Browsing through a used-book store Friday — in the Milwaukee airport, of all places — I came across a 1981 paperback collection of George Orwell’s essays. That’s how I happened to reread his 1942 essay on Rudyard Kipling. Given Orwell’s perpetual ability to elucidate, one shouldn’t be surprised that its argument would shed light— or so it seems to me — on contemporary American politics.I hasten to admit that, in order to locate Mr. Kristol's acorn, you have to hold your nose and sift through a big, big pile of crap -- starting with his archly-simulated surprise at the idea that there'd be a bookstore at an airport in Milwaukee, "of all places." Who knew -- the hinterland goyim read books and everything! But he's pretty much right on the money in his description of mainstream Democratic "opposition" to the Imperial project -- foreign (perpetual war) and domestic (the emerging police state). Democrats don't oppose these things, as such, at all. What they oppose is these things, as operated by Republicans. When Sen. Obama, or Sen. Clinton, becomes President, and when Democratic control of Congress becomes consolidated, guess what? The U.S. will continue on the foreign warpath, the Department of Homeland Security won't go away (any more than the Department of Education went away under St. Ronnie Reagan), and neither will the PATRIOT Act, the Protect America Act, the TSA, or any of the rest of the Imperial apparatus.
Orwell offers a highly qualified appreciation of the then (and still) politically incorrect Kipling. He insists that one must admit that Kipling is “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Still, he says, Kipling “survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.” One reason for this is that Kipling “identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition.”
“In a gifted writer,” Orwell remarks, “this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality.” Kipling “at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.” For, Orwell explains, “The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.” Furthermore, “where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly.”
If I may vulgarize the implications of Orwell’s argument a bit: substitute Republicans for Kipling and Democrats for the opposition, and you have a good synopsis of the current state of American politics.
Having controlled the executive branch for 28 of the last 40 years, Republicans tend to think of themselves as the governing party — with some of the arrogance and narrowness that implies, but also with a sense of real-world responsibility. Many Democrats, on the other hand, no longer even try to imagine what action and responsibility are like. They do, however, enjoy the support of many refined people who snigger at the sometimes inept and ungraceful ways of the Republicans. (And, if I may say so, the quality of thought of the Democrats’ academic and media supporters — a permanent and, as it were, pensioned opposition — seems to me to have deteriorated as Orwell would have predicted.)
The Democrats won control of Congress in November 2006, thanks in large part to President Bush’s failures in Iraq. Then they spent the next year seeking to ensure that he couldn’t turn those failures around. Democrats were “against” the war and the surge. That was the sum and substance of their policy. They refused to acknowledge changing facts on the ground, or to debate the real consequences of withdrawal and defeat. It was, they apparently thought, the Bush administration, not America, that would lose. The 2007 Congressional Democrats showed what it means to be an opposition party that takes no responsibility for the consequences of the choices involved in governing.
So it continues in 2008. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of national intelligence, the retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, and the attorney general, the former federal judge Michael Mukasey, are highly respected and nonpolitical officials with little in the way of partisanship or ideology in their backgrounds. They have all testified, under oath, that in their judgments, certain legal arrangements regarding surveillance abilities are important to our national security.
Not all Democrats have refused to listen. In the Senate, Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, took seriously the job of updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in light of technological changes and court decisions. His committee produced an impressive report, and, by a vote of 13 to 2, sent legislation to the floor that would have preserved the government’s ability to listen to foreign phone calls and read foreign e-mail that passed through switching points in the United States. The full Senate passed the legislation easily — with a majority of Democrats voting against, and Senators Obama and Clinton indicating their opposition from the campaign trail.
But the Democratic House leadership balked — particularly at the notion of protecting from lawsuits companies that had cooperated with the government in surveillance efforts after Sept. 11. Director McConnell repeatedly explained that such private-sector cooperation is critical to antiterror efforts, in surveillance and other areas, and that it requires the assurance of immunity. “Your country is at risk if we can’t get the private sector to help us, and that is atrophying all the time,” he said. But for the House Democrats, sticking it to the phone companies — and to the Bush administration — seemed to outweigh erring on the side of safety in defending the country.
Imagine, for a moment, that the National Socialist Party in 1940s Germany had a political rival: maybe the "Teutonic Virtue Party" or some such. After the wildly harsh terms imposed on Germany after WWI, and the economic ruin of the Weimar Republic, these two great parties were united: Germany must recover her national greatness! Politics ends at the water's edge (or the borders, anyway)! Later on, though, when the Decider opened a second front against the Soviet Union, the Teutonic Virtue leadership erupted in dissent: Adolf, you idiot! This "second front" nonsense will never work! Consolidate Europe instead ... get serious about invading Britain! What a laughably bad war manager that paperhanger is! Only by electing better war managers ... from the TVP, of course ... can Germany win the Global War on Non-German-ness!
That's the Democratic party in what they choose to call "opposition." And there's where Kristol returns to what is, for him, the all-too-familiar territory of being wrong. The real reason the Democrats look so ... silly ... in opposition is simply that it's difficult to quarrel impressively when you don't disagree with your opponent about anything important.
Be sure to vote, now. Voting changes things, don'tcha know.