When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

December 10, 2004

The Anglo/American Pocket Breakout


Samuel Beer, one of our top echelon of political sociologists, talks about the "Whig Rebellion," but I'm not sure whether that term wasn't coined by him. When I use it with most Brits I get a blank stare. That could be a deficiency of their education system. Anyway he considers the American Revolution a continuation of this Whig Rebellion..., and the US as the ideological offspring of the "Scottish Enlightenment." No doubt the foundations of that enlightenment have to do with English history and tradition, even though it was frequently arrayed in opposition.

At one time I was rather taken with reading up on Oliver Protector, and that whole era of English history that dovetails into the Whig Rebellion, but found Antonia Fraser's book so tedious that I'd almost rather cut my throat than read it. Why didn't someone slap her? Anyway, what attracted me about that period was the juxtaposition of the concepts of Puritanism and Providence, and the fact that Protestantism became militantly revolutionary for a time. There was an interesting group of radicals around during that period called the Fifth Monarchists, who were the seventeenth century forerunners of the Phalange, except that they were Protestant rather than Papist. Unlike the rest of the Calvinists, they weren't content to wait until things got settled in Heaven. They wanted to perfect mankind NOW. Had they taken over Calvinism, it would have developed into a warrior cult.

Well, that's the essence of my theory. Cromwell's defeat changed the character of Calvinism, from a religion that was somewhat focused directly on God's Plan for this world, into one that saw the things of this world as merely a "sign" of what could be expected in the next. This shift from actual to potential, and from temporal to eternal, was profound, and it's essentially what makes the Calvinists different from the Islamists (apart from the obvious doctrinal differences between Christians and Muslims). It's why Osama's silly "crusades" talk misses the point, and why Islam has been so "backward." That military defeat is when Calvinism was "defanged." There is no small irony contained in the fact that ignoring this world tended to have the greatest impact on it, and a focus on the next world tended to order the things of this world to the greatest effect.

Which brings me to America, or the United States of America if you happen to see things from a continental perspective. According to a friend of mine (whose name happens to be Lavine) the culture of the United States of American is composed of three cultural elements: The dominant ones are the two twins: the Enlightenment and the Reformation. We are an essentially Lockean culture, in that individual sovereignty is more than merely one of many strains of thought or allegiance, but the primary allegiance. In addition, we're puritanical in the classic sense, borrowing some of our militancy from Oliver Protector... So when we go to war it's always against the Devil... and woe unto any President or statesman who is imprudent enough to allow the Devil to escape his just deserts. Bush II understands this principle, which is why he doesn't commune with his father, and why Al Qaeda is doomed (even though the Left says we're not paying sufficient attention to those rascals).

But, not to wander too far off topic, the third element of America's culture is recessive rather than dominant. It was manifested in the American version of the Counter-enlightenment, through people like Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller (i.e. Transcendentalism). And although Michael Moore and even Noam Chomsky derive part of their legitimacy from this genuine strain of Americanism, they don't do so sensibly. For if they did, they'd be far more cognizant of principle, and far less inclined to lie "for the cause." In fact, it was probably Thoreau himself who coined the phrase "a fish in the milk," which is an agrarian literary reference if there ever was one.

People like Pete Hamel, and few others in the genuine tradition of Emerson and Fuller, tend to see American "conservatism" as recessive, and therefore temporary... but he at least sees it as necessary (which it is). I guess what he doesn't quite grasp with both claws is the notion that we're not really "conservative," so much as anchored in Puritanism and Lockean liberalism (or whigism). For awhile, until the Civil War, we even had a political party called the Whigs... but they couldn't cope with the challenge of slavery. And that brings us very close to the main point of the ramble...

The Democrats of the 19th century were even worse than their cousins, the Whigs, having established the Copperhead movement in opposition to Lincoln. But unlike the Whigs they had no close ideological rival willing to lay down their wishful thinking in order to "get it right." So they weren't displaced as were the Whigs. They survived, but as I recall (and I could be slightly off so feel free to check) from the Civil War until the election of FDR there were only two Democrat Presidents (although one was elected twice), and they were also the minority in Congress for most of that period. So they paid a heavy price for being on the "wrong side of history," even though they didn't exit the stage with the Whigs.

Which brings me very close to the point. I think Totalitarianism is the challenge of the 20th and 21st centuries, as slavery was the challenge of the 19th. Like slavery it is a problem that has been with us from the very inception of civilization, and may even represent a kind of civilizational mitochondria. And the struggle against it will transform us, because we've been so intimate with it... and because its inherent evil and symbiotic character is now almost completely unmasked.

The struggle against totalitarianism has transformed the United States of America from a kind of backwater in the 1900s into a superpower after WWII, and finally into the sole superpower. Every branch of my family has been involved, and every one of them has sacrificed their sons and daughters The world is completely mistaken, however, to conclude that this is about "empire." It's far more elemental than that.

Although we've taken the lead it'll soon be the world's turn. As it has transformed us it will ultimately transform the world, and in the same direction. Though "the world" is far closer in character and temperament to the recessive element of American culture, it is bound far closer to us than it realizes When the mood shifts from detractor to partner, it will happen rather quickly... and will be largely and shockingly unexpected by the "powers that be." They think they've carved out quite a little haven behind the protective walls of pure anti-Americanism... not really having appreciated what America is, and what we're about.

I just heard Robert Kaplan speak at AEI recently, and he made observed that what surprised him the most about the Middle East in recent months is the fact that the US can conduct some genuinely brutal actions in Fallujah and other parts of the Sunni triangle, and there's really very little protest from the "Arab street." One would think that if the characterizations of America as the cause of all evil on the planet had as much legitimacy as some would have us think, the "common Arab" just wouldn't stand for a lot of what we've done. (They weren't even that riled by the Abu Ghraib mantra, in spite of all the hype.) So I suspect they're plumb fed up with their tyrants and autocrats, and aren't really all that keen to see a new crop ascend to power dressed in religious robes. They may have about had their fill of that.

About the oil. I guess we all need that, don't we? But who, besides America, protects the Straits of Malacca and protects the shipping lanes that supply a good share of the world's oil free from terrorist pirates? Those lanes are nowhere near the Middle East. We foot the bill for that protective function, and we pretty much do that alone, even though most of the peoples of far flung countries that tend to hate us are benefited. If you don't think this is a critical function perhaps we could stand down for a brief period... just long enough to see what happens. Maybe the UN will step into the breach? :-^

The truth is that if one looks at history counterfactually, the British Empire left the world a lot better off than where they found it... and also better off than where it would have been absent the Empire. Even now, long after the demise of that empire the strongest correlate of emerging democracy and the rule of law is whether a particular nation was ever a British colony. So, Iraq really looks better on that score than one might think, for although it was only a protectorate, that's close enough.

Or it would be close enough, in a mostly sane world. But what we have in the stead of that world are slaughterhouses whose closest ancestors are Dachau and the Gulag Archipelago. And to make matters worse, the heirs of the forebears of the recessive component of American culture are wont to refer to these manifestations of a three-thousand-year-old-evil as "freedom fighters," equivalent to the minutemen who would literally have wretched their precious stomach contents onto the soil of Valley Forge had they seen it.

We are not at the beginning of something, here... but at the beginning of the end. What emerges must be a kind of political institution that transcends ethnically established "nations" by as far as those nations transcended tribes. There is a moral imperative so compelling that the willingness to strap on a bomb in a futile attempt to subvert destiny will seem positively anemic and cowardly.

(Cross-posted by Demosophist to Demosophia and The Jawa Report)

Launched by Demosophist at December 10, 2004 12:43 AM

Retaliatiory Launches

Cromwell's *defeat*? o_O

At the time he died he still held absolute power. I'd wouldn't mind wishing a "defeat" of that nature on everyone I cared about. You may also want to keep in mind that the true question was one of Parliament vs. Absolute Democracy. There are doubtless many moments in history that are advertisements for the perils of religious fanaticism but the Puritan triumph is not among them. ^_~

Posted by: The Snark Who Was Really a Boojum at December 11, 2004 07:06 AM

[Bangs head against wall in frustration]

Correction: For "Absoulute Democracy" substitute "Absolute Monarchy" (The Stuarts were very much believers in "The Divine Right of Kings"). Not that anyone will read this in a hundred years but that was still a frustrating typo. >_

Posted by: The Snark Who Was Really a Boojum at December 13, 2004 07:45 AM
You may also want to keep in mind that the true question was one of Parliament vs. Absolute Democracy.

I can't unpack that. What's an "Absolute Democracy?" It sounds like a thinly disguised Ur-myth. And the concept also doesn't seem very amenable to the Puritan notion of predestination. My point, and I think it still a good one notwithstanding a few minor irrelevancies, is that the military defeat of the Calvinists pushed them in a very different direction. I can't say for sure that they'd have developed into a warrior cult, but I'm pretty sure the Fifth Monarchists would have, and their status within the larger movement would have been enhanced. As it was, the Calvinist beliefe in predestination led them to the establishment of the rational ordering of human life so as to produce a sign of "elect status." This led to the very opposite of a destructive warrior or military cult, a cult obsesessed with productivity and "material asceticism."

I'm beginning to see why Den Beste decided to stop posting. He got tired of responding to irrelevant criticisms that had nothing to do with the point he was making.

You understand that I'm not saying there's a direct analogy between Bin Laden and Cromwell, right? I mean, for one thing Cromwell established laws forbidding religious discrimination, which is something that Bin Laden would certainly never do. But the point is still illustrative of the fact that the military defeat of Bin Laden is also going to have an impact on the somewhat broader religious movement with Islam that he's part of. And it may even signal a general shift toward the sort of rationalization that Muslim culture sorely needs. (I'm talking here about the Weberian concept of rationalization, of course... not the everyday concept of making excuses for bad behavior.)

Posted by: Demosophist at December 13, 2004 08:08 AM
For "Absoulute Democracy" substitute "Absolute Monarchy"

Well, that makes more sense. But it still doesn't change my thesis. I'm not really talking about the relative merits of the conflict that triggered Cromwell's rise, or even about Cromwell as a person.

The point I'm making is pretty straightforward. It is that while Calvinism and Islam had similar concepts of predestination, they had radically different effects: one leading to a tendancy toward military or warrior cults and the other leading toward industriousness and productivity. And I also realize that's oversimplifying both cultures a bit, for the sake of clarity.

Within the context of a productive and open Muslim society with a robust middle class, mass terrorism will simply become a far more managable problem.

Posted by: Demosophist at December 13, 2004 08:23 AM

But, of course, that sort of begs the question of how you get there. What you seem to be saying is that Western concepts of democracy and limited government were contingent on Cromwell's defeat and the transformation of Protestantism. If that's true, you are really making a leap to assume that the American occupation of Iraq will lead to a robust middle class. Although I know little about Islamic history, I assume that much of the reason that bin Laden exists is due to historical contingencies. Clearly, whatever the effect of particular western policies, the concept of mass terrorism or jihad as a legitimate form of political expression has origins far back in the history of Islam. If so, I question our ability to transform the Middle East. That's not to say it won't happen, but I doubt it will happen through military. The comparison to the British Empire is not apt; while you can arguably say that the Empire was on balance a positive (and, of course, many wouldn't), it wasn't dealing with politically conscious and active populations until later, and when it did the Empire effectively dissolved.

Posted by: MWS at December 16, 2004 10:18 PM
But, of course, that sort of begs the question of how you get there.

I'm simply saying it's a desirable objective, and it's probably only possible if the Muslim world begins to achieve some material success, and divests itself of warrior cultism. I'm not begging any questions. What I'm saying is pretty simple. A military defeat of Al Qaeda plays a far more important role in turning the tide of the warrior cult mentality than most people give it credit for doing. I realize it's radical to say that people change their beliefs based on what they think is possible... but I'm pretty sure I'm on solid sociological and psychological ground. Admittedly one might not ever reach the core believers of the cult, but the point is that it'll stop growing and people who were fellow travellers will adopt different beliefs.

Clearly, whatever the effect of particular western policies, the concept of mass terrorism or jihad as a legitimate form of political expression has origins far back in the history of Islam.

Mass terrorism started on 9/11/2004. Terrorism is just a tactic, or possibly a strategy, and I'm very definitely saying that it's NOT A LEGITIMATE FORM OF POLITICAL EXPRESSION. Verstehen? What the deuce are you talking about? Are you saying we're not justified in killing them? That we should just let them kill us, because it's "legitimate political expression?" That's nuts.

What I'm talking about are warrior cults, not political expression, not the British Empire. In fact, I think the process of shifting the emphasis of Jihad to productive pursuits is already happening. And that's not entirely due to military defeat, but it is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition. The Palestinians certainly wouldn't now be considering alternatives if they thought they were actually winning agaist Israel. And the clearer it becomes that they have no chance of doing that, the greater the likelihood of a different course. Military defeat breaks the will of military cults.

It has been that way for a very long time. Sparta was about as cohesive a warrior cult as ever existed. Thebes conquered Sparta and freed the Helots. Warrior cults will rest their sense of identity in warriorism, until it's clear that they have no avenue to victory... at which point things will change.

I should have thought all this was obvious. The only question is whether or not I'm correct that Calvinism would have taken a more militant route had it stayed in power longer. I can't say that for certain, because I'm not certain that the shift to "material asceticism" and a providence of discovery and settlement rather than conquest began around the time of Cromwell. I just strongly suspect it.

Interestingly, that's also about the same time when the fortunes of Islam began a long decline after the defeat at the Siege of Vienna.

Posted by: Demosophist at December 17, 2004 06:05 AM

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