Dada Conservatives

Last week, in an essay titled "Iraq’s Cultural Catastrophe – and Ours," Christopher Deliso wrote, "Having almost no history of its own, America is ignorant, almost contemptuous of that of other peoples." While ignorance and envy certainly played a role in the destruction, larger motives were at work, motives that go to the heart of neoconservatism.

The past is a foreign country, and no foreign country is safe with a Bush in the White House. The past wears a neon target, though, and with good reason. It mocks grand schemes, from workers’ paradises to New World Orders. Many have commented on the parallels between Leninists and neocons, including a shared disdain for history. Still, the Leninists were never so brazen about it. In theory, at least, history was on their side: the past they took from Marx was supposed to blossom as their vindication. Rare is the Marxist who can’t blather on and on about historical materialism, but the neocons look backwards with a sneer. They seem to have achieved Year Zero when the ink dried on National Review‘s first issue. If it came before Buckley, it didn’t happen – a strange sort of conservatism, indeed.

I don’t expect the hawks – with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld, their resident art historian – to know this, but hatred for the past is nothing new. Naturally, it grows fat on war. The militarism of the early 20th century, for instance, spawned Futurism, an anti-historical art movement. Its leader, the poet Filippo Marinetti, blamed the veneration of artifacts for his nation’s decline as a world power. Italy had been stifled, not inspired, by its patrimony. Classical and Renaissance masters could not be surpassed, which made them a cultural burden. More importantly, from a political standpoint, the collapse of Rome taught all the wrong lessons about power.

"We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman. . . .

Come on! Set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!"

"The Foundation of Futurism," 1909

Irony? Poetic indulgence? None here. Marinetti was an early supporter of Fascism, and eventually sat in il Duce’s government. Notice his use of the word "patriotism," which ostensibly links a nation to its past. If the past is erased, then patriotism becomes a commitment to the future, or, more accurately, the whims of visionaries. In American terms: never mind Washington and Jefferson, patriotism means Perle and Fukuyama.

But the neocons can’t smash the statues of the Founders. That wouldn’t play well in Bush country. So they polish the symbols with one hand and subvert their meanings with the other. This tactic comes from another art movement, one born of the world’s first death-for-democracy scam. As the Dadaist Tristan Tzara put it in 1918, with unusual clarity, "The slaughter over, we are left the hope of a purified humanity." Dada took satisfaction in war’s assault on reason and order. Instead of literal violence, Dadaists vandalized meaning and intelligibility, especially through the use of "ready-mades" and "found objects." Marcel Duchamp argued that anything one chooses to call art is one’s own creation. When he purchased a urinal (shock value mattered as much to Duchamp as it does to the Pentagon) and displayed it in a gallery, unaltered, it became his original work of art. So it is with the neoconservatives, right down to their name. They happened upon a tradition – whose values are largely alien to their own – and now they think they invented it. That’s how things work in Dadaland. Victor Davis Hanson doesn’t care who said what in Thucydides: he who quotes it wrote it. Jonah Goldberg thinks that if he chants "BurkeHayekBurkeHayekBurke" often enough, it makes him the definitive voice on conservatism.

But while the neos are content to merely distort our past, Iraq’s must be annihilated. It sheds too much light on the fate of empires. Will the monuments we erect in Baghdad fare any better than Saddam’s? I doubt it. Nebuchadnezzar and Sargon of Akkad were once big shots, too. What’s left of them now?