June 04, 2004

When Life and Happiness Are Not Enough: The Tragedy of the Unborn Self

In his latest column, Justin Raimondo examines the gathering backlash against the neoconservatives' policies. At one point, Raimondo inquires into certain of the sources of the neoconservatives' goals, and he points to an extraordinarily revealing article by Corey Robin that I hadn't seen before.

Here are a few key excerpts from the Robin piece:
In 2000 I spent the tail end of the summer interviewing conservative patriarchs William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol. I was writing about the defections to the left of several younger right-wing intellectuals and wondered what the conservative movement's founding fathers thought of their wayward sons. But Buckley and Kristol were less interested in these ex-conservatives than they were in the sorry state of the movement and the uncertain fate of the United States as a global imperial power.

The end of communism and the triumph of capitalism, they suggested, were mixed blessings. Americans now possessed the most powerful empire in history. At the same time, they were possessed by one of the most anti-political ideologies in history: belief in the free market as a harmonious international order of voluntary exchange requiring little more from the state than the enforcement of laws and contracts. This ideology promoted self-interest over the national interest -- too bloodless a notion, Buckley and Kristol argued, upon which to found a national order, much less a global empire.

"The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market," Buckley told me, "is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex." Kristol confessed to a yearning for an American empire: "What's the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role?"
Note the disdain for a state which merely enforces "laws and contracts." This kind of minimal role for the state necessarily leads to the assumed, but unexplained, negative result of "self-interest over the national interest." And conservatism's "emphasis" on "the market" is "boring." The article goes on:
But because of its devotion to prosperity, he added, the United States lacked the fortitude and vision to wield imperial power. "It's too bad," Kristol lamented. "I think it would be natural for the United States . . . to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. . . to command and to give orders as to what is to be done. People need that. There are many parts of the world -- Africa in particular -- where an authority willing to use troops can make . . . a healthy difference." But not with public discussion dominated by accountants. "There's the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what?" he said. "I think it's disgusting that . . . presidential politics of the most important country in the world should revolve around prescriptions for elderly people."
I previously analyzed Kristol's reverence for a government that will "command" and "give orders," and his view that "[p]eople need that." I have not referred to the neoconservatives as neofascists for no reason; in fact, as my earlier post indicated, I had many reasons for the designation -- and these comments of Kristol's clearly reveal what some of them are.

Robin then turns to the neoconservative reaction to 9/11, and the following paragraph is the key in many ways to the underlying phenomenon that concerns me here:
To understand this reaction to 9/11, we must examine the state of mind of American conservatives after the end of the Cold War. For neoconservatives, who had thrilled to the crusade against communism, all that was left of Ronald Reagan's legacy after the Cold War was a sunny entrepreneurialism, which found a welcome home in Bill Clinton's America. While neocons favor capitalism, they do not believe it is the highest achievement of civilization. Like their predecessors -- from Edmund Burke, Samuel Coleridge and Henry Adams to T.S. Eliot, Martin Heidegger and Michael Oakeshott -- today's conservatives prize mystery and vitality over calculation and technology. Such romantic sensibilities are inspired by questions of politics and, especially, of war. It is only natural, then, that the neocons would take up the call of empire, seeking a world that is about something more than money and markets.
The terminology employed here must be translated, so that we can grasp what is actually being said. When Robin (and/or the neoconservatives themselves) refer to "mystery and vitality," what they most likely mean is mysticism or faith, and emotion -- but emotion divorced from thought, "pure" emotion as an end in itself. And when they refer to "calculation and technology," they mean logical, rational thought, and applied thought, or applied science, i.e., technology.

As I noted in my earlier examination of Kristol's article "The Neoconservative Persuasion," a religious outlook permeates the neoconservative mindset; indeed, mysticism and faith are the foundation of the neoconservative perspective, in every important respect. The terms in which the dichotomy is presented by Robin reveal, once again, another variant of the mind-body dichotomy: the idea that there is an inherent conflict between man's mind or soul, which represents his "higher" aspirations, and man's body, which embodies the "lower" earthly realm, and which for reasons that are never named is markedly inferior and somehow unworthy. Thus, according to the neoconservatives, we need " a world that is about something more than money and markets" -- i.e., a world which is "aspirational" and devoted to some sort of "ideals," rather than merely being devoted to "money and markets," or in other words, to the life of man here on earth, dealing with such unworthy matters as goods and services.

But here is the key, which most people do not or will not grasp: when neoconservatives (and many others, including many liberals as well) deride "money and markets" and "mere" self-interest in this manner, what they are attacking is an individual's right to "mere" personal happiness. For such people, your own personal happiness is not enough to justify your existence: you need something more, something that will make your life "meaningful" and "important."

And that is where 9/11 comes in:
Immediately following 9/11, intellectuals, politicians and pundits seized upon the terrorist strikes as a deliverance from the miasma Buckley and Kristol had been criticizing. Even commentators on the left saw the attacks as stirring a sleeping nation; Frank Rich announced in the New York Times that "this week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream."

What was that dream? The dream of prosperity. During the 1990s, conversative David Brooks wrote in Newsweek, we "renovated our kitchens, refurbished our home entertainment systems, invested in patio furniture, Jacuzzis and gas grills." This ethos had terrible consequences. It encouraged a "preoccupation with one's own petty affairs," Francis Fukuyama wrote in the Financial Times. It also had international repercussions. According to Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, the cult of peace and prosperity found expression in President Clinton's weak and distracted foreign policy, which made it "easier for someone like Osama bin Laden to rise up and say credibly, 'The Americans don't have the stomach to defend themselves. They won't take casualties to defend their interests. They are morally weak.'"

But after that day in September, the domestic scene was transformed. America was now "more mobilized, more conscious and therefore more alive," wrote Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine. Writers welcomed the moral electricity coursing through the body politic, restoring patriotism and bipartisan consensus.

Internationally, 9/11 forced the United States to reengage with the world, to assume the burden of empire without embarrassment or confusion. The mission of the United States was now clear to conservatives: to defend civilization and freedom against barbarism and terror. As Condoleezza Rice told Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker, "I think the difficulty has passed in defining a role. I think September 11 was one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen." An America thought to be lulled by the charms of the market was now willing to sustain casualties on behalf of a U.S.-led global order.
An important distinction should be kept in mind here. I would never deny that the attacks of 9/11 required a response (and I think almost no one has advocated such a position, despite some hawks' contentions to the contrary); in fact, I have indicated on numerous occasions that I believe they did require a decisive response. But if one were genuinely concerned with eliminating future terrorist threats, one would focus on all the causes that led to them. None of those causes excuse such acts of barbarity, but they explain some of the forces that led to such a horrifying result -- and they also point the way to changes in our foreign policy that would minimize the risks to us. Among those changes would be a drawing back from, and finally the ending of, our aggressively interventionist foreign policy, a policy of meddling all over the world which has led to blowback in countless forms.

But what we see in the reaction of the hawks and the neoconservatives to 9/11, a reaction which includes their grand design of remaking the world one continent at a time, is something altogether different: their response is not directed only at eliminating the terrorist threat. Actually, the truth is even more dangerous than that: in the deepest sense, I do not think their response is genuinely dictated by that goal at all. Remember: as the Robin piece points out, the conservatives' dissatisfaction with a minimal government devoted "only" to enforcing laws and contracts, and which "merely" promotes "self-interest," long predated 9/11. They were aching and impatient to put a much larger plan into operation -- and 9/11 tragically became the perfect launching pad for their global design.

Robin provides even more evidence to support this view:
For some conservatives, Clinton's promotion of free trade and free markets was anathema. Though conservatives reputedly favor wealth and prosperity, law and order, stability and routine -- all the comforts of bourgeois life -- they disdained Clinton for his pursuit of these very virtues. His quest for affluence, they argued, produced a society that lost its sense of depth and political meaning. "In that age of peace and prosperity," Brooks would write, "the top sitcom was 'Seinfeld,' a show about nothing."
Thus does David Brooks -- the perfect embodiment of utterly conventional, conservative thinking -- reveal the petty, ugly truth of the conservatives' "ideals": concern with peace, prosperity, affluence (read: "comfort") and personal happiness is...nothing. If anyone still believed that conservatives were concerned with ideals or with the intellect -- or with the individual's right to the pursuit of happiness -- they have no excuse to believe it any longer.

Robin then goes on to describe the desires of certain conservatives in terms that recall some of the rhetoric of the most despised dictators from history, including several of those from the twentieth century:
Clinton's vision of a benign international order, conservatives argued, betrayed an unwillingness to take on a world of power and violence, of mysterious evil and unfathomable hatred. Coping with such a world requires pagan courage and barbaric virtu, qualities many conservatives embrace over the more prosaic goods of peace and prosperity. But there was another reason for the neocons' dissatisfaction. Clinton, they claimed, was reactive and haphazard rather than proactive and forceful.

Sept. 11 has given the neocons an opportunity to articulate, without embarrassment, the vision of imperial American power that they have been harboring for years. Unlike empires past, this one will be guided by a benevolent goal -- worldwide improvement -- and therefore will not generate the backlash previous empires have generated.
As Raimondo points out in his column, and as events demonstrate daily, this hope for a minimal or non-existent backlash appears to have been badly misplaced, to understate the problem considerably.

And, of course, none of these appeals of the hawks and those who share their vision would be complete without the call to sacrifice:
For the Kristol-Buckley model conservatives, this is a heady moment, when their ambivalence -- not about capitalism per se, but about the culture of capitalism, the elevation of buying and selling above political virtues such as heroism and struggle -- may finally be resolved. No longer hamstrung by the numbing politics of affluence, they believe they can count on the public to respond to calls of sacrifice and destiny. With danger and security the watchwords of the day, the country will be newly sanctified. The American empire, they hope, will allow America to have its market without being deadened by it.

The fact that the war against terrorism has not yet imposed the sacrifices on the population that normally accompany national crusades has provoked occasional bouts of concern among politicians and cultural elites. "The danger, over the long term," wrote the New York Times's R. W. Apple, "is loss of interest. With much of the war to be conducted out of plain sight by commandos, diplomats and intelligence agents, will a nation that has spent decades in easy self-indulgence stay focused?"
We see, then, that even though this problem lies primarily with the neoconservatives and those who have been driving our foreign policy, it also extends to liberals and many others. All of them decry the obsession with personal happiness alone. Almost with one voice, they all cry: "Why, personal happiness isn't enough! All the great thinkers have said so! You must have some greater vision, some cause greater than yourself, in which your petty concerns will be submerged -- and which will raise you up! It is only by means of sacrifice, suffering, pain and death that your paltry existence can be sanctified, and justified. That is what idealism means, and what it demands!"

To which I would submit the only proper reply is: "Oh, really? Why? Who said so? My personal happiness is more than enough for me. Why isn't your own happiness good enough for you?" I'll come back to that question in a moment.

In fact, this search for a grand design by the neoconservatives goes back further than Robin's piece indicates. In the final part of my first foreign policy essay over a year ago, I wrote:
In the last 40 years, the Republicans and the Democrats have been slowly morphing into one undifferentiated whole. This process had been going on earlier, but in recent decades, it has accelerated significantly. Now both parties explicitly want and support a huge, oppressive regulatory state, and they argue over only which particular interests should be the beneficiaries of government favors. And, as is always the case, there is only one consistent loser: the average American taxpayer, who foots the bill for the entire pernicious enterprise, who is not "well-connected" and who has no special "interest group" to lobby on his behalf.

Moreover, just as the Republicans and the Democrats have become one nearly inseparable "big government" party, the Republicans -- and especially the neoconservatives (and now even some alleged libertarians) -- have adopted the language of the progressives of the early twentieth century: these people now speak of "national greatness," and of our "mission" to spread our "democratic institutions" around the globe. And how are we to do this? In the manner proposed by the earlier progressives: by massive foreign intervention, to be supported and paid for by the American taxpayer -- and also to be paid for with the blood of Americans.

Now, you would think the fact that neoconservatives and libertarians are now proudly proclaiming the slogans of those they used to deride would give them at least a moment's pause -- but it doesn't. Two unusually perceptive observers, Virginia Postrel and Jim Glassman, noted this phenomenon six years ago (highlights added) [Ed: I must now unfortunately add that it appears that neither Postrel nor Glassman at all appreciates the relevance of their own earlier observations to the current foreign policy crisis]:

"How you feel about the state of 'conservatism,' and of the world, depends on what you want to conserve. Simply conserving free institutions--which define the neutral rules of the game--is not enough for many conservatives, who confuse small government with no government, and neutral government with vice.

"Freedom makes them very nervous. 'Wishing to be left alone is not a governing doctrine,' wrote William Kristol and David Brooks on this page [in the Wall Street Journal] two weeks ago. They offer their own governing doctrine, 'the appeal to American greatness'--a kind of wistful nationalism in search of a big project.

"Unfortunately, for them the Cold War is over. So what's a national-greatness government to do? It could go looking for the next war,
hope for another Great Depression, or sponsor a trip to Neptune. Or, as we would prefer, it could step back and let the inventiveness, passion, imagination, and technological genius of Americans produce American greatness. Toward that end, government could start exercising some self-restraint: cutting taxes, regulating and spending less, treating its citizens as equals before the law. ...

"These conservatives view America's very creativity and exuberance a cause for dismay. Conserving free institutions doesn't satisfy their desire to discipline a rambunctuously productive country. Freedom makes them uncomfortable, because it entails a dynamic, open-ended future rather than prescribing a static, politically determined one. ...

"We now worry that the conservative movement has abandoned the ideal of conserving simple rules in favor of a governing doctrine indistinguishable from the manipulative statism of its opponents.

"Indeed, the pessimism of this weekend's international congress reflects the fear that Hayek attributed to conservatives. So does Messrs. Kristol and Brooks's proposed governing doctrine, which is best understood as William James's 'moral equivalent of war'--a desire to engineer a purpose for Americans who seem too dangerously decadent to be left to their own devices.

"But it's one thing to pursue genuine national interests through foreign policy, quite another to cook up schemes just to give government something to do and the American people something to rally around. Harking back to the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and New Republic co-founder Herbert Croly, Messrs. Kristol and Brooks seek the promise of American life in collective pursuits directed from Washington according to their own cultural prejudices. They have embraced Croly's claim that it is not enough to allow America's future to emerge 'merely by virtue of maintaining intact a set of political institutions and by the vigorous individual pursuit of private ends.' Or, as Mr. Brooks put it in the Standard, if Americans 'think of nothing but their narrow self-interest, of their commercial activities, they lose a sense of grand aspiration and noble purpose.'"

Now, confronted by the threat of terrorism, conservatives and many libertarians have all jumped on the same bandwagon -- but now their program is not simply the "moral equivalent of war." They have an actual war -- and if we take them at their word, it is only the first of many.

These conservatives and all others who propose a series of wars to topple despotic regimes, to be followed by perhaps decades of nation-building so as to inculcate other countries with our "democratic institutions," are the Herbert Crolys of today: they endorse statism as a political philosophy, with an increasingly powerful central government dictating and intruding into more and more aspects of our lives.
And now we must come back to the underlying question: what are the causes of this ceaseless quest on the part of so many for some "grand design," some great cause which will give their lives "meaning"? And what do they mean by "meaning" in this context? Why isn't personal happiness a sufficient goal? What is the emptiness in their souls that they are seeking to fill, and how did it arise?

I firmly believe that one of the major keys, if not the major key, can be found in the critically important work of Alice Miller, which work has been the basis for a long series of essays I have been writing, entitled "The Roots of Horror." At the beginning of an early installment of that series, I summarized some of the major elements of Miller's theory (and it should be kept in mind that Miller refers to "poisonous pedagogy," by which she means the multitude of abuses that virtually all children are subjected to under current methods of child rearing, and many of those abuses need not be physical in nature at all):
By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:

"This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called 'healthy normality'--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology."
The dynamics identified by Miller can be seen in the refusal of most hawks to question authority -- and they also can be seen as underlying the abuses of Iraqi prisoners, as Miller herself has discussed [see the Miller excerpts toward the conclusion of that essay].

But here you have the deep tragedy which underlies the endless search for "meaning," and the inability of many neoconservatives (and many others, to be sure) to find fulfillment in "mere" personal happiness. Because autonomy in the sense discussed by Miller never existed for these people -- that is, because a genuine, authentic self was never allowed to develop -- such people have no self to be satisfied, or to be happy. The achievement of personal happiness, in the deepest sense, first requires the existence of a firsthand, genuine, vital self -- which both knows itself and knows those particular values which will lead to its happiness. But if that self was never allowed to be born in childhood, and if the adult is unable or unwilling to develop an authentic self later in life, genuine personal happiness is a phantasm that will never be actualized.

In such a case, the person will be driven to search for "mystery," "vitality," a great "crusade," or some version of "national greatness" -- and he will view with scorn such things as "markets," and the enforcement of laws and contracts, and peace, and prosperity. In this way, too, death, suffering and destruction become "romanticized" -- because they carry the promise of greater "meaning."

This underlying mechanism also explains two other related issues. The first is one I commented on in explaining why I was driven back to a consideration of Miller's work:
With regard to Miller's point that the idealization of authority figures is easily transferrable for those who have not been allowed to develop a true sense of self, events of the last few years have provided numerous examples. Let me emphasize one other point before moving on to some of the more notable ones. Nothing I am discussing here should be construed to mean that the ideas that people accept do not matter. In fact, as most of my writing here demonstrates, I view ideas, and whether they are true or false, as of critical importance. But the truly notable phenomenon is the following one: many of the ideas that people have accepted, in some cases even for thousands of years, can easily be shown to be wrong. So the obvious question arises: if the ideas are demonstrably wrong -- and as is often the case, when the consequences of certain ideas can easily be shown to be disastrous, and even horribly destructive -- why do people still cling to them so desperately, and absolutely refuse to give them up?

And this is where Miller's work is invaluable. Such tenacity in the face of overwhelming evidence cannot be explained simply by saying, "Well, they just refuse to think. And when someone refuses to think, no one else can make him." Obviously, certain people refuse to think at a certain point. But the question remains: Why? If one looks at the life histories of the great majority of people, keeping in mind Miller's work and her detailed personal histories of a number of individuals, the answer is clear: they dare not question the goodness of the authority figure, the dare not acknowledge the pain they have experienced as the direct result of the actions of the authority figure, and above all they dare not say: the authority figure is wrong. This underlying mechanism of obedience is set very, very early in life -- and the thought of dislodging it later on literally causes the adult to panic, in a sense that threatens his precarious (and false) sense of self. So the adult will do anything to avoid having to question the authority figure.
And the second, related issue that Miller's work explains is that, no matter how many times in history our nation and many others have stumbled across the tragedies of imperial ambitions, no matter how many people have died, and no matter how great the destruction, humanity seems determined to repeat the same errors over and over again, without end. That fact alone would suggest that an underlying cause has still not been addressed, and continues to exact its fearful price.

I think that cause is the one identified by Miller: that for far too many people, their genuine selves were never permitted to develop, and many of them are thus led to find meaning in domination, control, conquest, war, and death. It is almost as if, because they themselves were never born in the deepest, most meaningful sense, they are capable only of bringing suffering or death to others, thus reducing the rest of the world to the state of their own still-born souls.

The real tragedy today, of course, is that one of the ultimate causes of all these horrors has undoubtedly been identified -- but most people find the subject far too threatening and are unwilling even to discuss it. Thus the horrors continue, even into our own times -- and perhaps still further into the future.

And all that is required to stop those horrors is the willingness to see the truth, and to name it. Surely that can't be more difficult than to endure the death and destruction we continue to see, day after day and year after year. Can it?