Monday, February 18, 2008

Unintentionally telling comparison of the year

There's a point in there somewhere, but I'll be damned if first I wasn't tickled pink by Bill Kristol's latest column:
Browsing through a used-book store Friday — in the Milwaukee airport, of all places — I came across a 1981 paperback collection of George Orwell’s essays. That’s how I happened to reread his 1942 essay on Rudyard Kipling. Given Orwell’s perpetual ability to elucidate, one shouldn’t be surprised that its argument would shed light— or so it seems to me — on contemporary American politics.

Orwell offers a highly qualified appreciation of the then (and still) politically incorrect Kipling. He insists that one must admit that Kipling is “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Still, he says, Kipling “survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.” One reason for this is that Kipling “identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition.”

“In a gifted writer,” Orwell remarks, “this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality.” Kipling “at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.” For, Orwell explains, “The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.” Furthermore, “where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly.”

If I may vulgarize the implications of Orwell’s argument a bit: substitute Republicans for Kipling and Democrats for the opposition, and you have a good synopsis of the current state of American politics.

Oh, do go on! I don't really care about Kristol's weird extended metaphor (the Democrats certainly are "capable of governing"--the name "Bill Clinton" might have surfaced somewhat obviously in this context), but to have Kristol (wittingly or not) equate the Republican party with racist imperialism warmed the cockles of my heart for a brief moment. "The 2007 Congressional Democrats showed what it means to be an opposition party that takes no responsibility for the consequences of the choices involved in governing." Yes, yes, Democrats -- when will you learn to take up the white man's burden?

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

4 Comments:

Blogger Craig said...

Almost all of Bill Kristol's efforts are devoted to thinking up different ways to promote an aggressive US posture in the Middle East aimed, first and foremost, at crushing all threats to Israel. Like many neocons, it is the beginning and the end for him.

5:35 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

As far as we're debating yesterday's issues on today's merits, I'm going to just come out and posit that only Obama can solve the Jewish Question.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

It seems that many other commentators have unsurprisingly seized on Kristol's gaffe:

http://harpers.org/archive/2008/02/hbc-90002431

http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/02/the_white_mans_burden.php

http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/tapped_archive?month=02&year=2008&base_name=kristol_gets_a_penpal#104517

I would only point out that I did not mean in my post to exonerate the Democrats from the sort of chauvinism and militarism Kristol salivates over. If anything, we should view Kristol's equation of "action and responsibility" with imperialism not as the exclusive domain of the Republican party, but instead should view the neoconservatives as a *particularly strong* right-wing version of this worldview.

The thing that has come to strike me as so interesting about the current political configuration in America is just how incredibly right-wing the neoconservatives are: they really (as far as I can tell) think the Democrats are defeatist pinko appeaseniks, when in fact liberalism has just as impressive a record of foreign intervention and enforcement. (We might talk here about the effects of "Vietnam Syndrome," but these seemed to be conspicuously absent in the 90s when Clinton, Albright, Perry & co were taking steps to ensure NATO's dominance by bombing Kosovo.)

My guess is that Kristol is such an ideologue and a Republican party hack that he genuinely believes Democrats will abandon American hegemony willy-nilly. Either that or he just cynically says these things to score political points. In any case, the whole foreign policy conversation in this country is incredibly skewed to the right (or to "liberal interventionism," or whatever you want to call it) no matter what.

For just one example, see Leon Wieseltier's most recent "Washington Diary" in TNR, where he (correctly) outlines some of the naivete of the Obama campaign's foreign policy vision. The point, however, is that American intervention is automatically *assumed* as the de facto state of affairs; there is to be no questioning of this basic premise. E.g. "I cannot imagine that the threat to American security from Al Qaeda and its many associates can be met without a massive and sustained military operation in western Pakistan."

http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=76832a5a-4c74-41f1-98b7-82f6b74638b8

On the other hand, several months ago Robert Kagan went ga-ga over what he saw as "Obama the Interventionist":

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/27/AR2007042702027.html

Anyway, the whole point of Kristol's column is domestic policy anyway, revering the "non-ideological" apparatchiks Hayden, Mukasey, and McConnell (to call Mike McConnell "nonpolitical" is like calling leopards "nonspotted") and the law-breaking and spying they're all so passionately devoted to (euphemistically described as "erring on the side of safety in defending the country").

From my vantage point, this stuff is patently wrong and not worth arguing about, although it certainly is politically (not to mention constitutionally) important. But in a perverse way, I too, like Kristol, am interested in seeing how the Dems perform in office after watching from the sidelines these past 8 years. Part of the answer is contained in the not-quite-true nature of that last sentence: the Dems obviously have held slim majorities in both houses since Nov, but they haven't accomplished *anything*, especially on the war front. Either they don't want to or they "can't afford to" politically, which is really just another way of restating the former.

Part of the consternation and anxiety on the part of Kristol, however, *might* be due to the fact that Democrats really are poised to be more progressive this time around following the presidential election. I'm not holding my breath, though. Although Obama and Clinton have been deliciously populist lately, much to the chagrin of "serious" onlookers in the media establishment (Wash Post) and punditry (Patashnik at TNR):

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/16/AR2008021602080.html

http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2008/02/18/obama-s-disappointing-trade-shift.aspx

there's no telling what the eventual result will be. And militarily, neither seem particularly keen to disabuse the US of the war economy mentality its kept up all these decades.

In other words: Kristol truly is a fool, but he has a point. Liberal commentators don't seem to take this point seriously: Yglesias approvingly cites John Judis' "The Folly of Empire" as evidence that only Republicans engage in imperialism, but I've dealt with Judis' claims before, who know with what success:

http://washav.blogspot.com/2007/10/judis-take-on-neo-imperialism.html

12:33 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

By the way have we thought of the beads on a rosary here? Scantron discussing Kristol discussing Orwell discussing Kipling discussing the British Empire.

4:03 PM  

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