The Civilized War

Posted on 2018 September 9

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the civilized war up7

There are some who turn everything into warfare, who … would like to conquer others in everything they do. They have no idea how to live peaceably. — Baltasar Gracián

We have met the enemy and he is us. — Pogo

The Aztecs — who ruled a vast territory in the manner of the Roman Empire — sometimes waged wars merely to collect prisoners for ritual sacrifice. It had to be done: their gods otherwise would have wreaked havoc on the harvest. No one — not even the Aztecs’ enemies, who also obtained sacrifices — questioned the practice. Captured warriors would climb dutifully to the summit of a great temple, where their hearts would be ritually torn out and smashed into the gaping maw of the statue of a deity.

There’s an episode of “Star Trek” about a planet whose people would stage virtual wars by computer, tot up the projected casualties, and then round up citizens for execution. Residents obeyed these dicta unthinkingly. At least their buildings weren’t destroyed.

When I watched that episode, I thought, “Thank God we have democracy! We’d never allow that.” Decades later, it has struck me that maybe … just maybe … we aren’t so different from the beings on that faraway planet.

Think about it: in war, the victors dictate to the losers, plundering them and forcing them to behave. Meanwhile, we invented democracy, where … the winning voters dictate to the losers, plundering them and forcing them to behave.

The voting booth, of course, is less bloody than the battlefield. That’s its chief advantage — much reduced destruction. Instead of a civil war, we hold an election and agree to be bound by its outcome, even to the point of sacrificing portions of our wealth and freedom. At least we don’t get killed. But does this lift democracy all the way up to “a good thing”?

In America we have grown and nurtured our political system to the point where it has taken over much of the culture, peacefully handing down one-size-fits-all edicts — rulings that, in the past, only an invading army could enforce. But bloodless efficiency isn’t the same thing as virtue.

Yet we worship at the Altar of Government (while flattering ourselves that we are free). Instead of looking to our own resources to solve sticky social problems, we run to Washington and beg, cajole, or threaten the authorities to give us power over our political foes. We consider our behavior a sign of good citizenship. No one would call openly for a war of conquest against fellow citizens. Yet only a war can deliver the same sort of prizes we seek regularly in D.C. 

There’s a way, built into the Constitution, that might reform these warlike political campaigns: we could revive the power of the states to settle big issues in their own way, and then people move to the places they prefer. Local governments, the “laboratories of democracy”, would compete for taxpaying residents by offering the best mix of tolerance and strictness. To some degree this happens already. But the Feds have long since staked a claim over many of the big controversies.

Thus it may already be too late. Roughly a third of all the money in the U.S. flows through Washington, making us highly dependent on it. We become like spoiled children, unable or unwilling to take care of ourselves; instead we rely on the central powerhouse to extract resources from others. And, rather than “live and let live,” we use D.C. to force our neighbors to behave to our standards. Abortion, gay marriage, marijuana, guns, race relations, ecology, women’s rights, academic freedom, internet freedom, snail darters: all are, or soon will be, under the purview of the federal government.

Our national political culture has devolved into a civilized form of warfare. It encourages us, not to look for friendly solutions to disagreements, but to use our ballots as weapons of conquest and domination.

No wonder we feel polarized.

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Posted in: Politics