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…)
“The Conjurer,” oil on canvas, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1496-1520. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There is a lot not to like about the new president. His boorish persona and proclivity to wreak havoc are a major source of stress, unless you are one of his joyful supporters. Trump the President is a polarizing figure, but his political clownery is also a distraction from the deeper challenges facing the nation and the world at large.
Trump’s circus act gets all the attention. Rome built the colosseum to distract plebeians from the empire’s economic and political problems by entertaining them with bloody displays of gladiator combat. The famous Tivoli amusement park was built in mid-19th century Copenhagen to divert the people’s attention from politics. Billion dollar football stadiums in the US are venues for mixing blood sport with patriotic display. Entertainment, often fused with military ritual (Roger Stahl calls it “militainment”), sidetracks the deliberation of public policy. (more…)
A warmonger, by definition, is someone who promotes war—urges it, stirs it up. Warmongering is especially foreboding when it comes from a person who is the Commander-in-Chief’s political advisor, chief strategist, senior counsel, and foreign policy guru. Philip Rucker, the Washington Post’s White House Bureau Chief, observes that, “Trump considers Bannon a savant and is allowing him to shape his presidency and especially his foreign policy.”[i](more…)
“St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre,” oil on panel, by François Dubois, circa 1572-84. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I recently came across a striking depiction of the dominant Western worldview, which underlies our conventional way of thinking about violence, especially our assumption that war is natural and inevitable. It is our present-day mythos—our deeply embedded conception of humanity—rendered so starkly that it startles one momentarily into a state of recognition.
I found this remarkable depiction in a book about the history and vitality of peace movements, specifically a chapter on psychology and peace. The authors, Marc Pilisuk and Mitch Hall, observe that we live in a world we have created, both a physical world we have significantly changed and “a symbolic world of mental images that define what we assume to be true.” Our prevailing myths are our most comprehensive symbols for identifying our place and purpose in life. They constitute social and political entities, such as nation-states, that “exist only because we believe they are real,” that is, “because we invest them with sovereign powers and sacred attachments” and “willingly kill or die for them.”[i](more…)
Historian Howard Zinn speaking in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II. He flew B-17 missions over Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. He didn’t like war, but he joined in the fight against Fascism because he believed this war was “a people’s war, a war against the unspeakable brutality of Fascism.” Unlike other wars, this war “was not for profit or empire”:
What could be more justifiable than a war against Fascism, which was ruthlessly crushing dissent at home, and taking over other countries, while proclaiming theories of racial supremacy and promoting a spirit of nationalist arrogance. When Japan, which was committing atrocities in China, allied itself to Italy and Germany, and then attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, it seemed to be clear—it was the democratic countries against the Fascist countries.[i]
Indeed, World War II is the national archetype of the good war, the just war, the war for democracy and liberty. US wars have been infused ever since with the heroic spirit of its just cause.
Based on his experience and then on his research as a professional historian, Zinn changed his mind about World War II and war in general. His reassessment is worth reflecting upon since, as he put the matter, World War II is the supreme test of whether there is such a thing as a just war.[ii](more…)
Painting of Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984. (Credit: Klettur / Wikimedia Commons)
Halldór Laxness, Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. The saga Gerpla (1952) was among the works recognized by the Nobel Prize committee. Philip Roughton’s new translation of this saga of misguided glory, Wayward Heroes, was published on November 1, 2016.
Wayward Heroes is a story drawn from ancient Icelandic tales of valor in a medieval Norse world of trolls, Viking raids, skaldic lays, dueling Kings, and Christian hypocrisy. It is an allegorical critique of contemporary militarism, the senselessness of violence. Its immediate referent is the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR. Its continuing relevance, by extension, is to the US colossus and its Global War on Terror.
This tragic tale of comedic critique features the oath-brothers, Thorgeir and Thormod, both obsessed with glory and sworn to avenge one another’s death, whomever dies first. Thorgeir aspired to be an intrepid hero in the service of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (Olaf the Stout, himself a Viking thug). Thormod was a skald, a poet determined to tell the story of heroic battles fought by his chosen king. It does not end well for any of them. (more…)
Is the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency the sign of a failed empire?
“Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan that seems to acknowledge the country’s fall from grace. Tom Engelhardt certainly thinks that’s the case, as we noted in a previous Hunt the Devil post. In Engelhardt’s words, Trump is “our first declinist candidate for president.”
Trump’s victory is a convoluted concession that world dominion has been a ruinous pursuit. Of course, he promises to recover the country’s greatness by reinvesting in its military might, as if the US military is not already rich and mighty. But, for now, the premise stands: The US is no longer great.
What happened to bring down the empire, or at least the country’s collective faith in it? (more…)
Saturday March 22, 2009 anti-war protest march on the Pentagon. Photo credit: Bill Hackwell, ANSWERcoalition.org
Historian John Lukacs is no friend of popular democracy. In his view, “Populism and nationalism are the very worst (and, alas, powerful) components of democracy.”[i]
Lukacs laments the decline of liberal democracy and warns that as “democracy devolves toward populism, the danger of tyranny by the majority arises.” Populism means the rise of aggressive nationalism, of demagogues and dictators. Hitler was a practitioner of populist nationalism who knew how to manipulate the masses. In the present “age of democracy,” superficiality is valued over knowledge and authority.[ii]
The rhetoric of nationalist populism, according to Lukacs, “appeals to tribal and racial bonds.” It is “folkish.” It is infused with “the myth of a ‘people.’” It unites people by “hate.” Populists are suspicious of anyone who does not belong to their “tribe.”[iii](more…)
Supporter of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)
Time magazine’s feature story, “Trump Goes to War,” observes that “Trump has exposed something real: a populist fury at the decades of bipartisan consensus for a more globalized world.” Trump is the star of “a new brand of populist nationalism.”[i]
Populist fury and populist nationalism are themes common to reporting and editorializing on the notorious presidential campaign of 2016. Most often they signal to readers, on behalf of ruling elites, that democracy (symbolized by the specter of populism) is out of control. In some cases, though, the warning is not so self-serving.
Robert Borosage, a progressive political activist writing for the Nation magazine, asked in early October why the contest was so close: “How can a candidate so clearly unfit for office, a foul, boorish cad who has insulted a majority of the voters and embarrassed the remainder, be so competitive with Hillary Clinton, one of the most experienced and prepared presidential candidates in history?” His answer: “It’s the populism, stupid.” (more…)