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July 28, 2008


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Monday morning means a new Kunstler screed to savor. He's sui generis, of course, partly he really thinks for himself and partly because he's such a good writer.

Is he a conservative or a liberal? You can't say for sure because he defies easy categorization. His concern for good design and urbanist ideas seems liberal but his disdain for democracy's "losers" seems very conservative. And that's my issue with him.

Kunstler wants the enterprise of modernism to fail. He wants us to return to local economies and culture. He wants to make the world small again because, ala EF Schumacher, Big is Ugly. And he wants people to inhabit this planet not as consumers but as conscientious artisans and farmers. The problem is that this is unlikely to happen without enormous bloodletting, chaos and social breakdown.

Kunstler has a superb eye for detail and a wicked wit. He can be maddening, however, because his apocalyptic bent disconnects the purgative debacle from the unimaginable human suffering it would entail. Chroniclers of cultural decline, from Vico and Gibbons to Spengler and Eliot, could seem a bit icy about this problem because their aerie was so elevated. Kunstler is not in their league but he seems more than ready to capsize our troubled civilization if only to midwife something better.

Kunstler is an excellent critic because his pessimism is so unalloyed. But he's nearly inhumane in his disdain for human unsuccess. I read him with great pleasure just as I once did Edward Abbey. But it's a guilty pleasure because there needs to be a middle ground between the humanist cant of social progress and the Nietzschean abyss. Kunstler, however, is too impatient to puzzle through this paradox. Maybe his own darkness is as close as he'll come to explaining the problem.

Kunstler is a kook with a doom fetish. His writing seems to be little more than a secular version of the apocalyptic preacher screaming "the end is near".

McxCain as Maverick-in-Chief?

John McCain knows the pain and price of winning; though one of the most severely injured American prisoners in Hanoi, he refused early release until all prisoners were eligible.

He could have taken the easy way out. Instead, he stuck by his principles and his fellow Americans. This is his underlying campaign theme for the past year. He's determined to stay, fight and win in Iraq. Once victory is assured, he'll withdraw some troops and send them to Afghanistan to repeat the process. For him, it's family tradition, a naval legacy from the English habit of "sail toward the sound of the guns."

It reflects the optimistic can-do American spirit.

Like 8-track audio tapes, laser-disc television and slide rules, good ideas are often steps to better solutions. McCain's problem is that victory is an interim step; he has never explained what lies beyond. Naval officers do not dictate peace terms; in America, the military serves the people. General Grant recognized this after the U.S. Civil War, General Eisenhower understood it in the 1950s.

McCain would be a good war president; perhaps as good as Franklin Roosevelt, another former naval person. The unexplained issue is whether a McCain presidency will be a permanent state of war, or whether he has a post-war plan for Amewrica as well as the nations he plans to conquer.

The aftermath of World War II is an example. Victory was the product of basically hostile allies against a greater common threat to all. The Berlin Blockade of 1948-49 illustrates the nature of post-war challenges. The British started the Berlin Airlift in response; but, couldn't have been successful without American equipment, supplies and management.

The aftermath of a war fought by mutually hostile allies often produces surprises. McCain talks of victory, but ignores the impact of rival Islamic religious sects using an American peace as a breathing space to settle doctrinal disputes. The major problem is not victory; it is the aftermath of victory.

Eisenhower understood the limits of American power; the Berlin Airlift countered continued Soviet expansion but it didn't directly threaten Soviet security. Likewise, the East German revolt of 1953, the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 were not opportunities to impose American democracy on the peoples of Eastern Europe and Cuba. Instead, the response to these events reflected a philosophy of not making a major challenge to de facto political boundaries.

Unless the world becomes a one-party state dominated by the U.S., every action requires the consultation and participation of allies. Bush chose to ignore this principle, and the cost in lives, money, equipment and prestige has become fearsome.

McCain's response is probably instinctive: Let's win first, then we'll talk. It's what good naval officers learn. He does not seem to understand the difference between a loyal naval officer who follows orders and the command-in-chief who needs the courage to change orders.

Obama fears the war is destroying the U.S. economy and the trust of allies; he wants out as soon as possible. His post-war policy is to hope the lack of war will be self-healing. It echoes the policies of President Bush after 9/11, in effect saying, "Don't worry, let's go shopping."

Life isn't that simple. McCain's great handicap is that he's always been a maverick, a rebel against naval academy discipline, a defiant prisoner-of-war, a rebel in Congress and a thorn in Clinton's and Bush's side. Mavericks make great revolutionaries, but never great Establishment leaders. If he wins the election, McCain is 'The Establishment'.

He's sometimes compared to Teddy Roosevelt; but Roosevelt was a reformer, not a revolutionary. If America is to recover from the damage of Bush, it needs a leader instead of a maverick.

I enjoy Kunstler's work and respect his contention that Americans, from tattooed meth-heads to Obama/McCain, are "sleepwalking into the future."

But he does tend to talk out his ass. For example, in his book "The Long Emergency" he asserts that when the shit hits the fan, pirates from Southeast Asia will beset the Pacific Coast of the United States -- a truly ludicrous notion.

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