Establishment Liberalism, the War Urge and the Hunched Figure of Randolph Bourne

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When
there was a war to get enmeshed in during most of the 20th Century,
“establishment” or “responsible” American liberals – intellectuals,
legislators or presidents – could be relied upon to stiffen the
upper lip. They were poised at the starting gates for the World
Wars and Korea. As for lachrymose Vietnam, the “best and the brightest”
saw to it that the death and destruction was radically escalated.
The interregnum of establishment liberal skepticism towards major
deployments of ground troops into darker hued lands lasted from
Vietnamization until the trade towers turned to cinders. What to
say of executive branch Johnny-come-lately Republicans? They just
stumbled into launching land wars in Mesopotamia under the Bush
clan colors.

Yes,
it would be more fun to sarcastically characterize the present oily
dynastic confluence as a “coincidence.” But the aggressions waged
by The Family are sadly more basic to human – to say nothing of
American – history than the personalities involved. The common denominator
between the “realism” of Papa Bush’s limited Babylonian excursion
and Baby Bush’s whole hog occupation came down to the same thing.
They both did it because they could; there was no deterrent to their
designs.

Had
Saddam invaded Kuwait instead of Iran in 1980, the exigencies of
the Cold War might have made for a real crisis – no chance of getting
a UN coalition together with the Soviet Union in the wings. And
so, lacking any deterrent – so what if steadfast allies and the
planet’s publics protested almost unanimously? – they smashed and
grabbed it. The Pyrrhic capture of Baghdad came faster than Warsaw’s
fall; for the victors, comparable perils were averted.

Not
that it matters anymore: nearly the entire Democratic caucus voted
against the first Gulf War – a dubious endeavor to be sure
– but also a U.N.-sanctioned effort with a limited mandate
against a tyrant who had invaded another “country.” By way of contrast,
half of the Democrats were cowed into voting for (or la Lieberman,
fully agreed with the goals of) “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” This
latest far flung nonsense lacked even a fig leaf causus belli,
to say nothing of the U.N.’s ordinarily oleaginous imprimatur.

Given
the evidence available prior to the war, one might have imagined
60′s chic establishment liberals somehow acquitting themselves a
bit better. So ostentatiously “internationalist” in rhetoric, so
backdoor unilateralist in practice, they sneered behind veneers
at the world’s cue. And so, the “realist” half of the Democratic
Party voted to legitimize the crime. These willing patsies leapt
in line behind Bill Clinton. His sage strategy: better to mimic
the “strong and wrong” crowd than be perceived as “right and weak.”
Speaking of the Neocons, to what extent can one really blame, in
Nietzsche’s formulation, “a bird of prey for being a bird of prey?”
When this administration nested its foreign policy apparatus with
Iran-Contra vultures – to just how much surprise were we entitled?

No,
a shade more insulting was the reaction of the not-so-kumbayah “humanitarian
intervention” crowd. The Clintons, Biden and Kerry, the “doves”
of yore, would run interference for Bush as the Republicans once
did for Johnson. The Gulf of Tonkin phantom attack they scorned
during their “impressionable” youth; aluminum tubes, yellow cake
from Niger, Iraqi ghost drones laden with exotic poisons –
that these unmoored adults yucked down. These wizened hypocrites
imagined themselves again inoculating the Democratic Party from
the dread "Vietnam syndrome” in the midterm elections of 2002.
They then produced abject failure; they midwifed not a policy setback,
not even a quagmire, but a diseased whirl of mass murder –
a bacillus from which their children will in any event remain immune.

Ari
Berman, recently writing in The Nation, flushed out today’s
establishment liberal by sketching out the institutional structure
that buttresses the kinder, gentler Empire worldview. He presented
this network as a pyramid. Up top are Senators such as Hillary Clinton,
Joe Biden, and John Kerry – the clique’s leading figures, so we
are solemnly advised, of presidential timbre. They voted for war;
they steadfastly continue to fund the war; their maundering is transparently
partisan. They deal not in deep criticism, for what they performatively
deplore is management inefficiency, not the essence of the enterprise.
Drop the trap door: here roosts Clintonian ex-officialdom in the
form of Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Richard
Holbrooke, the former UN Ambassador. Further down we unearth gnomes
busy scribbling for think tanks such as the Brookings Institution
and the Progressive Policy Institute. Amidst the bottom feeders
we recoil at “laptop bombardiers” like Thomas Friedman.

Mr.
Berman quoted Stephen Walt, the dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School
of Government, who helpfully elucidated the lofty considerations
preoccupying the liberalish hawk. “Brookings was basically supportive
of the war in Iraq. If Brookings is signing on to a major foreign
policy initiative of a Republican administration, that doesn’t give
the Democratic mainstream much room to mount a really forceful critique
of the incumbent foreign policy… It’s pretty hard to go wrong
right now taking a hard-line position. There’s enough places or
institutions that will take care of you. Outside of academia, if
you take positions on the other side, there’s just nowhere near
the level of institutional support.”

In
the halls of power, one might contrast the establishment liberals
with the dissenting liberals. Among them we can count Senators Barbara
Boxer, Russ Feingold and Robert Byrd. They don’t have much in the
way of think tanks or influential columnists backing them up. They
have some activist groups behind them and, incidentally, an inchoate
60 odd percent of public opinion. In the Senate there are no dissenting
conservatives save Chuck Hagel.

The
establishment liberal may still proffer the now tattered proviso
that (even though I voted to authorize it) I had “reservations.”
These reservations don’t extend too far – in fact, for most of them,
they don’t even exist, for their ilk frequently postures more aggressively
than the President. Kerry advocated adding 40,000 Army grunts during
the campaign. Hillary thinks, wrongly, that 80,000 more bodies might
ingratiate her, along with her Senate war prayer breakfasts, with
right wing voters in 2008. The appropriate colloquialism for this
liberal escalation? Putting lipstick on a pig.

Whether
these positions are sincerely held or amount to bravado is anyone’s
guess. As Mr. Berman points out, such liberals do live in an ideological
echo chamber. And, as Mr. Walt’s remarks imply, the “strategic class,”
in taking the path of least resistance, functionally put advancement
enhancements before whatever scruples are advertised.

If
the history of decolonization is any indication, the very presence
of the American military will continue to fuel the insurgency. Whether
our departure from Iraq will quell the violence is, again, anyone’s
guess – civil war seems about an even bet. If the liberal hawks
have their way – a bipartisan compromise! – we may end up fighting
on behalf of Saddam’s “secular” Sunnis before all said and done.
Or, alas, we will have set the stage for an Iranian satellite. How
appropriately, if unintentionally, absurd the notion of faith-based
democracy remains – whether here or astride the Shatt al-Arab.

As
for us Americans, watching a clutch of principled, peace-loving
politicians atop either political party remains an impossibility.
Less evident is this. We might just one day see these establishment
liberal weasels – their paws aloft – turning tail at brisker breezes
of the whirlwind.

Randolph
Bourne Then and Now

Randolph
Bourne, the early-20th Century dissident liberal turned radical
who coined the phrase “war is the health of the state,” well explained
the pragmatic dynamics of establishment liberalism’s support for
war. He turned against his liberal compatriots – men such as
Walter Lippmann and John Dewey – at the New Republic
after they wholeheartedly supported our country’s intervention in
World War I. While his writings are scarcely recalled at all –
more on him here
– his observations retain a remarkable prescience.

Bourne
diced the Janus-faced establishment liberal approach to war in his
essay “Twilight of the Idols.” “Either Professor Dewey and his friends
felt that the forces were too strong for them, that the war had
to be, and it was better to take it up intelligently than to drift
blindly in; or else they really expected a gallant war, conducted
with jealous regard for democratic values at home and a captivating
vision of international democracy as the end of all the toil and
pain. If the motive was the first, they would seem to have reduced
the scope of possible control of events to the vanishing point.
If the war is too strong for you to prevent how is it going to be
weak enough for you to control and mold to your liberal purposes?
And if their motive was to shape the war firmly for good, they seem
to have seriously miscalculated the fierce urgencies of it.” In
his essay “A War Diary” Bourne anticipated the trajectory of second
thoughts, so familiar among liberals from the Vietnam era, so forgotten
in their middle age… “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.”

In
examining the sort of cynical pragmatism inherent in the liberal
embrace of war, Bourne placed much of the blame on the emerging
technologically-minded intelligentsia. In "Twilight of the
Idols" he recognized that they “are liberal, enlightened, aware…
the product of the swing in the colleges from a training that emphasized
classical studies to one that emphasized political and economic
values… Their education has not given them a coherent system of
large ideas, or a feeling for democratic goals. They have, in short,
no clear philosophy of life except that of intelligent service,
the admirable adoption of means to ends. They are vague as to what
kind of society they want, or what kind of society America needs,
but they are equipped with all the administrative attitudes and
talents necessary to attain it… The American, in living out this
philosophy, has habitually confused results with product, and been
content with getting somewhere without asking too closely whether
it was the desirable place to get.”

Bourne
saw similar, if less pronounced, shortcomings among the critics
of war. “The trouble with our situation is not only that values
have been generally ignored in favor of technique, but that those
who have struggled to keep values foremost, have been too bloodless
and too near-sighted in their vision… If your ideal is to be adjustment
to your situation, in radiant cooperation with reality, then your
success is likely to be just that and no more. You never transcend
anything. You grow, but your spirit never jumps out of your skin
to go on wild adventures. If your policy as a publicist reformer
is to take what you can get you are likely to find that you get
something less than you should be willing to take… Vision must
constantly outshoot technique, opportunist efforts usually achieve
less even than what seemed obviously possible. An impossiblist lan
that appeals to desire will often carry further. A philosophy of
adjustment will not even make for adjustment. If you try merely
to ‘meet’ situations as they come, you will not even meet them.
Instead you will only pile up behind you deficits and arrears that
will some day bankrupt you.”

As
for the general public, Bourne – surprise, surprise – found that
indifference characterized most of his fellow Americans. In “A War
Diary,” he noted that acquiescence was no different functionally
from enthused participation – the key was that the war was tolerated,
even if grudgingly. “The kind of war which we are conducting is
an enterprise which the American government does not have to carry
on with the hearty cooperation of the American people but only with
their acquiescence. And that acquiescence seems sufficient to float
an indefinitely protracted war for vague or even largely uncomprehended
and unaccepted purposes. Our resources in men and materials are
vast enough to organize the war-technique without enlisting more
than a fraction of the people’s conscious energy. Many men will
not like to be sucked into the actual fighting organism, but as
the war goes on they will be sucked in as individuals and they will
yield. There is likely to be no element in the country with the
effective will to help them resist.”

The
institutional power of the war managers would overwhelm private
doubts to keep the war running just fine. “It will be coercion from
above that will do the trick rather than patriotism from below…
all that is really needed is the cooperation with government of
the men who direct the large financial and industrial enterprises.
If their interest is enlisted in diverting the mechanism of production
into war-channels, it makes not the least difference whether you
or I want our activity to count in aid of the war. Whatever we do
will contribute toward its successful organization, and toward the
riveting of a semi-military State Socialism on the country. As long
as the effective managers, the ‘big men’ in the staple industries
remain loyal, nobody need care what the millions of little human
cogs who had to earn their living felt or thought… The government
of a modern organized plutocracy does not have to ask whether the
people want to fight or understand what they are fighting for, but
only whether they will tolerate fighting. America does not cooperate
with the President’s designs. She rather feebly acquiesces. But
that feeble acquiescence is the all-important factor. We are learning
that war doesn’t need enthusiasm, doesn’t need conviction, doesn’t
need hope, to sustain it. Once maneuvered, it takes care of itself,
provided only that our industrial rulers see that the end of the
war will leave American capital in a strategic position for world-enterprise.”

In
a bit of prosaic fancifulness, Bourne perfumed the degree to which
the public is carried along on the swells of war. “…[W]e are like
brave passengers who have set out for the Isles of the Blest only
to find that the first mate has gone insane and jumped overboard,
the rudder has come loose and dropped to the bottom of the sea,
and the captain and pilot are lying dead drunk under the wheel.
The stokers and engineers however, are still merrily forcing the
speed up to twenty knots and hour and the passengers are presumably
getting the pleasure of the ride.”

Then,
as now, critics of war would be tarred with the brush of disloyalty.
“The country is still dotted with young men and women, in full possession
of their minds, faculties, and virtue, who feel themselves profoundly
alien to the work which is going on around them. They must not be
confused with the disloyal or the pro-German. They have no grudge
against the country, but their patriotism has broken down in the
emergency. The want to see the carnage stopped and Europe decently
constructed again. They want democratic peace… They know that
the longer a war lasts the harder it is to make peace. They know
that the peace of exhaustion is a dastardly peace, leaving enfeebled
the moral of the defeated, and leaving invincible for years all
the most greedy and soulless elements in the conquerors.”

And
so, the critics must remain steadfast, unwilling to abide the lies
of the War Party’s enthusiasts or the evasions of its enablers.
From “A War Diary:” “Patriots and realists can both be answered.
They must not be allowed to shake one’s inflexible determination
not to be spiritually implicated in the war… Since the 30th of
July, 1914, nothing has happened in the arena of war-policy and
war-technique except the complete and unmitigated worst. We are
tired of continued disillusionment, and of the betrayal of generous
anticipations. It is saner not to waste energy in hope within the
system of war-enterprise… It is better to resist cheap consolations,
and remain skeptical about any of the good things so confidently
promised us either though victory or the social reorganization demanded
by the war technique. One keeps healthy in wartime not be a series
of religious and political consolations that something good is coming
out of it all, but by a vigorous assertion of values in which war
has no part. Our skepticism can be made a shelter behind which is
built up a wider consciousness of the personal and social and artistic
ideals which American civilization needs to lead the good life.”

And
so it falls again to the youth and their supporters. They may be
the untouched critical thinkers or those disillusioned souls themselves
gnawed on by the war machine. From “Twilight of the Idols:” “The
malcontents would be men and women who could not stomach the war,
or the reactionary idealism that has followed in its train… Yet
these malcontents have no intention of being cultural vandals, only
to slay. They are not barbarians, but seek the vital and the sincere
everywhere… They will be harsh and often bad-tempered, and they
will feel that the break-up of things is no time for mellowness.
They will have a taste for spiritual adventure, and for sinister
imaginative excursions. It will not be Puritanism so much as complacency
that they will fight. A tang, a bitterness, an intellectual fibre,
a verve, they will look for in literature… Their own contempt
will be scarcely veiled, and they will be glad if they can tease,
provoke, irritate thought on any subject. These malcontents will
be more or less of the American tribe of talent who used either
to go immediately to Europe, or starved submissively at home. They
are too much entangled emotionally in the possibilities of American
life to leave it, and they have no desire whatever to starve. So
they are likely to go ahead beating their heads at the wall until
they are either bloody or light appears…” In the end, illusions
must be hurled aside. “Optimism is often compensatory, and the optimistic
mood in American thought may mean merely that American life is too
terrible to face.”

September
5, 2005

Stephen
Bender [send him mail] is a writer based in San Francisco. You can
find more of his work at his
website
.

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Bender Archives

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