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

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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