April 08, 2008

Spengler has found the great moral equivalence between Jeremiah Wright and Southern sympathizers with the Confederacy, and manages to convey in one article all of the arrogance and inanity of the modern Westerner.  Never mind the remarkable lack of moral imagination required to identify fallen soldiers with common criminals, as if answering a call to defend your homes from invasion could be compared to common gangsterism.  (For that matter, consider the absurdity of writing an entire article on this subject without acknowledging the degree to which the illegal drug war does wrongly devastate black communities in America.)  Unless you are a pacifist, you cannot possibly believe such garbage.  Consider the utterly unreflective, pompous lecture Spengler provides.  He begins:

“Get Rich or Die Tryin’” would have been a good epitaph for the Confederate dead, who fought for land and slaves, not for “states’ rights” or the sanctity of their soil.

Of couse, one might make equally broad generalizations about every army that has ever fought for anything, and one would be a fool.  One could say that there is no honor in the service of almost every American soldier since 1865 because he “fought for empire and advancement,” which would be as true and false as the statement Spengler made.  The soldiers of the Mexican war fought for these things in one sense, and in another they fought what they thought was a war of retaliation; the same could go for those who fought the Spanish.  But then that would tar the broad mass of soldiers with whatever errors their commanders or political leaders made and the agendas they may or may not have had.  Try telling the average Russian that his father or grandfather did not fight for his country and against invasion in WWII, but for communism and empire.  The difference is that it is acceptable to say such despicable things about the war dead of the defeated; it is acceptable to wish that there had been more of their men killed.  Spengler valorizes Sherman, one of our first war criminals, and thinks that we should admire him.  Indeed, the postbellum history of most of America’s wars has been marked by an embrace of Sherman-esque brutality from the Indian wars to the Phillipines to Vietnam.  There has been no lack of admiration for the man’s methods, regardless of his personal reputation.  

There is something far, far more insidious and twisted than cultures of defeat, and these are cults of triumphalism, to which Spengler makes his contribution here.  A cult of triumphalism is far more dangerous first of all because it sanctifies violence in a way that Lost Causes cannot do, and because it implies that there are wars that are not only just, but that the victor in war can literally do no wrong (and in any case the defeated deserved whatever they got, according to this circular reasoning, because they lost).  A culture of defeat teaches humility and reminds that justice and military strength do not have any necessary direct relationship with one another.  Triumphalism teaches the opposite: victory is the proof of righteousness, and not only did the enemy deserve to die, but we should have killed more of them to keep them down longer.  Spengler approves here of the abandonment of restraint and total war and endorses the narrative of the victors.  In fact, he endorses not just the cause of Unionists, as he specifically does in this case, but the narrative of every victor, whether it is the Mauryans and the Romans or the Mongols, the Ottomans, or the Aztecs.  It is, of course, a filthy lie that “whole peoples can go bad.”  This is the argument of the genocidaire and the totalitarian, and it gives a pass to anyone who would commit genocide against a weaker people.  After all, we must allow the losers to lose!  Except that when Spengler says “lose,” he means “die.”    

Wolfgang Schivelbusch made a study of defeated peoples, including Southerners after the war, and he had something profound and very valuable to say about something related to this:

To give up illusions of permanent triumph, to understand world history as a series of rises and falls, is to adopt the outlook of the jester Till Eulenspiegel, who relished the difficult path up the mountainside because of the easy downward slope that was sure to follow.  The recognition that what triumphs today will be defeated tomorrow does more than just reverse the traditional tendency to identify with the great and powerful.  Whereas the concept of hubris is primarily concerned with the demise of a supercilious and arrogant power, an empathetic philosophy of defeat seeks to identify and appreciate the significance of defeat itself.

Furthermore, a culture of defeat that is not primarily focused on revenge (as the post-1871 French one was) is one that acknowledges the tension between legitimacy and power, and understands that the defeated and the weak should not be despised and cursed and that defeat does not render a moral judgement on those who have been defeated.  It does not identify right with power, and does not mistake military supremacy for virtue.  People that have rarely or never known real defeat cannot grasp the tragic dimension of life, cannot fully understand the horrors of war because they did not suffer them in their own lands, and so tend to be much more willing to embark on campaigns that lay waste to other peoples’ countries.  We could stand to have more of the culture of defeat perspective and a great deal less of Sherman’s.


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