I had a coffee-induced insight this morning that I think helps me understand part of what’s driving the part of our society that’s drawn to Tea Party politics. My train of thought went like this:
Last night, I watched the 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far, starring, well, pretty much every hot male actor in Hollywood at that time (Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Elliott Gould, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, etc.) The film depicts the attempt by the Allied forces in WW2 to strike a decisive final blow against the Nazis by carrying out a daring, multi-faceted massive surprise attack that was known as Operation Market-Garden (cool BBC animation here). For a bunch of reasons, including the unwillingness of military higher ups to take heed of intelligence warnings that indicated the plans might fail, Market Garden ended up being a bust, and many thousands of soldiers died in the process.
But for all the questions A Bridge Too Far raises about modern warfare, I didn’t see it as a purely “anti-war” film. It glorified the war, the soldiers, and the excitement of the attempt to pull off Market Garden even as it critiqued the human foibles that led to its failure.
And in reflecting on the movie this morning, I remembered a moment from my childhood, in which my dad and one of his good friends, Charlie, were reminiscing about their childhoods. They both grew up during WW2. At one point, Charlie lamented what he described as the selfishness and vapidness of present day society (this was in the early 1980s), and he spoke about how great it was when he was a kid, and the entire nation was united behind the war effort. My dad vigorously agreed, and the two of them started talking about the sacrifices people made on a daily basis, and on the moral clarity people had about defeating the Germans.
“That was our war,” Charlie said, and I was puzzled by the defensive, and even possessive, tone in his voice. “Yes it was,” my dad concurred.
So, a few years ago I read parts of Chris Hedges’ book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. His basic thesis is simple, and perhaps so obvious that some might wonder why anyone would need to write a book to make this case. Hedges argues that for all its horrors, and for all the proclamations that politicians and generals make about the evils of war and their desire for peace, in point of fact humans, as a collective, look to war to provide meaning in our lives.
Now, from the literature about war we have from places like ancient Greece or even biblical Israel, it’s obvious that war gives meaning to peoples’ lives. While there may be some literature from these societies lamenting the sufferings of war, for the most part war is the way that men win glory, and that nations achieve all kinds of greatness. It’s our modern society that outwardly says “war – none of us want it” while simultaneously returning to involvement in war after war.
Hedges’ book is anti-war, but I think its key insight is that if we’re going to be successful at changing human habits and ending war, we need to understand that people love war. People want meaning, and war is a powerful provider of it.
So, connecting the dots of my thoughts, it occurred to me that part of what many conservatives today may be furious about is the fact that liberals – and Obama as their leader – actively look to other sources for meaning, and treat war with suspicion and caution. Bereft of the clarity that Charlie and my dad described, many conservatives cluster around the desire for a clear and unambiguous enemy and the wish to be fully at war with them. Today’s enemy, for these folks, is some version of Islam, though they’re not usually very precise about it.
I suspect that the unwillingness of Obama to lead us into this kind of war (and cheer-lead a mindset that urges us to unite in this kind of common purpose) feels very disorienting and scary to a lot of these folks. Sorry that sounds so condescending, but anytime you try to guess what motivates the mindset of people you disagree with, you’re vulnerable to the accusation of being condescending.
I think the anger many conservative Catholics and Evangelicals have been expressing towards Pope Francis during his recent visit is reflective of a similar dynamic. This pope criticizes the moral failure of pushing the Other away in judgment, instead of condemning the Other and defining faithfulness as a battle against evil forces manifesting in the Other. He talks a lot about the evil of fundamentalism, and instead of engaging in meaning-seeking through battle, he models meaning-seeking through reconciliation, openness, curiosity, and cooperation.
So, all of this is to say that I think the reason GOP candidates like Ted Cruz frequently say things like they’re going to tear up the Iran nuclear deal on their first day in office, and that we need to be taking the fight to Iran, not negotiating with them is because they regard the meaning of life as coming from an epic battle of good vs evil. For them, it’s patently obvious that radical Islam, and possibly all of Islam, is the center of that evil, and that the USA (or, actually, their vision of a “Christian” USA) is the center of that good. Liberals and Obama in particular (because his identity includes some elements of the Other) are then either being duped by the forces of evil or are the “lesser Satan.” And as passions get stronger in the right wing sub-culture, everyone who isn’t “for us” becomes part of the evil Other.
I think what Obama has been good at – and like every other leader, he’s been better at some things than others – but something I think he’s been especially good at is staying calm and carrying on with his own approach to meaning-seeking from sources other than war. We need meaning, and war really is a force that gives us meaning (but at horrible cost and great peril to our survival as a species). Obama and Pope Francis are two leaders who visibly model the idea that cooperation, diplomacy, fairness, open-mindedness, patience, and inclusiveness are also forces that give us meaning, and that they’re much healthier forces for humankind.