Peace? Prosperity? What we need is death and destruction!

Remembrance of Empire’s Past is a 2002 paper by Corey Robin (available here) discusses how a number of Serious Thinkers thought the peace and prosperity of the Clinton years was a bad thing.
Donald and Frederick Kagan, for instance, were horrified by “the happy international situation that emerged in 1991 … characterized by the spread of democracy, free trade” which made it possible for Americans to relax in “domestic comfort.” Another writer asserts the Clinton years were dominated by “a national fog of materialism and disinterest and avoidance.”
The preferred alternative? War and glory. Irving Kristol, for example, told Robin that “What’s the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role? It’s unheard of in human history. The most powerful nation always had an imperial role.” Instead the government was wasting its time worrying about whether seniors could afford medication: “I think it’s disgusting that . . . presidential politics of the most important country in the world should resolve around prescriptions for elderly people. Future historians will find this very hard to believe. It’s not Athens. It’s not Rome. It’s not anything.”
The subjects Robin quotes are quite relieved, by contrast, about 9/11: Now America has a purpose again! Now we’ll see there are bigger things than personal luxury! Now we realize that we can never, ever be safe and that “to preserve order, good people must exercise power over destructive people.” (David Brooks).
I have to say, I find this creepy as hell.
Admittedly it’s not a new sort of creepiness. I’ve noticed for a long time that there are plenty of people who define America’s greatness solely in terms of how much butt it can kick. Being the greatest country in the world doesn’t mean the best education, best medical care, best economy——it means we can go to war on anyone and crush them like a bug.
Even so, bitching about the fact the 1990s left us without an Empire of Evil to fight——that we had the option to stay at home safe and comfortable——takes that idea to a new level.
I admit, I think a lot of people waste time doing nothing but watching TV, watching football games, playing videogames, just as plenty of people undoubtedly think the amount of reading I do is a waste of time. But that’s a matter of personal taste, not some incisive analysis of What’s Wrong With America. And if I did think it was a problem, I’d prefer something positive to get people going (theater group, progressive supper, mission to Mars, that sort of thing), not an imperial war of conquest.
The fact is, people having the option to waste their lives is a good thing. Living in a country that’s prosperous and secure enough people don’t have to worry about imminent war, or the government detaining them indefinitely or their company going belly up; where if you come home at night and don’t do anything but read Stephen King (or Dostoevsky), watch TV/football/neo-realist films or cuddle with your wife, nothing bad is going to happen.
Apparently for some people, that’s a bug, not a feature. As John Stuart Mill once put it, they “will be apt to infer that savage life is preferable to civilized; that the work of civilization should as far as possible be undone.” It’s the same kind of thinking that views economic hardship as character building.
But of course, it’s not like any of the people who advocate this view are going off to fight. As George Orwell once put it, people who think like this never fight, because they think advocating for other people to fight is manly enough. Their character doesn’t need building.
Actually, I might disagree with them on that.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Peace? Prosperity? What we need is death and destruction!

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