“For all the nostalgia for the sense of national unity in the 9/11 aftermath, I remember feeling rubbed the wrong way by one specific variant of triumphalism: the idea that post Cold War we’d grown soft and frivolous and now we’d at least toughen up and deal with reality. [But] Peace and prosperity are the point of all the policy, right? The goal? Give me a soft society doing yoga and pottery and starting businesses and going on nice vacations over a tough, purpose-minded society where everyone is joining the military to fight a big foreign threat. The latter is necessary at times but it’s hardly to be desired for itself.” — from Lawyers, Guns and Money.
As Corey Robin documents in Remembrance of Empires Past (which I’ve blogged about before), that was a controversial view back when 9/11 hit. Pundit Frank Rich declared the attack “has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream” and David Brooks celebrated that “it is no longer possible to live so comfortably in one’s own private paradise.” None of this sitting around on our butts enjoying life, nosirree! We’d be forced to fight! To achieve greatness! No more living comfortably … unless you were multimillionaire David Brooks, whose sacrifice to the war effort was devoting columns to how embarrassed liberals would be for criticizing W’s stunning success rebuilding Iraq (when he later wrote about how our leaders misjudged Iraq, he somehow forgot to mention his own errors). He remains enthusiastic about other people fighting wars while he cheers them on.
The belief (as John Stuart Mill put it “that savage life is preferable to civilized; that the work of civilization should as far as possible be undone” is not a new one. Nor is the belief of countless rich conservatives that working minimum wage jobs to support yourself is a proud and noble endeavor. That doesn’t make these views any more palatable or sensible. It’s true that someone who can work 40 hours a week, then chill in front of the TV knowing their bills are paid (during the Clinton years a lot more people could live that way) may never be driven to high achievement. But while someone who has to work 60 hour s a week to keep a roof over their kids’ head may be struggling harder and showing greater self-sacrifice, their life is not preferable.
And while I have respect for people who serve honorably in the military, coming home from Afghanistan with PTSD or a missing limb from combat is not preferable either. Certainly not compared to not getting involved in wars when it’s not necessary. Some conservatives wail that we’re not all stoic like the Donner Party, but you know what? Avoiding situations where people have to resort to cannibalism is preferable. If that takes government intervention, I’m okay with that.
It’s possible that people who have it easy will never achieve greatness, but struggling just to survive isn’t achieving greatness either. I’ve done a small bit of that and it’s not pleasant. Living more comfortably actually makes it easier to achieve: less stress, more time, greater mental resources. It’s also possible to make sacrifices and contribute to the public good even in time of peace and prosperity. Donate to charity. Run a food bank. Give blood. Volunteer at an animal shelter. These are also easier to do when you have time and money.
There’s a line in the film Things to Come to the effect that “our revolution didn’t abolish danger or death, it simply made danger and death worthwhile!” That’s what people like Brooks and countless others who shit on peace and prosperity (for the common throng, that is — they ain’t giving up their own) don’t get. The challenge and struggle of launching a business, painting a masterpiece, writing a blockbuster investigative journalism piece, trying to change public policy, those mean something. The challenge and struggle just to put bread on the table? That’s necessary, but it’s not a desirable way to live. It’s depressing that some people think otherwise.