Saturday 31 July 2004

Patriotism and the martial state

Late yesterday afternoon my sister, having made me a soy milk cappuccino, was watching the news on TV in the next room while I was setting up her new Dell PC. Actually, to tell the truth, I was reading Dennis Keene’s translation of Maruya Sai’ichi’s Grass for My Pillow (笹まくら) while waiting for 12.9MB of Windows Update files to download.

Suddenly she called out, “Quick, come and see this!”

John Kerry salutes“This” was John Kerry saluting the crowd while saying “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”

“Americans are weird, aren’t they?” she said. “They really believe in all that patriotic stuff.”

“They sure do,” I replied. “Even the Democrats, whom you might expect to be a bit more skeptical. They make good computers though.”

This latter observation wasn’t strictly correct since the Dell PC had been assembled in Malaysia from components designed in the United States, Japan, & Taiwan and manufactured who knows where. But, since setting up the PC had gone without a hitch (and had only taken four hours, much of which I spent reading Maruya’s novel), I was happy to give Americans all the credit. I’d even caught myself, in a brief moment of weakness, thinking favorably about Microsoft.

We’d both responded to Kerry’s performance as I suspect most Australians would, with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity. An Australian politician—even a distinguished war veteran—who saluted while telling an audience that he was “reporting for duty” would be forced to retreat under a barrage of fruit and empty bottles, thrown at him by those who weren’t rolling around on the floor laughing.

Australian flagFor, whereas the American character contains a strong thread of idealism, Australians have traditionally been cynical and pragmatic. We don’t revere the office of the Prime Minister as Americans do that of their President. We have no Bill of Rights. We didn’t fight to become independent of Great Britain. We never had a Civil War. The vast majority of Australians couldn’t recite a single sentence from our Constitution. Nor do we share the deep attachment that I’ve seen Americans—and Canadians—display towards their flag and national anthem. It doesn’t help, of course, that the British flag—the Union Jack—occupies a quarter of the area of the Australian flag and that the national anthem is God Save the Queen. (Oops!)

That’s because Australia, as it is now, started out as a British penal settlement and, until recently, has been a largely European outpost on the edge of Asia. We’ve never believed, as Herman Melville did, and—I suspect—many Americans still believe, that “we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” We value the liberties we possess but, at the same time, we’ve always relied on others—first Britain, now the United States—to guarantee those liberties against external threat. In the Asian schoolyard, particularly, we’ve always had an older brother.

In return for that protection we’ve acted not as a martial nation but, in Peter Hartcher’s words, as “a client state, following its senior alliance partners into wars. Australian warfare is a derivative of the war-fighting policy of other countries, first Britain and then the US.” We’ve taken part—occasionally in our own interests, mainly in the interests of Britain or the United States—in the Sudan War, the Boer War, the Boxer Uprising, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian Confrontation, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War.

Only once in recent history has Australia acted independently of its “senior alliance partners,” and then it was not to wage war but to organize and lead a multinational peacekeeping force in 1999 to protect the East Timorese from the violence of the Indonesian-backed militia that was opposed to East Timor’s independence.

The United States, on the other hand, is a martial nation.

On January 28, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, testified at a House Armed Services Committee hearing that 322,000 US soldiers are deployed or forward stationed in over 120 countries. As Hartcher notes, the United States:

…accounts for 5 per cent of the world’s population, 20 per cent of the world economy, and fully 50 per cent of global defence spending. It is structured for war.

In the 228 years since it declared independence, the US has made 200 military interventions abroad, says the Congressional Research Service, an average of one every 14 months.

It has much less experience in introducing democracy than it does in waging war, incidentally. It has made 16 attempts, of which four have succeeded, says the Washington-based journal Foreign Policy.

The journal defines success as the survival of a functioning democratic system 10 years after the first US intervention. The success stories? Japan, Germany, Panama and Grenada.

Of the 43 presidents in the history of the US, about a quarter, 11 of them, have been former generals or military leaders. This is not a judgment but an observation: with this structure, this history, and this tradition of leadership, the US is a martial nation. And whoever is elected president on November 2, this is not going to change.

In this light, it’s difficult to take seriously John Kerry’s promise to “bring back this nation’s time-honored tradition: the United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to.”

In other words, the US has gone to war—not because it wanted to, but because it had to—once every 14 months for the last 228 years.

Even if the Congressional Research Service got it wrong and Americans have made not 200 but only 100 military interventions abroad, or 50 interventions, since the Declaration of Independence, that’s still one every 2 years & 4 months (or 4 years & 8 months). Which means John Kerry is suggesting that, ever since declaring independence, a reluctant United States has been under merciless, unrelenting pressure to go to war.

There’s another possible explanation. That the US has to go to war, not in the sense that Kerry uses—of being forced by external circumstances—but rather because, as one of Maruya’s characters in Grass for My Pillow, suggests: “The state has no other objective other than that of making war.”

Maruya’s intricately structured novel tells the story of Hamada Shokichi, who by 1965 has worked for 20 years as an administrative clerk at a conservative university. In October 1940, rather than obeying his call-up orders, Hamada disappeared, evading military service by posing as an itinerant peddler for the duration of the war.

As translator Keene notes, “the most striking feature of the novel is the disorganized chronology of the five wartime years.” Thus, towards the end of the book, Hamada recalls a conversation in early 1940 with his best friend, Sakai, after both had attended the funeral of another friend who, once drafted and unable to endure the bullying and beatings that were standard treatment for new army recruits, had hung himself.

Hamada has already decided that “The China Incident” (the name given by the Japanese government to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945) was “merely the prosecution of open war under a false name, and that the Japanese army was a totally corrupt and terrifying institution.”

For this reason he’d decided he could not ally himself with that institution, preferring to sacrifice his liberty as a citizen for the sake of his freedom as a human being, and thus arrived at the conclusion that actual resistance of the draft was the only course of action open to him.

Hamada has always thought about war and the military in personal terms, rather than in any broader theoretical sense and so, rather taken by the suggestion that the essential purpose of the state is to wage war, he is eager to engage Sakai’s argument:

“Surely it’s not that simple. What about a permanently neutral state like Switzerland, or Japan during the Tokugawa period?”

“Those are exceptions, the very few exceptions, which is why people notice them. The true” (he heavily stressed the word) “aim of the state, the principle on which it is based, is the making of war.”

“But it has other aims, doesn’t it? The prosperity of the people, cultural advancement?”

“Those are merely aims it pretends to have, or they’re just temporary ones. Its real aim…”

“I’m not sure,” said Hamada, implying by his tone of voice that he rejected the idea.

“Look, they say the Spartans expressed their love of country in terms of war, and the Athenians did it in cultural terms. But that’s all wrong. The aim of both city states was conquest, and it was just some sort of fluke the Athenians produced that culture when what their state was really all about was war. The state’s got nothing to do with culture. Or at least that’s what it looks like to me. The only states in existence are ones that wage war.”

Sakai goes on to list the wars that Japan has engaged in since the Meiji Restoration of 1866-69: the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Great War, the Manchurian Incident…

Hamada didn’t reply this time. He remained silent, thinking about those festoons of the flags of all nations you saw at school sports days and in large restaurants in department stores, that string of vulgar colors of all kinds, reds, greens, blues, yellows, swaying in the air. Was the real intention of such displays, both for the child watching with apparently innocent wonder the lurid bursts of brilliance in the sky and for the middle-aged woman eating her solid, boring lunch beneath it, an announcement that there were all these countries in the world and we would have the pleasure in the near future of fighting the whole lot of them, much like those strings of photographs of film actresses in magazines that serve only to stimulate masculine lust?

Not completely convinced, Hamada asks Sakai why the state should aim only at making war? His friend offers the standard left-wing explanation, that war is the “most wasteful of all human activities,” that capitalism requires waste “in order to achieve profits,” and that “the state is in the hands of the capitalists.” (My friend Natsuko explained the Iraq war in almost identical terms.)

“What about Soviet Russia?”

Sakai couldn’t answer that one, and shut his mouth tight in what looked like petulance.

Hamada leaves the room to get Sakai an ashtray and, as he goes back upstairs, he decides that Sakai’s theory is “just too dreadful to be believed” and instead conceives his own explanation: that the state doesn’t have any aim at all, an idea that Sakai believes is even more terrifying. Hamada persists:

“I’m not all that sure how to go on, but, say, something like this. Since basically it doesn’t have any aim, it’s difficult for people to support it, because there’s nothing there you can give yourself to. So it develops all sorts of tensions within itself; things like party strife, class warfare happen easily. So you need some kind of outside tension, some external pressure, to hold it all together. It’s the only way …”

“So you’re saying the state doesn’t create a national unity in order to handle a war situation or the possibility of one, but wars are started to create the national unity itself; or at least the threat of war is used to do the same thing?”

“Does that make sense? I’m not all that sure myself.”

“It makes sense. At least that must be one aspect of it. It’s impossible to be completely confident of what you’re saying when talking about questions as massive as these.”

“Still, whatever way you put it, finally it comes down to what you first said. It’s the state itself that’s bad. It’s not capitalism, it’s not politics, it’s just the state, that spectral power that is going to turn us into soldiers.”

Except that Hamada refuses to be turned into a soldier whereas Sakai acquiesces. Both survive the war. Sakai becomes a successful businessman while Hamada—a minor bureaucrat—sees himself as a comparative failure. Until he realizes that he must:

never forget that he’d broken the most powerful of all the commandments our society imposes, stronger than the commandment not to steal, stronger even than the commandment not to kill. He was a man who had gone against the stream. He had offended, and he had to be plucked out. He had gone against the state, against society, against the establishment, all there was to go against; and a man who has once rebelled in that way has to go on doing so until the very end. There is no other path for him. There is no way back. All he can do, forever and ever, is continue on his perilous voyage, continue his restless journey, and lie down each night with only bamboo grass for a pillow.

To conceive of resisting the state is just as perilous now as it was for Hamada Shokichi in October 1940. The threat of international terrorism is as real—for everyone—as was the threat of German fascism and Japanese militarism in the thirties. And yet it’s difficult to conceive of a dog and pony show like the Democratic National Convention as being anything but part of the problem. Particularly when Jesus is co-opted to sell the message of patriotic self-sacrifice:

To the contrary, says AKMA:

Let’s keep matters clear: Jesus was not about patriotism. If anything, his life and words describe an anti-patriotic critique of national idolatry, and a consistent pacifism.

I’ve never been sympathetic to pacifism—in this entry I argued (against AKMA) that evil can, in some circumstances, only be countered by murderous and coercive violence.

But now, after reading Grass for My Pillow, I find myself inching towards AKMA’s position while wondering about the mechanisms the state uses to control its citizens. Dave Rogers argues—correctly, I believe—that the state monopolizes our attention to such a degree that we have hardly any attention left “to be devoted to the things that might actually make a difference in the world—ourselves.”

We worry about our nation’s debt, while we swim in a sea of personal debt. We fret about our national security, while we drive our cars with one hand holding our cell phones to our ears. We lament the loss of civility in civil discourse, as we tune in to listen to Limbaugh and O’Reilly and Franken. We fact-check the other guy’s ass, while we never critically examine our own cherished beliefs. And who can blame us for these and the many, many other ironic things that might be observed about our existence? We don’t live in a free economy, we live in a command economy. Our attention is commanded by the authorities, and we willingly give it to them, leaving very little for ourselves. As long as they’ve got you worried about taxing your money, you’ll never notice who’s taxing your attention.

Gandhi said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” Those words were, and remain, an enormous threat to the established social structures that seek to prevent real change. But those social structures learned to use the power of technology against the weaknesses of the human psyche. As long as your attention is commanded by external authorities, things will never change. Perhaps that’s part of “the wisdom of the crowd.”

Or, alternately, perhaps the state has learned over time a whole array of strategies that prevent the crowd from developing any wisdom. Such as conferring on some bloggers the privilege of “covering” the Democratic National Convention, allowing them (in the words of the WonderChicken) “inside the chalk borders of the pentagram,” and showering them with “excellent swag.”

“Fairweather bloggers,” writes Halley Suitt, “like a bunch of feminists getting bribed with new appliances and caving in as they are transformed into Stepford Wives. What gives?” The state giveth, and the state taketh away.

I’m hardly immune—for the four days that much of Blogaria was preoccupied with the DNC I’ve spent all my spare time reading Maruya and thinking about Ozu’s films, just as much a vassal of the command economy as anyone else.

So I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know this: it isn’t patriotism.

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I would think the answer would come from looking more closely at how the exceptions ( Switzerland , etc. ) work. Sakai's response of "those are exceptions" doesn't answer the question: but what about them? Change starts as exceptions.

Posted by scott reynen on 31 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

'...and that the national anthem is God Save the Queen.'

Except for the bit where it isn't (and hasn't been for at least twenty years), I'm right with you. Advance Australia Fair was first announced as 'the' national anthem by Gough ('well may we say') Whitlam, and officially proclaimed as such by the Governor General in 1984. </nitpick>

I wonder, though, whether it's fair to say that Australia's lack of woo-hoo patriotism is because it has solely and always been a client or a follower. Certainly there was a culturally accepted notion of being a part of 'the British Empire' for a very long time, even well after federation, with an associated sense of patriotism.

One would think that the huge number of British immigrants after the second world war would have only added to that, but it didn't seem to.

Posted by Raena Armitage on 31 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Scott, I'm not sure about Switzerland (does it have something to do with geography and acting as a banker for the rest of the world?) but the long period of peace during the Tokugawa period was largely a consequence of the divide and rule policies of the Shogunate together with the existence of a permanent, privileged samurai military class to enforce order.

Raena, thanks! I can't believe I got that wrong! (I've struck out the offending text and added an "Oops!" link that points to your comment.) In a perverse kind of way, though, I've proved my own point (about our lack of devotion to the flag and anthem, I mean).

I didn't mean to imply that "that Australia's lack of woo-hoo patriotism is because it has solely and always been a client or a follower." I think that starting out as a penal colony had more to do with it, in the sense of producing an ingrained resistance to authority -- which is less and less in evidence as the years go by, I admit.

Posted by Jonathon on 1 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Just call me Miss Trivia. ;) It definitely does prove your point, though; I'm sure there are some who think the anthem is GSTQ, or something else Waltzing Matilda.

I had kind of interpreted your comment that being a penal colony counts in the client-or-follower definition -- apologies.

Posted by Raena Armitage on 1 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"Nor do we share the deep attachment that I’ve seen Americans—and Canadians—display towards their flag and national anthem"

I must take exception to you lumping Canadians in with Americans in this respect Jonathon. Few Canadians fly the flag at home and those that do so abroad are for the most part doing it specifically to prevent them being mistaken for Americans. Can you blame us?

Additionally you would be hard pressed at any public event to find more than a handful of people who actually know all the words to the national anthem - either the old version or the newer version. That is a vastly different experience than in the US.

This is not to say that Canadians are not patriotic. We are, but it is a very quiet patriotism and bears absolutely no relationship what so ever to what is practised by our neighbours to the south. :-)

Posted by Doug Alder on 1 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Raena, Waltzing Matilda would have my vote, without a doubt.

Doug, my apologies if I've offended you. I did qualify my remark with the phrase "that I've seen" and what I saw was Canadians at ice hockey games in Vancouver standing and singing the national anthem with a fervor that would be unimaginable in Australia -- which, admittedly, could have been atypical (though I'm not sure why that would be so).

As for mistaking Canadians for Americans, that's an area where I've learned to tread carefully. I'm tempted to say that, if one pays attention, the Canadian accent is recognizable -- but perhaps that's another unjustifiable assumption on my part.

Posted by Jonathon on 1 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I’m an American who finds it refreshing to read the Australian point of view. I was pointed here by Tim Bray’s “Ongoing” blog (which I frequent for a Canadian perspective), and the current discussion has brought our differences to light in frank and well informed terms, made clear in historical context.

I wish more Americans would take the time to understand the history and sentiments of other cultures, but I confess the same victimhood to this illusion of Patriotism. While you value the liberties you possess, you give at least partial credit to the UK and US in the sense that, “In the Asian schoolyard, particularly, we’ve always had an older brother.” How is it that patriotism, if only an illusion or façade, be a bad thing? If States simply use patriotism to manipulate the masses, I’ll take it, and I suspect you would as well.

Granted, patriotism can be manipulated, and we Americans feel patriotism in abundance. It’s what sustains us. Not the wars, but the ideal. We REALLY believe that greater democracy and freedom are the answer to most any problem, and we are willing to sacrifice for it. In our elections, all that’s in dispute is the means toward that end (does Kerry oppose the Iraq war, or does he just want more international consensus?). Our fathers and grandfathers (and mothers) died to further the cause, and with great success (compare the status of global freedom between now and 50, 100, or 200 years ago). We have many enemies and many friends, but we have no big brother.

Kerry must overcome the perception that Republicans are better suited to advance freedom and prosecute our war on terror. He must therefore emphasize his military credentials, and the “salute” at the convention was an empty gesture toward that end as far as I’m concerned. Still, I can see how foreign eyes would see it as mildly threatening, or yet another odious indicator of our martial state. I’m a lifelong Republican and voted for Bush last time around, but I do like Kerry’s (and the Democrats) distaste for unilateralism. So I guess I'm undecided so far. We shouldn’t wait around for a big brother, but we shouldn’t agitate our likeminded siblings either.

Bravo on your post, Jonathon. Time to lurk and read some more!

Posted by John Farr on 1 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Ah hockey games now that IS a different matter Jonathon - hockey is the national sport here (I mean what else are you going to do with all that ice in the winter :-) aside from curling) - after all we invented hockey so there is a certain justification for the exuberance you noticed. That and a very close correlation between watching/attending hockey games and consuming copious quantities of 5% beer. LOL

no offence taken - just trying to make the point that we are very different from Americans - the similarities are more surface than deep. I touched on it a bit in one post and there is a link there to an excellent 2002 series on Democracy in Canada that also deals with some of the significant differences between the two countries.

Posted by Doug Alder on 1 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

John, thanks for taking the time to comment. For me it's not just that I'm prepared "to give at least partial credit to the UK and US" -- rather it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge the sacrifices Americans made on our behalf in World War II and also to acknowledge that I've lived all of my life under the protection of the US. On the other hand, there's no point getting sentimental about it -- at all times the US has, in offering to "protect" Australia, acted in its own interests, as states usually do. And it's impossible to know how much better (or worse) life for Australians would have been had our governments charted a more independent course.

I understand that Americans "REALLY believe that greater democracy and freedom are the answer to most any problem, and are willing to sacrifice for it" but I also think it's true that the democracy and freedom that Americans enjoy is not always the same as the "democracy" and "freedom" that America exports to the rest of the world.

I too "wish more Americans would take the time to understand the history and sentiments of other cultures" and, in that regard, I'd draw your attention to this post by Billmon at Whiskey Bar, titled "Splendid Isolation"

in which he writes about:

"...the yawning gap between how the rest of the world sees America and how America sees itself -- a perceptual disconnect that seems to be growing, not shrinking, even as the two parts are being ever more closely wired together. Globalization doesn't appear to have made much of a dent yet in the tendency of America (and Americans) to live in a separate reality, as isolated as possible from what the rest of the world sees, thinks and must endure.

"In the days when Britannia ruled the waves, this same tendency was described as a "splendid isolation" -- one which allowed Queen Victoria's royal subjects to regard the rest of the world with a potent mixture of contempt, arrogance and (occasionally) pity for not having had the good fortune to be born an Englishman. It produced a sense of cultural exceptionalism so deeply ingrained it was taken for granted.

"The American version can be just as chauvinistic -- if not downright xenophobic, as we saw following the death and mutilation of the four U.S. security guards in Fallujah. But Americans are newer to the imperial game, and in many ways less enthusiastic about it. It isn't so much that we feel superior to the rest of the world -- although many Americans do -- but that we know so little about it, and care even less.

"This basic cluelessness explains a great deal, I think. It allows Americans to continue drawing a sharp distinction between their traditional domestic institutions and norms (pluralistic, legalistic and at least nominally democratic) and their behavior abroad (brutal, authoritarian, and, at its worst moments, downright fascistic)."

Most intelligent Australians can draw a distinction between individual Americans, who are generally well regarded, and the behavior of the American government, which is often regarded with dismay. However, I doubt that you as an American have any conception of the antipathy that many Australians feel towards George W. Bush. In March, the Sydney Morning Herald (the Australian equivalent of The New York Times) ran a poll which asked: "Who is the biggest fool in the USA?" George W. Bush got 66% of the vote -- against a field of six other candidates that included Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, and Courtney Love!

I'm glad that you like Kerry’s (and the Democrats) distaste for unilateralism. I do too. We're all in this leaky boat together and, unfortunately, the Bush administration's ill-conceived unilateralist intervention in Iraq has done nothing to secure anyone's safety. I can't help thinking that Osama bin Laden, more than anyone else in the world, is hoping and praying that Bush wins again in November.

Doug, I should have known that hockey is "the exception that proves the rule" (as my dad used to say, though I was never sure what he meant). And I think that Australians too, even conservative Australians, also view the role of government as a means to social equality which by its very nature requires a more "socialistic" approach to managing society. (Although I fear that conviction may be diminishing.)

Posted by Jonathon on 1 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

As an anarchist, I am delighted to see you thinking along these lines. I would say that the essence of the state is not war per se but violence, and that war is simply the outward-directed form of that violence, the inward-directed form being police, jails, &c. As for Switzerland, the "anomaly" is easily explained: the Swiss state is insignificant by comparison with most of the world. The Swiss really do come closer to genuine democracy than most alleged democracies, and I take it as axiomatic that ordinary human beings have no desire to make war on others unless those others are physically coming over the border (in which case most people are eager to defend their homes and families), and if their voice truly counts that will be reflected in their collective actions. Thus the Swiss, with no massive apparatus of governmental and quasi-governmental propaganda and coercion to chivvy them into foreign adventure, quite properly devote themselves to making money and cuckoo clocks. (Joke! See The Third Man!)

Maruya’s novel sounds like something I'll have to read; it's rare for novelists (or anyone else) to grapple with these issues, because they strike at the heart of the system that rules our lives. (For a comparable silence at the heart of things, see the excellent New Yorker article on the effects of killing on soldiers:
"Lieutenant Colonel Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, an Army psychiatrist based in Bethesda, has called killing 'the dead elephant in the living room that nobody wants to talk about.'")

And yes, it's sad how easily we are bribed to ignore the grim realities...

Posted by language hat on 2 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

A couple of quotes from my recent reading that may provoke thought on how the state works:

"The complete submission of ministers to the autocrat... carried within it the seeds of some of the most serious difficulties that the Empire's administration encountered during the next century. Most important, the principle of complete subordination to higher authority was extended farther down in the bureaucracy, and during the reign of Nicholas I, this produced an exorbitant degree of formalism... Within the context of Russian administrative tradition and practice, this [subordination] meant that the authority of ministers over subordinate agencies became a reflection of that same power that the autocrat exercised over his ministers themselves, and... this power was by nature capricious and arbitrary. This became far more apparent during the Nicholaean era when, as a result of the Emperor's efforts to impose military characteristics upon his civil servants, the nature of such power became even more personalized... Continual surveillance was the means that Nicholas used to ascertain the state of his 'command,' and his ministers, many of them military men themselves, followed his example."

--W. Bruce Lincoln, In the Vanguard of Reform

Hmm... I was going to quote from John Bowman, A Guide to Crete (Pantheon, 1962), but the same information about the historically semi-independent Lasithi plateau in eastern Crete is available at (saving me the trouble of typing in another whole chunk of prose):
"As the excavations carried out on various sites have shown, this inaccessible area, encircled by high mountains ranges has been inhabited since Neolithic times. The plateau was farmed by the Minoans and later by the Dorians of Lyttos, but in 1293 it was such a nest of resistance that the Venetians forced everyone out, demolished the villages, set up guard around the passes and persecuted anyone who drew near. Only in 1543 were Greek refugees from the Turkish-occupied Peloponnese permitted to resettle the plateau."

The state can't stand people not totally submissive to it -- to the point that it would rather evict everyone from a fertile plain, and do without the crops and revenue, than tolerate such an anomalous situation.

Posted by language hat on 2 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

And how could I forget Randolph Bourne's classic essay "War Is the Health of the State"?

Posted by language hat on 2 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Resistance to authority is English (or maybe British) and goes way back. Perhaps this resistance was not as strong among the gentry. Oliver Cromwell had problems with his troops because of it. General Von Steuben commented on being addressed as an equal by those under his command, and other "problems", while training Colonials for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. I can't point to anything in this connection relating to Canada, but I don't think Canada was settled solely by English gentry looking for a change of scene.

It's an interesting attitude to mix with patriotism.

Posted by Mike on 2 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"Raena, Waltzing Matilda would have my vote, without a doubt."

So I've got to ask Jonathon, did you vote for it? (From your comments on Vietnam, I assume you were old enough to.)

Posted by David Golding on 2 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

LH, I certainly agree that "ordinary human beings have no desire to make war on others unless those others are physically coming over the border (in which case most people are eager to defend their homes and families). And thank you for the pointer to the New Yorker article -- I was familiar with Marshall's research findings (that "only about fifteen per cent of American riflemen in combat had fired at the enemy") from reading Joanna Bourke's An Intimate History of Killing. Thanks also for linking to the other pieces, particularly Randolph Bourne's War Is the Health of the State. Seems like I might be teeting on the top of the slippery slope -- with anarchism awaiting me at the bottom.

Mike, I'm wondering if the Australian resistance to authority is also due to a strong Irish influence. It's also true that British officers during both World Wars complained about the "insubordination" of the Australian troops under their command.

Golly, David, I'd totally forgotten there was a vote for a new "national song." But Google revealed that in 1977 Australians chose Advance Australia Fair ahead of Waltzing Matilda, God Save the Queen, and Song of Australia -- and that in 1984 (as Raena pointed out) the Hawke Labor government changed the national anthem from God Save the Queen to Advance Australia Fair. I can't swear on the Bible but I know in my heart I would have voted for Waltzing Matilda in 1977.

Posted by Jonathon on 2 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

The best thing about being an anarchist (and it took me many years to realize this) is that it keeps you from falling into an easy acceptance of the intellectual cliches of your time and place. You quickly come to realize, for instance, that earnest talk about the "duty to vote" and the importance of familiarizing yourself with the candidates and issues of the moment is not that dissimilar from the emphasis in earlier centuries on reciting the proper prayers and incantations in the proper words at the proper times to avoid the wrath of the gods.

Obviously I'm not saying there are no consequences to elections; clearly there are. But 1) each individual voter has (in any meaningful sense) no impact on the election, 2) you are basically buying a pig in a poke (politicians are notorious for changing their minds when in office or simply not following through on promises), and 3) if you have anything other than the kind of vague centrist views most parties appeal to, you have no hope of seeing your views reflected in the outcome. Furthermore, it requires a great deal of time and energy to keep up with the endless flow of information that needs to be mastered to be au courant -- it's even worse than trying to keep up with your team, if you're a sports fan. Most of us would probably do better to devote that time and energy into either improving our souls or directly changing the world (or, for the truly energetic, both).

And the fact that your friends and family will not share your views means that you will be forced to defend them frequently, developing new approaches in the attempt to keep from being seen as a kook; I've gotten quite good at explaining that 1) I realize things would go very badly if governments were simply removed all at once today, 2) to be a practical social system anarchy requires many basic changes in the way humans relate to each other (and to the concept of difference, the practice of violence, &c), and 3) this will not happen for centuries, perhaps millennia, if ever, so I have no expectiation of seeing anarchism triumph in my lifetime. But so what? I still think it's the correct view (hierarchy and authoritarianism are wrong, all people are valuable in and of themselves and have the right to run their own lives, this I believe!), and if I have to make accommodations with views I dislike in order to live in the world I find myself in, so be it. I do all sorts of things I wish I didn't have to (like go to work each day and pay taxes); it's an imperfect world. But a beautiful one, with lots of promise despite the idiots who run it.

Posted by language hat on 3 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"Most of us would probably do better to devote that time and energy into either improving our souls or directly changing the world (or, for the truly energetic, both)."

I think I can confidently state that improving our souls would directly change the world; thus, no "truly" energetic expenditure of additional effort is required.

Posted by dave rogers on 3 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Although I too sometimes consider myself an anarchist (or left libertarian, if you prefer) and agree with most of Hat's assertions here, I also have a pretty high tolerance for and interest in religion. I see patriotism as fundamentally religious, and thus difficult to challenge. And isn't it our excessive religiosity that really distinguishes USians from most Australians and Western Europeans?

Most USians active in social change movements do espouse patriotic views, I've found. This typically amounts to the equation of "America" with "freedom." And I have noticed over the years that many people who call themselves anarchists express a similar non-rational attachment to romantic ideals or abstractions, including loyalty toward symbols (the black flag) and charismatic leaders of the past (Emma Goldman, Kropotkin, etc.). Thus I have come to feel that to the extent that I believe in anarchism, I must disavow anarchism! So the image of a slippery slope with anarchism at the bottom may not be so far off the mark.

While admitting the truth of Sakai's critique, I find I am particulary sympathetic to the patriotism of people from small countries that have been shat upon by imperial powers - people like my Honduran sister-and-law and many of her fellow countrymen whom i have met over the years. Part of what makes U.S. patriotism particularly creepy is the strong redneck strain in our culture that promotes unquestioning loyalty toward authority - while promoting utmost skepticism about the power of the people to change/become the government. The notion that one can criticize foreign policy out of affection for one's country is still not widely accepted in vast sections of the heartland.

The patriotism felt by people from small countries also reminds me of the ties people almost everywhere feel for their local area, their native land - a good thing, i think, despite its long history of exploitation by national propaganda machines. I am intensely suspicious of people who preach some sort of rootless internationalism, loyalty toward the Brotherhood of Man or love for planet earth. Abstractions won't save us - in fact, they typically divide us, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise. Ethical behavior can only grow from respect for the integrity and *differentness* of the other - and the more this respect can be grounded in the face-to-face encounter and the practice of hospitality, the better.

Posted by Dave on 6 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Dave, I find myself very much in agreement with what you say -- particularly the distinction you draw between "the ties people almost everywhere feel for their local area, their native land" (and their language, I'd add) and the "excessive religiosity" which passes for patriotism in the United States.

A large part of the problem (and I alluded to this in an earlier comment) is the lack of curiosity that many Americans feel about the rest of the world. That only 21% of Americans currently hold passports (for Australians, the figure is 37%) doesn't give one cause for optimism that "respect for the integrity and *differentness* of the other" will grow as a result of Americans engaging in "face-to-face encounters and the practice of hospitality" -- outside the United States.

Posted by Jonathon on 6 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I hope that the true principle of the state is not to make war, or violence, although I can understand easily enough why we might think so. It seems, to me at least, a terribly bleak prospect, making the hope of something better not just unlikely in my lifetime (as language hat says), but pretty well impossible. The snippets of anarchist hopes described in these comments sound fine, but how do we get there from here? And is there any difference, at heart, between language hat's description of anarchist belief ("hierarchy and authoritarianism are wrong, all people are valuable in and of themselves and have the right to run their own lives " ) and traditional American idealism ("Americans REALLY believe that greater democracy and freedom are the answer to most any problem..")?

A somewhat different view is presented by Richard Rorty in his book "Achieving America". He starts the book with this:

"National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self improvement. Too much national pride can lead to bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely. Emotional involvement with ones country - feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history, and by various present-day national policies - is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation will probably not occur unless pride outweighs shame."

Rorty talks about the necessity of having inspiring stories to tell ourselves, and also about the need to remind the country of what it should be ashamed of. He continues ...

"In America, at the end of the twentieth century, few inspiring images and stories are being proffered. The only version of national pride being encouraged by American popular culture is a simpleminded militaristic chauvinism. But such chauvinism is overshadowed by by a widespread sense that national pride is no longer appropriate".

The book was written in 1997. The American response to the events of September 11, 2001 have re-inforced and magnified the chauvinistic feelings, no doubt to Rorty's dismay. (See also his article in The Nation, "Fighting Terrorism with Democracy" ( ) His book, however, tries to describe another view of national pride that provides hope. I rather warm to this point of view, perhaps because I feel I would slip into permanent depression otherwise.

However, seeing Kerry's salute and "reporting for duty", makes my skin crawl - but then again, I was born and grew up in Australia. So perhaps I would put it this way, the purpose of a nation is whatever the people in it decide to make it, or allow it to be, and nothing else. There is no "true principle" which is somehow the essence of the state (not war and violence, not democracy and freedom).There are, instead, many coagulations of humans, deciding to call themselves states, city-states, empires, republics and monarchies, who lack the imagination to come up with anything better than militaristic chauvinism.

Posted by Vergil Iliescu on 7 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (troll/abusive)]

Posted by J. Toran on 7 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, if you want further depressing reading in this vein, Chalmer Johnsons's 'The Sorrows of Empire' is a worthwhile read. Johnson looks at the economics of being on a perpetual war footing, and in particular at the incentive for US business to have large bases overseas (especially now that, as the New Yorker article alluded to by languagehat attests, so much of this is now subcontracted).

I'm not the first person to have been alarmed by the fact that the noted pinko commie Dwight D. Eishenhower, decorated general and US president, in his last speech in office warned of the catastrophic consequences for the US if it continued on down the path of high defence spending (specifically, he warned about the US military industrial complex). Unfortunately, as Johnson and others have noted, the US military industrial complex is now a major job provider in every state and electorate in the United States, which means that the chance of changing the status quo (ie reducing defence spending and moving away from a war economy) is in fact zero - no elected representative has an interest in reducing the number of people voting for him/her. It would, at least, take a catastrophic failure of the US political system to engender any change away from militarism.

This is not to say that individual Americans are necessarily militaristic. But US policy has always been so, and will always be so.

Which is depressing as all hell.

Posted by rocky on 8 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Vergil, Richard Rorty's argument -- that national pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self improvement -- makes perfect sense to me, as it clearly does to you. And while it's also probably true that the "only version of national pride being encouraged by American popular culture is a simpleminded militaristic chauvinism," I think it would be a mistake to discount the national pride exhibited by a whole range of intelligent, sophisticated Americans, outside the realm of popular culture -- a good example being this recent weblog post by Loren Webster:

My concern -- and perhaps I didn't make this sufficiently clear -- is not so much that the purpose of the state is to wage war as that the state has a will and an existence independent of the will of its people. In other words, although -- as you suggest -- "the purpose of a nation is whatever the people in it decide to make it, or allow it to be, and nothing else," in practice, the state systematically ignores the stated wishes of its citizens (perhaps because, as Rachel suggests, in the case of the US the military industrial complex "is now a major job provider in every state and electorate in the United States").

In the article from The Nation to which you linked in your comment, Richard Rorty concludes that we shall only be able to keep "the moral gains--the increases in political freedom and in social justice--made by the West in the past two centuries... if the voters of the democracies stop their governments from putting their countries on a permanent war footing--from creating a situation in which neither the judges nor the newspapers can restrain organizations like the FBI from doing whatever they please, and in which the military absorbs most of the nation's resources."

The real pessimism underlying my entry lies in the belief that it won't really matter whether John Kerry or George W. Bush is elected in November since Kerry -- for all his courage, decency, and integrity -- will be powerless to significantly change US policy which, as Rachel points out, has always been militaristic and will always be so (as in 200 military interventions over the past 228 years).

Thus my feeling of despair comes from two sources: firstly, an inability to see how the voters of the democracies can stop their governments from putting their countries on a permanent war footing while, at the same time, trusting those governments to protect their citizens from the real and continuing threat of terrorist attack; secondly, a fear that the permanent militarization of the state described in Orwell's 1984 is already a fait accompli.

Posted by Jonathon on 8 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

So much good reading, starting with Jonathon's post, to the others' comments, and to the links referenced in the comments.

I tend to agree with Loren in that I don't think the US is necessarily a militaristic nation as much as it is a capitalistic one; capitalistic interests, as much as anything, have been the catalyst for most of our military engagements. If we look at most of the military actions we've engaged in within Latin America, probably 98% have to do with 'protecting economic interests', and another 1-2% involving other factors.

I also agree with Languagehat that few want to go to war, or to kill. Unfortunately, the way to generate support for both in the US has been an almost overwhelming patriotism. We are particularly good at patriotism -- poetic even.

"Give me libery or give me death!"
"I regret I have but one life to give to my country!"
"Remember the Alamo!"
"Remember the Maine!"

(Odd that there is no such poetry with the current 'intervention' in Iraq. )

So much patriotism that, as has been noted by many, many of us tend to gag on _any_ patriotism -- even that, which is wholesome and good.

But I don't believe we're overly militaristic, or even that dependent financially on war. True the federal government is a major employer, but the US Postal service has more civilian employees than the DoD -- about 800,000 national employees to approx. 700,000 DoD civilian employees world wide. We have about 2.1 million active, reserve, and guard members -- but that's less than 1% of our populace and not that uncommon for a member of both the UN and NATO. In fact, service callups for reserve members have actually had negative impact, financially, on many areas in the midwest.

Now, compare the numbers of DoD employees with commercial employees -- say, Wal-Mart. There are currently 1.2 million Wal-Mart employees worldwide, and the company expects it will grow by at least 800,000 jobs by 2006.

For companies to grow and profit, there must be favorable conditions. This includes stable governments (even if said governments are repressive). The governments have to favor open and free trade, low taxes, and limited socialization. The latter is necessary to promote dependency on the part of the worker force -- restrict access to health care, or make it expensive; encourage a certain level of education, or a specific type of education, while discouraging learning beyond the boundaries of corporate need.

To increase profits, corporations now use a relatively new technique of offshore rotation, meaning that companies will offshore jobs to one nation until the people in that nation start to reach a certain level of affluence, and then move those same jobs to another country with even cheaper labor. Jobs moved from the US (and Australia) to India, and now they're moving from India to South Africa.

This not only keeps the wages low, it keeps the working forces demoralized, unbalanced, always in a state of need.

Finally, capitalism's most strategic blow is to work to raise the 'standard of living' in all countries as much as possible. I'm not talking about good health care and safe, educational opportunities, as well as equality for all; I'm talking about getting the folks hooked on our tennis shoes and computers, TVs, and digital cameras. If our soldiers are being taught to be killing machines, they're also being taught to be good agents for Western consumerism, too -- bringing with them 'things' that people will want. More potential consumers. More potential workers in that rotating offshoring mentioned earlier.

Who needs the army when all this works so well? Frankly, the Wal-Marts of the world scare me a heck of a lot more than any guy with a gun.

Dave Rogers hit on this somewhat with his one post -- we're worrying about national debt while swimming in a personal one. Heck, take a glance around at the webloggers you know and see how many are talking about this new toy or that; this new electronic goodie or that. If we talk about fixing rather than replacing or making do, then we're considered quaint. And, well, a little dull. As for for going without entirely based on ethical or moral consideration, why that's unAmerican!

Case in point: about two years ago there was a huge uproar in weblogging circles about restrictions from the entertainment industry on music CDs. There was a talk of starting a letter writing campaign and meeting with Congressional reps, and changing votes as a result. Talk about everything except the one thing that would make a difference -- boycott the music industry; don't buy any music CDs.

When I asked people what they would do, personally, to make a difference in this issue; whether they would make the personal sacrifice and not purchase any music until the industry listened to the concerns, I didn't get one response from those so outraged. They would change the way they vote, but not the way they spend.

This is little different than decrying the worker conditions for those employed at Wal-Mart, but sneaking in every Saturday to get cheap stuff.

I can understand your despair Jonathon, as it doesn't seem as if there is anything a single voter, or even many voters, can do to stop these cycles fueled equally by patriotism, greed, and fear. But as a voter who is also a consumer? You, we, all have more power than we give ourselves credit.

Posted by Shelley on 9 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

And I would vote on Waltzing Matilda if given the choice of the songs mentioned here. But then, I voted for 'Louie, Louie' as state song in Washington.

Posted by Shelley on 9 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, I agree with you that "I think it would be a mistake to discount the national pride exhibited by a whole range of intelligent, sophisticated Americans, outside the realm of popular culture". I do believe that in his book "Achieving Our Country" (not "Achieving America", as I originally wrote), Rorty means to inspire just this sort of national pride, exactly as expressed so well in the Loren Webster blog you pointed to. In another essay of Rorty's ("The Unpatriotic Academy, written in 1994) he says "Most of us, despite the outrage we may feel about governmental cowardice or corruption, and despite our despair over what is being done to the weakest and poorest among us, still identify with our country. We take pride in being citizens of a self-invented, self reforming, enduring consitutional democracy. We think of the United States as having glorious - if tarnished - national traditions". I think Rorty wants Americans not to feel hopeless, but to build on the good traditions. (His essay, as suggested by the title, is directly mainly at certain left wing views in American academia).

Alas, I fear you are also right when you say "in practice, the state systematically ignores the stated wishes of its citizens". I don't really have any good suggestions. I think voting is a very important thing we can do, but Shelley makes a good point in suggesting we put our money where our mouth is.

Maybe we should also take a longer perspective. In yet another Rorty essay (sorry about this - I'm sounding like a Rorty evangelist, mainly because of spent a lot of this year reading his stuff), called "Looking Backwards from the Year 2096", and which he describes as an attempt to "look back at twentieth century America from a vantage point at the end of the twenty first century", and he pretends it was written for the seventh edition of "A Companion to American Thought", published in 2095. The story, written in 1996, and taken from the book "Philosophy and Social Hope", begins with this paragraph:

"Our long, hesitant, painful recovery, over the last five decades, from the breakdown of democratic institutions during the Dark Years (2014 - 2044) has changed our political vocabulary, as well as our sense of relation between the moral order and the economic order. Just as twentieth century Americans had trouble imagining how how their pre-civil war ancestors could have stomached slavery, so we at the end of the twenty first century have trouble imagining how our great grandparents could have legally permitted a CEO to get 20 times more than her lowest paid employees. We cannot understand how Americans a hundred years ago could have tolerated the horrific contrast between the childhood spent in the suburbs and one spent in the ghettos".

I suspect his prediction about the Dark Years will come true, but I am hoping that he is also right in imagining that something better will come of it.

Posted by Vergil on 9 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

But Shelley, if you don't believe we're overly militaristic, how do you explain all the wars and "police actions" and interventions? How many countries have Canada and Mexico invaded over the same period? It may not make economic sense, but it's happening.

Posted by language hat on 10 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, I was struck by how closely your statement:
“My concern -- and perhaps I didn't make this sufficiently clear -- is not so much that the purpose of the state is to wage war as that the state has a will and an existence independent of the will of its people.”

parallels one of Steinbeck’s key ideas in The Grapes of Wrath:

“The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

In The Grapes of Wrath the bank, symbolizing Capitalism, I assume, takes on a life of its own, crushing those who created it.

Does that make it doubly dangerous when The State and Capitalism become one, with the State no longer serving as a buffer between its citizens and industry but, rather, as an advocate and tool of Capitalism?

Posted by loren on 10 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Sorry, LH, I wasn't clear. When I said that, in my opinion, economically we're not heavily dependent on the military, I meant internally for jobs and employment. The military, and those who supply the military, are significant employers in some states, but not most. As for federal jobs, as many or more are for non-military applications as for defense.

However, America's financial interests are the major impetus for many of our military actions. It's just that these financial interests are not the same as those shared by Joe and Barb because they're employed at the local tank factory.

I believe that profiting directly from proceeds derived from building and maintaining the war machine is a nice perk of our military interventions, but it's not the primary catalyst.

The Revolutionary War may have been ostensibly for freedom, but it started with taxation. We pushed into new territories through Manifest Destiny, which equates to greed for new lands; we have interfered in Latin American politics dozens of times in the last 100 years primarily to protect American economic interests -- such as the Panama Canal. Even our own Civil War was based more on economic concerns than the fight for freeing the slaves.

As for our military actions elsewhere -- some were a result of our membership in organizations such as NATO, or our support of allies. Ultimately, though, much of the fighting has been based on economic considerations, and very little has been done because we as a people find war a glorious experience, or we feel compelled to fight because war is part of our culture, and the war machine itself is an integral component of our economy.

We didn't fight Communism because it was a repressive form of government and we yearn to be free; or because we didn't have anyone else to fight at the time, having defeated Hitler et al. But totalitarian Communism is the opposite of totalitarian Capitalism, and we are Capitalistic, with a very big 'C'.

As for differences with our neighbors, well, Canada choose the Socialist route, and look what it got? Gay marriage and free medical care, and some upstart section of the country that speaks French -- those damn French again -- wanting to form their own country.

What's the profit in all that?

As for Mexico, well, much of its effort in the last hundred years has been spent trying to fight the effects of having such a rich, arrogant neighbor to the North.

Even when we talk about the security of this country, the emphasis is less on protecting individual lives as it is on protecting financial infrastructure. Osama bin Ladin understood this, which is why twice he targeted the Twin Towers.

But it's easier to whip the people into a frenzy of killing lust if we use patriotism and the remembrance of martyrs, and our roles as custodians of the free world, then to talk about protecting a strip of water, a patch of oily land, or a fruit company.

It's funny but there is an odd little twisted sort of analogy for some of this currently in weblogging. Michelle Malkin comes out with a book about the justification for Japanese internment during WWII, using this as a defense of racial profiling and even possible Muslim internment in this country and folks battle back and forth about the awfulness or greatness of this idea. It may seem as if this fight is happening because we are a warlike people and love to fight, or that we are a freedom loving folk, but 'freedom' means different things to different people. But in all the sneers and vituperations hurled from side to side; the dispassionate point by point refutations; even amidst the fury and the frothing mouths and the screams of American By Goll dammit Land of duh Free and Home of de Brave, we forget that it all started with Malkin and a book, and that controversy sells books.

Posted by Shelley on 10 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

And since I actually aided and abetted Malkin's deliberate manipulation of the weblogging environment by mentioning her in these comments, I think I'll quietly return to lurking rather than commenting.

Posted by Shelley on 10 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I wish there was a way to edit the comments...on second thought, LH I don't think I'm denying that we're not militaristic -- any country that maintains a standing army in time of peace is militaristic. It's that I don't think the US has fought all these many times because it is in our nature, and we cannot NOT fight; that the state follows from war, rather than the war from state; or that we need war in order to maintain the state, as is suggested from Maruya's writing.

That almost implies that there is a random element to our fighting -- any war is a good war, as long as it is a war. But looking back at history, most of the conflicts were associated with specific financial agendas at the time.

But then, I'm forced to consider the question: is the nature of our entire economic sytem based on war-like behavior, competition instead of cooperation? So indirectly, the state, in this case, a capatilistic one, truly does follow from war?

It's hard to figure out which is the dog, and which the tail in this--other than most of the time, I feel like one of the fleas, just along for the ride.

Posted by Shelley on 10 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

At this point, there's a part of me wondering "What have I started here?" (In the sense that, even though I saw my original weblog entry as asking questions rather than offering solutions, I now find myself -- after reading all these insightful comments -- more rather than less confused.)

Shelley, I think you're correct in drawing our attention to the economic imperatives that drive many military interventions. But it's also true that a significant proportion of military interventions are the result of religious or racial bigotry.

Nor should we forget that the symbiosis between economics and militarism is far more subtle and complex than any of us is perhaps aware. In an essay in the latest New York Review of Books titled "Is It All Just a Dream?" -- about Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 -- Geoffrey O'Brien writes:

"I found myself recollecting an afternoon in late August 2001, in a laundromat at another shopping mall, in upstate New York. The wall-mounted TV tilting down over the dryers was tuned to a seemingly interminable documentary about the arduous training of Army Special Forces, a kind of cinematic recruiting poster that evoked simultaneously the action aesthetic of the Die Hard movies and the ferocious camaraderie associated with the warrior cults of 1930s Germany or Japan. After the movie ended it was followed by another in identical style, devoted to the training of Navy SEALS. The afternoon began to take on a disorienting and disturbing quality. Between the poverty of the people in the laundromat—a substantial portion of the town's population was on welfare and out of work—and the unrelieved stridency of the military infomercials, I'd had a sense of glimpsing a possible American future I hadn't quite dared to imagine, of increasingly limited economic prospects and a culture increasingly devoted to the worship of armed force."

In one sense then, "freedom" is real. There is no denying that everyone who has contributed to this comment thread is more "free" than those around the world who are not fortunate enough to live in democracies -- where the rule of law exists, where we have the right to vote, where we can move freely and associate with whomever we want (within certain constraints). Only a fool or an ideologue would say that Americans or Australians are "less free" than the people of Iran or North Korea.

But if in practice the state systematically ignores the stated wishes of its citizens, then the freedom we have is ultimately illusory, since it's simply the freedom to do what we are told and to consume (and the role of the state is, as Loren suggests, to be a tool and an advocate for, rather than a buffer against, the depradations of capitalism).

Perhaps then, as Shelley argues, real freedom lies in refusing to do what we are told -- in essence, refusing to consume.

And yet, the really depressing part -- far more depressing than the prospect of the Dark Years (2014-2044) that Vergil mentioned -- is the fact that I'm just as hooked on consumption as anyone else. Not on "tennis shoes" but certainly on "computers, TVs, and digital cameras" and, most particularly, on books and DVDs.

“You must become the change you wish to see in the world", says Dave Rogers, quoting Gandhi. I can say that intellectually I agree but, emotionally, like St Augustine, I find myself saying, "Lord, help me to stop consuming, but not just yet."

Posted by Jonathon on 10 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Shelley, I think we're basically in agreement that "America's financial interests are the major impetus for many of our military actions": I definitely agree that "I feel like one of the fleas, just along for the ride." But I don't think capitalism is the problem in itself. Without the powerful engine of progress and economic expansion provided by the lending out of money at interest and its investment based on the investor's expectations of gain, most of us would still be scraping out a meager existence in huts, slaving for the benefit of landlords, priests, and kings. No, the problem is the unholy alliance of capital and political power, which distorts both economic and political calculations and provides both means and reasons for endless war. We've got to find some way of detaching ourselves from the addiction to power over others. I don't pretend to know how to do it.

Jonathon: There's nothing wrong with consuming. Consumption is life and "refusing to consume" is refusal of life. The question is how to produce and consume without destroying the world around us, which is neither as unproblematic as the rah-rah types would have us believe nor as impossible as the gloomy-Gus environmental extremists claim. The Greek virtues of moderation and avoidance of hubris are as difficult to come by as ever.

Posted by language hat on 11 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Wow, quite a thought provoking post and comments. Can't take it all in at once. The trackbacks are looking pretty impressive too. Blogging at its best, thanks Jonathan.

The big questions are about the future, about how not to just be depressed by all of this and begin to think about first steps and act on them. How do we effectively counter the Disciplinary Society and its project for Empire?

For me, the choice between Bush and Kerry begins with recognizing both are part of the dying system, but one has already demonstrated such a completely reactionary program that will certainly reduce our ability to adapt to change (already has done much damage). If the state is a current fact, we need to have one that least hampers our ability to freely associate as citizens. Real change is from the bottom up, and the best the state can do is create the conditions that allow the best grass roots initiatives to grow and thrive. We have lost a lot of that in our mass media culture, but there is hope in the growth of 2-way technologies of the Internet. It also needs to be grounded in one on one, face to face relationships, but blogging is one of the important vectors. Thanks to the whole blogsphere for creating the conditions where excellence can emerge in posts and comments like this one.

Posted by Gerry on 11 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathan, a caution about homogenizing all Americans into one neat package. We are quite a divergent lot. And there is quite a difference between American politics (granted, they're pretty strange by almost any standard) and being an American.

There are many of us who question what's going on in our country right now and working to make changes.

For a good foundation into today's American poltical scene, might I recommend the book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" by Thomas Frank.

Posted by Jeff on 15 August 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour