Thucydiots

It was during the national stock-taking and spiritual inventory accompanying the obsequies for Ronald Reagan that I finally figured out how the war in Iraq differs from the one in Vietnam.

The Iraq War's champions have always insisted it's different, of course. Before the first shot was fired last year, they assailed "deja-vu" dissenters who predicted reruns of Vietnam's trumped-up pretexts, massive overkill, and bottomless quagmires. But this time the warriors squelched or deflected dissent so effectively that they've made this war different in ways they didn't intend.

This time, they'll have no one to blame but themselves if, instead of convoying through grateful, flower-strewing throngs on June 30, Paul Bremer III has to be helicoptered out of his compound -- or his successors out of their embassy a year or so later -- with the desert equivalent of Vietnamese "boat people" clinging to their heels. This time, no antiwar movement will have "forced us to fight with one hand tied behind our backs," as the Vietnam warriors claimed. This time, no Jane Fonda will have subverted American efforts to win hearts and minds or demoralized our troops in the field. This war's masterminds and their cheerleaders have done all that themselves. Have they ever.

I say this as one who supported the Iraq War at its inception based on what I knew and believed then. I say it even as one who can show you body scars from years of exposing knee-jerk leftist myopia about an America whose quirky spiritual idealism Reagan understood and sometimes even embodied far better than self-styled progressives.

Reagan dabbled foolishly in Middle East politics to finance the Nicaraguan contras, but in the end the Sandinistas were deposed not by conservative creepy crawlies but in an open, high-turnout election monitored by Jimmy Carter. Despicably though Bush & Co. have behaved by comparison, I despise the gloaters among their critics who haven't a care for the many thousands of Iraqis who may soon pay a hideous price for having tried -- alongside thousands of decent and brave young Americans whose existence we also deny -- to rebuild Iraq under the tutelage of the neoconservative and Pentagon boneheads who mangled their liberation.

But the real problem isn't the left's myopia. It's that conservatives who claimed Reagan's faith two weeks ago don't understand that faith themselves. In the run-up to the war last year, self-styled "grand strategists" in some universities and think tanks brandished the fifth-century Greek historian Thucydides' work to buttress claims that war in Iraq would be a necessary but sometimes ennobling hell. In close collaboration with them, neoconservative hit-men such as Daniel Pipes and his Campus Watch used college freshmen to target anti-war professors for "pinko-commie" treatment by right-wing pundits such as MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, the shouting ex-congressman from Florida, and Hugh Hewitt, The Weekly Standard's online tough guy.

That wasn't Reaganesque; it was Nixonian. Even pro-war centrists who objected to the neocons' tactics (in my case, in a column I wrote for The Yale Daily News) tasted the vilification by Scarborough and Hewitt and the hate mail and death threats that flow on every cue from enforcers lurking just beyond the radiance of the more genial conservative pundits' Cheshire Cat grins.

Conservatives' difficulty in winning the struggle in Iraq reflects more than the narrow presumptions of Thucydiots who see fundamental challenges to liberal democracy only in threats from abroad and forget Thucydides' warnings about the corrosive effects of foreign wars upon morals at home. It has something to do as well with how they've miscast the culture wars they declared here at home. The perversities of Abu Ghraib are not what goes on in every war. They reflect the spread of a nihilism in American popular culture and an incivility in our public discourse that aren't the doing of antiwar protesters, sexual exhibitionists, and ditzy po-mo profs who indulge or flirt with "transgressive" behaviors that are highly antisocial and highly marketable, and who conservatives love to expose. The Abu Ghraib abuses hold up a mirror not to any of these stock villains but to anomic, corporate hucksters of anything that titillates and degrades -- bottom-liners that, moving swiftly behind liberal and libertarian "rights" talk, are turning sexual feelings into business transactions, with tremendous conservative support.

Think not only of the worst of Hollywood or of "news" organizations like Rupert Murdoch's television and print outlets but of the "mainstream" media whose only purpose is to assemble the largest possible audience on any pretext and by any means. Think of DirectTV, the GM subsidiary that pumps hardcore, pay-TV porn into hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms. Think of the near-kiddie-porn Calvin Klein ads that appeared briefly on the sides of public buses in New York City a few years ago. The ads were designed by young urbanites like some of our friends or students only a few years out of college, people who enjoy David Brooks' paeans to Americans' zany consuming passions. But they became public "statements" thanks not to hip young Manhattanites or cultural leftists, but to private investors in free markets.

Sure, we're all complicit, as Brooks likes to tease. But what he cannot and never will say is that the corporate minions and shareholders who are busy hollowing out our children's sense of themselves as rational citizens and even as sexual beings are among the real traitors to our efforts to win hearts and minds in the Middle East -- and, more subtly, I think, the breakers of American hearts, civic habits, and loves here at home.

Sure, too, over the years the American left's pseudo-revolutionary, or ethno-racialist, or mindlessly "rights"-driven, or semiotic, cultural answers to national problems have been counterproductive because they are tone-deaf to most people's yearnings for a different kind of civic comity and responsibility. But the point to grasp right now about such maladroit, stupidly self-defeating reactions to national crises and trends is that they've almost always been reactive, not causal.

The cause of most of what's destructive in both our culture wars and our foreign ones lies in a consumer marketing that is ever more relentless, intimately titillating, and degrading, as well as demoralizing of the young. It drives the public deconstruction we've all been witnessing -- the deconstruction of essential republican decencies, privacies, and, yes, taboos, a supposed "liberation" devoid of public purpose. It is especially powerful in its de-formative influence on a new generation's sense of mutual trust and self-respect.

To understand the consequences not just for markets and entertainment but for relations in workplaces, civic spaces, and governance itself, one needn't read Edward Gibbon's haunting account of the decay of Roman republican virtues, much less endorse William Bennett's opportunistic bursts of moral outrage. One need only revisit Alexis de Tocqueville or Ben Franklin, who told the Constitutional Convention, "I believe that this [new republic] can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other."

Franklin understood that a liberal constitution depends on virtues and beliefs which it cannot by itself nurture or even enforce. The liberal state empowers corporate entities and investors who can tyrannize and degrade people in daily life even if not, ostensibly, in public politics (though it doesn't take them long to invade the latter). Hence his answer to a bystander outside Independence Hall who asked what kind of government was being formed: "A Republic, if you can keep it."

Alexander Hamilton similarly observed that it "seemed to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." Conservatives who claim his legacy lie to themselves every minute about how their "free market" purism subverts the general disposition to civic-republican fair play, without which no one can be free. Conservatives are joined to these anti-civic, anti-republican profiteers at the hip, in silence -- and often in gratitude.

Ronald Reagan didn't resolve this yawning contradiction, but he made many Americans think we could do so with more faith in individual effort and "free" markets. The gentleness and the simplicity of his faith did speak to something elusive, and perhaps delusive, in the American experience that progressive politics hasn't reckoned with.

But even if his legatees were right that the naked American public square was emptied by "liberals" hawking too many rights and entitlements without corresponding obligations, it has been re-populated now by predators claiming those same rights -- the smooth corporate scammers, swaggerers, cynics, and apologists to whom conservatives themselves are enslaved. It is on their watch that "Morning in America" has become "Bread and Circus" America -- a Roman America that is gladiatorial both abroad and at home. The lesson in conservatives' wistfulness at Reagan's passing is that their Thucydiotic presumptions overseas have eclipsed their own need for a deeper civic-republican stock-taking right here.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is writing a book about American national identity.

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