“Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direct necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
Only with the utmost restraint.
His enemies are not demons,
But human beings like himself.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
One of my favorite book titles is Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. One of the reasons we moderns are meaning-poor, I suspect, is that we are insulated from war. War or the threat of war was a near constant for most of our species’ history, so much so that the ancients generally regarded it as natural and inescapable.
The basic idea of modernity is that we should stop fighting and start fucking—exchanging goods in the physiosphere (economics), bodies in the biosphere (immigration), and ideas in what Tielhard de Chardin called the “noosphere” (culture). The logic of the post-World War II “liberal international order” was based on the idea that economic interdependence would make the large-scale national conflicts intolerable and unlikely. The hope was that classical liberalism would act as a sort of booster rocket to help humanity achieve the escape velocity from Thucydides’ trap and attain Kant’s “perpetual peace.”
It’s true that this rocket ship was built on the backs of slaves, the exploitation of colonies, and the degradation of the environment. But it’s also true, as Steven Pinker demonstrates in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that despite the cataclysmic conflicts of the 20th century, the modern world is far more peaceful than prior eras in history. Within the gates of civilization, at least, we live in a historically anomalous garden of peace and prosperity.
And it turns out that’s kind of boring.
At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama famously warned that the “end of history”—the victory of democratic capitalism in the multi-millennial contest of ideologies—was the beginning of a new threat: the “last man,” a phrase he took from Nietzsche. The last man is what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests” and T.S. Eliot termed “hollow men”—all reason and appetite, no heart. With a political system telling him to respect others’ rights, an economic system telling him to be a good producer and consumer, and a biology telling him that his only purpose is to survive and reproduce, the last man’s only goal is to…last. Tyler Durden distills the plight of the last man in Fight Club: “We’re the middle children of history, with no purpose or place. We have no great war, or great depression. The great war is a spiritual war. The great depression is our lives.”
True peace is not just the absence of war. Rather than exorcise the warrior energies that are part of our evolutionary inheritance, modernity denies their existence, and is confused when they erupt into the public square. It is hard to imagine a better example of this than the QAnon shaman howling in the heart of the Capitol.
Eliminate nature wars, and you’re going to get culture wars. The converse of Bismarck’s adage that “war is the continuation of politics by other means is also true.” For the vast majority of us in the so-called developed world, the weapons we wield are words. Most of us—particularly those in UMPMC (upper middle professional managerial class)—fancy ourselves decent, reasonable people free from ideology, far more civilized than the “great unwashed” idiocrats from the sticks attending Trump rallies, spellbound by the delusion that they are foot soldiers in some world-historical struggle re-enacting 1776. And of course it is horrible that, as Ross Douthat put it, the “dreampolitik” of today’s Republican party—the fake news, the conspiracy theories, the live-action role playing game ethos—tore the veil between the virtual and the real on January 6th.
But this move is a mistake, and a subtle form of violence. We other the others because they other. We “them” them “theming” us. David Frum put it well in “Against Revenge,” the final chapter of his recent book on Trump:
“comparatively few of Trump’s voters were intentionally bad actors. Most of them were fallible human beings like everybody else. They were deceived by people they trusted. Fox News and Facebook penned them like farmed salmon inside a lagoon of ignorance. Irresponsible politicians them hauled them flopping into their nets. These Trump voters were not victims, exactly. They could have struggled to overcome their prejudices. They could have sought out better information. They could have made wiser choices. They did grave harm to American democracy. Yet if you are going to hold them accountable for their bad choices, you should also hold yourself accountable for the choices you will make after the political pendulum swings. These are your countrymen. They are not going anywhere.”
For if we recognize that we are caught in and, however minutely, contributing to a world-historical conflict—if we awaken from the dream that history has “ended,” and realize that the fate of democracy, capitalism, and the climate is bound up with the culture wars in the United States—we might come to see our struggle in quite different terms. As Nietzsche put, “in times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself.”
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”