge problems and incentive problems — beacause, as agents of the government they hold a monopoly on whatever resources they control, and that monopoly is backed with handcuffs, guns, and bombs.

If critical resources are too important to leave in the hands of private businesses, then yes, they are damn well too important to put under the monopolistic control of government bureaucrats.

Now, pro-State Leftists might object at this point that I’m being unfair; the position is not that government is run by people any more perfect than business is, but rather that people in a democratic society, the people in government have restraints put on them that tends to direct them towards the public interest, whereas the environment in which business decisions are made is one that rewards the irresponsible pursuit of private advantage. But this, again, relies on a mystical conception of the State; here the mysticism comes in not with the conception of government intervention, but rather with the conception of control by the people. The idea that government officials — and appointed government bureaucrats especially, who are after all the people who run all the regulatory bodies — are responsive to what people like you and me want under most circumstances is so obviously refuted by a quick look at the daily operations of government that I must conclude that people who make these kind of arguments are being stopped from looking, because democratic mysticism is used as a substitute for observation.

If, to put it another way, the pro-State Left’s is making their argument for government control over some resource or another by claiming that you can always vote the jerks out of office if you don’t like how they are running things … well, then, how’s that been working out for y’all lately?