From The New Criterion.
May 31, 2022.
“The woke wars have sapped the West of its ability to fight true evil.” So wrote Sherelle Jacobs of the London Daily Telegraph back in March, when the Russo-Ukrainian war was entering its second month. “True evil” was of course a metonym for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Her idea was a variation on one that was appearing elsewhere in the British press at about that time. “Culture war dwarfed by real clash of values,” as James Marriott had written a few days earlier for The Times of London. In The Sunday Times, Camilla Long wrote that “A real crisis puts the internet whingers into perspective and, yes, your suffering is trivial.” Over at Spiked Online, the great Brendan O’Neill announced “The end of the Age of Fragility.” Most if not all of these writers were implicitly relying on a common contempt among the privileged classes in Britain for both sides in the culture wars, seen as a conflict between two almost equally unlikeable antagonists — fanatical and possibly deranged leftists on the one hand and jingoistic nostalgists for empire plus the mentally stunted religious conservatives whom they call “God-botherers” on the other — over trivialities that have nothing to do with them.
This was not an idea often to be met with in America, however. Grady Means of The Hill professed to see in the Ukraine crisis an “unexpected weapon against woke politics,” but on the cis-Atlantic side, despite our media’s being as all-but unanimous in their enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause as the British, the hot war going on in Eastern Europe was more often treated as a mere extension of the “woke wars” back at home, as mentioned in this space last month (see “Stumbling through the fog” in The New Criterion of April, 2022), with the Ukrainians standing in for the woke progressives and the Russians for the trogdolyte right in the continuing struggle of good against evil. Which is why, I’m afraid, Sherelle Jacobs is mistaken. “The woke wars” have, on the contrary, left us with the ability to fight nothing but true evil.
Or at any rate that which our revolution-minded media are able to characterize as such — something they have been doing for a long time and in many different circumstances. For the woke-ist phenomenon is not the cause but the consequence of a much older cultural Manichaeism — one that goes even farther back in time than the common appropriation of the metaphor of “war” for such less-kinetic struggles as Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, Nancy Reagan’s war on drugs, Joe Biden’s war on cancer and, of course, the ongoing culture or “woke” wars themselves, which Ms Jacobs thinks have done such a poor job in preparing us for the real thing. Before all those wars there were real wars about which the media of the day were equally enthusiastic and equally persuaded that the enemy was “true evil.”
But the domestication of this evil is the story of our own times, in which the proliferation of the “war” metaphor is just one manifestation of our tendency to moralize everything including, and especially, ordinary political differences as well as international relations in peacetime. When popularly elected governments go to war it is almost a law of nature that they must demonize the enemy in order to maintain popular support for the sacrifices necessary in a real war. But since the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era adopted the demonizing tactics of the Establishment “enemy,” which are no less demonizing, that tendency has carried over into the domestic realm, where both the wars and the sacrifices are largely theoretical and only the emotions they evoke, chiefly hatred, are real.
You could ask our last two Republican presidents, both of whom were routinely compared to the paradigmatic avatar of “true evil,” Adolf Hitler, in the left-wing press. But Hitler himself only became “Hitler” retrospectively when, appalled by the Holocaust that was not revealed in its full extent until after the war ended, we collectively decided that we must have gone to war in the first place not against the invader of Poland and upsetter of the balance of power in Europe, which was in fact the case, but against the murderer of the Jews. That was “true evil,” right enough — so much so, indeed, that nothing less than fully Hitlerian evil (or what could be made to appear so) could ever again serve, not only for the popular mind but for the leaders and chief diplomats of the country, as sufficient reason to go to war. That’s how Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden got to be Hitlers even before George W. Bush and Donald Trump did.
Mr Putin is of course the latest Hitler to goose-step his way across the international stage, but he was well on his way to true evil-dom long before his latest invasion of Ukraine — a process considerably accelerated by an entirely imaginary association, carelessly labeled “collusion,” with the last American Hitler, Mr Trump. The actual collusion was that of shady Democratic operatives with the media and elements of the Deep State to fabricate the supposed Trump-Putin connection. In that work of fiction, the evil of the latter was principally useful as the hopeful means of driving the former from office, but since that attempt failed, evil Mr Putin has lived on in the media’s imagination, hatred of whom only awaited the Ukrainian opportunity to be revived in all its fury.
War, to be sure, is a very great evil, but it is one that has been with us for a very long time and has rarely if ever been so easily sorted out into the good guys and the bad guys as in the media it has always been and as it is now also with respect to the culture wars which have done so much to keep them in hate-practice for the last half century since the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam. As I write the Washington Post is running a venomous cartoon by the appropriately named Michael de Adder depicting Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, as the wicked queen in Snow White confronting Disney’s niveous princess, accompanied by Mickey Mouse, with a basket of poisoned apples labeled “Don’t Say Gay” and a trail of dead children behind him labeled “Trans kids.” To these cartoon figures the evil governor is represented as saying: “I’m protecting Florida’s children from you.”
Neither the cartoon nor its stunning disingenuousness will make sense to you unless you know that it is a central tenet of the “trans” faith that what used to be thought of as pre-pubertal childish innocence is now to be considered potentially fatal to children who may be sexually ambiguous and not know it without the benefit of an education in the “trans-gender” ideology that Governor DeSantis is denying them. Put like that, the idea sounds dubious at best, but the fervency of the cultural revolutionaries’ belief in it is inversely proportional to its plausibility and quite enough to engender the sort of hatred for Mr DeSantis that was once reserved for the likes of Mr Putin. Or Mr Trump.
Such hatred of our neighbors with whom we disagree on moral and political matters is really a form of self-hatred, a hatred of the American cultural past from which, so we have persuaded ourselves, we have nothing to learn in our glorious march to the progressive utopia. The sociologist Frank Furedi thinks that this turning of the Western European and American cultures against themselves dates from the aftermath of the First World War in Europe:
This culture war – this turn against the legacy of the past – originated in the climate of moral disorientation that prevailed at the end of the First World War. The subsequent interwar era was full of doom-laden accounts of European decline. As sociologist Louis Wirth noted in 1936, there was an ‘extensive literature’ which spoke of the ‘end’, the ‘crisis’, the ‘decay’ or the ‘death’ of Western civilisation. European elites were so afflicted by this sense of decline that many abandoned the values into which they had been socialised. . . Such historical amnesia didn’t just lead to the devaluation of the military – it also led to the estrangement of national elites from their own nations.
During the interwar period this process was further advanced in Europe, which had suffered most during that war, than in America, but our elites have since caught up with and perhaps surpassed theirs in the wake of the Vietnam war, which produced a similar estrangement and one that sometimes seems to have encompassed half the country — leaving only Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” with the gaucherie to proclaim that they are “proud to be an American.”
“In the spring of 2022,” writes Michael Lind in Tablet,
speculation in the commentariat that partisan rivalries were bringing the United States to the verge of actual civil war abruptly came to an end. With few exceptions, Americans of left, right, and center rallied around the national colors. Postmodern multiculturalism and anti-Enlightenment paleoconservatism suddenly were marginalized by romantic nationalism of the 19th-century variety. As war fever swept America, progressives and conservatives joined in denouncing not only the enemy government but also the enemy people and their enemy music, enemy literature, and enemy cuisine. Americans displayed the national flag in every imaginable form and pledged undying hatred of the nation’s foes.
the nation that Americans celebrated was not their own, but rather Ukraine, following the brutal Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic. Liberal Americans who would have thought it vulgar if not fascist to wave the Stars and Stripes took selfies with the blue and gold of Ukraine’s national flag. Democrats and Republicans who routinely demonize the leaders of the rival American party engaged in a kind of sentimental, uncritical hero worship of Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelensky, which would have been mocked had its object been Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Neoconservatives and centrist liberals used the Ukraine war as an opportunity to settle scores by accusing opponents in the rival party and rivals in their own parties of moral if not legal treason for less than total and uncritical support of a foreign country with which the United States does not even have an alliance.
To Mr Lind the “moral disorientation” adumbrated by Professor Furedi in the European context has ultimately resulted in America’s becoming what he calls “a borderless credit union” or a “charity-state.” Instead of a national family or tribe we are now “a country conceived of as a philanthropy or a nonprofit” which “may have an army, navy, and air force to help it do good anywhere and everywhere in the world, by invading other countries and replacing their governments, if necessary,” but which has no further use for its former function of providing citizens with “a tribal trust fund” and a common identity that distinguishes them from everybody else in the world.
His essay is titled “The End of Citizenship,” and it raises in a different form the question only hinted at by Sherelle Jacobs or James Marriott as to what happens to our obligation as citizens to defend our country when it is transferred to defending, if only by our sympathy, anyone anywhere in the human tribe who is beset by “true evil” or a “real clash of values”? And maybe we also need to think of the advantage to ourselves of a merely proxy patriotism that is much less likely than the old-fashioned kind to demand any real risk or sacrifice on our part. I don’t say that there is nothing to be gained from the sort of national unity with which the brave Ukrainians have provided us, but so far from making us forget about the culture wars the newest focus of evil in the world only seems to have intensified the hatred of at least some on both sides in those wars for the evil they see in the other side.
And this is not to mention the usefulness of costless war fever to domestic politicians seeking to shift the blame for their own failures on to the common enemy. You don’t have to be a cynic to see the benefits hopefully accruing to President Biden, not only from taking advantage of the popular mood to pronounce ostensibly blood-thirsty anathemas (including an ad libbed call for what we have taken euphemistically to calling “régime change” in Russia) against Mr Putin and his invading army but also from the opportunity to blame supply-chain problems, oil and gasoline price increases and possibly inflation more generally — all of which long antedated the war — on the Russians.
If the charity-state, membership in which is not limited to citizens with both rights and duties but open to all comers, is the reality, not only of how Mr Biden and his administration but of how nearly everyone in the media and both parties in Washington see America’s role in the world, there is another reality, as old as war itself and inseparable from it, with which this world-view has come into conflict in Ukraine. This is the reality of national (or tribal) self-interest which is both what motivates Mr Putin and what gets him labeled as evil — as distinct from the rival tribe of all those who are not-Putin and not-evil who are opposing him so whole-heartedly. But it is not easy to assimilate the shooting wars of the international tribes to the metaphorical ones we are still fighting domestically — and not only because of the many deaths and injuries of the one and the few of the other.
“Identity politics is eroding the values which set the West apart from Putin,” writes Daniel Hannan in the (London) Sunday Telegraph. Or, in the words of his sub-title: “Our belief in liberty and individual responsibilty is all that stands between us and tribal barbarism.” Truly, Western self-righteousness must be the death of us if even so shrewd an observer as Mr Hannan doesn’t see that — internationally, at least — nothing stands between us and tribal barbarism. “The values which set the West apart” are only good domestically — and, as he correctly notes, we are rapidly losing them domestically too. On the world stage we continue to exist as we always have in the state of nature that, as Locke reminded us three centuries ago, princes have always occupied with respect to each other. And the state of nature means tribalism at best and barbarism at worst.
Without an understanding of the tribal nature of the conflict in Ukraine, as well as of our own national self-interest which doesn’t go away even if we don’t believe in it anymore, we are all too likely to go blundering into a war with Russia that could only be cataclysmic for far, far more than Ukraine. It’s almost enough to make me believe that Sherelle Jacobs’s “woke wars” are really the ones being waged against “true evil” — the evil of revolutionary neo-Marxism, which is what we culture warriors cannot but oppose with as much fervor as the Ukrainians are opposing Mr Putin’s Russia. At least, that idea has the advantage of not requiring us to think of any actual people as evil but only the horribly reductive and destructive ideas they have persuaded themselves are ineluctably true and not, as in fact they are, false as hell. Or, if you prefer, “true evil.”