20 February 2011

The Death of Nations

WikiLeaks. Ah, the joys of self-righteous indignation. Right now it may be the one chief sentiment shared by both exposers and the exposed. For my part I'm not sure of anything else our makers and our critics of foreign policy share. I mean, other than the belief that the right conduct of foreign affairs is a Jeffersonianly self-evident truth - the whistleblowers in this case being both Divinely and naturally certain how foreign policy ought to be conducted, the whistleblown perhaps equally sure how it must be conducted. As usual, what we end up with is two columns of rigid, military-formation dogmatists shouting past each other. What both critics and criticized seem to have forgotten is the whole point of any foreign policy: namely, the safety of human beings - and not just of the ingenious, brilliant, awesome, but ultimately unpredictable things human beings invent or create. And that can sometimes mean the safety of what we call labor no less than that of capital.

These are hard times, I'll admit, for those who value also the dignity of the human creature, and not just the power of human systems and other inventions. Nowadays we tend to love best those entities that claim the sole power and the exclusive right to create jobs, regardless of whether the actual jobs are forthcoming or not. And this love has some interesting consequences for our nations' foreign policies. Unless I completely misread its spirit, our Age is one in which what passes for "foreign affairs" means largely catering to the wants, or appeasing the wrath, of superhuman global monstrosities: corporations, charities, international crisis groups, world-environment purifiers, divine-wrath-and-vengeance inflictors, "antiterror" private armies and contractors, etc. The list is practically endless, the only requirement to get on it apparently being that you become the sort of agency that has no long-term human* investment in, or commitment to, the good of the geographic place in which your highly mobile staff find themselves working.

* As distinct from short-term operations of specialists: medical, peace-keeping, famine or disaster relief, infrastructural, etc.

Small wonder that, in busy times like ours, we find ourselves forgetting a point which may have been easier to remember in other, more humanly-paced and -proportioned eras. The point, namely, that any sensible - i.e., humane - foreign policy has but one chief aim: to secure the well-being of real people, in real physical spaces - localities, regions, countries, even continents. Good diplomacy, in other words, must strive humbly to understand the good of specific peoples, in a specific place or contiguity of places, who often have a long history of living or neighboring together. Like, for instance, Mexico and the United States. Or Pakistan and India. A history that may often seem obscure and perplexing to outsiders interested primarily in corporate investment, or in hit-and-run kinds of humanitarian intervention. Obviously, then, the people "on the ground" who share this long history may have needs very different from those of foreign investors, or natural-resource extractors, or even humanitarian relief workers. These "on the ground" folks, unlike their more mobile benefactors, are in constant need of finding ways to get along peaceably with each other, not just in the hit-and-run, but in the long run. And especially right after the well-intentioned mobile benefactors have all gone home. That holds true, I might add, regardless of how much the "on-the-grounders" may secretly despise even their oldest or closest neighbors' beliefs, ambitions, agendas, or other idiosyncrasies. As the saying goes, No, you can't choose your neighbors. But you'd be wise in choosing not to antagonize them unnecessarily.

Now as you can imagine, this "getting-along" can be a very complex, painstaking, time-needing, trial-and-error kind of thing. It's not the sort of political wisdom one can apprehend in an instant, like a mathematical or economic axiom; nor is it the kind of truth that glows self-evidently from the pages of some constitutional document however sacred. It may also require a good deal of what some of our more ideologically-charged souls today would denounce as compromise. Or, worse, hypocrisy. In other words, it's not the sort of truth likely to go down well with some of our more angry or ideologically consistent US politicians today. And here I mean the likes of a Ron Paul, or a Dennis Kucinich, no less than the likes of a Sarah Palin.

One or two further points may need to be clarified before we go on. When I speak of a sensible, humane foreign policy as one which seeks the good of real physical spaces, I mean mostly those entities we know as countries - territorial states with more or less defined and recognizable political borders. Notice, on the other hand, how little I said about certain other things, which seem to have acquired a great deal of prestige in today's globally enlightened world. I said very little - and that little mostly negative - about global organizations, and religions, and ethnicities, and civilizations (OREC). My reason is that these are profoundly different entities from any mere place, or the inhabiting of any mere place. What I collectively term OREC are things that can overlap and intermingle, and whose aims and agendas often overlap and intermingle - and yes, even clash - within a single or contiguous geographic space. And as we all re-learned, for example, from the Balkans in the 1990s, clashes between religious or other ideological fanatics within the same country can get very ugly. The worst scenario is when the partisans and adherents of any one of these religions, civilizations, etc, become angrily and militantly over-aligned with each other across a wide region, or even across the globe, at the expense of any sense of kinship with physical neighbors whose allegiances are different. When that happens, even the smallest or most peaceably composed territories can be pulled apart - even, sometimes, to the extent of engulfing whole continents in the most savagely intimate wars imaginable. The moral lesson here, I believe, is that at one level or another all war is civil war. And especially at the level of those less freely mobile elements, in any population, who tend to suffer from war's losses far more than they profit from its "gains."

Not, of course, that we should expect this sort of thing to unduly alarm our modern OREC. After all, they can move about pretty much anywhere they choose round the globe. Just look at that essentially global, politically and corporately organized civilization we call China. For some reason I find it hard to imagine official Chinese hearts bleeding for Africa in quite the same copious measure as Chinese investments currently flow towards Africa. In any case, it really is asking quite a lot, don't you think?, to expect such lofty creatures as our modern OREC to care all that much about what happens to some slovenly backwater of a people whom, up until now, nobody important has ever even heard of. And least of all a people who happen to be mired, through nobody's fault but their own, in some remote, corporately irrelevant hole-in-the-globe.

(But please note: I'm not trying to suggest that organizations, etc, are bad things as such. In themselves they are good, necessary, and at all events inescapable parts of any fabric of human existence. It is only when we take them too seriously - too politically - that serious problems arise. It is only when we treat and reverence them as overarching, sovereign political entities in their own right - and as having the further right to dispose of the affairs and resources of territorial states and populations as they see fit - that they become the bloated, monstrous, ultimately subhuman things we know and loathe* today.)

* At least in our inmost souls?

Now as I've said, our modern OREC may be able to view with a considerable degree of calm the outbreak of civil war in many or most of the world's poorer countries. But the same is not true of our makers and critics of foreign policy. These latter must make at least some pretense of concern for what happens to real places and the people in them. My point is that more and more these days I wonder if that concern is anything other than a pretense. In other words, the more our experts and critics feign concern for the people on the ground, the more I fear they may be actually bringing into play a certain other factor. For this is where I believe something commonly called nationalism really comes in handy.

Nationalism is one of those strange human passions that looks and behaves very differently when it is manipulated rationally than when it is believed in passionately. On the one hand, when your constituents believe in it passionately, it can be a very persuasive means of convincing them that you really care what happens to them, and to the place where they live. It works especially well with that vulnerable category of citizens (end of par. 3) who can't relocate all that smoothly when there's a crisis, and who, at least in poorer countries, tend to be more victimized than victorious in the event of war. On the other hand, nationalism can also be used rationally as a bogey or bugbear - as I believe many of our makers and critics of US foreign policy have gotten used to using it. In that case it can be most useful in weakening territiorial loyalties, by making ordinary citizens ashamed to avow even the most basic and sensible devotion to the good of the territorial place in which they reside. Once that happens, then nationalism - both the "rude" passion itself and the "progressive" fear and horror of it - can become a marvelous device for converting the globe into the feeding- and stomping-grounds of OREC. And the way nationalism does that is by making a certain distant relative, most commonly known as patriotism, look utterly ridiculous.

Nationalism can make ordinary patriotism look very stupid, by alleging that love of one's country will inevitably spill over into the desire to invade other countries - as a certain Hitler-appeasing but otherwise extremely globally-minded Lord Lothian argued in 1930s Britain. It can also make ordinary patriotism look very spineless, by alleging that a simple love of country is mean-spirited and ineffectual unless it issue in the desire to invade other countries - as Hitler himself better-than-argued in 1930s Europe. And meanwhile, right now, nationalism may be the best pretext ever devised, by those who worship spatial mobility and long to punish or otherwise marginalize the spatially immobile, for shaming and discrediting all patriotism as pure trash. And rude, ignorant trash at that. And it is precisely this suspicion I have - that at bottom both WikiLeakers and Leaked share our modern OREC's rather snobbish disdain for patriotism - that makes me wonder if all this gasping, sputtering outrage isn't just a lot of finespun hooey.

But before I close, it occurs to me that some definition of what I mean by patriotism and nationalism might be in order.

Patriotism is when you love your country - or even a particular region or locale within it - enough to want it to be itself, and nothing but itself. The inescapable corollary of which is that other countries, both near and far, must also be free to be themselves. Free, I mean, without their having to worry about others invading or occupying or otherwise remolding them in the image of some other, allegedly superior country. Like, say, Germany with respect to Poland or Russia. Or even Iraq with respect to, say, Kurdistan or Kuwait.

Nationalism is when you're so swollen with pride in your locality or region that you want it to become the whole country. Or so swollen with pride in your country that you want it to become the whole continent, or even the whole earth. And remember, no country has ever tried to do either of those things without bursting its seams. Just ask France or Germany. Or Russia. China may also be in a very good position to answer that question not too may decades from now.

By the way, has anyone seen any of America's seams lately?

12 February 2011

Techno-Democracy: and After?

At last - let us pray and hope - freedom for Egypt, after 30 years of Saudi oil-induced paralysis. (Yes, oil-induced. Call me naive, or worse, prejudiced; but somehow I don't think Israeli security concerns were by any means the biggest factor behind our US complicity in Cairo's political deep-freeze. If anything, arguably the Saudis got the best of the bargain with Mubarak's Egypt: a neighboring regime, situated at the beating heart of the Arab world, that combined rigid political stasis with a considerable tolerance - verging [for all the torture] occasionally on appeasement? - of some of the region's most radically dynamic religious elements. Or at least radically Wahhabi religious elements. And in this regard I believe Egypt was exceptional if not unique among secular Arab regimes. Certainly I'm aware of no comparable Zawahiris - much less Muhammad Attas - having come out of either Assad's Syria or Hussein's Iraq.)

One thing at any rate seems obvious to me. Egyptians from all walks of life would be best-advised to proceed into the Future with the utmost caution. And not just for the next couple of years either. Something tells me our present era of global high-speed change may not, even in the greater long run, prove quite as favorable to participatory democracy as some of our WikiLeakers and others might hope. For one thing, a speeding tour bus is scarcely the kind most likely to afford much freedom to passengers wishing to discuss alternate travel routes. Besides placing prodigious - if not terrifying - amounts of discretion in the hands of the bus driver. And the fact that revolutions, in any age, have always been difficult vehicles to adjust to a safe speed does not exactly bode well for "democratic" revolution in the Internet Era.

Think about it. Why should we expect our present age - in which new forms of virtual reality are being conceived (if not birthed) every few minutes - to be any kinder to revolutions than, say, the French 1790s, or the Russian 1910s? Might not such an age as ours merely accelerate the pace of revolution, to say nothing of intensifying the anger and vehemence of accompanying political polarization? And mostly because, unlike in earlier periods of upheaval, the great majority of us need never have to face off in the street. Imagine a world in which an exploding number of virtual interactions leaves participants - much like today's drone pilots - more and more detached from, more and more cushioned against what would otherwise be the "direct" physical and emotional repercussions of their acts. In a political atmosphere already well-heated, are we likely to become "virtually" more polite and considerate with each other in these circumstances, or "virtually" more derisive and insulting and even belligerent? Remember, there's nothing like combat from a safe distance - even when the safety is mutual - to make a fellow wild and extravagant in his choice of weapons. But now suppose things were to get really unpleasant. Picture a world full of arguments erupting out of nowhere from within the safety of our electronic cocoons, and people hurting and being hurt as never before, simply because now we can wound with relative impunity. And then imagine that same acrimony's residue spilling back into our physical spaces. After all, we may not be able to "strike back" at a virtual opponent in all the ways we'd like, but what about the unfortunate slobs we live with? In a world virtually interactive "on all levels," as it were, does anyone imagine we'll have lost the fine art of "taking things out" on our nearest and dearest? And in such a highly-charged atmosphere, is it reasonable to expect that a Virtual Age revolution will be any less devouring of its children than others we've known? That is to say, any less cruel to each one of us?

Those, however, are merely the extremes of incivility and rancor I can imagine engulfing our lives outside organizations - i.e., our lives within and between our so-called private or domestic spaces. Meanwhile, inside our organizations, I fear the sheer headlong pace of the age is most likely to make us all either dogmatists or sycophants. If not some highly unpleasant mixture of both. And not least in our conference rooms, where the worst terror may be that of not seeming to be a team player. Or of standing in the way of Change. For my part I can't imagine a comparable period - in the lives of any of us Westerners - when people of every credential and qualification were more afraid to ask questions, more reluctant to voice concerns over the direction, route and speed of the bus, more anxious to "get on board" any way they can, more terrified of being left behind the frantic pace of global transformation.

And again, that sort of pressure - even in a seasoned democracy like our own - hardly makes for an atmosphere of free, relaxed and lively discussion of alternative options and possibilities for the Future. If anything I would think it tends to produce precisely the opposite effect. My own best hunch is that the more furious the speed of change, and the greater the number of people of whom adjustment is - do you hear me? - immediately required, the harder it will become, and the more irrelevant and impertinent it will appear, even to dream of questioning a prescribed change's direction. After all, why rock the boat? Why dispute the superhuman wisdom of our busy globe-enriching, globe-transforming organizations? Haven't their cumulative efforts already produced enough sheer momentum for economic success - 2008 was just a blip, you know - to satisfy six generations' worth of demands for Unbroken Progress? And isn't economic success the key to any freedom-loving, human dignity-respecting democracy? Just ask Beijing. Meanwhile, should every other disincentive to dissent fail, remember, it could be nothing less than your job that's on the line. So if you plan to keep it, in future kindly refrain from comment, and be sure to resume at once your missing cheese search.

And the result, I think, will be exactly the kind of techno-political climate most favorable to the growth of a certain kind of freedom. Maybe not more freedom for us everyday peons, but surely greater license and leverage than ever before for the "people" who matter most in today's world - i.e., for our most pushy, sharp-elbowed, get-what-I-need-anyway-I-can global organizations. In sum, just the sort of hyper-urgent, "progressive" techno-authoritarianism best able to cut short the life, not only of a fledgeling Egyptian democracy, but of God knows how many Western varieties as well.