Destiny and Decline
A half-forgotten poet foresaw America's fate
The poet Robinson Jeffers isn’t thought of as a foreign policy theorist: his oeuvre, when it is remembered at all, is generally reduced to a crude sort of nature worship, combined with a misanthropic leave-me-alone-I-don’t-want-to-hear-it view of life. He considered humankind a blight on the planet, and is today embraced by the global warming crowd and fanatic environmentalists (or do I repeat myself?) as a prophet — while being consigned to the literary memory hole by nearly everyone else. This is grossly unfair to Jeffers, who was once considered America’s foremost poet — this Time magazine cover is perhaps the only occasion on which a poet was so honored by that once influential magazine. His long narrative poems, with their turbulent tales of human frailty and folly, conjured a vision perhaps too dark for ordinary mortals to contemplate with anything but unease, but the final straw — as far as the critics were concerned — came when he spoke out against the foreign policy of Franklin Roosevelt and America’s seemingly inevitable drive to war. With scintillating bitterness, he denounced the horror that had consumed millions — needlessly and wantonly — in the sacrificial fires of the war god. In “Fantasy,” he imagines FDR, Hitler, and Tojo as convicted defendants in a war crimes trial of the future:
Hitler and Guy Fawkes
Hanged above the garden walks,
While the happy children cheer,
Without hate, without fear,
And new men plot a new war.”
Having won the war, Americans were in no mood for the “isolationist” polemics of The Double Axe, a book that was universally panned by the left-liberal critics as “a necrophiliac’s nightmare,” as one newspaper put it. “Fantasy,” by the way, was cut from the original manuscript by the publisher, Bennett Cerf of Random House, who appended an extraordinary note to the published book disavowing the political views of its author. America stood astride the globe, in 1948, and the caviling of this California Cassandra was considered beyond the pale.
Jeffers is embraced by the “green” crowd for all the wrong reasons, based on a complete misconception of his standpoint: he didn’t worship Nature, he only stood in awe of its cruelty and indifference, its enduring apartness from the human world. He called himself an “Inhumanist,” perhaps as a way of provoking the Popular Front Roosevelt-worshipping liberals who had drummed him out of polite society. That he did it with a cattle prod was very Jeffers-sonian, to coin a phrase: you can see why he’s one of my favorite writers.
In “Shine, Perishing Republic,” Jeffers gives political expression to his “Inhumanist” metaphysics, comparing the decline of our old Republic and the rise of the American imperium to the cycle of life itself:
America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.
You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic.”
America a soaring Icarus, fated to fall into the sea. In spite of my deep admiration for Jeffers and his work, I have always resisted this fatalistic view. As a dyed-in-the-wool Rothbardian, I’ve always believed in the case for long-range optimism, even as I endured the miseries of short-term pessimism. Recently, however, I’ve had good cause to re-examine this hopeful vision.
I’m not just talking about the fact that, after two futile, bloody, and bankrupting wars, our political class has learned nothing, and regrets very little. Nor am I talking about the election of this or that official, or current political trends. The problem is long-term trends that have been present, in America, from the very beginning.
As we shudder and shake in the last throes of bankruptcy, and the decadence of our society becomes visible in the ruined splendor of what had once been great cities, themes of decline fill the air. The recent presidential election campaign gave expression to these fears, with Mitt Romney defiantly proclaiming a new “American Century” (without, however, giving credit to Henry Luce for the original).
This campaign rhetoric echoed a longstanding complaint of that noisy but very small group known as the neoconservatives, who view the prospect of cutting a dime from a trillion-dollar “defense” budget as a fate akin to the sacking of Rome. More recently we have the report of our National Intelligence Council, which warns of the shift in population, financial resources, and human capital from the West to the emerging countries of Asia, particularly China and India. By revising the standards employed by their “power index,” however, the US is projected to be still on top by 2030 due to its military spending, “trade with and aid to other countries,” and hi-tech capability. So don’t worry, America — they may outnumber us, but we’ve got bigger and better guns.
What’s striking about these critiques of “declinism” is how other-directed they are: both the neocons and the National Intelligencers view the issue in comparative terms. Nations are seen in relation to other nations, and the “power index” varies as new factors are added to the equation and others deleted, in accordance with intellectual fashion and the political tides. Yet the true measure of decline isn’t relational: in our case, at least, it’s necessarily self-referential.
In America, the cradle of liberty, the measure of our decline is taken in the distance we have traveled from our original roots. We started out a republic, in which government was not only subordinate to the people, and comfortably decentralized, but also limited to a narrow range of human activity. We wound up a bloated empire in which government is increasingly limiting the rights of its citizens — an empire, I would remind you, whose Emperor is legally empowered to kill or disappear anyone, anywhere in the world, whether an American citizen or not.
The American Revolution was a signal event, the first — and, so far, only — successful libertarian revolution in world history. Yet we have always had our counter-revolutionaries: the Federalists, who wanted the return of royalism, and their many successors, who today dominate both parties. The great achievement of the Founders, and the nation they spawned, is that the Republic endured longer than anyone had the right to expect, defying, until our own time, the tireless efforts by our neo-royalists to subvert and finally overthrow it.
With the passage of post-9/11 legislation that effectively abolished the Bill of Rights, however, and the triumph of unbridled militarism as the ideological guiding star of American foreign policy, their long siege has nearly ended in success. What was once the freest country on earth, a beacon of light to lovers of freedom everywhere, has morphed into a vast corruption that has spread itself over a good deal of the earth, killing, maiming, and destroying in the name of “democracy” and “human rights.” To murder we add blasphemy to the list of Washington’s many sins.
It could, of course, be pure coincidence we are witnessing the final assault on the last of our liberties by a rampaging government at the very same moment when that same government is rampaging through the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, in a wilding of drone strikes, proxy wars, and actual invasions. On the other hand, the historical pattern is clear on this point, as Robert Higgs and others have shown at length. Randolph Bourne, the namesake of our sponsoring organization, put it well: “War is the health of the State.”
It is in wartime that the constitutional ramparts protecting Americans from the depredations of their government have been most badly breached: Woodrow Wilson’s jailing of Eugene Debs (and thousands of others, not including those lynched by the quasi-governmental American Protective League) comes to mind, as does the internment of Japanese-Americans by that great American liberal Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To say nothing of the sainted Lincoln’s Civil War dictatorship, hailed as not only necessary but heroic by neocons and liberals alike.
The American Revolution, born in a military struggle against imperialism — specifically, British imperialism — has been effectively repealed: today, the President of the United States is the modern-day equivalent of King George III. The imperial scepter passed from London to Washington at the end of World War II, but after an exhausting and expensive “American Century,” the new Byzantium is haunted by visions of its own impending senility, the superpower equivalent of Alzheimer’s Disease.
There I am, falling into a “Jeffers-sonian” mindset, treating American society as if it were a collective organism, and yet there is some truth in Jeffers’s poetic imagery. A society, like a person, can forget what it is, or was. In some places on earth, this represents progress: in America, where it can only represent retrogression, it is a betrayal.
This betrayal was accelerated and made complete by the mechanism of wartime opportunism, by which the power of government was exponentially increased on account of the “temporary emergency” — a power that never receded after the “emergency” was over. Every major war in our history has been accompanied by a Great Leap Forward in government power at the federal level. This circuit of malevolent energy has driven the engine of statism and militarism in a self-reinforcing dynamic that can only end in one way.
Jeffers saw this coming in a 1943 poem, “Historical Choice.” As American power “From Australia to the Aleutian fog-seas, and Hawaii to Africa, rides every wind,” he rued the day we allowed ourselves to be “misguided, By fraud and fear, by our public fools and a loved leader’s ambition, To meddle in the fever-dreams of decaying Europe.”
We could have stood alone, “like a mountain in the wind,” as he put it in “Shine, Empire.” Oh well, he sighed, such is Fate:
est, there is no returning now.
Two bloody summers from now (I suppose) we shall have to take up the
Corrupting burden and curse of victory.
We shall have to hold half the earth: we shall be sick with self-disgust,
And hated by friend and foe, and hold half the earth — or let it go, and go
down with it. Here is a burden
We are not fit for. We are not like Romans and Britons — natural
Bullies by instinct — but we have to bear it. Who has kissed Fate on the
Mouth, and blown out the lamp — must lie with her.”
I don’t believe in Fate — but sometimes I wonder….
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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Buy the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon, here.
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