“Does liberalism embody the military virtues? Is martial virtue the highest stage of progressivism?”
Those are questions that Bill Kristol asks at the Weekly Standard:
Well, let’s think about an America that looked more like the military. That America would have a culture that’s at times tough and even harsh. It would have a mode of organization that’s strictly hierarchical and at times unforgiving. It would feature a regimen that weeds out those not up to the task and subordinate individual comfort to the achievement of a difficult mission. But that isn’t the America Obama wants to bring within reach. That isn’t the kind of America Obama’s policies seek to produce. Obama’s America is soft, understanding, forgiving, and entitled. But that America doesn’t work so well, or sell so well, anymore. So now Obama pretends his America is the troops’ America.
Near the end of his speech, the president claimed that “Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops.” What can we learn? That ”when you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails.” What Obama doesn’t say is this: It’s not just that you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. It’s also that you endure tough and demanding training, or the mission fails. You subordinate your own wishes, or the mission fails. You wash out many of those who wish to serve, or the mission fails. You insist on fitness and discipline and good character, or the mission fails. You do away with any sense of entitlement, or the mission fails. But Obama isn’t interested in the truth about why a mission succeeds or fails. He’s interested in using the prestige of the military to justify the nanny state.
Our liberal president claims to want to help us all “get each other’s backs,” just as military missions only succeed if “you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back.” But welfare state liberalism is all about scratching each other’s backs; nanny state liberalism is all about rubbing each other’s backs; and entitlement state liberalism is all about stroking each other’s backs. None is about protecting each other’s backs—let alone driving away our enemies and turning around to bravely face the future. The fact is that if the military is in some respects an example for us, it’s not an example that speaks in favor of contemporary liberalism.
But it does speak to the origins of an earlier form of liberalism, and it’s the latest reminder that Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism was meant as a warning, not a how-to guide. As Jonah noted in several places in his book, and reiterated to Salon magazine four years ago (in an article titled, “We’re all fascists now,” foreshadowing a similar headline from a rival leftwing publication a year later):
What appealed to the Progressives about militarism was what William James [called in 1906] this moral equivalent of war. It was that war brought out the best in society, as James put it, that it was the best tool then known for mobilization … That is what is fascistic about militarism, its utility as a mechanism for galvanizing society to join together, to drop their partisan differences, to move beyond ideology and get with the program. And liberalism today is, strictly speaking, pretty pacifistic. They’re not the ones who want to go to war all that much. But they’re still deeply enamored with this concept of the moral equivalent of war, that we should unite around common purposes. Listen to the rhetoric of Barack Obama, it’s all about unity, unity, unity, that we have to move beyond our particular differences and unite around common things, all of that kind of stuff. That remains at the heart of American liberalism, and that’s what I’m getting at.