What It Means to be "Great" on a Planet Going Down
David Bromwich reflects on the issues that should dwarf everything else: planetary climate destruction and the threat of nuclear war. Why is it so hard to face these two growing crises? "Because we are creatures of habit and immediacy, because the imagination can’t fix for long on a distant and unbearable future."
Bromwich is the author of the new book American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us, now 40% off until Monday, July 1 at 11:59PM EST.
More and more, we look into our screens and gizmos. And this helps us -- almost as if they were made for that purpose -- not to think about the weather outside. Kept busy “curating” our own lives, we are regularly spared evidence of the coming catastrophe.
Long ago, in a memorable poem, Robert Frost guessed that there was a human need to bring the moods of the world into conformity with our moods:
“Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.”
He says he has seen the “head” of the tree “taken and tossed” in rough weather, as his own head was “taken and swept” by a dream. This resemblance between the world and himself somehow added to his interest in life:
“That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.”
This sense of the human place in the fabric of nature -- that there may be a deep connection between inner and outer weather -- is starting to seem a thing of the past.
Can we still have inner weather when the outer weather changes so regularly and drastically? When 500 tornadoes rip through the country from Kansas to Pennsylvania in a matter of weeks? Or when 875,000 California acres burn down in the course of a summer? Rather than hear the message, we look into our smartphones or at our computer screens whose backgrounds may include breathtakingly lovely pictures of the planet -- photos that show how beautiful a place it has been. As if we could have this Earth forever in reach, as if we could preserve it with a password or, by logging off, exchange it for another as lovely.
What Benjamin Franklin is rumored to have said about the American Republic is now true of the planet as well: we have a world, if we can keep it. But so much of our interest is directed elsewhere -- to the work of “renaming,” for example. There are scholars who think that by christening our age the Anthropocene, they are putting the fires and floods under a microscope. But does this human-centered word do much more than carve a new channel for pride? (“Just look around! It’s all us!”) The world, it seems, has become but one more link in the cyber-human chain by which we exit our natural bodies and turn into something rich and strange.
Greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change, climate disruption. Think of the succession of words we’ve used to describe the gradual onset of catastrophe and you see at once how inadequate words can be. In our time, corporate lingo has even rendered “disruptive” an admiring adjective for tech innovations on a par with “transformative.” Think back to the way “creative destruction” was used in an age of trickle-down economics -- the message was that the economic damage to so many people signaled a corporate creativity that would make the crooked places straight. Never mind the “destruction” part -- the victims would find their recompense at a higher level.
The destruction always seems to be happening elsewhere. Of course we know better. The issue that should dwarf everything in sight today is planetary climate destruction. It’s happening in plain sight and all around us, and most of us clearly can't bear to think about it. Why not? Because we are creatures of habit and immediacy, because the imagination can’t fix for long on a distant and unbearable future. Habit disposes us to normalize the abnormal. It’s a human propensity as natural as the protective mechanism that helps us not get stopped in our tracks by the painful things we did or suffered.
Lurking under the exhaustion, the unraveling, even the obliteration of nature is our awareness of another danger we have long grown used to denying. For there is a second way that organized society could be brought to an end: nuclear weapons, which require a kind of international control we haven't begun to imagine. To make much headway there, the world’s sole remaining superpower would have to change its focus and drop all those other wars we’re in. Few people can remember how we got into them, and even fewer (National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, various Washington warriors and think-tank adepts) want them to continue, but these wars too have become a habit, a kind of addiction. Evidently we’ll keep on fighting them unless something very big stops us.
War Parties and Other Distractions
In another remarkable poem, Robert Frost wondered whether the world would end in fire or ice. Destruction by fire, the poem suggests, may be the offspring of desire -- the desire, above all, for power of a sort that keeps nations on the uneasy brink of war. However, as the poem goes on to say, cold indifference or hate could also bring an end to life on this planet:
”But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”
There could hardly be a surer allegory of our moment. The fire of the poem can stand in for our multiple wars and the shadow of nuclear cataclysm. And ice? Arctic sea ice is melting more rapidly than expected, as are the Antarctic ice sheets and glaciers everywhere. As they do, the sea level rises. Think of the ice as a premonition of the flood. And yet (naturally enough) these matters are off-limits in polite conversation. We are kept on a steady course of avoidance by a wish for things to be normal. Perverse as it sounds, nothing is more normal than the next round of daily news about a bad man who is also big and crazy and (confess it) bizarrely fun to watch. The race to fetch and carry news about you-know-who helps us cling to a present that resembles the cartoons and comic books of the past.
Everyday politics is filled with distractions. On March 26th, for example, The Hill reported that Mitch McConnell had affirmed climate change is a human-caused phenomenon. Did he really believe that? “I do,” he insisted, but the problem ought to be attacked in a reasonable state of mind: “The way to do this consistent with American values and American capitalism is through technology and innovation.” So the Republican senate majority leader offered a Republican “solution” to global warming. Let the vested interests -- Big Banks, Big Energy, Silicon Valley -- join forces and solve it together. These things always get done eventually, don’t they? As if on cue, from the minority leader of the Senate, there emerged a classic Democratic solution. Chuck Schumer said that the Senate ought to form a committee and investigate.
Another day, another distraction: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, reported last month that Iran was engaged in an unprecedented “campaign” against the United States, a campaign revealed by his scrutiny of “multiple threat streams that were all perhaps coming together in time.” The evidence on which his estimates were based appeared to be of Israeli provenance -- a source that (on this subject particularly) many Americans have learned to distrust. About the same time, former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, who for the last half-year has served as acting secretary of defense, suggested that the president “doesn’t want a war with Iran.” Yet statements by Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton can hardly be said to bear out that claim. In a 2017 speech to MEK, the Iranian insurgent-terrorist group, John Bolton confidently predicted that “regime change” in Iran was imminent. Last month, he promised a similar insurrection in Cuba. Bolton’s past behavior shows a consistent preference for war over other possible methods of undermining and destroying a foreign government.
Occasionally, a more hopeful distraction appears on the horizon. Just the other day, the Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted: “Our future is female. Intersectional. Powered by our belief in one another. And we’re just getting started.” In America, however, that prophecy is open to various interpretations. When it comes to the future and female leaders, consider the curriculum vitae of Condoleezza Rice, who served as national security advisor and later secretary of state for President George W. Bush and has since emerged as the leading name in the strategic consultancy firm RiceHadleyGates. It’s an upmarket outfit, all of whose partners had a role in creating, widening, or protracting the never-ending war on terror and none of whom has been chastened by her or his experience of disaster. RiceHadleyGates’s online bumpf assures you that the firm
“works with senior executives of major companies to develop and implement their strategic plans and help companies expand in major emerging markets, including Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas. In addition, we assist companies dealing with the national security and foreign policy challenges associated with offering sophisticated technologies, products, and services in these overseas markets.”
So the apostles of destruction by fire, female or otherwise, continue to reap their reward in status as well as hard cash.
And they have plenty of company. In the age of Trump, the war party of 2003-2006 has been resurrected behind the scenes. It can claim both a neoconservative and a neoliberal wing. Though in different tones of voice, both promote a return to American world leadership by force of -- the polite word is “democracy” but the reality is, of course, ever-advancing strategic and tactical weapons systems in a Washington where the Pentagon budget grows more swollen every year. The neoconservative wing of that party, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, has on its board former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, former Republican congressman and chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence Mike Rogers, and the neoconservative editor and columnist Bill Kristol. The neoliberal think tank, National Security Action, includes Barack Obama’s speechwriter Ben Rhodes, along with Obama's national security advisors Tom Donilon and Susan Rice and the intervention strategist Anne-Marie Slaughter. Jake Sullivan, who was in line to be Hillary Clinton’s national security advisor, sits on the advisory council of the first group and serves as co-chair of the second.
All of these people are pushing for a full-scale global renewal of liberal hegemony, supervised by the United States. The neoconservatives may look for regimes to topple, the neoliberals may prefer trade deals, but count on one thing: former officials and retired generals have already created a fresh environment in which they can safely mingle, brainstorm, and divvy up the world.
These people are the spiritual descendants of Alden Pyle, the “innocent” protagonist and title character of Graham Greene’s 1955 Vietnam War novel, The Quiet American. "I hope to God you know what you are doing there,” the English narrator Thomas Fowler says to Pyle. “Oh, I know your motives are good; they always are. I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives; you might understand a little more about human beings. And that applies to your country too, Pyle.” After a plastic explosive goes off in a public place and kills the wrong people, Pyle says of the dead civilians: "They were only war casualties. It was a pity, but you can't always hit your target. Anyway, they died in the right cause." A little later he adds, "In a way you could say they died for democracy." Fowler replies: "I wouldn't know how to translate that into Vietnamese."
From our continuing failures, we can always be distracted by the memory of past glory -- even when we know that the memory is largely counterfeit. George Packer’s recent biography of the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, Our Man, offers a proof of the method. Holbrooke was the finest flower of the U.S. foreign policy elite in the late twentieth century. He worked on the pacification program in Vietnam for the Agency for International Development, served as assistant secretary of state under Jimmy Carter -- where, among his other duties, he facilitated the Indonesian occupation of East Timor -- broadened his credentials for a decade on Wall Street, returned to public service as the Clinton administration’s Balkan envoy and U.N. ambassador, and became at last a venerated but powerless authority on “global reach” as President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan: Holbrooke supported all three of those disastrous wars in public, while reserving any guilty doubts for his private conversations and his diary. In non-diplomatic language, he was a careerist and a serial dissimulator, but Our Man contrives to elevate and almost pardon him because he did it in an idealistic cause, while seeking to preserve the façade of benevolent motives on which the reputation of his country depended. And he had to his credit one celebrated achievement: the Dayton Accords of 1995, which temporarily settled the conflict between Serbia and Croatia. This led to the 11-week-long bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which was said to have reasserted the “international norms” that NATO and the West stood for. The success of that mission would later be held up as a model for the anticipated success of the bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq.
Holbrooke politicked hard to get a Nobel Prize that never came his way for the Dayton Accords. As it turned out, the most lasting consequences of his actions in 1995 and his advice in 1999 have been the dismantling of Yugoslavia and the creation of Kosovo as a drug-warlord state. His biographer tells us that he was a charmer to some, an obnoxious self-promoter in the eyes of others. Even so, “our man” is praised in this account (with a touch of elegiac pathos) as one of the “almost great” American figures we ought to remember with respect and affection -- the hero of a lost world of big ambitions and good intentions.
As Packer sees it (and many foreign-service and combat journalists would agree), America’s faults have only been Holbrooke’s faults, writ large. “After all,” he writes,
“we Americans have never been good at managing the internal business of other countries. We’re lousy imperialists. We’re too chaotic and distracted -- too democratic. We don’t have the knowledge, the staying power, the public support, the class of elites with the desire and ability to run an empire. And we rarely have the moral standing we imagine.”
The last sentence is careful to guard the author against any imputation of nostalgia for American hegemony, but in a sense the caution is unnecessary: in this account, the evil that we wrought came from incompetence, not malignity.
Still, look at the words again: “we rarely have the moral standing we imagine.” It is the mildest of rebukes. Go to the back of the class, it says; get things right the next time. To see what is missing from such a judgment, compare the uninflected plainness of a sentence in John Mearsheimer’s book The Great Delusion on the consequences of U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. “Not only has the United States failed to protect human rights and promote liberal democracy in those countries,” Mearsheimer writes, “it has played a major role in spreading death and disorder across the greater Middle East.” Count Vietnam and Iraq alone and the death toll inflicted by U.S. militarism is upward of two million abroad in the years since the Second World War. No other country comes close. And none of those engagements in Southeast Asia and later across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa can be claimed as a war of self-defense. All were wars of choice. How much should it matter that we only wanted to help?
There is a thought that never enters the mind of well-meaning liberals like Holbrooke and his biographer. The reason we can’t teach others how to live is not that there is a good way of being an imperialist and Americans haven’t learned it. No, we can’t teach them because we don’t understand ourselves well enough to know what we would teach. Yet Packer is drawn to admire Holbrooke by the nagging thought that “he believed that power brought responsibilities, and if we failed to face them the world’s suffering would worsen, and eventually other people’s problems would be ours, and if we didn’t act no one else would... He was that rare American in the treetops who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the earth.”
Notice the familiar and hackneyed warning that if we didn’t venture out onto those distant battlefields of the planet, “other people’s problems would be ours.” In short, we must go to meet the enemy or he will come here. This has been the essential justification for every American war from Vietnam to the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq. That we could cause far worse problems by going to meet “the enemy” is the possibility invariably omitted under a haze of self-love and handsome regrets.
An Anything But Great World
When, in his essay “Perpetual Peace,” Immanuel Kant spoke for an enlightened understanding of justice and called the apologists for war and empire “sorry comforters,” he meant that they took the patterns of individual pride and fear as a collective rule for nations, and by doing so propagated a false idea of what action and suffering on a global scale could mean. Inseparably mixed with the cult of national self-love is the yearning to join the big boys who have made history. But where the fate of the world is at stake, the idea of “making history” through a struggle of great powers has been exposed as a cheat and a swindle.
Greatness in modern politics, in fact, has usually meant decisions that bring death to a great many unsuspecting people, most of whom have no connection to any problem the decisions were meant to solve. And yet this idea of greatness -- or indispensability or exceptionalism -- has so rooted itself in American electoral politics that a refusal to speak the comforting words may cause astonishment.
Senator Bernie Sanders was recently asked, “Do you feel you would be capable of using nuclear weapons in defense of the country?” He answered with bitter sarcasm, “Oh, yeah, anytime!” -- and to make the meaning of “greatness” clear, he added: “Am I capable of blowing up the world?” The interviewer responded that he believed whether or not a politician would order a nuclear strike was “a great moral question.” To this Sanders responded, “It’s a great immoral question.”
There are questions that should never be answered, because they degrade anyone involved in answering or even listening to them. The overriding legitimate question for governments today is this: Will the world end in fire or in flood -- in nuclear catastrophe or climate catastrophe? With the exception of scientists, a few politicians, and increasing numbers of school-age children, most citizens and most of our leaders are looking away from the flood while greeting the fire with clichés as familiar as lullabies.
And now for the name you haven’t heard but must somehow have expected, the subject of our favorite angry lullabies: Donald Trump. To mainstream journalists, he has become an object of unlimited enchantment and fascination. They treat him as if he were still the gonzo real-estate mogul and reality TV host it was impossible not to put on the front page because, in this age of social media, we’re all writing for tabloids, aren’t we? The symptomatic traits of a tabloid are no longer confined to journals like the National Enquirer. They encompass the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and the major networks, not to mention the rest of us when the internet surf is up.
The reporters who build up Donald Trump as president -- something they do with every smirk and gasp meant to show how much they want to take him down -- surely believe in the reality of climate change (even if they seldom mention it) and they surely accept the dangers of a possible nuclear conflagration (though they mention it not at all). But the 24/7 journalism of the age of Trump has unfitted them to respond to the real dangers of this planet whose names are not Trump. To bring their reporting into line with the reality of climate change and the possibility that all our small wars could someday erupt into a world war, mainstream journalism would simply have to take him off the front page for weeks at a time.
Let us be optimists and suppose our luck holds out for another generation. Suppose we are spared destruction by fire. Climate change remains and its effects will be devastating, even though those effects are regularly dealt with as if they belonged to separate categories: immigration, inequality, environmental destruction, and war. There will be wars as a result of climate change; there will be mass migrations; there will be environmental destruction almost beyond imagining; and there will be increased inequality from all of those causes. Meeting the disruption that is already upon us will require kinds of planning and international arrangements that are foreign to our habits as the last superpower. Individuals, however powerful, however capricious, however destructive, in this context are never more than paltry symptoms. Paltry -- that is to say, meager, sorry, anything but great.
David Bromwich, a TomDispatch regular, teaches literature at Yale University. His new book, American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (Verso Books), will be published later this month.
Originally published at TomDispatch.com.