I still periodically hear comments from conservatives to the effect that Liberals (or Europeans, or those opposed to torture) are “unwilling to defend our civilization.” What follows these comments is typically a diagnosis of how Western civilization got to be so sick, or lost its self-confidence, or nerve. This narrative is surely not unrelated to the insistence, often heard from the Right during the Bush years, that we must above all “not appear weak” in the eyes of would-be terrorists. Nor is it unrelated, surely, to the rhetorical stance adopted by many defenders of torture — that they, only they, are hard-boiled enough to face the facts, do what needs doing, etc. Peter Suderman asks if these people have forgotten who the bad guy was in A Few Good Men.
I am hoping for though, not expecting, alas, the end of reflexive psychologization, so I will avoid characterizing this trope in psychological terms, tempting as that might be. I’d rather talk about how all of these utterances are related aesthetically. Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum that Fascists aestheticise Politics while Communists politicize Art actually holds true, remarkably, for the American Right and the American Left, despite their univocal support for the administered Capitalist welfare state that is so clearly our future. This is true even for the explicitly Christian element of the American Right.
What’s particularly ironic about this critique of weakness is that it’s Nietzschean, or at least related to the pop Nietzsche who has come down to us through Walter Kaufmann. The secular left has out-Christianed the Christians just as the Christians out-Jewed the Jews, and American Evangelicals have suddenly discovered the immense personal self-satisfaction of pretending you’re Jack Bauer.