Friday, November 19, 2004

Revisiting “creative destruction”—untidily but quick!

A page of history. Posted by Hello

I was planning to continue exploring the limits of sovereignty with Montesquieu and Rousseau, moving on with Al-Farabi, Ibn Khaldun and ultimately some theories of Jihad before getting back to discussing Ledeen’s debts to Mr. Schmitt in less playfully ad hominem way. But then there was another interesting discussion Cheznadezhda. So a change of plans. That’s us, Iranians for you. Obsessive, and the attention span of a five year old to wit.

Two quick notes first.

Apologies to Oscar! No one should infer dispositions on the basis of another’s fleeting moment of reflection. I stand corrected. The “nettlesome flirtation with the ancient Mongols” accusation is now directed solely at Oscar’s “Jacksonian neighbors.” For the record, what gets under my skin is flattening cities and dogs eating bodies of the dead.

Second, I am pleased to see Prakrite settling Cheznadezhda. It was a chore keeping up with him in all the multiple weblogs he left comments on. Impressive reading practices as well. I don’t have access to Pollack’s book at the moment. I am sure it will be translated soon and available in the bookstores. Can you believe: over three million titles published alone last year here-- a lot in translations. Any thing from the classics and post moderns, to the biography of Hillary Clinton and the immortal lyrics of Britney Spears!

As an aside, the paragraph alluded to in the blog entry seems sensible enough to me. The problem he addresses remains still a fundamental difficulty today. The key to the puzzle is the dominant business mentality in Iran that privileges trade, speculation and hoarding at the expense of production. And the disposition manifest in the incestuous patronage due to insecurity.

Start with two neighbors with the same net worth--one breeds chickens, the other is a merchant. The merchant will buy a bunch of chickens on the (insider) scoop of the possible rise in the prices of the imported feed due to a new contract signed by some corrupt official with another country in return for kickbacks. The merchant keeps quiet and hoards the chickens he has purchased already and advances more money to the neighbor securing a promise of future sales at a bargain price. And sure enough, the price of chickens goes up because of the rise in the price of the feed and the perceived possible shortage of chickens. The other neighbor gets caught off balance and now as his margin continues to fall, either feels destitute or comes to abandon his enterprise entirely, while our merchant gets richer beyond his wildest dreams.

The merchant is still irritated with the government though, since he can’t possibly keep up with all the arbitrary arrangements that can make or break him without any warnings. This happens constantly in all the various sectors of the economy here.

Frankly here is a dirty secret for you at no cost: the Iranian business class has as much interest in democracy as their counterparts had in Chile under Pinochet while the threat of communism loomed in the horizon. They are rolling in money, and reaping the benefits in obscene personal ways (more opium and mistresses than they know what to do with; no enforceable regulations that can’t be bribed away and no labor laws or trade unions to hassle with) What is irritating most is the constant insecurity and the perception of being left out of the loop and the nuisance of a cumbersome bureaucracy.

That said, what I wanted to tackle was Ledeen’s “creative destruction” spiel, if our kindly friend Nadezhda could forgive the untidiness of it all for now. Once I have collected some more of the readers’ (usually angry) feedbacks, I’ll revisit the subject subsequently with appropriate links. This quick profile today I am putting together based on notes accumulated over the years about Ledeen.

The often derided Ledeen thesis, as best I can figure, is succinctly articulated in the now (in)famous 2001 article:

We dealt with the original kamikazes by improving our defenses so as to kill them before they hit us, and by destroying the country that launched them. We have to do that again.

It is what we do best. It comes naturally to us, for we are the one truly revolutionary country in the world, as we have been for more than 200 years. Creative destruction is our middle name. We do it automatically, and that is precisely why the tyrants hate us, and are driven to attack us.

To those who say it cannot be done, we need only point to the 1980s, when we led a global democratic revolution that toppled tyrants from Moscow to Johannesburg.

As always, it is best to listen to Mr. Ledeen when he recommends an actionable. So let’s go back with him to the March of 1985 (when he was busy saving those unfortunate souls residing south of the American borders) to get a better sense for the initial formulation of his thesis as well as indications of his (somewhat) failing memory. Here are a couple of tidbits from an article he published in the Commentary magazine then:

Vitality of democracy, its appeal to human creativity, and the unlimited range it gives to human development, strike fear into the hearts of those whose power depends upon shackling free people and insisting upon a single “truth.”

True enough. But here is where the Ledeen of old was slightly different from the new version:

“How can we continue to maintain close friendships with foreign leaders when we are simultaneously intruding into their internal affairs, trying to get them to dilute their authority and significantly change their political system?”

Whom do you think he is talking about here? Yes you might have guessed it. South Africa is one of the examples he gives. Let me emphasis here that I think Apartheid was probably repulsive to him. But since when have the considerations of right and wrong swayed an ideologue on a binge?

To his credit though, he did chastise fellow conservatives for mistaking alliances of convenience with shared principles.

Among some of the other odious allies then, we can now count Usama and Mr. Saddam “the Hitler” Hussein. Whether Mr. Ledeen might have played a role (or not) is not all that clear to me. But I am absolutely certain about the identity of the ones who received a cake and some weapons here in Iran with his help, if you know what I mean.

Nonetheless, what I find really amusing is that he now takes credit for the revolution in Johannesburg as well; when in point of fact, the Americans who were partially responsible for the downfall of Apartheid were the ones Ledeen and Co have always accused of naïveté, and being dupes. The ones taking credit for the down fall of the Apartheid regime nowadays were the ones fighting on the wrong side tooth and nail.

And parenthetically, someday soon, once I’ve gained access to the original documents, I’ll tell you where the categories “sexual apartheid,” and “Islamo-fascism,” so in vogue nowadays originate from.

Things change though. We’ve all changed. That’s life. So now Mr. Ledeen fiddles with the initial 2001 version of his “creative destruction,” thesis in a furious, scornful rebuttal of the Libertarian Congressman Paul in 2003, giving it a more precise formulation:

The heart of Paul's attack on me is this paragraph:

In Ledeen's most recent publication, The War Against the Terror Masters, he reiterates his beliefs outlined in this 1999 Machaivelli book. He specifically praises: "Creative destruction…both within our own society and abroad…(foreigners) seeing America undo traditional societies may fear us, for they do not wish to be undone." Amazingly, Ledeen concludes: "They must attack us in order to survive, just as we must destroy them to advance our historic mission."

If those words don't scare you, nothing will?

He conveniently leaves out the context, which is a discussion of the basic conflict between us and the terror masters: a conflict between freedom and tyranny. I argue, as I argued during the Cold War with regard to Communism, and as I argued in my books on fascism earlier, that the conflict between America and tyrants is inevitable. It stems from the very nature of America, from our unique freedom and creativity, which has often been described as "creative destruction." Every serious writer about America has noticed the amazing speed with which we scrap old ideas, technologies, art forms and even the use of the English language. And it's obvious that more rigid societies, particularly those governed by tyrants, are frightened by the effects and the appeal of freedom on their own subjects. Our existence threatens them, undermines their legitimacy, and subverts their power. Therefore "they must attack us in order to survive," and, sooner or later, we must confront them and, I hope and trust, defeat them in order to advance our mission of spreading freedom.

The heart of this pronouncement, which I have highlighted, is what I think essentially on target. But as always, I’d have to swallow it with extra cautionary qualifications and a doze of a much needed demystification. Let’s crudely break things up for the sake of simplicity.

First, there is a reality that needs explaining (the American experience). Second, the categories which are used to comprehend and explain this “reality” need to be examined. Third, the history of the categories employed should be considered and put in context. And last, but not least, the dispositions of the man who proposes to do the explaining employing these particular categories should be understood.

Let’s start with the man first. Mr. Ledeen, as he says of himself, “is an American enthusiast,” and “an optimist,” who thinks Americans “can do amazing things…and [are] too great to settle for small things.” Ledeen, “a Leo,” boastfully reminds everyone “to keep in mind that a handful of Leos were central in the Reagan years (I hope that's not classified), so we've got a bit of a track record...” And a hell of a track record they most certainly do have.

Mr. Ledeen also fancies himself a “romantic.”

We all know how most “romantics” adore “myths.” Romantics have an intuitive appreciation for the significant role “myths” play in defining identity. So, if you were a romantic in search of a “myth” to justify circumnavigating the globe on the back of a cruise missile, where would you find one?

In Thucydides, of course. So, let’s look at the similarities between some of the central features of Ledeen’s revised formulation and the Corinthian speech at the Congress of the Peloponnesian Confederacy at Sparta, narrated by my favorite historian, on the differences between the Spartan and Athenian national characters:

3.8 "You, Spartans, of all the Hellenes are alone inactive, and defend yourselves not by doing anything but by looking as if you would do something; you alone wait till the power of an enemy is becoming twice its original size, instead of crushing it in its infancy. And yet the world used to say that you were to be depended upon; but in your case, we fear, it said more than the truth. The Persian, we ourselves know, had time to come from the ends of the earth to Peloponnese, without any force of yours worthy of the name advancing to meet him. But this was a distant enemy. Well, Athens at all events is a near neighbour, and yet Athens you utterly disregard; against Athens you prefer to act on the defensive instead of on the offensive, and to make it an affair of chances by deferring the struggle till she has grown far stronger than at first. And yet you know that on the whole the rock on which the barbarian [the Persian King Xerxes] was wrecked was himself, and that if our present enemy Athens has not again and again annihilated us, we owe it more to her blunders than to your protection; Indeed, expectations from you have before now been the ruin of some, whose faith induced them to omit preparation.

3.9 "We hope that none of you will consider these words of remonstrance to be rather words of hostility; men remonstrate with friends who are in error, accusations they reserve for enemies who have wronged them. Besides, we consider that we have as good a right as any one to point out a neighbour's faults, particularly when we contemplate the great contrast between the two national characters; a contrast of which, as far as we can see, you have little perception, having never yet considered what sort of antagonists you will encounter in the Athenians, how widely, how absolutely different from yourselves. The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release.

3.10 "Further, there is promptitude on their side against procrastination on yours; they are never at home, you are never from it: for they hope by their absence to extend their acquisitions, you fear by your advance to endanger what you have left behind. They are swift to follow up a success, and slow to recoil from a reverse. Their bodies they spend ungrudgingly in their country's cause; their intellect they jealously husband to be employed in her service. A scheme unexecuted is with them a positive loss, a successful enterprise a comparative failure. The deficiency created by the miscarriage of an undertaking is soon filled up by fresh hopes; for they alone are enabled to call a thing hoped for a thing got, by the speed with which they act upon their resolutions.

3.11 "Thus they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, being ever engaged in getting: their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and to them laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than the peace of a quiet life. To describe their character in a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.

3.12 "Such is Athens, your antagonist. And yet, Spartans, you still delay, and fail to see that peace stays longest with those, who are not more careful to use their power justly than to show their determination not to submit to injustice. On the contrary, your ideal of fair dealing is based on the principle that, if you do not injure others, you need not risk your own fortunes in preventing others from injuring you. Now you could scarcely have succeeded in such a policy even with a neighbour like yourselves; but in the present instance, as we have just shown, your habits are old-fashioned as compared with theirs. It is the law as in art, so in politics, that improvements ever prevail; and though fixed usages may be best for undisturbed communities, constant necessities of action must be accompanied by the constant improvement of methods. Thus it happens that the vast experience of Athens has carried her further than you on the path of innovation.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I am tired now and need to go away. I’ll put the rest of this together soon-- if nothing distracting comes up.

Incidentally, the odious fascists photographed above are some of the anti-Mossadeqh goons of the fifties in Iran. Guess whose side they were on when the coup came?

It’s been fashionable lately to repeat after Schmitt, “tell me who your enemy is and I’ll tell you who you are.”

I’d rather think the opposite. In this era of fragmentation and strife, enemies are dime a dozen. My take is: tell me who your friends were and I’ll know who you really are and what kind of (mis)adventures you’ll embark upon next and with whose help!

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