Now, this is the way we give them the water cure…. Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.
Letter by a U.S. soldier in the Philippines during the Filipino insurgency, 1899-1902.
Abject hypocrisy will bring about the collapse of the US Empire and the end of American democracy. Our tragic flaw was in resplendent, sartorial display last week: hypocrites accused each other of hypocrisy; crocodile tears were in abundance; psychological projections were the order of the day; pious, self-serving justifications were rampant; and all throughout the garish spectacle we could do no less than agree with Mark Twain and feel ashamed of the human race. (more…)
Names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. (Credit: David Bjorgen)
A richer democratic culture should make the US less warlike, less inclined to endless imperial warfare. That is a basic premise of critiques of US war culture advanced here in Hunt the Devil.
A corollary to this premise is that America’s insufficiently democratic polity is overly susceptible to militarism.
A focus on the nation’s democratic health is especially relevant because, as Andrew Bacevich observes, “We are, or at least claim to be, a democratic republic in which all power ultimately derives from the people.”
Bacevich speaks as a retired US Army Colonel, Professor Emeritus in History at Boston University, and discerning commentator on US foreign policy when he says the American military system has failed in its purpose to defend the country and to bring about peace. “Peace,” he observes, “has essentially vanished as a U.S. policy objective.” (more…)
American poet Walt Whitman, September 1872, Brooklyn, New York. (Credit: G. Frank E. Pearsall)
We promote a mythic sensibility in this forum on the assumption that, for good or ill, myth is ubiquitous in human affairs. Our goal is not to debunk myth. We expose it where it harms polity and sustains war, but we also wish to cultivate myth to redeem democracy and promote peaceful pursuits.
A culture of positive peace requires a democratic ethos. Democracy is not simply a matter of voting. It is an attitude, an outlook, a way of life that entails managing our serious differences robustly and constructively. It is not to be confused with the present outbreak of authoritarian populism and demonizing rhetoric.
As E. J. Dionne Jr. maintains, populism per se is not a villain nor is it necessarily hostile to democracy. The kind of populism that maintains faith with democracy does so by challenging “ruling elites to face up to injustices that undermine free institutions.” It does not define “the people” narrowly or treat political opponents as enemies. (more…)
“Mercury, Argos and Io” by Abraham Bloemaert, circa 1592. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, is invoked by Josiah Ober to warn a slumbering citizenry of the danger of tyranny. “Vigilance and readiness to respond,” Ober warns, are the duties of a participating citizenry if they wish to preserve their democracy from the ever-present risk of elite capture. Argos “was bewitched into slumber and then killed in his sleep by the trickster-god Hermes at the behest of tyrannical Zeus.” A vigilant citizenry, Ober cautions, “must not be lulled into sleepy inattention by rhetorical incantations.”[i]
In times of crisis, paternalistic demagogues promise salvation in the name of the people. Mercury—Rome’s patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, and trickery—stands in for Hermes in many depictions of Argos’ slumber and demise.
What happens when the delegated authority of elected representatives—delegation being a necessity of a large and complex modern state—is captured by elites to legislate in their own interests and against the common interests of the people? What happens when the sovereignty of the people is co-opted and democracy is corrupted? (more…)
The decline of western democracy shown in the domino theory. (Credit: Paraney / Wikimedia Commons)
“In imaginary Demopolis the citizens are capable of governing . . . . But the stunted civic education offered by real modern states may be unequal to the task of producing a capable demos. In the absence of adequate civic education, citizens lack the motivation and the skills necessary to govern themselves . . . . [That lack] fosters unstable perversions of democracy, as opportunistic politicians channel antityrannical sentiment into paranoia and warped nostalgia for a mythic age of national unity and civic virtue.”
Josiah Ober, Demopolis (2017, p. 161)
The illiberal populism of right-wing demagoguery by the likes of Donald Trump is just such a perversion of democracy. It is, as Ober observes (pp. 178-179), an outburst of political polarization that feeds on racial strife and exclusionary nationalism and projects a fierce hostility toward liberalism and liberal values such as tolerance. It is marked by a rhetoric of demonization. Populist despots, Ober insists, “can take power only when citizen self-government is reduced to a simple form of majoritarian tyranny” (p. 180), which can happen in the absence of adequate civic education.
Ober’s formulation of basic democracy is a thought experiment that helps us to envision the minimum conditions for a healthy polity of limited self-governance that provides sufficient security and prosperity without succumbing to tyranny. In addition to adequate security and sufficient welfare, basic democracy promotes political liberty, political equality, and civic dignity, which in turn reinforce and depend on the exercise of interrelated human capacities for sociability, rationality, and communication. (more…)
“Tyranny,” by Henry Lyman Saÿen; located in Room H-143 of the US Capitol. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
According to the results of this year’s national civics survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (University of Pennsylvania) only 26% of US citizens can name all three branches of the government; as many as 37% cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment; 39% think the press should have government approval to report on any issue of national security.
This is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. “These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education,” observes the Center’s director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
Why should we be concerned about chronic and systemic civic ignorance? Because it erodes the foundation of democracy on which we rely for our security and prosperity short of submitting to tyranny. That is Josiah Ober’s answer, which he explains by way of a thought experiment. (more…)
Mr. Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency as a right-wing populist, and with the mindset of a demolitionist,[i] raises a question about the viability of democracy. While it is a mistake to conflate Trump’s demagoguery with democracy, his election to office reveals ambiguities over the meaning of popular governance in US political culture.
Trump has said of the government, “I alone can fix it,” which exhibits a preference for rule by The One. He has appointed a cabinet and undertaken a series of executive orders that reflect the interests and reinforce the power of the economic elite, which demonstrates the rule of The Few. Both tendencies are authoritarian. (more…)
Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in his study.(Credit: The Merton Center)
Thomas Merton—Trappist monk, social critic, and political activist—was alert to how people tend to exaggerate differences between themselves and others in order to separate right from wrong and good from evil. He called such exaggeration a trait of “the devil’s moral theology,” in which “the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong,” which “does not exactly make for peace and unity among men” because to be absolutely right, we must “punish and eliminate those who are wrong.”[i]
Who among us has never succumbed to moralism? It is habit forming, contagious, and toxic. It is today’s norm. Hyperbole is the trope of choice. Moderation in language, respect for the complexities of life, and deliberation of differences are rarely manifest in public discourse. (more…)
The Pentagon, 12 January 2008. (Credit: David B. Gleason)
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Donald Trump—all of whom grew up on Hollywood’s spectacle of America winning wars ad infinitum and none of whom fought in an actual war—“managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology.”
We’re still stuck in the fantasy of “an American world of forever war.”
I was struck, while reading one of Peter Zhang’s exploratory essays and thinking about US war culture, by the metaphor of escape.[i] Escape is just one figure in Zhang’s extended comparison of Deleuze to Zen. The spirit of the essay’s multiple analogies is heuristic, especially for escaping debilitating conventions of political culture. (more…)