A Look

Andrew Bacevich:

Through all these trials, the American people more or less persevered. If not altogether stoic, they remained largely compliant.

Of course, decades later, viewed with the benefit of hindsight, the implications of these various trends and data points seem painfully clear: the dominant ideological abstraction of late postmodernity — liberal democratic capitalism — was rapidly failing or had simply become irrelevant to the challenges facing the United States and the human species as a whole.

Only when…

[Editor’s note: Here the account breaks off.]

I largely skimmed this essay rather than reading it closely yesterday, but my thoughts kept coming back to it and I realized there were several messages here which I find compelling.

One observation which stuck with me was that of Americans remaining “largely compliant”. I read this and read it again and wondered to myself “as opposed to what?” When are Americans not largely compliant? Where is the model in our lifetime of large-scale rebellion? The sole example I can think of is the anti-war movement during Vietnam, with massive insubordination, fragging, hard-core drug usage, sabotage within the military, draft board raids and draft refusal outside the military. Even then, with well-known personalities engaging in tax resistance and supporting draft refusal the resistance was token, with well-known cases The Catonsville 9, The Camden 28, The Chicago Eight/Seven, nothing like the Seattle 3,000. My Vietnam and America professor Marilyn Young said that while popular culture remembers 1968 as the year the US was the closest it ever came to a pre-revolutionary state she put forward May 1971 as the period when resistance was at its peak. She was not alone, of course, and hers would be my assessment as well. When my parents came back from DC relating their experiences of encounters with soldiers of the National Guard, US Army and Marines on the streets of Washington and of tear gas wafting through the air, our suburban neighbors, my friends and more importantly my school teachers responded markedly differently in a post-invasions of Cambodia and Laos, post-Kent State 1971 than they had back in 1968. Even then, though, the norm was absolute unthinking compliance, coupled with a seeming liberal generosity in tolerant parent-teacher-principal discussions about a young boy’s refusal to offer a loyalty oath to the American flag each morning. To today remark on Americans remaining compliant seems redundant, akin to describing Americans as living in America.

I was taken with Bacevich characterizing our era as late postmodernity. There is so little recognition of this, and I frequently find myself realizing how little I understand how my own model continues to be that of modernity. A useful analogue here is Einstein’s “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

A mode of thinking to be noted here, and one reason for both my skimming the article yesterday and my decision to put down some thoughts about it today is the framing of the piece, the scrap of a fictional diary being read in the future is itself part of the message to be drawn. The reader is put in the position of a future survivor, reading the log of another, past survivor of some cataclysm. This conceit is itself part of the problem, and reminds me of my frustration with the nuclear apocalypse art of the 1960s-80s. On The Beach, The Day After, and countless other works, while seeking to portray the horrors of nuclear war, are all from the standpoint of survivors, while the reality is that in event of cataclysm the vast majority of the population would be dead. Here I continue to find analyses of the experience of Europeans with fascism of the 1930s and 40s illuminating. Absent accepted models it is difficult for us to accept the evidence we see daily before us. Somehow the state we know to be true simply can’t be. This can’t be happening.

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