In the history of the world, there has been no greater, no more honorable columnist, than me, Gene Callahan. No columnist has ever fought so consistently for freedom, for justice, for liberty. No columnist has ever set aside his self-interest so often, in order to attend so selflessly to the good of others.
True, at times there have been errors in my columns. Once or twice, I may have inadvertently injured an innocent person, gotten a fact wrong, or made an invalid argument. But even these minor mistakes were not the result of sloth or malice, but of an idealism that at times tried to accomplish too much. If you ever find another columnist disagreeing with me, you can be quite certain that I have justice on my side, that the other columnist is wrong, and that you should support my efforts to prevail at all costs.
What? You question my assertion?
Maybe you are right. Upon reflection, I see that the entire motive for my columns has been pure greed, hiding in the guise of virtue. I am a hypocrite through and through. There is no tactic, however lowly, to which I will not stoop. If you ever find another columnist disagreeing with me, you can be quite certain that he has justice on his side, and that nothing I do in a dispute with him can be taken at face value.
Having read this far, you might be ready to advise me to get some help. Surely this kind of manic-depressive approach to my work can’t be helpful or healthy! “Gene,” you tell me, “you’re a mortal just like the rest, a mix of good and bad, virtue and vice, truth and error. The point is to try to see your own work clearly, correct the problems, and enhance the good points. Those extreme mood swings aren’t doing you a bit of good.”
Well, truth be told, in viewing my own writing I am actually a paragon of calm, dispassionate analysis. (Stop laughing, Lew!) But I would contend that the manic and depressive states portrayed above characterize the most common attitudes toward American foreign policy we find in the media.
In the manic camp we find the “patriots”: National Review, FrontPage, The Weekly Standard, The New York Post, and so on. (I put “patriots” in quotes, because, as Joseph Sobran brilliantly points out, such folks are actually nationalists, not patriots.) In their world, the American state has the mystical status of world savior. American foreign policy is by definition virtuous, whatever its actual conduct, since the American state has a divine appointment with destiny. To complain about innocent lives taken, dictators supported, or national aspirations crushed is equivalent to griping that Jesus Christ had poorly manicured fingernails.
As I’ve pointed out previously, such an attitude is a form of idolatry, since it places a particular, historical state above universal principles of justice. America is not required to adhere to any norms of justice in its foreign policy, since it is itself the historical manifestation of justice. Needless to say, this view makes honest self-appraisal nearly impossible.
The flip side of the “patriotic” coin is usually found on the far left. Here, no American foreign adventure can possibly be an honest, if perhaps misguided, attempt to improve matters in some wreck of a nation, but instead is always interpreted as a plot, usually by multinational corporations, to profit at the expense of foreigners. No errors in conducting foreign policy are ever the result of fallible, fallen humans attempting to do more than humanly possible, but instead are always the result of deliberate malice disguised as mistakes. (And I’m not saying that there aren’t sometimes plots and conspiracies, just that there isn’t always a plot or conspiracy: history is composed of unique situations that must be interpreted individually. Furthermore, the nature of the state as a coercive apparatus will tend to spoil even the best of intentions, and, as Hayek pointed out, the worst do tend to rise to the top.)
The depressive view also prevents honest self-appraisal. Furthermore, it tends to drive the average person toward the “patriot” camp, since he knows that Americans aren’t really as wicked as the left says, and therefore he concludes that the other extreme must be basically correct. And by making storybook villains out of American government officials, it tends to obscure the institutional forces (chiefly the state) that are the root of the problem and lead to the belief that if we could only get some decent officials controlling things (like the very leftists who hold this view, perhaps?), then the state would be a fine thing.
(A side note: I think that the “quagmire” motif in anti-war rhetoric springs largely from the depressive camp; we’re so awful that we’re bound to completely screw things up and get stuck in War X for years. Let me tell you, anti-war folks: This one is a dud. The U.S. military has gotten very good at blowing things up, and can do most of its work from 20,000 feet above the enemy. We should stress the point that killing innocent people is wrong, not that it will take a long time and, well, become tedious or whatever.)
As an anarchist, I would ultimately like to see defense provided privately. In the meantime, we have to recognize that we do have a national government, that it will conduct a foreign policy, and that its existence currently makes the full private provision of defense impossible, both because of the laws limiting the weapons that can be privately owned and because of the resources it expropriates for its own provision of defense.
We must try to gain a clear, unbiased view of American foreign policy, since for the present it is certain that America will have one. Neither of the views portrayed above is of any assistance whatsoever in deciding any concrete question of foreign policy. If America in the past had been the paragon of virtue that the patriots claim, would that mean that now we’re entitled to a few “no-guilt” war atrocities? Or if America always had acted as vilely as the far left contends, would we now be required to expose ourselves, defenseless, to any terrorist who wants to take a whack at us? In deciding how we should act today, neither national self-love nor national self-loathing is very helpful.
2001, Gene Callahan