Thursday, January 11, 2007

Second Nature

Years ago I visited a strip joint with a bunch of salesmen from my publishing company. A particularly attractive stripper propositioned one of my co-workers, who, as he explained later, refused her offer despite the reasonable price, not because he was especially scrupulous about such things—he’d just gotten a lap dance from the aforementioned girl—but because he figured that once he paid for it and had a good time, he’d soon become a regular customer of hookers. “Bad precedent.” The response to Mr. Bush’s speech reminded me of this little fragment of life wisdom because even the president’s critics obviously don’t think there was anything peculiar about imposing our will on a foreign nation, our innocence about the propriety of that sort of thing having been lost a long time ago now. While lots of commentators complain that bombing Iran or attacking Syria or murdering Sadr may be inadvisable from a cost-benefit point of view, very few, especially among the numerous tribe of the liberal hawks, evince any inhibition about the casual use of violence against non-Americans in their own countries. Of course, the novelty of this sociopathy is only relative—America has been treating the nations in its sphere of influence with contempt for well over a hundred years now—but it is new to extend the blessings of the Monroe Doctrine to any nation not strong enough to fend us off.

I’m no pacifist. If a country harbors people who have attacked the United States as Afghanistan did or if it invades a neighbor in a way that harms our interests, as Saddam did in the early 90s, I’ve got no problem with the use of military force. I also don’t endorse respect for the sovereignty of other countries on the basis of some a priori moral principle—as I once wrote, the Categorical Imperative is not a suicide pact. It is experience, not moral intuition, that teaches us why it is a dreadful idea to promote international lawlessness and how the loss of inhibitions by one great power often leads to general irresponsibility and misery. The trouble is, we’ve already traveled so far down the road, created so many dreadful precedents, that it is hard to see how we are going to recover a sense of decency in our foreign policy by simply acquiring new leaders. Our hubris has become habitual.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Construction of a Novel Racism

Bush is still promising victory in the Middle East, but just who it is we propose to defeat remains in doubt. To speak of Iraq alone, the enemy is sometimes the left-over Baathists, sometimes the Iranians, sometimes the radical Shia, sometimes the tribal Sunnis; and it’s a good bet that the Kurds will eventually also find themselves in the field of fire of the American blunderbuss. Small wonder, then, if the part of the public that still supports the President will be tempted to simplify things by simply hating every available raghead, including, apparently, the millions of Muslims who are neither Arab nor Persian, various Middle-Eastern groups that are completely secular, and even American converts to Islam. What’s occurring is the construction of a race, which I define as a taxon that arises from political contingencies but is retroactively understood to be a natural group unified by an unchanging essence. Traveling down the Mobius strip, the essence is then retroactively invoked to explain the political contingencies that called it into existence in the first place. No negitude without slavery. No world-wide Jihadi menace without Israel and petroleum.

In political history, age-old, intractable conflicts are often the last things to be invented. When normal institutions break down, new bases must be found for political identities, and an obvious place to look for such expedients is ancient history. We may be permitted to doubt that the Serbs were obsessing about the Field of Crows in 1950 or that Ossetian nationalism was smoldering beneath the bureaucratic crust during the Soviet era. Any stone is a weapon in a riot, including, depending on the circumstances, moldy old Eastern Orthodoxy or the long forgotten dream of the Caliphate. Which doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that a rapidly improvised Clash of Civilizations isn’t a real conflict or that it can be as easily dispelled as it was summoned into its eternal existence.