The American Utopian Imperative
By DL Adams (August 2010)
The intense political discord currently on display in the United States no longer has its basis in a conflict between left and right, conservative and liberal, Democratic and Republican. This fundamental shift in the nature of the debates around culture, politics, foreign policy, history, immigration, and so many other contentious issues is indicative of a shift to polar opposites within the culture.
We are no longer Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, now we are utopians or not.
The rising rancor that now characterizes disagreements in American political and cultural life is not entirely due to differences over existing problems but rather how these problems are seen through completely divergent lenses.
Politically and culturally we appear to be at a fork in the road – the future of the country and of the West itself is at stake.
The cultural conflicts and political disagreements ripping the fabric of our great country – many of them fueled by activist, ideologically motivated, anti-intellectual academics in our once great bastions of reason and higher education (described by Allan Bloom in his important 1986 book “Closing of the American Mind”) – have been brewing for many decades.
The differences in approach to problem resolution and of understanding the world and our place in it formerly described as “culture wars” or even simply as “differences of opinion” now have a much more profound importance. Every generation has a key moment during its tenure in leadership until the next generation takes the reins of power; our crucial moment is now. We are at the arc of an historical cycle that has been building since 1945. Crises of the not so distant past did not put the future development of the country or of the West at risk while our current crisis of meaning, values and direction does.
For instance, the Vietnam War did not put the future of American society or the direction of its development at stake. The war was unpopular at home and finally was ended mainly due to the domestic upheavals that that unpopularity caused. The turbulence that it caused at home and the high cost in treasure and blood made us reluctant to fight in wars far from home that did not involve direct American need and national security. In the post-Vietnam period the phrase “let us learn the lessons of Vietnam” became a popular one, but many were (and still are) in disagreement as to their meaning. 9/11 changed all of that in an instant.
The failing war in Afghanistan now grinds on longer than the Vietnam war. Those who calculate the awful mathematics of warfare tout the comparatively “low” casualty counts in Afghanistan and in Iraq – though this brings little comfort to the families and friends of our fallen soldiers. An argument could be made, and was by two administrations, that Iraq (Bush) and Afghanistan (Obama) are conflicts that directly involve American national security interests. Are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrations of our having learned “the lessons” of Vietnam?
Militarily, our technology and war fighting capabilities remain unsurpassed though our ideological capabilities have not kept pace. A cursory review of the constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan, documents that our State department and political leaders co-wrote and supported, show clearly that a terrible error has been made.
The first Article of the constitutions of both countries declares that both are Islamic states and Islam is the law of the land. Islamic Sharia law is therefore the fundamental law of both Afghanistan and Iraq. These founding documents were created with deep American involvement and support. How is it possible that the great democracy of the world now has created two states under Sharia law?
Because Sharia law is barbaric, misogynist, cruel, and does not allow freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, is supremacist, hateful, and intolerant it is then entirely in contravention to our own Constitution and Bill of Rights in addition to our American cultural preference for freedom, openness, tolerance, and individual rights. How can it make sense that American soldiers are fighting and dying, and our treasury is being stressed to the breaking point, to create and support two Islamic Sharia law states?
How is it possible that our past leadership understood the ideology of Japan, and of Nazi Germany, and later Soviet Communism so well that the United States was able to defeat them all and support new democratic reform governments in their place but we are unable now to comprehend the history, ideology, and threat of Islam?
How is it possible that we are now engaged in two costly and lengthy wars whose purposes are the creation of two new “democracies” that are founded upon an ideology (Islam) that is diametrically opposed to democracy? The ideology of Islam is opposed to women’s rights, individual rights, freedom of speech, and religion, and the essential American constitutional concept of government being subordinate to the people.
Noted historian Barbara Tuchman wrote an important and insightful book on flawed decisions of politics and war; her term for them is “folly”. But there is much more at work here and abroad other than simply folly that is fueling our own ongoing political and cultural crises.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November, 1963 shook the country to the core, but it did not endanger the future development of the country, at least institutionally.
The result of the horror, shock, and sorrow at the event – and finally the extreme doubt as to the legitimacy of the “Oswald did it alone” findings of the Warren Commission (“conspiracy” in the JFK case was confirmed by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978) caused a massive surge of distrust in the government from which the country never recovered. The mood that distrust of government fosters in the country allows for foundational changes to be pushed in ways and for purposes that most Americans would find unacceptable and shocking.
After Kennedy’s murder the Johnson administration escalated the war in Vietnam despite Johnson’s promise that he would continue the policies of Kennedy which called for a planned withdrawal. This promise was one of the first public utterances of policy uttered by Johnson as President.
JFK had signed “National Security Action Memorandum 263” which provided for the drawing down of American troops in Vietnam by 1000 soldiers per month so that an exit by 1964 was likely. Johnson’s “continuation” of JFK’s policies in fact did the opposite (see NSAM #273) – it increased American involvement in the war to staggering levels.
Johnson’s reversal of JFK’s policy of disengagement from Vietnam, as specified in NSAM263, further eroded trust between the people and the government at Washington. With domestic initiatives like the “Great Society” welfare programs meant to assuage anger on the left, Johnson could not escape the responsibility for Vietnam and the label “Johnson’s War.” Johnson’s refusal to seek a second term was then no surprise.
The domestic anti-Vietnam war movement and the new “youth movement” centered on drug use, opposition to institutional authority, and the shattering of sex roles and mores has been identified by many as one of the key reasons why the war in Vietnam was finally abandoned. While the war itself was not likely to affect the institutions of the country over time, that is destroy or deconstruct them, the rising anti-war tide and strong cultural shifts that went with it very well could have.
The Watergate Scandal that resulted in Nixon’s resignation in 1974 did not put the country at risk nor its future development but rather was a crisis of the presidency which resulted then in a Constitutional crisis. The Constitution provides for a response when a President has committed criminal acts while in office – impeachment.
Rather than face impeachment that he knew was coming Nixon resigned and famously flew off in his helicopter (his comment after his 1962 loss in the California Governor’s race was a foreshadow: “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference!”), and Gerald Ford the Vice President ascended to the Oval Office. Americans were still recovering from and trying to understand the disaster of Vietnam, the domestic upheavals of the youth movement, and the assassination of Kennedy. Nixon’s dramatic departure avoided an impeachment trial and likely conviction but increased the loss of faith in the presidency and other fundamental institutions. Ford’s controversial pardon of Nixon further eroded the people’s trust in the federal government.
Every post-Nixon president must rebuke, through his, or her, character and integrity, the shame and deconstruction of the institution of the presidency that started with the shift of Johnson away from his promise of disengagement in Vietnam to Nixon’s abandonment of his oath of office and Watergate crimes. The Oval Office carries a heavy load of responsibility – domestically, internationally, and culturally; there are few, apparently, who can successfully meet its many demands.
The deconstruction of the presidency and of Americans’ faith in institutions continued into the administration of “Jimmy” Carter. The central event of his presidency has important implications for us today because Iran continues to be the greatest and most vocal threat to the United States and our sole democratic ally in the Middle East, Israel.
The act of war by the then-new revolutionary Islamic government of Iran which was the 1979 seizure of our Tehran embassy and the subsequent 444 days of captivity of American embassy personnel in Tehran and the disastrous failure of the attempted rescue of our personnel (among other unfortunate events and missteps) assured Carter of a single term but did not undermine American national development or foundational institutions. The United States has never responded to this act of war on the part of Iran against our country. In fact, we have for some reason accepted multiple attacks by their proxies and agents against our people, interests and friends around the world all of which have gone unanswered; the as yet unanswered Iranian Act of War of 1979 may soon reveal itself to have been a critical moment in our history.
US Presidents have always been looked upon by American voters as caretakers and problem solvers. With great respect they take their seat in the Oval Office and lead the nation out of crises and solve national problems for which the federal government with its immense resources and authority is particularly well qualified. The current administration has a very different approach.
Distrust of government since after World War Two and into the 60s and beyond has now brought to us a new form of leadership, those who do not see themselves as custodians of the Constitution and Republic but rather, more importantly, as activists and agents of change.
Our now highly partisan and often emotionally charged national political and cultural discussions punctuated by growing acrimony and (so far, as of this writing) two national political leaders openly mentioning secession (Tennessee Congressman and candidate for Governor Zack Wamp, and the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry) could mean that we are at a “fork in the road” whose like has not been seen since the Civil War.
Rather than unifying the country by a temperate and respectful attitude during time of war and economic crisis and judicious exercise of national authority the current administration is splitting the country apart by selective failure to exercise that power (e.g., border security, Arizona, etc.) and responsibility and by reducing the importance, reputation, and impact of the United States on the global stage. As these diminutions of the United States continue at home and abroad (our President bowing before foreign leaders, for one example) it should be clear now that such actions which render the country (and its people) small rather than great are done not at all by accident but for a purpose.
American and Western war guilt and the residual shock and regret at the almost incomprehensible brutality and high losses of both wars (and later conflicts) combined to create an imperative over time for a final solution to the “sovereign state problem.” For those on the left the solution would be internationalist utopianism.
Abandonment of the promise “Never Again” and of support of Israel itself indicates an abandonment of a fundamental lesson of WW2 within the context of a world ordered around sovereign nation states.
The nightmare crimes of the Holocaust appeared to result (for a time) in a global re-assessment of how nations and peoples interacted with one another. The global cry of “Never Again” in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews was associated with the promise of the creation (and support) of the state of Israel by United Nations vote which added substance to the promise.
As Rwanda, the Balkan wars, Darfur, Cambodia, and other post-WW2 genocides have occurred with little or no international response to stop these crimes, the promise of “Never Again” appears to be now cancelled.
The current demonization and delegitimization of Israel by the left is nothing less than an abandonment of the very first post-World War 2 internationally unified response to that war – a promise that crimes against humanity would never be allowed again by the international community. That such events have in fact been allowed to occur, coupled with a widespread loss of trust and faith in the idea of the “international community” itself the abandonment of the promise of “Never Again” now becomes understandable.
The eradication of this promise is now put to practice by the delegitimization of Israel. Intense opposition to and delegitimization of Israel is a component not only of a growing anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment and pro-Islamic agitation, but in a wider sense is indicative of a rejection of the nation-state system entirely by utopians and others.
Ironically, the replacement for the nation-state system is now seen by the left to be a supranational construct which will override independent states entirely. The replacement of disparate sovereign states with one super-state is viewed by many as a requirement if humanity is to survive; ironically, this concept is forwarded mainly by those who have lost their faith in humanity itself.
Many on the left consider the creation of Israel to be an historical mistake which now requires correcting. It is of no matter to many critics of Israel that the cause of the conflicts in the Middle East are a direct result of Israel’s legitimate self-defense against its Islamic jihadist neighbors (rather than the existence of a Jewish state or any non-Muslim state there) – what does seem to matter is the broken logic that if Israel were no more conflicts in the Middle East would end.
The abandonment of the “Never Again” ideal of international cooperation in the advancement of humanity and the protection of innocents is indicative of a more widespread shift across the world – a rejection of previous concepts of good/evil, right/wrong, truth/lies and their replacement with a cynical, morally vapid über-utopianism founded upon a false pragmatism of ignorance and fantasies.
Loss of confidence in previously sacrosanct concepts and societal institutions then allows a more radicalized perspective; a perspective of nihilism, doubt, anti-learning, anti-humanity, and deconstruction.
The Catholic Church child molestation scandal of recent decades has added yet another element to this growing cynicism and confusion in the West. Because so many in the West view the nation state, American institutions, international checks and balances, and now the Catholic Church (and, for some, all religions) as having failed, the time is right for radical, fantasy-oriented utopian “solutions.”
Thus, the Obama approach to the world and to governing at home comes clearer into view.
The ideological hero of the current resident of the White House and of the Secretary of State is a radical “community organizer” named Saul Alinsky. Mr. Obama taught Alinsky methodology during his Chicago days, wrote a chapter in a book about Alinsky, and worked in several Alinsky organizations, most notably ACORN. Mrs. Clinton was so enamored of Mr. Alinsky that she wrote her Wellesley College senior thesis about him even interviewing him during the course of her research. Alinsky would later offer her a job in his organization, which she declined. In order to understand the direction that the United States is now taking, an understanding of Alinsky’s ideas is required.
Widely known for his often very successful “community organizing” in Chicago Alinsky was the author of Rules for Radicals perhaps the most important book of the new millennium. Rules for Radicals is something of a guide for those “have nots” who want to turn out the “haves.”
The problem for Alinskyites now in positions of power with turning out the “haves” and then becoming a “have” themselves is that they are then turned out by a new set of “have nots” in an absurd, never ending cycle. This “turning out” or “struggle” is the key to understanding Alinsky and the fundamental truth about American utopian politics of today – deconstruction and endless agitation.
While this idea of endless agitation may seem absurd and dangerous to many non-Alinsky people for true believers these are the essential truths of the ongoing development of humanity.
Mr. Alinsky views the advancement of humanity, like Marx, only in terms of “struggle.”
Previous and current incarnations of “struggle” as the only means by which humanity can advance have had (and continue to have) disastrous results (viz., “Kampf/Struggle,” Germany; “”Struggle of the proletariat”/Russia, or “Jihad/Struggle” across much of the planet today).
Alinsky’s dedication of Rules for Radicals to “Lucifer” should come as little surprise – Alinsky wrote that he viewed Satan as the first “radical.” But what is more illuminating about the book and the philosophy of agitation, “struggle” and conflict that it espouses is the almost universal concept of Lucifer as deceiver and destroyer rather than “radical.”
The human race can only advance through “struggle”, “have nots” will become “haves” only by turning out the “haves” who then must be turned out themselves in an endless cycle of “struggle.” Alinsky’s is not a philosophy of legitimate or sustainable governance or of the establishment or facilitation of institutions – rather, it is the ideal of an absurdist utopian’s dream of perpetual conflict.
“All life is warfare, and it’s the continuing fight against the status quo that revitalizes society, stimulates new values and gives man renewed hope of eventual progress. The struggle itself is the victory. History is like a relay race of revolutions; the torch of idealism is carried by one group of revolutionaries until it too becomes an establishment, and then the torch is snatched up and carried on the next leg of the race by a new generation of revolutionaries.” (Alinsky Interview, 1972 – italics mine)
For those on the liberal left who are now statist utopians – utopians who view the apparatus of the state as the means by which their concepts of utopia can be brought about – the great existential challenge is determining the course that the state should take.
The critical problem for those followers of Alinsky who now have the reins of power in our country is how to prevent themselves from being turned out by the always agitating “have nots.” After all, if this process of turning out comes to an end humanity can no longer “develop” according to Alinsky and his followers. Therefore the process must continue – or be stopped altogether and replaced with something else, preferably (for them) something that allows the new “haves” to remain as “haves.”
There is an absurdist Sisyphean ideal at work in Alinsky and, apparently, in his acolytes. How else can growing instability and deconstruction of alliances and broken “fixes” that result in more instability, doubt, and fear be explained?
They can be explained by the absurdist ideology of Saul Alinsky and those who follow him who now hold positions of great responsibility and authority in the government of the United States.
For such people searching for answers to complex problems, including those holding our highest political offices, the advancement of the United States is counter-productive to their larger goal of endless conflict and the turning out of one class by the other. This is certainly a Marxist concept in a sense but more importantly it is fundamentally about deconstructing the institutions and concepts upon which the United States was founded.
In this world view it is not poverty, communism, corporate greed, genocide, injustice, or cruelty that must be opposed, it is the “status quo.”
The foundation of the absurdist Alinskyite solution is the idea that whatever is now must be overturned because stability is contrary to human development. Continual shifting through agitation from what is to what is not is the core element of this new form of ridiculous and dangerous utopianism.
The acceptance of such concepts is a total negation of moral values, truth, and the possibility for functional institutions in a stable society. It is essentially anti-human, and certainly opposed to the concepts of liberty and freedom upon which the United States was founded.
One can suggest that deconstruction of domestic and international institutions, and the advancement of a more rigid statism moving towards a globalized, centralized supra-state (for example, the EU, UN, or some similar model) with increased controls over individuals and a reduction in personal freedoms could put a stop to this endless cycle. Is it not understandable that followers of this absurdist utopian vision, when presiding over the apparatus of immense power, would do what they thought was correct within their world view as well as protect their own new “haves” status?
Which response then to Alinsky’s world view are we seeing in our current national leadership? Are they rejectionists whose purpose is to stop the perpetual cycle of class conflict and thus end human development (but retain their newfound position and status) but perhaps find another related solution, or are they true believers who want to facilitate the Alinsky ideal of endless “turning out” knowing well that their time will eventually come to be ousted by the ever bitter “have nots”?
The case could be made that endless personal indulgences, vacations, and golf outings while the citizenry suffers from a staggering economic downturn (and time of war) and rising distrust of government are evidence of the latter rather than the former but with a slight alteration to the program (to protect their “have” status). This kind of self-indulgence on the part of leadership during times of national crisis has resulted elsewhere in revolutions in the past – revolution, if such a thing were to occur could only be seen as a positive event by an Alinsky true believer.
The fact that the foundations of the country might be imploded by such events would be of little concern to them because the upheaval, conflicts, and uncertainty would assuredly bring about change, and “change” is the stated goal of this crew.
Much like Islam’s concept of “peace” (peace can only occur under Islamic domination), the Alinsky concept of “change” means something very different to a non-Alinsky person than it does to a true believer. Human development to the Alinskyite requires “change” – it does not matter to them what the change leads to or what is smashed or lost during the “change” process.
Whichever response the current leadership takes towards the Alinsky ideal of “change” and “conflict” – rejectionism or embrace; the result for citizens is disaster as existing problems are not effectively resolved, new problems are facilitated and conflict (i.e., “change”) is fostered across the political and cultural spectrum. This must then mean that Alinsky “change” is about deconstruction and not caretaking of precious concepts and institutions.
When the old foundational institutions and beloved concepts upon which our country were built are abandoned and delegitimized what then will be put in their place?
The answer for the statist Alinskyite utopian is a supra-state. Support of such a supra-state is for them the only solution to the problem of war.
As most utopians are anti-war, and see the nation-state system (or religion) as the cause of war then some substitute must then be put in their place which will make war impossible. The supra-state is the only solution they can think of short of anarchism which most utopians somehow understand cannot work.
This approach of course negates any value that is inherent in the Constitution and the unprecedented freedoms that it guarantees to American citizens; it is a negation of our history and the previous generations who fought and died to protect those freedoms.
True believer Alinskyites facilitate internationalism and the rise of the supra-state by deconstructing domestic institutions and undermining the foundational concepts of national exceptionalism, identity, and sovereignty. The supra-national entity will dictate peace and justice across the world; this truly is a utopian vision. All the losses of personal freedoms that such a supra-state will bring are seen as a legitimate trade for world peace rather than a catastrophic loss. This globalist utopianism is great cause for alarm for many reasons but particularly because it cannot work; it cannot work because it ignores the complexities of human nature which have always prevented the realization of utopia and always will.
Alinsky and his followers are obsessed with human evolution through endless conflict and agitation. As he says, “struggle itself is victory.” Alinskyites today have much loftier ambitions and the means, as they hold the two highest positions of power in the government of the United States, to facilitate those ambitions.
While these two utopian visions appear to be contradictory, perpetual crisis versus the creation of a supra-national body that many believe will bring a condition of non-war and therefore “stability;” they are complimentary.
It is clear that the price of “utopian perfection” is and always will be very high. It is true that “applied history” is the most difficult kind of history to practice. But there are important lessons that are incontrovertible and actionable – utopia is not possible.
People of good will everywhere strive for perfection; this is more than a cliché phrase. It is the acceptance that human perfection is impossible, but the striving for it is not. With the knowledge that we will never reach it we strive for it nevertheless hoping that we will do what is right and good along the way. Those who ardently believe that perfection is possible, be it through super-state control or perpetual conflict and “struggle,” are the most dangerous agents of “change” of all.
The understanding and acceptance of the fact that utopia and human perfection are not possible while acknowledging that there are many “true believers” who do not agree and who work with vigor to bring their view of perfection to fruition is nothing less than applied history.
DL Adams is an American historian.