The ancient Roman sage Seneca recounts a popular insight: "You’ve as many enemies as you’ve slaves." People are not automatically antagonistic and resentful, but the arrogance, indifference, and cruelty of the powerful can make them so.
Modern American liberalism has tended to focus on Seneca’s assessment of the way in which a master can turn servants into enemies, turning a cautionary observation into a law of social development. Those old enough can remember the standard explanations. Racist oppression had created black rage. Our neo-colonial attitudes created the Marxist revolutionaries in Central America. Our napalm and atrocities gave rise to the Viet Cong. We make our own enemies.
A conservative is a conservative because of certain habits of mind, and a liberal is a liberal for having different habits. Not surprisingly, the American Left is recycling the standard explanation. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed (August 15, 2006), George Soros expressed a cardinal principle of our emerging anti-war campaigners: The war on terror is self-defeating, not because it is poorly designed and badly executed, but simply because it is an exercise of American power. The use of force creates innocent victims, Soros writes, and the rest of the world rightly concludes that the United States is an agent of death on a par with Islamic terrorists. Our witless and amoral domination of the world makes us our enemies.
This is not a foreign-policy judgment. It is not a political calculation. It is not even an empirical claim about U.S. society or the conduct of our military. What Soros expresses is more fundamental and primitive. It is a moral assumption about the nature of human conflict and a theological assumption about the origins of evil.
Rousseau opened one of his treatises with a memorable line: "Man is born free but is everywhere in chains." Rousseau had his own complicated and contested ideas about how this happens, but the underlying judgment has remained influential for modern men and women. Human beings are intrinsically good, but society makes them wicked. It follows, therefore, that the most powerful members of society¯or in our case, the most powerful actor in the global society¯are the cardinal causes of evil.
We need to be careful here, because it is true that with power comes responsibility. We can rightly censure an indifference that allows evil to flourish or, as Seneca warns, an arrogance that breeds resentment. But this is not what Rousseau means. For him, social power is intrinsically dehumanizing (unless perfectly coordinated with the general will, itself an almost sacred and mysterious entity) because necessarily alienating. It does not permit or overlook or allow conditions to develop that foster evil. No, social power causes all the social ills that afflict humanity.
This line of reasoning explains a lot of seemingly fantastic rhetoric these days. I remember going to an academic meeting. One of the speakers took the occasion to launch into a tirade against the invasion of Iraq. "The United States," he said, "is the world’s largest exporter of violence and the single greatest cause for conflict on the globe." I was somewhat miffed. Burundian and Rwandan genocide? Civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Sudan? Colombian drug lords? The often-violent standoff between Pakistan and India? Intifada and the IRA?
But I quickly realized the train of thought. Power corrupts, breeds oppression, and precipitates violence. In fact, it is the sole cause. Since our world is rent with violent conflict, it must be because there is a great power on the loose. See any good candidates? Ah ha, it’s us!
There is an odd, perverse self-congratulation working in this analysis, and its psychic satisfactions blur the implausibility of the inference. Nietzsche once observed that lies and self-deception are the gift that the powerful give to themselves. To lie to oneself¯and get away with it!¯is a sign of nobility. When I was a young man, the most powerful people in America tended to tell themselves a lie: Our great and increasing power was an unequivocal blessing for the world. Now, I observe that Ned Lamont types tell themselves a lie that is simply an inversion of the old lie: Our even greater and still increasing power is an unmitigated source of evil in the world.
There is a big difference between Henry Luce (a great propagandist of the old lie) and George Soros (a financer of the propaganda machine of the new lie), but on one score they are very similar. Both pay themselves the compliment of thinking that the country in which they exercise the most power holds the magical key to good and evil.
There is a difference, though. The self-delusions of Henry Luce were defeated by our relative impotence in the face of human evil, ignorance, and love of violence. Some modest things were achieved. Some bad policies did more harm than good. I’m fairly sure that George Bush’s overly fine rhetoric of solving our global problems by spreading freedom and democracy will suffer the same mixed fate. Some good may emerge, but without doubt some aspects of our geopolitical strategies will exacerbate rather than solve problems, and we will, in fact, make some enemies. But on the whole, our collective human investment in evil, and not our unique American military, economic, and cultural power, will defeat self-delusion. Most of our enemies will come from the traditional sources: lust for domination, envy, pride, anger, and a perverse romance with the power of death.
But what of self-delusions of the new lie, the notion that our problems¯the global problems¯are a result of our power and our will to use it? If George Bush tends toward idealistic overreach, the Soros fantasy that we create our own enemies will tend toward pessimistic under-reach. If our power is the source of the problem, then we need to become less powerful. If our readiness to attack aggressors creates enemies, then we get rid of them by being less ready. Or so the new lie reasons.
Therein lies the danger, for it is not just the fantasy that is vulnerable to human reality and the persistence of evil; a society that morally, politically, and culturally disarms risks going down to defeat with its self-delusion. We see this already happening in Europe.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the emergent conservative populism that has redefined national politics. I observed that the ordinary man on the street in Des Moines does not trust East Coast elites to protect and serve the common good. I made that point with reference to our culture and our fabric of civility, self-discipline, and moral standards ever more thinned by contemptuous elite patronage of transgression.
Now I make the point again, but this time with reference to the physical security of that same man on the street. Guys in pickups are not stupid. They can see that if a politician or pundit believes that American power and will to self-defense creates the most virulent forms of global evil, then that same person will advocate reducing American power and weakening our will to self-defense¯in order (the same politicians and pundits will argue) to solve global problems and make America safe. The guys in pickups can also see that this is an extremely risky line of reasoning. For if wrong, a paradoxical policy of weakness for the sake of strength will leave the field open to the bad folks who refuse to be romanced by our goodwill, newfound tenderness, and winsome vulnerability. And finally, the same guys in their pickups are smart enough to know that George Soros and Ned Lamont are rich enough and powerful enough to avoid paying the social debt on their bad bet.
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