Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Signs and Portents

With all the campaign brouhaha crowding out the news, it is very difficult to get a fix on the bigger picture. Make no mistake, however -- the bigger picture exists, even if we have trouble seeing it. Because man is fallen, and is therefore constantly engaged in looking at things that distract and detain him, it takes a special character to be able to lift one's perspective above and beyond the daily muck.

I do not pretend to have that character -- though I believe I can learn, through the eyes of those far greater than I, something of the intimations and portents which motivated them to warn of storm clouds gathering. One such individual with whom I have become much more familiar in recent days, through the writings he left us, is the marvelous English sage and journalist (for he was both at the same time), Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936).

As you can see from his dates, Chesterton did not live to see the beginning of the Second World War. But that is not to say that he did not foresee its advent.

Speaking in Toronto in 1930, ten years before Germany would invade Poland, Chesterton took as his topic "Culture and the Coming Peril." The "peril" of which he warned his audience was essentially the onset of industrialism and mass production, which required the creation (through advertising and propaganda) of mass markets, and whose creation he foresaw in turn would have the consequence of destroying individuality and local character. (Indeed, just eighteen years after Chesterton spoke, we would have George Orwell's 1984, which spelled out the same consequences in vivid detail.)

In delivering this warning, he made some side-notes which were uncannily prophetic. Thus he did not fear Bolshevism, he explained, because Russia had already demonstrated Bolshevism, and "the best way to destroy a Utopia is to establish it." Nor did he fear another world war, as such (because of his faith in mankind's ability to "pull through"), although he could not see a path, given the developments after the Treaty of Versailles, to prevent its coming. "[A second world war] would happen," he told his audience, "when Germany tried to monkey about with the frontiers of Poland."

In 1934, after Hitler had come to power, Chesterton wrote, in a collection of his weekly pieces published as Avowals and Denials (p. 37):
The common or garden German may be described as the beer-garden German. As such, I love and embrace him... [But] ever since Herr Hitler began to turn the beer-garden into a bear-garden, there has been an increasing impression on sensitive and intelligent minds that something very dangerous has occurred. A particular sort of civilization has turned back towards barbarism.
In another piece in the same collection, Chesterton admirably dissected the movement called National Socialism (pp. 126-27):
The old fanatics who followed Gustavus Adolphus and William of Orange were not ethnologists or evolutionists. They did not imagine that they belonged to a Nordic race; they most certainly did not imagine that they or theirs had ever been bothered with a swastika. 
... They were thinking about their own strictly religious scruples and schisms. They were really fighting fiercely and savagely for points of [religious] doctrine; and I should be the last to blame them for it. But these doctrines did not last; they were the very doctrines that have now long been dissolving in the acids of German skepticism; in the laboratories of the Prussian professors. And the more they evaporated and left a void, the more the void was filled up with new and boiling elements; with tribalism, with militarism, with imperialism and (in short) with that very narrow type of patriotism that we call Prussianism. 
Most of us would agree that this kind of patriotism is a considerable peril to every other kind of patriotism. That is the whole evil of the ethnological type of loyalty. Settled States can respect themselves, and also respect each other; because they can claim the right to defend their own frontiers and yet not deny their duty to recognise other people's frontiers. But the racial spirit is a restless spirit; it does not go by frontiers but by the wandering of the blood....  
You can have a League of Nations; but you could hardly have a League of Tribes. When the Tribe is on the march it is apt to forget leagues -- not to mention frontiers. But my immediate interest in this flood of tribalism is that it has since poured into the empty hollows left by the slow drying up of the great Deluge of the Thirty Years' War, and that all this new and naked nationalism has come to many modern men as a substitute for their dead religion.
One sees at work here a vision that draws back to take a very long perspective on the ebb and flow of human history. At the same time, it is joined to an unshakable belief in the essentials of human nature, which include a bent toward religion -- or, toward what so frequently amounts to a fanatic kind of religion under another name, i.e., racism and nationalism. Man does not change, but his beliefs and idols do. If one wants to see clearly the clashes that are coming, one has to take a long view behind the forces which are mobilizing in support of the doctrines and creeds now facing off in the arena.

Suppose we were to engage in such a Chestertonian exercise today, with a view towards appraising the developments whose consequences we soon must face. We are given certain facta thus far -- which, to be sure,  distinguish the present rather distinctly from that of 1934:

 1. In 1934, the powers that dominated the scene were in Europe (Germany) and Asia (Japan) -- the United States was not yet recovered from the Great Depression. In 2012, neither Germany nor Japan any longer plays a weighty role on the world stage, and the United States bears the brunt of envisioned responsibility for the course of world events.

2. In 1934, Islam was a minor religion on the world stage. But in 2012, it is a major opponent both to (1) the West, with its civilization rooted in Christianity, and (2) Christianity wherever it is found. The worldwide growth of jihad is one of the most significant factors occurring between 1934 and today. (At the same time, it is an analytical mistake to regard Islam as a monolithic sect, as we shall have reason to see.)

3. Another distinguishing factor between 1934 and today is the tendency towards what James Burnham described in his book The Suicide of the West: there is in western countries today a near-universal disinclination to counter or oppose any versions of the oft-expressed hatred for the West's professed ideals. By identifying or sympathizing with others' hatred of what it represents, the West becomes uniquely self-hating, and thereby renders itself incapable of leading or inspiring others.

4. The self-loathing of the West has still further consequences. Its very ideals, on which our country (for instance) was founded, are transformed into cynicism: projected differences in class and race are taken as grounds for viewing the United States as fatally flawed from the outset. (Thus does the Christian doctrine of "original sin" unwittingly color the manifold critiques of our country's origins.)

5. In 1934, the division between Sunni and Shia was of small consequence, because of the insignificance of the Middle East at the time. Today, oil gives the countries of the Middle East central  prominence, and the divisions within Islam become highly determinative of future events.

6. Finally, Israel did not yet exist in 1934. But today its existence, together with the world's increasing levels of anti-Semitism, furnish continual occasions for violence and terrorism within and around its beleaguered borders.

Israel has fought as many wars in the sixty-odd years of its existence as has the United States in over two centuries. (I do not count the Civil War, as it was wholly internal.) And note that both are democracies, which did not begin any of those wars.  History teaches that it is not democracies, but dictatorships, oligarchies and monarchies, which go to war against other countries.

The aftermath of the so-called "Arab Spring" has increased the odds of war tremendously. The countries which were secular dictatorships before are now, or will soon become, Islamic dictatorships. Dictators, be they mullahs or tribal chiefs, use wars as a means of controlling dissent at home.

A clash between the jihadists and Israel is inevitable. However, the chances of keeping the clash confined to just the Middle East are vanishing rapidly. The reason is simple: Iran is determined to have nuclear-tipped missiles, and if it gets them, it will use them in any war that starts, from whatever immediate cause. The break-up of Syria raises more concerns than ever for its cache of chemical weapons, and a war would probably lead to their use, as well.

Against this background, the apathy of the Obama administration is creating a force vacuum, into which opposing forces will be inevitably drawn. It would take a highly unusual provocation for Israel to launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities before the November election. Given the Middle East, such a provocation could always occur, but Israel's prime minister will not want to have "attempting to influence the election" added to the other reasons for anti-Israel sentiment in America. More likely, he will wait to see whom America elects, and then plot his course accordingly.

Iran will not back down, and Israel will not flinch from doing what it has to do before its very survival is put at issue. If a war starts between those two countries, the Sunni-Shiite divisions in the Middle East will become critical. The Sunni house of Saud could well see such a war as an opportunity to bring down the threat of Shiite Iran once and for all. At the same time, countries with Sunni rulers (or significant numbers of Sunnis) and large segments of Shia population, like Iraq, Bahrain, Pakistan and Lebanon, could be torn apart.

The economic consequences of war (just think what will happen to the price of oil) will be incalculable. The Middle East will be a very long time in recovering, oil-based economies without alternative sources of supply will crash, and gold and other commodities will be king.

Meanwhile, America is not completely idle. A second carrier strike force is on its way to the Persian Gulf, after Iran promised it would never allow it to return. China will watch closely any American involvement in another major conflict, so that it can take advantage of any pressure it can bring to bear upon Taiwan while America is engaged elsewhere. Russia will take advantage of any such opportunity, as well, to reassert its traditional hegemony over former Soviet republics.

In short, prospects for peace are gloomy. Although war could break out in any number of trouble spots (think India and Pakistan, or North Korea and South Korea), it will almost certainly play out on a major stage in the Middle East. And once it begins, it will have a nuclear escalation that will involve all of the major powers.

Even Gilbert Keith Chesterton might have come to doubt his ultimate faith in the human race this time around -- the forces ranged against each other are ever so much more lethal than before, while being just as intensely (and religiously) determined to prevail.

Nothing will be gained by crying "Wolf!" until the signs and portents become unmistakable. Nevertheless, if we are not to be taken by surprise, we must retain G.K.'s ability to stay focused on the big picture.


  1. Chesterton should be required reading for every 9th grader. Dream on, right?

    Genetics and Lewis and Chesterton put me on my traditionalist path. It is amazing how clean and reasonable straight thinking is.

    Your last two sentences are a worthy admonition to us all.

    El Gringo Viejo
    (I shall admonish my readers to make a visit tonight)

  2. Posted this with a link at Ethics Forum. A terrifically thoughtful piece. Thanks.

  3. The possibilities for war in the Middle East, at the present time, are truly frightening. Humanly speaking, they could rapidly become terrifying.

    I think that we, as Christians, are called to do two things about this. First, we must apply our faith to ourselves. We must trust in the promises of Christ and firmly believe that, while the world situation deteriorates, in a seemingly chaotic way, nevertheless God is in control, and he will achieve his purposes through it. Second, we must intercede for the world, both in prayer, and in practical witness and action. If things really do become very bad, Christians will likely find they have the best opportunity they have had for generations to proclaim the gospel and bear much fruit in their ministry.

    No doubt Chesterton would also have heard, and agreed with, the old saw: "There are no atheists in foxholes."

  4. Well, there is a lot to respond to here. Indeed one could make a reply that would approach the original post in length. That would be excessive. So I'll just make a few points, some important, some peripheral.

    Certainly Chesterton ought to have feared a second world war. Did the world really 'pull through'? I think not. The 'victors' continue to celebrate their own demise – and no country more-so than Britain.

    Germany did not desire to 'monkey about with the frontiers of Poland'. The proximate cause of the war was the status of the free city of Danzig – never a part of inter-war Poland. Check out “Origins of the Second World War” by the late, great, A. J. P. Taylor. Nobody knows anything about the events leading to WWII in Europe until and unless they have read and digested this book.

    “And note that both are democracies, which did not begin any of those wars.”

    Good heavens Mr. Haley. How can you type those words with a straight face?

    Do you suggest that the United States was attacked in the Spanish American war?
    Do you suggest that the United States kept its obligations as a neutral and was 'dragged' into WWI?
    Do you suggest that the United States did not do everything in its power to provoke an Axis attack in WWII – Before you answer, call to mind the (in)famous quote from Secretary of War Stimson's diary “The problem was how to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot.”
    Do you suggest that the United States did not gin up a false accusation with the Gulf of Tonkin attack?
    Do you suggest that the United States had not given Saddam Hussein a 'go ahead' on the Kuwait invasion?
    Do you suggest that there actually was any 'nuclear' program in Iraq within a decade of the 2003 invasion, or that there were not sober voices pointing out the absurdity of the claim.
    (Of course the nuclear program later got changed to 'weapons of mass destruction' – and there weren't any of those either.)
    Do you suggest that the intelligence agencies of the United States have not repeatedly stated that Iran is NOT pursuing nuclear weapons?

    Considering the fiasco that the Iraq war was, (recall General Odom who called the invasion “the worst strategic blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy) who could possibly believe the same mendacious nonsense ten years later now that it is being applied to Iran?

    (I leave the discussion of Israel's wars to the student as an exercise.)

  5. OldCrusader, thank you very much for that detailed response. You want to focus on the minutiae of antecedents to wars, while I (and, I think, GKC) were talking about the formal acts of war -- which means, in the case of our United States, a declaration by Congress pursuant to Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution. Thus Germany did claim that its borders had been crossed by "Polish" forces in order to justify its Sept. 1, 1939 invasion, under Operation Himmler. To say that Germany "did not desire" to have most of Poland's territory before the War is to fly into the face of fact.

    The immediate formal cause of the Spanish-American war, as you know, was the explosion that sank the USS Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. The cause of that explosion has been much disputed ever since, but the Navy's investigation at the time concluded that the ship's powder magazine had been set off by an external explosion under the hull. That finding was sufficient for Congress to authorize first, a blockade of Cuba to force Spain to withdraw, and then, after Spain responded with a declaration of war, Congress adopted one, too. Was the blockade a warlike act? Yes. But need it have resulted in hostilities? Probably only because Spain was a monarchy, whose monarch could not brook the insult, and so determined to go to an ill-advised war it could not win.

    Similar points can be made about how the US became formally involved in WWII, in Korea, Vietnam and Kuwait / Iraq. The only point I was intending to make was that the leader of a democracy has to ask the legislature to authorize the country to go to war -- otherwise it is no democracy.

    The Realpolitik to which you make so many excellent allusions, and most of which I do not dispute, is a different subject altogether, and was not the topic of my post. Most of what goes on in foreign policy is not apparent to ordinary citizens at the time, and emerges only after the fact. What the citizens of a democracy see and know is that their legislature acts (constitutionally) to declare war in response to what seems like an unprovoked attack on our forces or interests.

    As for Iraq and Iran, any judgments with regard to what happened and is happening there are of necessity short-term ones. I wanted instead to take a longer, more Chestertonian view of the forces that have been facing off there for centuries. Under that view, the forces have steadily been edging closer and closer to a cataclysm. How it will be touched off is not for the ordinary citizen to know or even to guess. I am with you, however, in supposing that it will be some sort of negligent miscalculation (or even intentional calculation) whose real details will emerge for the rest of us only after the fact.

    That we will not know for a while the particulars of how the next war gets started does not change the reality that one will start, possibly sooner than we expect.