Belmont Club

Seventeen years later

Seventeen years later
(AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

September 11, 2001 brought down more than the twin towers.  It collapsed the old Arab order.  “The traditional great powers—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria— [became] barely functional states.”  It also warped the ‘Global World order’. If the Bush years were an attempt to restore the promise of the turn of the century through American power, Obama represented an abandonment of that effort.  After 2008, despite the Surge, the West no longer seemed resolved to turn back the calendar.  Instead it would try to adapt to the new circumstances. Jeffrey Goldberg summarized the shift in a 2016 issue of the Atlantic:

The president believes that Churchillian rhetoric and, more to the point, Churchillian habits of thought, helped bring his predecessor, George W. Bush, to ruinous war in Iraq. Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he was not seeking new dragons to slay. And he was particularly mindful of promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable. “If you were to say, for instance, that we’re going to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and build a prosperous democracy instead, the president is aware that someone, seven years later, is going to hold you to that promise,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, and his foreign-policy amanuensis, told me not long ago.

Under Obama the strategy was for America to reconcile itself to a changing world.  The rise of China, MENA upheaval, even Russia bellicosity were things that could be decried but ultimately accepted.  The trouble was that “dragons” though ignored if unslain were apt to show up at the gates of the castle.  They were not long in coming.

By 2015 huge refugee movements into Europe had become routine and even welcomed by progressive elements.  At the same time mass surveillance, once the bête noire of the left , became essential not just to neutralize militant cells among migrants but also to suppress opposition to migrant entry under various ‘hate speech’ policies. This combination generated a suspicion of the cultural elites and with the policy of adaptation and eventually swung the pendulum toward  the populist uprising.

The world is now in the post-Obama phase of the response to 9/11 with no clear outcome in sight.  What is clear is that immigration controversies are fueling what Anne Applebaum calls a rejection of Democracy across the West or a cold civil war depending on your point of view.  Worse, surveillance technology has made Big Silicon, once the liberal bastion of the ‘digital frontier’, into Big Brother, the enforcer of hate speech rules and arbiter of truth which has added an element of paranoia to the mix.

The video of Google employees vowing never to allow something like Hillary’s defeat to occur again illustrates shows the suddenness with which the civilization’s tools can be turned against it.  The ease with which instruments of surveillance and censorship can  be directed at the Deplorables instead of al-Qaeda was recently brought home by a video showing a senior Google official vowing to “use the great strength and resources and reach we have to continue to advance really important values”. The unspoken agreement on values at the Google all-hands meeting is a reminder of how easily groupthink can become what Scott Adams called the “casual evil” of self-righteousness.

In our new world of deconstructed countries and thought bots the biggest problem may turn out to be which culture, what set of “really important values” the algorithms should enforce, especially when there are supposedly none to be preferred.  NBC News notes that censorship algorithms, once unleashed, can boomerang. “ThinkProgress, a liberal site, on Tuesday leveled an accusation at Facebook and one of its third-party fact checkers: A ThinkProgress article had been inappropriately labeled as misinformation, limiting the article’s audience.” That should have reminded them of what all horror moviegoers know: that anyone who creates a monster will eventually be eaten by it.

Perhaps the issues raised by that attack seventeen years ago remain unresolved because the West is unwilling to answer the basic question it posed: what do we believe in?  In what does our civilization consist? Comedian Norm Macdonald remarked in a recent interview that our frenzied obsession with virtue signalling may mask a void in the center of our civilization.

I live in L.A., where I’m always faced with the lunacy of the left. I didn’t know that the same lunacy existed on the right. … I guess everyone is a fucking idiot. Everyone is an ideologue. Hopefully the pendulum will slow down in the next four years.

I’m happy the #MeToo movement has slowed down a little bit. It used to be, “One hundred women can’t be lying.” And then it became, “One woman can’t lie.” And that became, “I believe all women.”

The model used to be: admit wrongdoing, show complete contrition and then we give you a second chance. Now it’s admit wrongdoing and you’re finished. And so the only way to survive is to deny, deny, deny. That’s not healthy — that there is no forgiveness.

That is a helluva place to be in.  Perhaps we talk about virtue and forgiveness so much precisely because we have neither. If the apostle Paul returned to visit the 21st century equivalents of Athens and Corinth, he might suspect a very strange thing. Not only has modern civilization lost faith in the Athenian Parthenon, which represents reason. It has become disillusioned with the Corinthian temple of Venus, symbolizing passion.

Our protypical myths are missing and we have not noticed they are gone.

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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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