Just for the sake of variety, let me try defending something written by my un-friend Duncan Black (Atrios) against the angry denunciation of my friend “Winston Smith,” the Philosoraptor. Much of what Winston says about the decline of Eschaton seems to me (regrettably) sound. And the post Winston attacks could have been better written. But I think there’s a core of truth to that post that Winston misses.
Atrios is complaining that eagerness to support military adventure is often confused with gravitas. That complaint has considerable merit. Conservatives have convinced many voters that aversion to warfare as a means of policy displays cowardice: real men, they say, are hawks. Atrios is right to say that a preference for violence reflects a character disorder, though he’s mostly wrong to call it sociopathy; it has much more to do with sadism and narcissism.
Winston is right to say that no sane person actually prefers warfare to other means of achieving the same ends, if those ends are in fact achievable without warfare. But he’s wrong, I think, to say that the relevant kind of insanity is rare enough to ignore. And the political process tends to select for that kind of insanity.
Machiavelli analyzed all of this five centuries ago. Good people, he points out, don’t like to hurt others; they prefer generosity to stinginess and mercy to cruelty. But stinginess and cruelty are necessary elements of statecraft, because a public policy of immoderate generosity and mercy boomerangs: generosity winds up by taking money from many to give it to few, and mercy winds up cruelly exposing victims to the violence of undeterred domestic predators and foreign aggressors.
So for good people — generous, merciful, compassionate people — to rule successfully from the viewpoint of those they rule, they need to learn to be able not to be good: to restrain their impulses toward generosity and mercy when it is necessary to be stingy and cruel. When it’s necessary to bomb Serbia, killing lots of innocent Serbs, to stop the Serbian government from committing genocide, good rulers go ahead and order the bombing, without enthusiasm but not without resolution. They try to minimize the amount of blood they shed (as Sheldon Wolin says, they economize on the use of violence) but they don’t shrink from inflicting some violence to avoid more violence. They aim at the Aristotelian mean.
The problem with this, as Machiavelli also points out, is that it’s psychologically extremely difficult. It’s easier for people with a cruel streak to use cruelty than it is for compassionate people to use cruelty, even in a good cause. (As Miss Hardcastle, the head of the secret police, says in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the only people who volunteer to do that sort of job are the ones who get a kick out of it.)
So good, compassionate people — liberals — naturally tend to use too little violence. Everyone more or less knows that; the fact that John Wayne is a standing joke among liberals is not lost on our fellow-citizens. So there’s a reasonable and natural tendency to want your rulers not to be too good. And that’s how a tendency that everyone will admit is pathological gets to be valued in office-seekers, while a tendency that everyone will agree is sane gets to be viewed with distrust. Currently, that’s the basic political tactic of the American right: convince the public that liberals are too nice to be entrusted with the national security (and too generous to trust with the public purse). They did it to Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry.
What Duncan especially resents is that some liberals, such as Peter Beinart, demand that other liberals prove their fitness to rule by endorsing pointlessly cruel policies. In strictly political terms, Beinart isn’t completely wrong: the execution of Ricky Lee Rector helped Bill Clinton into the White House not despite its obvious injustice (Rector, in case you’ve forgotten, was so mentally defective that he asked if he could save the slice of pie from his last meal “for later”) but because of its obvious injustice. Still, the demand that candidates prove their andreia by either acquiring or faking an enthusiasm for bloodshed remains a disgusting demand, and Duncan is right to be disgusted by it.
That doesn’t justify Duncan’s insistence that anyone who disagreed with him about Iraq was sadistic, stupid, or craven. But it does help explain that insistence, and partly excuses it.
What would I do if I were in charge? I’d try to find liberal leaders (e.g., Wesley Clark) who have fully absorbed both halves of the Machiavellian lesson, and who are willing but not eager to suppress their goodness when its suppression is a public necessity.
And I’d have those leaders appeal to the true andreia (machismo in its original, non-pejorative sense: menschlicheit) of the John Wayne character against the defective, sadistic andreia of Dirty Harry and the Terminator. Defending yourself and others against real threats is manly. Picking fights just for the hell of it is juvenile. Bullies are cowards. Only perverts like hurting people. Torture is for girly-men. Real Americans are above all that.
Footnote Of course Wayne acted in some turkeys, and occasionally allowed himself to lapse into self-parody, as when he played Genghis Khan. But the contempt for him among liberals reflects, in my view, not just a moral error but an aesthetic one as well. If you don’t see Rooster Cockburn in True Grit and Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and J.B. Books in The Shootist as deeply admirable characters, then you and I disagree about virtue; if you don’t think Wayne portrays them with immense skill posing as artlessness, you and I disagree about acting. That those who want to be considered cinema sophisticates admire Brando and contemn Wayne never ceases to astound me.