Friday, March 10, 2006

the architects of human destiny

dreams die hard when you're a neocon. it's just that the rest of us do the suffering.

in francis fukuyama's recent eulogy to neoconservatism, the newly repentant and newly retired acolyte laments that "the idealistic effort to use american power to promote democracy and human rights abroad that may suffer the greatest setback." "The problem with neoconservatism's agenda," he has come to realize, "lies not in its ends, which are as american as apple pie, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them."

it would be snide to suggest that fukuyama and his shadowy braintrust neither appreciated nor calculated, in their machiavellian way, the negative consequences of unleashing upon the planet yet another series of ideological wars, with their attendant destruction, mayhem, atrocities and moments of brazen television horror.

nonetheless we are forced to wonder if they also anticipated the renunciation of long-established international legal norms, the kidnappings, the secret gulags, the extra-legal detentions and last but never least the torture. did the constriction at home of civil freedoms that are "as american as apple pie" in order to expand them abroad enter into their cold calculus? how much of the neocons' original thought went into the actual implementation of american strategic policy, the so called "bush doctrine"?

while we may not know for decades the bush administration's real goal for intervention in the middle east, for the sake of this discussion let us temporarily put aside dark murmurs of oil and schemes of american hegemony. let us for the time being grant the administration its stated mission of furthering the development of freedom and democracy across the globe, even so far as to grant the terms "freedom" and "democracy" with the best possible meanings and all the visible blessings that go with them. are not these goals in themselves worth the price?

"imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?"
— fyodor dostoevsky, the brothers karamazov, 1880

in the 2001 action film swordfish, john travolta's super-slick and super-glib super-spook starkly justifies himself by citing the classic theologic defense of god's apparent tolerance of evil, which defines evil as a necessary means towards a greater good. his character's name suggests, despite the hellish and high-casualty havok his plots unleash, that gabriel the spook, like his namesake the archangel, is in the service of a force for benevolence:

"[you're] not lookin' at the big picture, stan. here's a scenario: you have the power to cure all the world's diseases but the price for this is that you must kill a single innocent child. could you kill that child, stanley? no? you disappoint me. it's the greatest good."

neither dostoevsky nor poor stanley could take that step, but for others, like gabriel and the neocons, the question proves too compelling and the logic seems inescapable: indeed, how could one deny peace to the long-suffering billions of earth for the sake of only a single life, one child?

however, the logic is inescapable only if one presumes the power of a god: that one has perfect control over events and perfect knowledge that the intended outcome is absolutely guaranteed. since mere mortals, even neocons, are blessed with neither omnipotence or omniscience (much less omnibenevolence), that any human should answer such a question with not simply "yes, i would kill that child" but righteously "yes, i would kill untold thousands of children" demonstrates the epitome of arrogance and the source of the hubris only now admitted to by neocons like fukuyama:

"... successful pre-emption depends on the ability to predict the future accurately and on good intelligence, which was not forthcoming, while america's perceived unilateralism has isolated it as never before. it is not surprising that in its second term, the administration has been distancing itself from these policies and is in the process of rewriting the national security strategy document."

so without any guarantee that our goal, the spread of freedom and democracy, is achievable, can we still justify these machiavellian visions, the failures of the bush administration nonwithstanding? after all, though repentant he may be, fukuyama still sees, as quoted above, the failure of the neocon dream as a failure only of implementation:

"the problem with neoconservatism's agenda lies not in its ends, which are as american as apple pie, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them."

so long as men like fukuyama continue to believe that even though the execution be flawed, the neocon dream remains worthwhile, the rest of us shall remain the pawns of the would-be architects of human destiny.

to the architects then let us honestly restate dostoevsky's conundrum, and ask them to take into account the limits of human knowledge, power, competence and will:

if you believed that you might be able to make some men somewhat happier by torturing to death thousands of tiny creatures — those babies beating their breast with their fist, for instance — would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?

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