Sunday, August 26, 2007

France Falling.

West against West: the Cowboy against the Czar.

The image of the reckless and lawless cowboy is a favorite among European critics of American adventurism, and with the Texan George W. Bush in the White House, it’s an image that has repeatedly graced the editorial cartoons of a number of Europe’s daily papers. While the stereotypical cowboy is an uneducated, unrestrained and dangerous individualist, the reality is something far more significant. It’s a significance to which Glucksmann dedicates a whole chapter in Ouest contre ouest, believing that the image of the cowboy, contrary to its European critics, is the hallmark of modern enlightened civilization.

The idea that the cowboy, an apparently American icon, would represent the height of modern civility would no doubt shock, and even disgust many in Europe. But it’s an idea that would also illicit an argument from a number of Americans, most notably in the Northeastern universities, such as Harvard, and in the liberal cities of California. Glucksmann takes this fact as evidence that the trans-Atlantic rift is one that pits Europeans against Europeans, Americans against Americans, as much as it pits the United States against the “old continent.” And on this point, Glucksmann remarks that the disputes between the French and American governments, between the slick diplomats and the untamed cowboys are a bit more complicated than we are often led to believe.

Discussing the criticisms leveled against the French by the more militarily aggressive Bush administration, Glucksmann notes that the same barbs could also be launched against the previous Clinton administration and George Bush Sr. An excess of internationalism and unquestioning acceptance of the “end of history” scenario was a fault in the US as well as in France. On the other hand, French arguments regarding American unilateralism seem rather suspect in light of France’s own behavior within the European Union and towards the Eastern Europeans. The difference, once again, lies more in the conceptions of how modern liberal democracy should proceed in the world, or whether it should proceed. Still, some western democracies seem to be at the forefront here, while others trail behind. It is no surprise perhaps that America is tagged with the sobriquet of “adventurism” and that Glucksmann himself turns to the cowboy as the incarnation of modern democratic liberalism. Or, quoting the introduction to a recent translation of Democracy in America, “Democracy is still in America.”

But what does the cowboy represent? According to Glucksmann, the cowboy is the incarnation of modern liberal democracy because he is the pure individual, unhindered by tradition or religious affiliation. At the same time, he is dedicated to certain principles, formal principles that he carries with him and by which he comports himself in public company. This isn’t to say he’s particularly at ease among the refined, but he tends not to stray from his principles when he enters polite society. In fact, he often reforms and remakes that very society through his presence. The cowboy is, in a certain sense, the future.

By comparison, Europe presents us with three distinct types that preceded the cowboy of liberal democracy: the man of power (the ruler, the priest, the tribal chief), the man of war, and the man of simple pleasures and pains (the rustic and the rural peasant). That there exist three distinct groups speaks to the stricter differentiations that pertain in European society. When compared to the cowboy, however, we find that each of these groupings is far more similar, one to the other, than to the cowboy. Their similarity rests in the immobility of membership among groups, along with the necessity to follow distinct and specific rules particular to each group. The cowboy, on the other hand, is the epitome of the free individual. He is bound by no distinctions of class and he is free of the stifling rules proper to each rung of society. The cowboy both transcends and surpasses the old classification.

But this isn’t the entire story. At this point, the European critic is quick to attack this uncouth, ill-educated individualist. It is important to note, however, that the cowboy shares some similarities with his European predecessors. Like the ruling aristocrat, the cowboy is lord of himself and says what he pleases, like the warrior, he defends certain principles and fights to secure an ideal of justice, like the peasant, his lifestyle is unencumbered and straightforward as he lives without pretension and material accoutrements. Of course, he is also not part of a ruling family, nor is he bound to an organized military company and unlike the peasant, he is his own man and free to travel at will, not tied to a small subsistence plot.

But, by the same token, the cowboy is not the noble savage of romanticized American and European tales. In fact, he is, as Glucksmann notes, quite civilized. He sticks to a certain rational and universal code of honor, and he imposes this code on a lawless nature. Moreover, he acts alone when he is unable to obtain the assistance of those less stolid than himself. On this point, we should note that, in the United States, some of the most solidly Republican states and greatest supporters of George W. Bush are the western mountain and plain states – the home of the cowboy. While Bush’s other most loyal constituency is the South, which has absolutely no traditional cowboy mentality. What the South does have, however, is an aristocratic heritage more European than American in many respects. The memory of this heritage suggests a link between the honor and independence of an aristocrat and the freedom of the cowboy, demonstrating that even the cowboy isn’t entirely at odds with certain elements of the old European classifications.

Yet, as Glucksmann notes, and here he repeats a theme we saw with Baverez, the Europeans have not adopted the cowboy. Rather, the modern ideal in Europe is the state bureaucrat and the radical revolutionary. Where the cowboy represents the primacy of the modern individual, though one connected to a particular notion of nature, the bureaucrat and revolutionary stand for the supremacy of the modern collective, the submission of the will to a formalized and rationalized goal, but one whose substance is completely indeterminate. In other words, while the cowboy holds to a certain code of honor because it is his own individual honor at stake, the bureaucrat and revolutionary eschew all codes and seek only to implement the goal by any means because no personal good is involved - the will of the collective excuses all evils.

This modern anti-type, if you will, also has its links with the past, but, whereas the cowboy repeats the independence of the aristocrat, the honor of the warrior and the simplicity of the peasant, the revolutionary and bureaucrat connects to the worst in the past. He incarnates the authority of the ruler without any of the limits placed on him by propriety or class, he wields the weapons of the warrior without his discipline or respect for civilians, and his version of peasant simplicity is that of the jealous and suspicious villager hostile to all outsiders.

Key to the difference between the cowboy and the bureaucrat/revolutionary is the individual element vs. the collective. The cowboy is an individual modernizing force, sometimes successful and sometimes not. The bureaucrat/revolutionary seeks to modernize by employing the coercive power of the modern state, but once again, this is a state fully mobilized under the control of the bureaucrat/revolutionary. And according to Glucksmann, the model here is that of Voltaire’s enlightened and philosophic despot who, like Peter the Great of Russia, resorts to the most barbaric of means to “civilize” his country.

In the modern world, Glucksmann sees this contrast playing itself out in the radically different ways in which Russia has dealt with Chechnya and the manner in which the United States has behaved in Afghanistan and Iraq. Glucksmann, in fact, has been one of the most persistent French critics of the Russian presence in Chechnya. While he accepts the need to deal with terrorism, he points out that while the Russians have leveled Grozny, Baghdad remains largely intact. And while the Americans have been as careful as possible to avoid civilian deaths, the Russian forces have acted with impunity in Chechnya, raping, stealing property and killing civilians.

And yet, it was in alliance with Russia (not to mention still-communist and repressive China) that France and Germany sought to veto Anglo-American efforts to deal with Saddam Hussein. But as Glucksmann points out, the Europeans have been active on many fronts attempting to court the Russians: in energy development, nuclear arms agreements, monetary union. This isn’t to say the US hasn’t done the same in the past, but what is important is that Europe, and France most notably, is willing to ally itself with Russia against the US, continuing to believe in the myth that one super-power is no more laudable than the other.

And behind this geo-political play is the continuing willingness on the part of some French intellectuals, journalists, politicians and bureaucrats to demonize the American cowboy while celebrating the blood-soaked revolutionary – today the hero for many Europeans is Che Guevara. This, however, is not new behavior. The notion that civilization, even French civilization, is decadent and must be purified by eastern hoards of barbarians (usually Russians, but increasingly Arabs) is a romantic fantasy of long duration. Even de Gaulle engaged in this policy to a degree, most notably with his Phnom Penh speech and his ill-advised “Vive le Québec libre.” For Glucksmann, this behavior, this anti-civilization obsession still infects many in France, Europe and even the US. It is a form of nihilism that fails to make distinctions. Today, it is the essence of what anti-Americanism is, but America is still too big a target to take down directly. There are others, however; weaker targets; and this brings me to next week’s topic: Alain Finkielkraut and the new anti-Semitism. Look for the post next Wednesday.

West against West, Shakespeare against Sartre

Shakespeare or Sartre, this dichotomy strikes us as a bit odd at first, but it reflects the essence of the misconceptions and illusions that enchant many in Europe, and specifically in France. As I noted in my last post, Glucksmann is an ardent proponent of western civilization and sees debates over unilateralism vs. multilateralism as a means of distracting the political observer from the essential importance of defending western civilization precisely for its humanitarian aspects. Implicit in this view is the fundamental fact that a civilization, indeed civilization itself, stands for something against something else. By contrast, nihilism stands for nothing because it fails to draw distinctions, and it fails to draw distinctions because it refuses to make judgments according to a standard. This is the predicament of the French government today, it has no standard of reasonable judgment and is reduced to pure calculation coupled with a rhetorical stance that condemns the just while excusing the terrorist, the extremist, the fanatic.

In his book, Glucksmann provides numerous examples of how this failure to judge, to make distinctions, infects the behavior of the France in its alliance with the anti-war forces. Many of these are well-known and commented upon already. They include President Chirac’s coddling of dictators such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, his lashing out at the democracies of Eastern Europe lecturing them to keep silent, and one of the most blatant according to Glucksmann, the false legitimacy associated with the United Nations. The third element, the United Nations, is one of Glucksmann’s particular targets, because the phenomenon of pandering to the UN represents one of the clearest and most dangerous instances of the outright refusal of reasoned judgment.

In a chapter dealing with the “Comedy of Peace,” Glucksmann remarks that the association on the part of the French government, and many in the European public of the United Nations with democratic legitimacy demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand the nature and act of democracy. Confusing simple equality with democracy, the UN partisan empties democracy of all its substantial content, rendering it a mere phantom in an institution where well over three quarters of the nation members are only pseudo-democracies at best. Interestingly enough, this criticism of the UN was initially made by none other than Charles de Gaulle, who considered the institution to be one beholden to dictators, despots and madmen.

But what lies behind this misguided attempt to identify the United Nations with international legitimacy itself when it should be clear to the thickest observer that no such association exists? There is the simple notion of self-interest on the part of nations that would use the UN as a cover for their own national failings. Many nations in the Middle East and Africa fall into this category, as does a France that resents American hegemony. However, there is also the historical and ideological reason. Throughout much of its history, the UN Security Council was a lame duck at best. The Cold War – which represented a rather unnatural situation – meant that the US and Soviet Union would rarely reach consensus within the Council. The fall of the Soviet Union appeared to end that situation. But, it did not simply create a consensus in favor of the United States. Rather, those dedicated to the dream of an end to history and conflict saw the end of the Cold War as merely the end of one of the two belligerents – the United States had yet to be subdued.

On the one hand, freer trade and international security based on humanitarian principles appeared to be the globalizing force. But there were many who associated this globalizing force with the particular power and domination of one nation: the United States. In order to demonize the US, the mantra of imperialism was soon raised. Of course, the anti-globalization forces are not anti-global in any sense of the word. The Germans, and now the French, often refer to these groups under the rubric of “alter-globalization,” meaning they seek a different global form from that of American imperialism; they seek a global consciousness of sorts.

Here is where Sartre comes in. The global consciousness that opposes American hegemony is actually a species of nihilism. Feeding on the millennial thought of people such as Sartre, Kojève and Heidegger with his revelations from the gods, the alter-globalization movement simply equates American power with oppression and domination, no better than the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. In place of this particular power, the alter-globalization movement would impose a uniform and revolutionary consciousness. This is a notion that resonates with aspects of the French Revolutionary consciousness, and one that has found a home of sorts in the minds of the current French government and among many functionaries of the United Nations, the International Red Cross and the European Union.

Underlying this consciousness is the nihilistic notion that history can be ended, or that at least, an epoch in history can end with a new revelation. And as Glucksmann remarks, the one thing that must end with this cessation of history is war waged by states; though war waged by terrorists, religious zealots and the alter-globalization set is perfectly justified as part of the millennial struggle. As Glucksmann assesses the situation, we are back in the presence of the revolutionary “end to history” as advanced most recently and notably by Francis Fukuyama.

Now, Fukuyama aside, Glucksmann’s real targets from an intellectual standpoint are thinkers such as Kant, with his perpetual peace, and Hegel, with his radical historical consciousness. On this point, I tend to agree with Glucksmann’s description of the alter-globalization movement and Jacques Chirac’s perfidy in cozying up to that movement, but I would argue that we should perhaps be somewhat cautious in attributing all the blame to Kant and Hegel. My reason for saying this is that both Kant and Hegel, despite the radical nature of much of their theoretical prescriptions, were rather moderate in their practical accounts. Kant, well-known for his attempt to secure peace among European democracies, built his theory of perpetual peace around a consideration of war and the nature of war. His intention was to construct a system whereby sovereign states could better understand the elements of war and avoid it whenever possible. But in order to do this, he had first to think about war, and in this regard, his thought is quite Machiavellian. Moreover, Kant saw this as a project to be undertaken by western civilization through the institutions of civilized nations. Kant had no interest in universal consciousness and no illusions about the withering away of the state.

Similarly, Hegel’s views on the end of history were based on his belief that western civilization, a civilization that was unique in its dedication to reason, had inaugurated a stage in history that could not be effaced. To Hegel, the practical domination of Europe in the world and the ever-increasing spread of rationalized and liberal institutions, suggested that history had, in a sense, come to an end. Now, Hegel did not entertain illusions about the end of particular elements of human life, such as war or the nation-state. Certainly he differed from Kant in numerous aspects, but both were forced to reflect on the nature of politics and war, even if they sought a kind of overcoming of this nature. Nature could not simply disappear altogether.

This, I believe is the real problem. Behind Glucksmann’s contrast between civilization and nihilism is a contrast between nature and nihilism. Nature, like civilization, is about distinctions, and nihilism must reject both uncategorically. Kant and Hegel, like many philosophers before them, still had to deal with nature. Though they tended to shun it more than their predecessors, the fact that both recognized the importance of war and the political institutions of the nation, demonstrates that nature was still a factor in some sense. They could not simply speak of a global consciousness, the legitimacy of international organizations and the multiplicity of cultures. They were forced to take war and politics into consideration if their own particular projects had any hope of even moderate success.

And this brings us to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was, if ever there was one, the poet of nature in its classical sense. He presented the world and the people in it according to how they behaved in the world as it existed, but he did so in light of a natural standard that was at once suggestive but not wholly determinative. History, unlike in the accounts of the alter-globalization crowd, does not realize universal consciousness, but remains rather tragic in the Shakespearean drama. And when particular incidents in these plays run afoul of nature, Shakespeare tells us that “time is out of joint.” Glucksmann, drawing on this line, likens it to George Bush’s assertion that, “time is not on our side.” America, like Shakespeare, has found that history does not move inexorably to a single resolution, but is constantly under threat and infused with tragedy. The terrorist put time out of joint, but so does a Europe that no longer reflects on the nature of war and politics.

But oddly enough, perhaps more now than in any other time since World War I, it is only a return to nature that can help us to understand our global situation. What does this mean? Well, as I mentioned above, the Cold War was a rather unnatural time in that it pitted two huge powers against one another, while incorporating almost every regional conflict in this huge tug-of-war. The end of the Cold War seemed to bring this situation to an end, but immediately the world moved into a verbal utopia whereby conflict was to be superceded and democracy would miraculously become the rule of the day. This was the notion of globalization that inspired many in Europe and the United States. But we’ve found that this notion was no more natural than the Cold War that preceded. The hoped-for reliance on international organizations and humanitarian co-operation was a chimera. So many, most notably in the EU, were predicting the end of the nation-state, but while liberalism and globalization did proceed throughout the 1990’s, we are realizing that there are limits to globalization, but this realization isn’t coming thanks to the alter/anti-globalization types. It’s in the nature of things. We are finding that national governments must still rule their markets, and that even free trade requires national defense to ensure its own success. And we are seeing that the governments of western civilization must actively support the civilization they cherish, rather than offering comfort to those who would tear it down.

Glucksmann’s work is a defense of the nature of things and a chastisement to his French and European nihilist confreres. Unfortunately, we find that those who traditionally reflect on nature – professors in the humanities and sciences – are almost entirely devoid of any understanding of what nature would actually be. They’ve been trained in the ideologies of post-modern thought, and, even if they wanted to, they would be unable to think intelligently about nature. So few have the tools or the background to undertake the task. However, the advantage nature has is, well, that it is nature. It reasserts itself constantly and offers itself up for inspection on a daily basis as Shakespeare – himself no professor – can attest. It would seem, however, that there are some nations where such observations are more likely to occur. And on that note, I’ll turn, on Friday, to the second of Glucksmann’s contrasts that I intend to consider: the cowboy and the tsar.

West against West: Civilization against Nihilism.

Last week I commented on the current French government’s problem: the pen of Nicolas Baverez. That Baverez is himself a more or less centre-right commentator in the political realm, ostensibly the exact point of the political spectrum occupied by the Chirac-Raffarin government, makes his criticism all the more stunning as it comes from one of those who should most support the current administration. However, the heart of Baverez’ critique was precisely that Chirac’s government is failing as a centre-right government committed to prudent progress. Rather, it appears as a reactionary force that merges nationalist pedantry with revolutionary rhetoric betraying the cause of western liberal democracy. Central to this rhetoric is Chirac’s rather incessant reference to American globalization, a globalization countered by his own vision of a more fair and equitable liberalization of the world based on that key French concept, solidarity. Chirac, it appears, is taking up the standard of social democracy and justice, a humanitarian if there ever was one.

The problem once more is that another French author, André Glucksmann, is having none of it. In contrast to Baverez, an Aronian liberal, Glucksmann sits to the left of the political spectrum, a moderate with socialist sympathies and an ardent opponent of ideological movements, left or right. As far as Glucksmann is concerned, Chirac’s rhetoric is anything but humanitarian. In this, he shares Baverez’ view that what lies at the heart of humane democracy is not the tired rhetoric of extremist democratic movements and appeasement of third world dictators acting under the guise of liberation and economic emancipation. The heart of a humane and human democracy for Glucksmann, as for Baverez, is reasoned and public debate carried out through national institutions. And the work of western civilization, in its entirety, is nothing less than the common defense of this ideal. On this point, Glucksmann is unequivocal, “The question of questions is not multipolarity or hegemony, but nihilism or civilization.”

Glucksmann does have a slightly different emphasis than Baverez however. As someone in the Aronian tradition of moderate political liberalism, Baverez tends to place his emphasis on the health of the French regime, looking especially at its domestic situation in order to locate its immoderate excesses and imprudent machinations. Glucksmann, with his more leftist leanings and socialist background tends to focus on France’s international maneuverings, especially in comparison to the comportment of the United States. If Baverez comes down on the side of liberal prudence, Glucksmann tilts toward liberal humanitarianism. In each case however, their differences highlight both the failure of the Chirac government on both standards, while underlining the common bond that still must serve to unite the various political parties dedicated to liberal democracy.

At the same time, we must note that the very title of Glucksmann’s book highlights the cleavage within the western civilization: Ouest contre ouest (West Against West). In this regard, Glucksmann sees the current divisions within the western world as a species of domestic dispute, one that is not limited to only territory and national boundaries, but to the realm of intellectual and moral debates on both sides of the Atlantic. On this point, Glucksmann turns to Thucydides’ classic recounting of the Peloponnesian War for inspiration. Remarking that Thucydides judged this war in the heart of Greek civilization, rather than the earlier conflict with the Persians, as the lynchpin of history, Glucksmann argues that the current crisis places the West and western civilization in peril. What’s at stake is the definition of western civilization.

According to Glucksmann, the debate over the self-understanding of the West is a natural occurrence. It’s not surprising that France may understand the definition of the West in a manner divergent from the United States. It’s also not surprising that France might look at the dominance of the US as a threat to its own vision and seek to carve out its own independent role within the western world. This is something any American administration must understand and accept. However, the policy of the French government under Chirac has been one of challenging the very idea of western civilization through inflammatory accusations and active coddling of anti-western elements, especially in the Middle East and Africa. While George Bush speaks of the defense of civilization against Islamism, Jacques Chirac criticizes the United States and fetes the anti-globalization movement as a profound social movement.

A key element in Glucksmann’s understanding of civilization concerns what is opposed – a civilization stands for something and against something else. This may sound rather general or basic, but he seems to use it as a minimum criterion for identifying a civilization. Western civilization, which in some respect is the source of the very idea of civilization, stands for a certain moral and political view of the world, for the significance of the citizen, for reason and the possibility of human decision within a certain natural framework. Nihilism, whether it be the active nihilism of the terrorist or the suicidal nihilism of the western fellow-traveler, has turned against western civilization. Glucksmann’s intent is to unmask the ideology of this suicidal nihilism in its current manifestations. Over the remainder of this week, I will look at two examples of how he understands the misconceptions that arise from this nihilism and how they affect the international scene. The first, appearing Wednesday, will be a contrast between two political views, or perhaps better yet, between a political view and a religious political consciousness – a contrast Glucksmann dresses as one between Shakespeare and Sartre. The second, to be posted Friday, will consider contrasting views of the value of western civilization, a contrast between “the cowboy and the tsar.”