The Desolations of Smaug
The United States has a fascination with war–of two kinds. The first is the traditional kind–namely, armed conflict. There has been scarcely a single year in the last half-century when the US has not been involved in armed conflict somewhere on the globe. This global warfare is underpinned by the crass and wicked idolatries of notions such as “American exceptionalism”, America as the city of light on a hill bring truth, justice and the American way to all peoples on earth, and America as the defender of the oppressed, the weak, and the downtrodden, and so forth.
The end of the Cold War was supposed to result in a Peace Dividend–which was a coy way of saying that military spending could wane, and tax monies could be put towards social services. Actually, military spending continued to ratchet up. Being the world’s policeman has perpetual and escalating costs, which currently are being funded by borrowing. Good luck with that. Idols of all kinds eventually become a crushing weight upon a people: morally, spiritually, and fiscally. (During the period of decline of the Roman Empire, for example, about the only sector of commerce that was vibrantly growing was that associated with the various cults of the pantheon of idols.) If the US military were ever to retrench back to being an ordinary, national defensive enterprise, the negative impact upon US economic growth would be considerable. Idols are expensive to erect, maintain, and worship. National idols even more so.
But the second kind of war is also costly and equally vain.
The United States has successively declared wars on poverty, on global warming, on drugs, on terror, and on illiteracy. Many assume that these are merely rhetorical flourishes representing nothing more than hyperbole in search of a headline. Actually, there is a far deeper and more sinister root.
William James–probably the most influential American philosopher–developed the ideas of pragmatism to express the “can-do” ideals of the New Model Man that was being nurtured in the West. When men gave up ideologies and religions and started to focus upon the practical, upon problem solving, upon what actaully works, there are no limits to what can be achieved. Or so James proposed.
It was with this in mind that James saw the value of war. The state of war resulted in a mobilized society, focused upon victory over whatever opposed it. He introduced the idea of the “moral equivalent of war”. The thesis was that no social problem, no societal inadequacy could remain unsolved or unattended to if society were able to organise itself to focus upon solving the problem, as happens in a state of war. Hence the “moral equivalent of war”.
What James wanted was a way to figure out how to have war without war, to mobilize and galvanize people to drop their petty concerns and interests as if they were threatened by an outside foe. In other words, pragmatists care about what works, and war works. It works at getting people to shut up and listen, to follow orders, to make sacrifices and work together. [Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas (New York: Sentinel/Penguin, 2012), p.48.]
The chain of mental association runs thus: all problems can be solved if we apply ourselves, without blinkers, to finding the solutions; a martial climate makes society draw together to focus upon problems with a view to overcoming them; the United States should be a perpetually mobilized quasi-military society, where personal and individual interests attenuate in favour of the big, shared problems the nation faces. Start to sound familiar?
But there is an inevitable corollary:
More importantly, war legitimizes vast expansions of the state. Now if only we good and decent people can figure out a way to scare, enrage, or otherwise work up the people the way war does, we could really make something out of this country! (Ibid.)
It did not take long before liberals (aka progressives) in the United States began to join together the benefits of literal war (as in the shooting and killing kind) and the metaphorical moral equivalent. Literal war actually mobilized society and got them organised around government efforts in a unique way. War resulted in a Great Leap Forward, regardless of the actual outcome of battle, because the people were mobilized, and a mobilized people could be persuaded to lay aside their personal pre-occupations in favour of the greater good. And if they resisted persuasion, re-education in the form of hectoring politicians awaited them. This is what Dewey called the “social possibilities of war”.
He complained that opponents of entering World War I failed to recognize the “immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war” and implored them not to let the crisis go to waste. (Ibid., p.50.)
Progressives in general believe that the US did not really come out of the Great Depression until World War II. This war was a boon to the economy, with the war effort and the vast expansion of government spending it entailed causing the economy to grow for the first time in over a decade. Some progressives in the United States have openly called for some kind of military war to wage war upon poverty within the United States. Paul Krugman is an apostle of such a gospel:
Paul Krugman, America’s foremost exponent of Keynesian economics, is constantly invoking war or the threat of war as an economic boon. “If we discovered that, you know, space aliens were planning to attack, and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat, and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in eighteen months,” he said on CNN. “And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistaken, there aren’t any aliens, we’d be better—“
At this point Harvard economist Ken Rogoff interrupted. “We need Orson Welles, is what you’re saying.” To which Krugman responded, “There was a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode like this in which scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace. Well, this time we don’t need it, we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus.” (Ibid., p.51f)
Consider, now, President Obama’s inauguration panegyric this week. Notice how bellicose the tone, how martial the metaphors. Americans need to lay aside their own petty differences and come together to fight the common foe: the threats against homosexual marriage, of global warming, of unequal pay for equal work, of whatever. His speech was a classic call to metaphorical arms:
For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
This is hackneyed progressive fodder. Crises are aplenty; coming together to find solutions is the way forward; we must join together to fight these great battles of our time. The sub-text is the never ceasing need for an ever expanding government to plan, to organize, marshall, tax and spend–to enable victory.
For the past sixty years progressives (both Democrats and Republicans) have predominantly controlled the US government. Their control has led to an incessant militarization of America–a bellicosity involving actual and metaphorical warfare. We can foresee no end until the United States collapses under the weight of its own public and private debt.
How great the desolation of Smaug, that Dragon of old, who inflames the hearts and minds of men with fools gold–with the narcissistic adoration of Man. On that pile of pseudo-gold, Smaug rests in peace. He has done his work. He has achieved his goal. Our collapse, our calamities, our judgement he finds diverting and entertaining.
He Who sits in the heavens watches, weighs, and goes forth to wage war upon the Dragon and his followers. Our only hope is to repent–all of us–of our arrogance, our pride, our vainglory, our Unbelief and return to Him, our only God and Saviour, before it is too late.
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