The American Conservative ranks the candidates in terms of foreign policy sanity:
The Beltway hawks want to defeat Putin, depicted as a new Hitler by Hillary Clinton, to punish the Russian leader who put a stop to the oligarch looting spree of the 1990s that had sent Russia into a death spiral. Their dream: humiliating Putin, setting off “freedom” demonstrations in Moscow, perhaps a civil war to bring Putin down.
Why, one must ask, is this an American interest? Why would we want chaos in a state which possesses 8,000 nuclear weapons? If the neocons and neoliberals got their way and Putin is defeated and falls, who then assumes power? Or does Russia break into warring fiefdoms with various warlords vying for control? And in this scenario, who, if anyone, commands Moscow’s nuclear arsenal? Is this really the future—with all its attendant uncertainty, desperation, and humiliation—Americans want to see? Truly it is hard to imagine anything more stupid or shortsighted.
I don't talk a lot about foreign policy because it doesn't interest me that much. Monitoring what's going on is about as interesting as reading the police blotter in the local newspaper. It's simply a matter of different gangs fighting with one another to improve their territory and market share. Nationalist sentiment is nothing more than wearing gang colors. It's primitive and uninteresting, but unfortunately, you have to deal with it if you live in a neighborhood controlled by gangs, and we all do.
So when it comes to foreign policy, we shouldn't look at our own US policy as motivated by anything differently than defending its market share. I honestly believe that at this time in our national development we are collectively incapable of anything better than enlightened self interest. I doubt we are even capable of the enlightened part. Whenever the US gets idealistic about foreign policy, it almost always makes things far worse, especially for the people we insist we want to help. We are collectively incapable of doing the right thing, even if it's clear what the right thing is to do, and usually it's not. Never trust anyone who professes to be an idealist in foreign policy; he is either a charlatan or a dangerous fool. The bottom line is that our shrewder gang leaders realize that they don't have any market share in this part of the world to protect, and that they should leave it alone. It's not noble, but it's sane, and when genuine nobility is not a possibility, sanity should be embraced.
So I am all for the Ukraine getting a higher level of self-determination than it had under the Russian puppet Yanukovych, but maybe the price for getting it is the Ukraine's giving up the Crimea--and, though possible, less likely--some of its eastern borderlands occupied mostly by Russian gangsters. It's a decent tradeoff--give up territory inhabited mostly by people who don't wear your colors in exchange for control over your own still extensive territory.
That's what the terms of the negotiations should be about now, but I doubt that's how the Ukrainians see it. Too bad. Regardless, it's, first, the Ukraine's business, and, second, the European Union's, and the US role should be simply to stand on the sidelines and support any decision these parties come up with that promises sanity, stability, and as much self determination for the concerned parties as seems practicable given the political realities.
We're approaching the centenary of the beginning of WWI. It started because a Serbian gangster took out a rival Austrian capo. The Austrian gang moved to retaliate, and the Russians mobilized to protect its market share in the Balkans, and this started the chain reaction that led to thirty years that were among the most horrific in European if not world history. It should have stayed between Austria and Russia without everyone else getting in the act. It may have led to disaster for one or the other, but it would have been a limited disaster. The same goes here.
Putin is a silly, strutting gamecock, but while he's a threat to his immediate neighbors, he's not a threat to world order. Not even remotely in the way that a major military conflict in this region would be. That's why it's important for the West not to listen to our own strutting gamecocks like McCain, Graham, NRO, and the gangsters on FOX. These fools are nuisances that need to be prudently managed and contained, but not to be taken more seriously than they deserve.
Various notable individuals have lauded Guevara as a hero; for example, Nelson Mandela referred to him as "an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom",while Jean-Paul Sartre described him as "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age". Others who have expressed their admiration include authors Graham Greene, who remarked that Guevara "represented the idea of gallantry, chivalry, and adventure", and Susan Sontag, who supposed that "[Che's] goal was nothing less than the cause of humanity itself." ... Praise has been reflected throughout the political spectrum, with the libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard extolling Guevara as a "heroic figure", lamenting after his death that "more than any man of our epoch or even of our century, [Che] was the living embodiment of the principle of revolution", while journalist Christopher Hitchens commented that "[Che's] death meant a lot to me and countless like me at the time, he was a role model, albeit an impossible one for us bourgeois romantics insofar as he went and did what revolutionaries were meant to do—fought and died for his beliefs. (Source)
Yes, I know this post should be about Mandela, but I've had Guevara on my mind, and Mandela's death gives me the opportunity to talk about what I've been thinking about both of them.
Steinbeck's East of Eden is a study of two personality types that define, I think in a profound way, a basic polarity that defines our human nature--the Cain and Abel or imp/angel archetypes. Cal and Cathy Imps; Adam and Aron, Angels. But these basic archetypes are found everywhere: Tom Sawyer, Imp; Huck Finn, Angel. Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, Angels; Fyodor, Dmitri, and Smerdyakov,Imps. (See my post on this theme.)
Neither is morally superior, but the Imps type often gets a bad rap because they are a little too comfortable with their 'falleness' and tend to be transgressive rules breakers. The Angel type is an idealist and rules follower and is often embraced as "good" because he is an exemplar of tribal virtue. But for Steinbeck, Dostoyevski, Twain (and me) he isn't good or better than the Imp type. Like Imps, Angels have a moral task, a life work that they must accomplish if they are to become truly good. It's a harder road, I think, for the angel than it is for the imp.
Imps are at home in the world and accept the world on its own terms. They are averse to making moral judgments. Some could be simply understood as people stuck in Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage. They live for enjoyment. Rules, laws, moral restrictions are hard for them to take seriously. This can have a naive or immature, good-old-boy character, in a person who lives unconsciously according driven impulsively by fear and desire. For such people the goal is simply to do as he pleases without getting caught. Or the Imp can be more shrewd and cold-blooded as in the characters Fyodor Dostoyevski or Cathy Trask, for whom everything is a calculation regarding maximizing gain and minimizing loss, for whom nothing ever is given without extracting something in return. We see these types all the time in popular fiction in books and on screens.
Imps thrive on Wall Street. They have no concept of the common good. For them the common good a silly abstraction embraced by people--Angels--who don't understand how the world works. Imps in France in 1940 shrugged and did what was necessary to get along with the Nazis. The Angels joined the resistance--and they got their revenge on collaborators after the war. Angels can be harshly judgmental, and often ruthless in the service of their ideals or mission, but it has to be a mission they beliieve serves a higher purpose than their own self interest.
Each Imp-dominant personality has a suppressed Angel, and each Angel-dominant personality has a suppressed Imp. The meaning of the gospel admonition to become shrewd as serpents and guileless as doves is for Angels to embrace their suppressed Imp, and for Imps to embrace their suppressed Angel, and in doing so to effect a balance--or metaxis--between the part of us that is attuned to heaven and the part that is attuned to the earth. To effect the integration is not easy; it requires living in an uncomfortable tension between them. It is much easier to be one sided--to be Angel or Imp. It's much harder to be both.
But to succeed is to achieve a kind of greatness; to fail, or at least not to try, is to remain a soul mediocrity, a stagnant hodgepodge of instinctual impulses and culturally conditioned attitudes and beliefs. The challenge for each is to call the suppressed part of themselves out of the shadows and to integrate it into his personality. This is a moral task, but it is very different for the two types. In popular culture, this moral transformation is mostly described on 'Imp' terms, e.g., the self-absorbed sybarite, the narcissistic careerist who meets the woman of his dreams,usually an Angel-dominant type, who forces a choice, who calls him to commitment and to clean up his act. (See the film Tao of Steve for a classic, entertaining example about the classic move from Kierkegaard's aesthetic to the ethical. Dickens's Scrooge is the story of a man who when confronted with the choice failed to make the move.)
Less common are stories about the moral transformation of Angels, and if the story is depicted at all, it's a story of their failure. How does this relate to Mandela and Guevara? They are both Angels; one succeeded in his moral transformation, and the other didn't.
So the Angel type fails if he stagnates in conventional, rules-following mediocrity. These are the good little boys and girls that priggish adults love, and that the movies hate because they are so predictably boring. Angels turning sour, however, is another possibility, and one that is worth writing about. Angels who sour come in three basic categories and combinations of them--the Cynic, the Drunk, and the Jacobin.
The Cynic is a lapsed idealist. He rejects his natural idealism as delusional once it becomes clear to him that the world has the effrontery not to conform to the way he thinks it should be. He can be angry and embittered or depressed and withdrawn.
The Drunk is another kind of soured Angel. He seeks escape from an ugly world he cannot abide, especially if there is a better one in his imagination. Dylan Thomas comes to mind. Christopher Hitchens was a combination of this and the first.
The Jacobin is the most interesting of the three. His response to his discovery of an ugly world is to re-engineer it, to seek to control it, using whatever amount of violence and force necessary to make it conform to the ideal template he has for it in his mind.
Each is a failed response to a shock of some kind that can be an opportunity if the shock is dealt with effectively. And for each of these failed responses recovery is possible. But of these three possibilities, the Jacobin is the most attractive, especially in the young, because at least it's a positive response that engages with the world, and as such provides a better chance of recovery than that provided Drunks and Cynics. But Jacobins can become monsters if they fail.
Both Mandela and Che were Jacobins in their twenties. Che died one, Mandela didn't. The difference? Mandela went to prison, and Che went to Bolivia. Mandela matured; Che did not. Did Che die a monster? I think he did.
I have Che on my mind because in October I rewatched The Motorcycle Diaries and saw for the first time Che, the two-part film by Stephen Soderberg. The Ernesto Guevara of The Motorcycle Diaries is well named. He is a classic Angel type who pairs up with Alberto, a classic, pleasure-seeking Imp--Che is Hal to Alberto's Falstaff. There is something big-souled and appealing about the twenty-three-year old Ernesto. He has a great, compassionate soul, and he has an intelligence and thoughtfulness that make him stand out. But there was a stubborn, perhaps even compulsive, absolutist quality to him, which is typical of Angel prodigies. That stubbornness--that refusal to accept the world on its own terms--can lead to greatness or monstrousness.
In Soderberg's film, Che contrasts dramatically with Fidel, who is more practical, down to earth, and as such more human. Che was successful in Cuba because he had Fidel to temper his revolutionary angelism; Che failed in Africa and Bolivia because he was on his own and he had no one he trusted who could balance him out. He had a very hard time dealing with the political realities and the frailties of the people he sought to help. He lacked patience and could barely control his contempt for anyone who was not motivated by the same ideals and willingness to sacrifice as he. He needed Fidel (or Alberto) to bring him down to earth.
I'd argue that Che's story is one of tragic failure, not just because of the fiascos in Africa and Bolivia, but because those failures didn't temper him. If anything they reinforced his Jacobinism and kept him stuck. It's fortunate for the world that he never got into a position where his revolutionary angelism could have been given a wider scope. I'm not saying he'd be as bad as Mao or Pol Pot, but there would be similarities. It's unfortunate that he was shot and didn't spend time in prison to recover himself.
The crisis for Angels is usually a moment when life deals them a harsh blow, and everything depends on how they react to it. Breaking Bad's Walter White was an Angel stuck in conventional mediocrity when the news of his cancer delivered that blow--it transformed him into a bitter, cynical, control freak--a drug-lord Robespierre. Adam in East of Eden goes into an irresponsibly self-absorbed, child-neglecting depression after Cathy shoots and leaves him. Aron in the same book freaks out and runs away when he learns his mother is a madam at a nearby whorehouse. Alyosha Karamazov is devastated upon hearing of the humiliating premature decay of his hero Zossima's corpse. But Alyosha recovers. Those who recover, who find a way of keeping one foot in heaven and the other on the earth, are best described by the Yiddish word, 'mensch'.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's The Yearling is also a success story about three Angel-dominant types, Penny and Ora Baxter, and their son, Jody. Penny Baxter is a mensch, he is the model of the integrated Angel/imp, serpent and dove. His wife, however, failed to recover from life's cruel blows and became embittered and depressed. The narrative arc of the book sets up a similar kind of blow that will be dealt to Jody, when he is told that he must destroy his pet deer, Flag. And the question that's implied in this crisis is whether Jody will respond to this blow as his mother did or as his father. Jody's reaction was a lot like Aron's in East of Eden--to run away. But he came back, and Penny's speech to Jody when he returns points out how it's possible for Angels to come down to earth and to live on it as a mensch:
You've seed how things goes in the world o' men. You've knowed men to be low-down and mean. You've seed ol' Death at his tricks...Ever' man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. 'Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but 'tain't easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin. I've been uneasy all my life...I've wanted life to be easy for you. Easier'n 'twas for me. A man's heart aches, seein' his young uns face the world. Knowin' they got to get their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin'. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever' man's lonesome. What's he to do then? What's he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.
If the blow for Che was his failure in Africa, the blow for Mandela was his being thrown into prison for twenty-four years. Everything depended on how they responded to those blows. It could have made them into embittered cynics or bloodthirsty Jacobins--or it could have given them the opportunity to become mensches. Mandela became the mensch, and Che remained a Jacobin. That's the difference between Mandela and Che, regardless of their relative historical importance. Both were prodigies in their own way, both potential great souls, but Mandela realized that potential while Che did not.
Mandela's imprisonment provided the context for his 'integration' of serpent and dove, for the Angel in him to develop a compassion that was stronger than his outrage at the egregious injustices done to him and to his people. He came to accept the world as it was, and yet not to give up his ideals. Che, I would argue, would have benefitted from spending time in prison, too. It might have given him the chance to effect a similar kind of integration. It might have given him more time and perspective. But then again it might have more deeply embittered him.
I think Fidel is a wiser, shrewder man than Che. Fidel is a mensch, and he would have more admirers in the U.S. if his revolution had taken place at a time other than when Americans could only view it through a Cold War lens. History will be kinder to him than American public opinion has been, and he is a bigger, better man than Che was.
Many decent people after Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, et al., believed that the international community had an obligation to intervene to protect the human rights of Tutsis, Bosniaks, and Kosovars. They were horrified to learn how the U.N. stood by and allowed the massacre in Rwanda, and supported the interventions in the Balkans later in the decade.
This same argument was proposed as a compelling reason for intervening in Iraq. I was astonished at how many people whose thinking and poltics I otherwise respected justified the invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds, arguing that national sovreignty should be superseded when the rights of a naton's citizens were being egregiously abused. It should have been done in Rwanda, and it was good that it was done in the Balkans. Why was Iraq any different? Why was Bush doing anything differently than Clinton did?
Well, there were plenty of reasons that Iraq was different and why the Bush administraton's rationale for invasion never passed the smell test. And the first thing anybody with any nose at all smelled was the oil. The overwrought attempts to connect Saddam with al-Quaeda, the hysteria about WMD--none of it added up. And then when the influence of the neocon Project for the New American Century came into view, it all made sense. This was a geopolitical power grab and an exercise in state building engineered by second-rate, chicken-hawk technocrats. The hubris was fantastical, and the results predictable.
Americans were very hostile to Britain until the 20th century, till the World War I period, because that was the empire, and we were consciously anti-imperial. John Quincy Adams has a great speech that he made on July 4, 1819, in which he says we don’t go forth in search of foreign monsters to destroy. He says we might become dictators for the world, but we would lose our own spirit as a nation. And that’s what we think has happened, the United States in some ways has lost its soul as a nation. We started to lose that soul in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We lost it during the 1950s with Eisenhower going from 1,000 nuclear weapons when he takes office to 23,000 when he leaves office, to 30,000 when his budgeting cycle is finished. We lost it in Vietnam. We’ve lost it repeatedly, but we think it’s not all gone. That’s why we’re fighting to salvage what we can and turn this around. (Source)
I think that's right, and I've argued before that we may have won the war because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but in winning it that way we lost our souls. You can make all the utilitarian arguments you'd like about how it shortened the war, and the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden was worse, but dropping the atomic bomb changed us, it fueled our paranoia, and we haven't recovered. Kuznick is optimistic that we can recover. I want to believe he's right, and I have sanguine moments when I do think we can recover. But it starts with our refusal of empire, and with our assuming a more modest role in the world as one nation among others.
Ever wonder why so many right wingers are so bent out of shape about the so-called illegal immigrant problem? Many right-wing Americans, especially those who identify with the frontiersman narrative, fear that the Mexicans, from whom 19th-Century Americans stole Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, are looking for payback, and that the invasion of the the southwest by undocumented Mexicans is a stealth strategy by Mexicans to take back what was stolen from them. So put up that ridiculous wall. At a deep, unconscious level that same mentality assumes that the world wants payback for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ever wonder why the U.S. feels the need to have a military budget that exceeds the the military budget of the rest of the world combined? Ever wonder why we're so afraid that we feel compelled to arm ourselves to the teeth? Sure it's economically driven; it makes a lot of important people rich. But there are other, deeper reasons. I'd argue that a big part of it is because we are the only country that has used atomic weapons on civilians to such destructive effect, and deep in our psyche, especially if we already have the paranoid tendencies typical of the hard right, we expect payback.
9/11 wasn't a surprise or an aberration for people with this mindset. It was to be expected, because what goes around comes around, and it proves that we will be destroyed by those who hate us as soon as we show the least weakness. So now we must be frisked at airports, and we must arm ourselves to unprecedent levels, and we must garrison the world. Not because the world hates our freedom, but because we are bullies and we know that all the people we've pushed around over the last sixty years are going sooner or later to push back. At root it's not an offensive strategy, but one one saturated in fear about payback.