Strakon Lights Up

Sleepless under the bombs


Every year is election year in America: just not everywhere in America. New York holds its municipal elections the year after the presidential election, and Indiana — as I am all too aware (miserere, Domine!) — holds them the year before. Which is to say, on November 4 we're going to have yet another Election Day in Hoosierland. (Will they never end?)

I'd planned to hold my water on this subject until next fall, but the steam is leaking out of my ears now, so it's not going to happen. In December 2000, as Little George was being escorted toward the Imperial Palace by grownups such as Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, I wrote a column titled "The dangers of the dull-normal." Remember that one? At the time, I took it to be a pretty good effort. My point was that we ought not to doze off during Little George's incumbency, even if Clinton and his fellow agents of Satan had driven us to the point of emotional and rhetorical exhaustion. I suggested that the Empire as run by Bush & Co. might seem pretty dull by way of comparison with Clinton's Dark and Evil Circus, but that it still wouldn't be normal in any normal human sense. Not by a long shot:

Historians and political philosophers may be able to account for the existence of an American Empire, but that doesn't make that Empire normal. Historians and economists may be able to account for a $1.8 trillion Central Government budget, but that doesn't make that atrocity normal, either. Jailing peaceful drug users, imposing racial quotas, suppressing the freedom of association, coercively cartelizing the economy, subsidizing the well-connected, robbing the productive but unconnected, feeding a bloated standing military that would have stupefied the Founders of the Republic — none of it would be normal on any sane planet, yet none of it will stop under the Bush regime. The deliberate starving and poisoning of Iraqi civilians, including hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, probably won't stop, either.

One thing certainly won't stop, and that's the ever-accelerating dissolution of American civilization.

As it turned out, Bush and his handlers didn't give us much time to nap. Imperialism as run by Bush, or, rather, in his name, has made Clinton and his gang look like Cobden and Bright; like Lindbergh, Buffett, and Jeannette Rankin; like Frank Chodorov and Garet Garrett.

I never imagined I could say this, but I'm starting to miss Slick Willie.

All right, all right, I go too far. But even those of us who expected Bush to be a manifold disaster didn't expect him (or his handlers) to elevate American imperialism and state-criminality to a whole new level. I didn't expect them to be able to; I didn't even expect them to want to. In fact, I was naive enough to think that the American Israeli Establishment disfavored Little George, as compared to Algore, on grounds of insufficient family slavishness and that it might cut W. up during his four years, assuming it permitted him to serve the whole four.

Establishment types will point out that the unforeseen intervened and that there's a warrrr on. Exactly. In his classic essay of 1995, "Cognitive vanity," Ronn Neff wrote of the temptation to support Patrick Buchanan:

... In 1932 the free-market candidate was Franklin Roosevelt. In 1964, the anti-war candidate was Lyndon Johnson. On what basis could people who didn't know Buchanan claim to know what he would do? What we could be sure of was that issues would emerge, complicated incidents would occur, that the next president would have to address — questions that, in early 1992, we could not imagine. To vote for Buchanan (or anyone else) was nevertheless to claim to have reason to believe that he would do the right thing. And that kind of evidence hardly anyone could ever have, for hardly anyone in the country would ever know Buchanan (or any other candidate) well enough to have that kind of confidence.

To imagine that you can know anything about a man from his speeches, the purpose of which is to win your trust, is just cognitive vanity.

Of course I never believed any of the speeches Bush was assigned to read aloud, but I did think we might have to exercise our imagination a bit to see his essential badness. Wrong. It's understandable that I didn't foresee 9/11 (though I suspect that some of those more intimately associated with Power did foresee it). But I didn't foresee, either, how convenient 9/11 would prove for the empire-building enterprise. I certainly didn't foresee the USA PATRIOT Act. And I didn't foresee how ovine the American people would be in the face of all of it: though I'm one of the writers who have worked hard to popularize the word "sheeple"!

If you're planning to vote for a mayoral or city council candidate on November 4, or even for your next-door neighbor who's up for town clerk-treasurer, how much do you really foresee? What does the candidate (or his owner, or his blackmailer) foresee that you don't? What can neither of you foresee?

Only the market can "process" the unforeseen for us in relatively benevolent and productive ways, through skillful speculation, careful discounting, expert risk assessment, and, in general, through unfettered supply and demand operating in an unfettered price system. The state processes the unforeseen in two other ways, or, rather, in two aspects, and both of them are less than inspiring. There's the aspect perceived by we-the-sheeple, as we struggle year after year to get "democracy" to work right: think of that one as Mises's "planned chaos." Then there's the aspect perceived by the ruling class, which labors under no democratic illusions: and that's best thought of as planned chaos for profit. Their profit.


Sometimes when I inveigh against voting one of my right-wing interlocutors will object: "I'm no big Republican supporter — I understand that they're spineless cowards and unprincipled trimmers — but, look, if the Democrats are elected they'll expand state power faster and in nastier ways." The Bushites have made it easier than ever to refute that claim on a case-by-case basis, but I've come up with a metaphor that still may serve as a labor-saving device.

It emerges from my World War II buffdom. Imagine the ruling parties as two strategic air forces: the Republican Air Force and the Democratic Air Force. In arguendo I'll concede the differences in emphasis between the ruling "air forces" that my interlocutors insist on, in effect stripping them of nuclear weapons (that is, of absolute and consistent totalitarianism) and confining them to weapons of mass but spotty destruction. Let's imagine that one air force (mutatis mutandis) resembles the USAAF, which purported to bomb only limited targets (industrial areas, rail yards, power plants, bridges, and the like). And let's imagine that the other (mutatis mutandis) resembles British Bomber Command, which directly targeted the civilian population and its property. That doctrinal distinction isn't strictly necessary for my metaphor to work, but there is an immediately interesting thing about the distinction: it quickly broke down in practice. Even under favorable conditions, the actual USAAF ended up conducting terror bombing; it just didn't mean to. (Or so it said.)

On a given mission over the same city, equipped with the same number and category of heavy bomber and the same tonnage of bombs, each of our strategic air forces would kill and cripple different people. This church would be spared by one air force but pulverized by the other; that orphanage would be incinerated by one but missed by the other. A street of workers' houses would survive attack by one force but be leveled by the other; and vice versa with respect to the next street over.

Cloud cover, wind, the effectiveness of day bombing vis-à-vis night bombing, skill levels among pilots and bombardiers, the response of flak and defending fighters, the movement of people about the city ... those and many other factors would change the result on a detailed level. As the smoke rose, those who had been spared would be grateful that the bombs had missed them, and some would convince themselves that there was a reason for their escape. Some would gloat over the misfortune of others and even plot how to benefit from it. Some whose house or place of business had been wrecked would comfort themselves with the assumption that they surely wouldn't be hit the next time. And historians of the air war would carefully document the fact that this-or-that air force hadn't bombed such-and-so museum.

But those opposed to arson and mass murder would be hard-pressed to say which air force they preferred. They would say that, whatever the varying details of destruction, air force to air force, city to city, raid to raid, one general principle had not changed: It's just wrong to bomb cities.

November 3, 2003

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