Thursday, December 10, 2009

Toward a Heideggerian historicity in America

In certain respects a Liberal Democracy is nihilistic. It isn’t technically nihilistic because it has a set of laws that everyone must abide by, but in areas not covered by law you can believe anything you like – or nothing. 
It is common to hear individuals say “my opinions are just as good as anyone else’s.”  What he means is that in his conception there is no standard against which to judge his opinions.  He is not Christian and so cannot be held to Christian standards, and if he says he believes in no standard then existentially his opinions are valid – for him.  He is saying, “you have your opinions which are valid for you and I have mine which are valid for me.  Mine are just as valid for me as yours are for you.”  And in saying that he is saying he subscribes to nihilism:  There are no moral values, in his opinion, by which one can prefer one action over another.
Heidegger recognized this moral nihilism as a logical outcome of Nietzsche’s “death of God,” so he proposed a direction.  He wasn’t specific but it is possible, if we apply ourselves to it, to see down his direction – as through a glass darkly.  Each culture, ethnicity, nation etc has an “authentic” tradition.  Something back there in its history that is the ideal.  Something noble, admirable, beautiful or desirable. 
Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence comes to mind.  He discovered four American “traditions” of Foreign Policy.  He calls them the Jacksonian, the Jeffersonian, the Hamiltonian and the Wilsonian.  These are indeed recognizable American traditions.  Americans today could find themselves in one or more of these “traditions.”  Could we call any of them “authentic” in the Heideggerian sense?  Let’s pursue that. 
Three of these four foreign-policy traditions have moral implications.  Using Mead’s definitions we might say that one element of the Jacksonian tradition is not to go to war unless we are directly attacked.  If the “attack” is tenuous, or against an ally they didn’t care very much for, say Kuwait, then the government would need to argue the morality of the attack and make it (to the minds of the Jacksonians) direct.   Wars that could not be justified in this sense, say the one in Kosovo, would be even harder – or impossible to justify to the Jacksonian. 
The Wilsonians feel a moral obligation to spread Liberal Democracy.  They are evangelistic about it.  They have no doubt but that Liberal Democracy is the most wonderful form of government and society the world has ever known.  They feel it their moral duty to export Liberal Democracy (think Japan and Iraq) whenever the opportunity presents itself.
The Jeffersonian tradition is very concerned about legality.   The Jeffersonians pushed for the UN.  They pushed and continue to push for the expansion of civil rights in the world.  You can see them after China to grant the same sorts of civil rights we have in Liberal Democracies.  But they believe, morally, in the law even if it goes against what other Americans might think practical.  It is the Jeffersonians who want to give American-type civil trials to the prisoners at Guantanamo.  Jeffersonians don’t feel comfortable with military tribunals.  Every crime, even military crime, even attacks by enemies should be dealt with in a court of law.
These for traditions form a hotchpotch and probably sound to the casual observer like a sort of nihilism, but we Americans are used to all these traditions.  We fit in them someplace.  We are used to arguing for our particular combination of traditions.  I’ve excluded the Hamiltonian in the above because it pertains to “American Interest” vis-à-vis other nations.  It pertains to business interests, to natural  resources and the like.  The Hamiltonians are going to get us the natural resources we need to keep our country going, but “morality” may not be a major concern for them.
How does this pertain to Heidegger’s concept of historical authenticity?    In each tradition we Americans know (more or less) what corresponds to authenticity.  The Jacksonians for example are the people who fight America’s wars and they don’t believe in fighting them when America isn’t directly attacked.  Justification for going to war is very important to them.  At one time they were isolationists.  They would fight if someone crossed an ocean and attacked Americans, but don’t expect them to leave America to fight elsewhere.  Wilson and later FDR had to do a lot of talking to convince the Jacksonians that America’s safety was at stake in World Wars one and two.
Britain has a different Foreign Policy tradition.  It developed during its Imperial phase.  British soldiers were used to being sent out to whip the colonies into shape.  Fighting colonial rebellions was something they understood.   We engaged in something like that with our policy of Containment.  The policy was clever and effective.  We would “hold the line” against Communist aggression wherever possible.  That made sense to the “realpolitik” leaders who created this policy, but it never made sense to the Jacksonians. 
 I think here about  how Vinegar Joe Stillwell was conflicted over Chaing Kai Shek.  This occurred prior to the Truman Doctrine, but it illustrates the problems a Jacksonian has with fighting for a group of people he doesn’t think worthy of it.  Stillwell was in China to help the Chinese fight against the Japanese, but not only was Chiang Kai-shek corrupt, he was more interested in fighting Mao Zedong than the Japanese.  Stillwell despised Chaing and although not a Communist, he thought we should be supporting Mao because at least Mao was willing to fight against the Japanese.  The Jacksonian Stillwell was convinced that Japan was an enemy worth fighting.  No one convinced him that we should take time out from the war against Japan so that Chiang Kai-shek could have his own war against Mao Zedong.
There are other examples about the Jacksonian “short-sightedness” of American Generals in the Second World War, but another way of looking at them is through Mead’s eyes.  They were following their moral principles of not fighting against nations that had not directly attacked us.  It took the Hamiltonians to decide that our “National Interest” lay in allowing Chaing Kai-shek to fight against Mao, but the morality of that was too sophisticated for a simple Jacksonian.
The half-heartedness in the Vietnam War was a similar matter.  We understood fairly well that we were holding the line when we fought against the North Koreans, but things were more complicated in Vietnam and President Johnson seems to have lost sight of the Truman Doctrine of Containment, if he ever knew it.  Why, the Jacksonians wanted to know, were we defending a people who were not worthy of our defense?  What did we care, the Jacksonian wondered, whether they did turn Communist?  We didn’t even like them.  Many were corrupt and many unwilling to defend themselves; so why should we lay down our lives for them?  Once again, the Hamiltonians could explain why they needed to lay down their lives.  It was in our National Interest to “hold the line” against Communist aggression and it didn’t really matter whether the South Vietnamese Government was corrupt.  But that didn’t convince the Jacksonians – who as long as they were over there figured they ought to fight, but their hearts weren’t in it.
In Heidegger’s Germany, there was just one tradition.  It was totalitarian.  But America has several traditions.  We are used to “give and take” in regard to them.  Representatives of our traditions argue amongst themselves, often acrimoniously.  But it is possible to see that in regard to war we do better when our cause is “authentic.”  We were attacked by the Japanese and fought heroically and effectively against them.  We were attacked by forces in Afghanistan and readily defeated them.  But the “Nation building” following the military victory was not in the Jacksonian playbook.  Jacksonians defeat the enemy and go home.  Wilsonians build Liberal Democratic nations out of defeated enemies – or try to.  Jacksonians in Iraq and Afghanistan did a good job but the Wilsonians who followed were not numerous or effective enough to build those defeated nations into Liberal Democracies – at least not very effectively. 
It doesn’t seem as though we are ever going to get our act together.  Can we envision cold-bloodedly planning to conquer nations in order to build them into Liberal Democracies?   Certainly not.  Francis Fukuyama who predicted that all nations would one day become Liberal Democratic balked at the activities of the Neocons during the Bush II administration.  He thought they were being too proactive; which didn’t fit his passive scenario of historical progress. 
Would Heidegger agree that what I’ve described is consistent with his idea of historical authentic?  Perhaps not, but since he wasn’t specific, at some point we have to decide that we don’t care whether Heidegger would approve or not.  The more important question for us will be, is there any advantage to applying his concepts to our traditions?   There may be.  It never hurts to have a greater understanding of our processes (via traditions).  Understanding isn’t likely to eliminate disagreements.  It might not even reduce the acrimony.  But it might let us feel better about ourselves.  We do after all have a system that works; which was more than Heidegger could say about the system he propose, or the one he joined.

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