01 April 2004

War and conservatism

Three days after 9/11, Phil Agre circulated this chilling essay about the consequences for democracy in the US. A few months later, I recall rereading it and finding it scary and prescient. Rereading it again now, ''scary and prescient'' is an understatement.
Let us say, then, that George W. Bush commences a war against Osama bin Laden, or even against the greater abstraction of ''terrorism''. What happens then? A state of war is a serious thing. States of war have routinely been used to justify censorship, the curtailing of civil liberties, and the repression of dissidents. States of war are also understood to require the opposition in the legislature to moderate its otherwise essential functions of criticism. Calls are issued to stand behind the political leadership and to display unity, with the implication that the enemy is watching and that failure to unite is tantamount to treason. These are not healthy conditions for a democracy; indeed, they are the opposite of democracy.

War in the old conception was temporary: the idea was explicitly that the state of war would end, and that the normal rules of democracy would resume once their conditions had been reestablished.
The almost inherent crisis of democracy, and the actual nature of conservatism, become clearest in conditions of war. The conditions of war are almost identical with the social vision of conservatism, and it is no surprise that conservatives are so eloquent when the possibility of war arises. Conservatism has always been profoundly opposed to the popular exercise of reason, supposing it to lead inevitably to tyranny, and wartime is ideally suited for the absolute, polarized, us-and-them forms of thinking that are the opposite of rational thought.

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