Dreaming of War
It's true, as Fukuyama argues, that in recent years "many Americans lost interest in public affairs, and in the larger world...others expressed growing contempt for government." True too, as the Times suggests, that most Americans have been disinclined to commit themselves to any larger cause. But this is not because we are too well fed. Rather, a triumphalist corporate capitalism, free at last of the specter of Communism, has mobilized its economic power to relentlessly marginalize all nonmarket values; to subordinate every aspect of American life to corporate "efficiency" and the bottom line; to demonize not only government but the very idea of public service and public goods.
Will putting the country on a war footing do anything to change this, other than getting the free marketeers to tone down their antistatist rhetoric? On the contrary, things have just gotten infinitely more difficult for the nascent rebellion against "globalization," which is to say world domination by transnational capital. The mass demonstration that was to have taken place in Washington September 29-30 has been canceled. Few would have had the stomach for it anyway. And though some smaller groups are still going, how can the public possibly hear them the way they wish to be heard? A serious effort to put public affairs back on the American agenda, to revive people's sense that they have a stake in the way our society is run, would require a national debate on privatization, deregulation, income redistribution, the rights of workers, the share of our national wealth that should be devoted to subsidizing healthcare, childcare, education, support for the aged. Implementing such an agenda would require massive infusions of public funds. Does anyone believe this crisis will stimulate such a debate or encourage public spending for anything other than the military, law enforcement, the national security infrastructure, relief for the airlines and other stressed industries? Will Congress, in the interest of national solidarity, rush to repeal Bush's tax cut for the rich?
As for the obsession with violence and scandal that so exercises Frank Rich, its source is not an excess of contentment but chronic anxiety, at times blossoming into full-blown panic.The day the frame froze, it was on a culture that had become ambivalent to the point of schizophrenia: caught between the still-potent hype of the boom and the reality, for most, of a stagnant and increasingly insecure standard of living; enmeshed in our ongoing, seemingly intractable tensions between the impulse to freedom and the fear of it; between desire and guilt, secular modernity and religious moralism (here too this latter conflict breeds violent fundamentalists). The boundaries of political debate had steadily narrowed, not because we were fat and happy but because it was taboo to challenge in any serious way the myth that we were fat and happy. The notion that there might be any need for, or possibility of, profound changes in the institutions that shape American life--work, family, technology, the primacy of the car and the single-family house--is foreign to the mainstream media that define our common sense. And so conflicts that cannot be addressed politically have expressed themselves by other means. From public psychodramas like the O.J. Simpson trial, the Lewinsky scandal and Columbine to disaster movies, talk shows and "reality TV," popular culture carries the burden of our emotions about race, feminism, sexual morality, youth culture, wealth, competition, exclusion, a physical and social environment that feels out of control.
Will this confrontation with real terror kill our taste for the vicarious kind? Perhaps; but it does not follow that we will be less susceptible to illusion. As many have pointed out, if this is war it is a mutant variation: a war in which the enemy is protean and elusive, and how to strike back effectively is far from clear. Yet for a decade Americans have been steeped in the rhetoric of "zero tolerance" and the faith that virtually all problems from drug addiction to lousy teaching can be solved by pouring on the punishment. Even without a Commander in Chief who pledges to rid the world of evildoers, smoke them out of their holes and the like, we would be vulnerable to the temptation to brush aside frustrating complexities and relieve intolerable fear (at least for the moment) by settling on one or more scapegoats to crush. To imagine that trauma casts out fantasy is a dangerous mistake.
Similarly, while the need to focus on our national crisis will no doubt supplant the excruciating triviality of our usual political conversation, it will if anything reinforce the denial of our deeper social problems. In emergencies--and war is the ultimate emergency--such long-range concerns are suspended. This may be unavoidable, but it is never desirable, except to tyrants. I'm not a pacifist--I believe that war is sometimes necessary--but I agree with pacifists that there's nothing ennobling about it. I accept that in this emergency, national defense must be our overriding concern. But let's not compound our losses with deluded bombast about what we have to gain.