Sunday, February 20, 2005

Norman Mailer: Empire Building 

We missed Norman Mailer's essay "Empire Building: America and its War with the Invisible Kingdom of Satan" when it appeared last month, and we are grateful to Zemblan patriot B.K. for bringing it to our attention. The main focus of the piece is the process by which hypotheses hardened into the myths that carried us to war with Iraq. Toward the end, though, Mr. Mailer asks a question that was also raised by Joe Bageant in his most recent essay:
From the point of view of the nation’s leaders, there had been ten lost years of initiatives, ten years in the cold, but America now had an opportunity to cash in again on the great bonanza that had fallen its way in 1991 when the Soviet Union went bankrupt in the arms race. At that point, or so believed the exceptionalists, America could and should have taken over the world and thereby safeguarded our economic future for decades at least with a century of hegemony to follow. Instead, these exceptionalists had been all but consumed with frustration over what they saw as the labile pussyfooting of the Clinton Administration. Never have liberals been detested more. But now, at last, 9/11 had provided an opportunity for America to resolve some problems. Now America could embark on the great adventure of empire.

These exceptionalists also happened to be hard-headed realists. They were ready to face the fact that most Americans might not have any real desire for global domination. America was pleasure-loving, which, for exceptionalist purposes, was almost as bad as peace-loving. So, the invasion had to be presented with an edifying narrative. That meant the alleged reason for the war had to live in utter independence of the facts. The motives offered to the American public need not have any close connection to likelihoods. Fantasy would serve. As, for example, bringing democracy to the Middle East. Protecting ourselves against weapons of mass destruction. These themes had to be driven home to the public with all the paraphernalia of facts, supposed confirmative facts . . . . So the CIA was abominably compromised by the move to go to war with Iraq. Most analysts who had information that Iraq had very little or nothing in the way of WMD gave it up. The need at the top of the agency to satisfy the President cut them off. So we went forward in the belief that Iraq was an immediate threat, and were told that hordes of Iraqis would welcome us with flowers. Indeed, it was our duty as good Americans to bring democracy to a country long dominated by an evil man . . . .

It seems to me that if the Democrats are going to be able to work up a new set of attitudes and values for their future candidates, it might not be a bad idea to do a little more creative thinking about the question for which they have had, up to now, naught but puny suggestions — which is how do you pick up a little of the fundamentalists’ vote.

If by 2008, the Democrats hope to come near to a meaningful fraction of such voters, they will have to find candidates and field workers who can spread the word down South — that is, find the equivalent of Democratic missionaries to work on all those good people who may be in awe of Jehovah’s wrath, but love Jesus, love Jesus so much more. Worked upon with enough zeal, some of the latter might come to recognise that these much-derided liberals live much more closely than the Republicans in the real spirit of Jesus. Whether they believe every word of Scripture or not, it is still these liberals rather than the Republicans who worry about the fate of the poor, the afflicted, the needy, and the disturbed. These liberals even care about the wellbeing of criminals in our prisons. They are more ready to save the forests, refresh the air of the cities and clean up the rivers. It might be agonising for a good fundamentalist to vote for a candidate who did not read the Scriptures every day, yet some of them might yet be ready to say: I no longer know where to place my vote. I have joined the ranks of the undecided.

More power to such a man. More power to all who would be ready to live with the indecision implicit in democracy. It is democracy, after all, which first brought the power and virtue of good questions to the attention of the people rather than restricting the matter to the upper classes.

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