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Uniting the Masses

by Gene Callahan

For example, Victor Davis Hanson compares the counsel of those who urge restraint, gathering of evidence, and precisely targeted retribution in response to the terrorist attacks, to recommending, in 1941, that only the specific pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor be punished.

But why didn’t Hanson paint a scenario in which 18 Asians had privately attacked Pearl Harbor, with no evidence (at least none made public) tying them to anyone else? He could have completed the picture by having a bunch of neocon pundits recommending that we carpet bomb all of Asia in response – or perhaps, as John Derbyshire apparently desires, nuke the entire Third World. Wouldn’t this have been a bit more, well, honest?

But in criticizing views like Hanson’s, I could hardly do better than a wonderful parody from The Onion, which “quotes” Donald Rumsfeld as saying:

“We were lucky enough at Pearl Harbor to be the victim of a craven sneak attack from an aggressor with the decency to attack military targets, use their own damn planes, and clearly mark those planes with their national insignia so that we knew who they were,” Rumsfeld said. “Since the 21st-century breed of coward is not affording us any such luxury, we are forced to fritter away time searching hither and yon for him in the manner of a global easter-egg hunt.” The Neocon Project

However, little matters like honesty are unimportant when you are saving the world, as the neocons proclaim themselves to be doing.

Jonah Goldberg spit his coke onto his keyboard when he read my remark that the neocons were still socialists at heart. Now, I admit, I should have made my point more clearly. My meaning was this: When they ostensibly abandoned socialism, the neocons didn’t give up on the project of organizing all of society based on a vision of the “common good.” They simply changed the vision they sought to impose on everyone else from that of the socialist commonwealth to that of the democratic welfare state. Like the French revolutionary armies under Napoleon, their aim is to bring the blessings of “liberty” to all people everywhere by the force of arms, killing anyone who might not want to be liberated. Needless to say, this is hardly a conservative project.

The British philosopher Michael Oakeshott presents, in an essay entitled “The Masses in Representative Democracy,” a useful model for understanding the neocons. Oakeshott showed how the dawn of the individual, rising from the communal life of medieval Europe, posed a problem for those who lacked the internal resources to form a fully individuated personality, and who could not bear the responsibility of individual choice not delimited by rigid communal strictures. As a result of the ensuing tensions, Western society divided into roughly three classes: individuals, failed-individuals, and the masses.

The poverty of the masses and their resulting resentment was not so much economic as psychic. Some poor people were able to become true individuals, while some of the very rich were not. What the masses resented was the terrifying responsibility of individual choice that the emerging order placed on them. Gradually, the desire to pull everyone down to their condition awoke in them. But the masses themselves were incapable of articulating a program to achieve that goal. They needed “leaders.”

Here was the perfect role for the failed-individual. Too much his own person to simply be “one of the crowd,” but not having achieved full individuality, he saw his opportunity in giving the resentment of the masses coherence and direction. Prominent examples of such leaders include Marx, Engels, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Mussolini. Oh, yes, and Osama bin Laden surely qualifies, as well. (Of course, a mass leader, especially one out of power, need not be as depraved as those on my list. But Hayek showed, in The Road to Serfdom, why they would tend to be, once the mass movement seizes power.)

True individuals generally have no interest in leading a mass movement, as such movements can only be organized around an appeal to a lowest-common-denominator goal. Real individual achievements – magnificent art, great works of intellect and scholarship, new businesses, ingenious inventions, and so on – are only accomplished by one person, or at most a handful of people, and only by breaking with the commonplace.

Justin Raimondo’s most recent article on antiwar.com describes the project of the neocon “leaders”:

While the rest of us are content to live out our mundane little private lives, these large-domed Deep Thinkers are consumed with visions of “national greatness” – a state never fully attainable, it seems, until and unless the nation is at war. Surely the announced objective of the Kristolian foreign policy – “benevolent world hegemony” – is not achievable by any other means.

We should note all of the calls for “unity” coming from the neocons. They are an appeal to mass thought, to crowd passion, and an implicit condemnation of anyone who should dare to think for himself. For example, Peter Beinart, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, says: “This nation is now at war and in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides.” (Please don’t complain that Beinart is not a neocon: On this question, there isn’t spitting distance between the neocons and New-Republic liberalism.)

As Jacob Hornberger points out, there is nothing “unpatriotic” about not mindlessly cheering any war the government urges on us. In fact, there is no better time for us to debate our foreign policy then when people’s attention is focused on the issue.

But there is another interesting aspect to the calls for “unity”: There are many possible responses we could unite behind: pacifism, a police operation, a limited war, and so on. Jesse Walker lists six such approaches to our current situation in an article at Reason.com. But the neocons’ call for unity means unity behind the project – American hegemony – that they have been recommending for years anyway, a project that, by the way, they hope to lead. Their plea translates to: “Shut up and stop arguing with us.” Despite the jawboning about unity, they have no problem trashing the moderate approach of Colin Powell, who, as Secretary of State, is presumably one of the leaders we should be uniting behind. (See for instance, William “National Greatness” Kristol’s op-ed knocking Powell for his “distaste for large-scale wars,” something for which Kristol has an almost insatiable desire, or Rich Lowry’s article contending that Powell is a man without ideas. What Lowry sees lacking in Powell is “vision,” by which Lowry means that Powell doesn’t have a grandiose project to reform the world, i.e., he is an actual, not a nominal, conservative.) Should Bush fail to pursue the total war the neocons desire, there is no doubt that they will not be “uniting” behind him either.

To paraphrase Joseph Stromberg: individuals of the world, disunite!

September 29, 2001

2001, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives