The Long View 2003-01-23: Why Do They Do It?

John called this post, "Why Do They Do It?", but it really could have been "Why Do I Do It?". Using the occasion of the one-year anniversary of his blog The Long View, John gives us an extended reflection on the idea of blogging, which was still new and exciting at the time, plus something of his view of history.

John mentions the anti-war group ANSWER in passing here. It is worth remembering that while there were a few sane people against the Iraq war at the time, like Greg Cochran, the loudest voices were kooks acting in bad faith like ANSWER. With anti-war groups like this, war can seem like a good idea. The quality of the opposition makes the rush to war more understandable. That won't bring back the dead or replace the missing limbs of the boys we sent over there, but we should understand what actually happened rather than trying to retcon history to match our preferences.

Why Do They Do It?
This blog has now been running for a year. (I actually had not noticed the anniversary until the ever-observant Danny Yee reminded me.) This is a good time to examine why I am doing this, or for that matter why anyone keeps a blog.
There have been weblogs for years. The original idea was just a place to showcase links to "interesting stuff I found on the Web." Though there were early general-interest blogs, like the Drudge Report, most probably had niche readerships, like the venerable Rapture Ready. For better or worse, the form became fashionable after 911. Then, suddenly, everyone wanted their own editorial page to comment on the Situation. On the whole, I am glad that I did not have a blog up at the time of the attacks. I live fairly close to the World Trade Center site (in New Jersey, not Manhattan). As is always the case with a major historical event, what I heard at the time was usually misleading, and what I saw I often misinterpreted. All those things I wrote in a journal (with a fountain pen, no less). Maybe someday I will publish it as a warning to numbskulls.
The network of blogs (which Andrew Sullivan calls the "blogosphere") has been overbuilt. I hear that it is now suffering a decline. If so, one suspects it will pick up again, as further landmines go off in this treacherous era. That last phrase sums up why I keep a blog. History has a structure, I believe, which tells us why this era is treacherous, what the best and worst outcomes can be, and why it is very far short of the end of the world. Few of the ideas I express here are original. Essentially, I am merely applying the old idea that modernity is analogous in some ways to Hellenistic antiquity. This notion is again becoming familiar in the public policy journals. However, you find little of it in the daily or weekly press, and even less on the Internet. So, here I am.
There are other reasons for using this format, of course. It allows for short comments on the news, something I recognize that proper bloggers do every day. It also allows for blessedly short notes about books I have read. Readers are sometimes puzzled, not to say numbed, by the length of the reviews on my website. All I can say is that I learned to do reviews while writing for a publication that needed review-essays, and now I cannot help myself. Less than half of the material I do comment on merits the Spengler-Toynbee metahistorical analysis that inspired the blog, and that's fine, too. You have to spend years doing technical writing before you can understand what a relief it is to write about anything that catches your attention, and even have some chance that a few people will read it.
In any case, let me offer my thanks to those who write to comment on what I say. One of the great pleasures of this enterprise is the intelligent feedback. Special thanks are due to those who have donated money through the Amazon Honor System, as well as to the readers who have bought books using the Amazon buttons on this site. You know who you are. (No, Amazon does not tell me.)
* * *
The foreign policy of the old Left, meaning the Left before 1989, made a certain amount of sense. They were defending socialism. Usually, though not invariably, this meant defending the Soviet Union and its policies. That was a bad idea, but at least it was rational. There is a real mystery, though, about what the radical organizers of today's anti-war movement hope to accomplish. As one man, the Progressive Left of the Western world has risen to defend Jonestown on the Tigris.
The cranky but sane Christopher Hitchens has tried to reason with these people. He points out, rightly, that the peace movement today is engaged almost exclusively in defending fascists and religious reactionaries. It's not that the movement opposes war; the effect of its activities is often to ensure that fighting continues. To some extent, their goal is simply to stymie whatever the US does in the world; it has been widely remarked that opposition to the United States is the organizing principle of the Left these days. Even this analysis, I suggest, underestimates the irresponsibility of the movement.
Take a look at the website of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), the umbrella group that was chiefly responsible for last weekend's large demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco. What we have here is an example of depraved indifference to human life masquerading as a social conscience. These people don't want the regime in Iraq contained. They don't even want it inspected. They want "self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East," even if they determine to have a regional nuclear war and shut off the world's oil supplies. After a while, you begin to suspect that they want self-determination, especially if it means those things.
There is a poem by Constantine Cavafy called Waiting for the Barbarians, written in 1904. It's about a city of late antiquity, which has resigned itself to submission to primitive invaders. The government and people are all prepared to greet the barbarians when they arrive, and to turn over responsibility for their lives to them. Then something happens:
Why all of a sudden this unrest and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become). Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly, and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come. And some people arrived from the borders, and said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians? Those people were some kind of solution.
This disillusion is the future of the Left.
* * *
Of course, not everyone who opposes war with Iraq is a nihilist, though what exactly they are is not always immediately clear. Just two days ago, I got the oddest thing in the mail: a newspaper called Current Concerns. This is the English-language version of the German-language publication, Zeit-Fragen. It is filled with rambling, anti-American propaganda, most of in connection with Iraq. Those items that are not simply Internet downloads seem to be machine translations.
The publication is edited and apparently printed in Zurich, though I can't imagine that it was posted from there. In fact, the articles are often pitched toward a Swiss audience; the editors are not at all keen on the relaxation of the militia principle, for instance. The matter is less interesting for the content of Current Concerns, frankly, than for how I got on the mailing list. International political junkmail is almost as scary as international telemarketing calls (except from Ireland, where they have cool voices).
* * *
Speaking of strange things from the German-speaking world, Germany itself may be on the verge of real witchhunts. A notorious case of cannibalism came to light in Germany last year. It was gay, consensual cannibalism, apparently with some occult element. More recently, though, the German police have been collecting testimony about a network of baby-eating Satanists.
I suppose it's possible that these stories are true, but I would not bet on it. We had literal witchhunts in the US in the 1980s: remember "Satanic ritual abuse"? The phenomenon was interesting from a folkloric perspective. The rumors that circulated about the Satanic underground were not like the rumors from the medieval witchhunts; they were the same rumors. There were estimates that 40,000 or 50,000 people were being sacrificed every year. When the police investigated, however, they could never prove that any one devil worshiper had ever eaten any particular baby.
Not that some people did not go to jail: Janet Reno made her reputation by devising the "Miami Method," which was a way of coaching kids to say what the experts on cults suspected was happening. Janet Reno later became the longest serving US Attorney General in the 20th century. Give me John Ashcroft any day.
* * *
Here is a paranormal event to strain the credulity even of those most greedy of wonders: this winter, it is whispered, a tiny piece of Minnesota remains unfrozen.

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