Republican water-carriers can smear the Pauls as isolationists all they want: the notion of the US as “world cop” is still neither constitutional nor moral nor practical.
Self-described “conservative pundit” Burt Prelutsky published a rather provocative piece on the Western Free Press site last week (August 8) titled, “Rand Paul, I’m Talking to You.” It provoked me, anyway. I don’t mean that I was riled up—only that I felt stirred to pursue a distinction that the worthy Mr. Prelutsky wasn’t clearly drawing. His contention is that the United States needs to be the world’s cop, because what we’ll get by default if the US doesn’t apply for the job could precipitate Armageddon. It may prove to be a lousy, thankless job—but the alternative is eventually cockroaches and crocodiles scavenging bombed-out skyscrapers.
Sometimes the homespun appeal of an analogy is also its great weakness. We can reduce things so effectively to a level of easy understanding that they become very different things. The image of a policeman strolling under city streetlamps, checking the doors of small shops, and encouraging amorous teenagers to move along roots very deeply in our collective subconscious. What would we ever do without Policeman Pat? Broken windows, obscene graffiti, and petty burglaries would proliferate until citizen-vigilantes finally took to the streets with clubs. Then we would have random beatings without due process. Communities would dissolve into bitter factions. Riots would break out.
I intend to make no rhetorical hay out of the riots that have flared up in Ferguson, Missouri, following a youth’s fatal confrontation with police. All of this happened, in fact, after I had assembled my ideas for the present article. Yet the situation graphically illustrates, along the way, that having a security force in badges and uniforms doesn’t necessarily make things run smoothly.
Nevertheless, my real point is that the “corner cop” analogy is deeply flawed in other, more basic ways. People who share the same streets mustn’t be ruled by the strongest guy with the biggest stick—not in a civilized society: agreed. Authority must be legitimated, and its agents must owe allegiance to principles higher than their self-interest: on that Mr. Prelutsky and I also agree. But what about cities on different sides of a river that forms a national boundary? The two communities may not share a language. Their religious and cultural traditions may radically differ. Citizens north of the river may be allowed to defend themselves with firearms, while citizens on the south side are left to rot in jail if found in possession of a firearm. What kind of formal, established, recognized mediation operates between two such communities? In the real world’s very practical terms… none. You cross the river to the other side at your own risk. Even if you do so legally, there are legal restrictions upon your excursion; and if you break the law of the alien land, you may pay a very heavy price—a price determined by alien values.
Of course, we seem to have forgotten all about how borders are supposed to work; but Montesquieu would have said that the mechanism is natural law, meaning that common sense can arrive at all the essential tenets. If, on one side of the divide, men beat their wives and enslave those not of their faith, then we have no warrant to invade them and force the restructure of their morally odious practices. Our duty, rather, is to turn a very cold shoulder to them until and unless they reform: no trade, no mutual defense pacts, no cultural exchanges, no embassies. We can also greet their refugees with whatever generosity our laws and our resources allow: but for the ruling class, the reigning officialdom… complete ostracism. (Yes, this is how we should be treating Mexico’s corrupt government.) Barbarians who are handled with pincers by their neighbors, as if they had the plague, will usually be overcome with shame sooner or later.
When we barge in and slap the scoundrels around, however, we teach them nothing: we only reiterate the barbaric lessons of “might makes right”. We make martyrs out of villains and ignite a slow burn that will flame up as soon as we withdraw in an illusion of having solved the problem. Supply your own examples: they’re hard to miss at this moment.
We also, at a more abstract level, can never—and should never—be 100% confident in our righteousness. Nothing distresses me more than hearing such confidence extolled by self-styled spokesmen for the Right who, however, seem not to have imbibed the most fundamental teaching common both to Judaism and Christianity: i.e., that man’s nature is corrupted by sin. There are no utterly pure motives, or at least no utterly flawless acts that flow from those motives. Our resistance to Hitler was about as pure as it gets in this vale of tears—yet that very resistance enabled the even greater atrocities of Stalin and Mao. Curiously, many on the right have been alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) comparing Putin both to Hitler and to Brezhnev, if not to Stalin, over the past several months. Even if John Kerry did not have oil stocks in his private portfolio that would make the advance of the Ukrainian cause extremely lucrative to him, our entanglement in this ancient nest of ethnic animosities is as ill advised as it seems to be ill informed.
What guiding principles ought Mr. Prelutsky’s über-police to follow in Eastern Europe? Are we to assume that Putin is rebuilding the Soviet Union because the Cold War remains fresh in our memory? Is it relevant that ethnic Russians have appealed to him for help, or that non-combatants are now being mauled—and possibly starving to death—in Donezk as Poroshenko shells the city? Is Ukraine’s newly elected president somehow licensed under an international super-morality (as enunciated by the USA) to harass armed but withdrawn separatists even at the cost of hundreds of innocent lives? Yet at the same time, under the same moral code, must Putin be denied an opportunity to intervene because he reminds us of the Soviet Union?
Imagine David Koresh’s Waco compound, but without the child abuse. Imagine that a group of people wanting to secede, essentially, from American society: to pull up the drawbridge, worship their own god, speak their own language, live without external influences that they regard as corruptive. Then imagine that we descend upon them and blast the hell out of them—men, women, and children—because they possess certain weaponry without the proper permit. Poroshenko is the Janet Reno of Eastern Europe (as long as we’re slinging around hipshot comparisons), but without the justification of a charismatic psycho’s molesting little girls to redeem his actions. With the greatest reluctance and at an hour too late to seem convincing, he floated reports that he would be willing to allow the Russian ethnics of his “nation” (a pencil circle on a map, no more coherent than Iraq and Kurdistan) to preserve their tongue in schools and business endeavors—this while he was ordering tanks to roll because local villages dared to resist the will of Kiev.
But Putin grabbed Crimea the way Hitler grabbed the Danzig corridor. And besides, the Ruskies still want to dominate the world. The same press that calls the Tea Party a terrorist organization is reminding us that Khrushchev invaded Czechoslovakia.
In this miasma of slapdash analogies and microwavable history lessons, pardon me if I, as a Southerner, have visions of a self-righteous Union invasionary force bombarding the civilian populations of Charleston and Vicksburg because a very different regional culture had resisted economic exploitation by the high-tech industrial North. Oh, but some of the locals had slaves (as did some states in the Union—which were unaffected by the Emancipation Proclamation)….
Honestly, I can’t think of a moment in history where moral superiority plainly aligned itself both with the stated position and with the executed strategy of one side rather than the other. And I don’t know how we can assure ourselves, even in the midst of a righteous intervention, that our moral lights will continue to steer the ship straight for the indefinite future. After all, look at the government that we have currently chosen to load upon our own bowed necks—as unsavory a collection of liars, brigands, opportunists, and megalomaniacs as ever danced upon the ruins of Rome.
I agree with Mr. Prelutsky that the United Nations is not our cop on the beat, most definitely. But what we need is not a better cop: we need clear borders, enforced by our own cops, and clear penalties for violating them. By all means, disband the UN—the sooner the better. We need alliances formed with other free and humane societies that broadly subscribe to our values (if we ourselves can rediscover these in the stench of our present decadence). When New Age weapons of mass destruction threaten the survival of the planet, we of course must exploit and extend our alliances to ensure that the barbarians confine their squalor within their own borders. We are not anyone’s Big Brother, however. If we will not accept a tyrant in our own affairs, then we must not tyrannize over the affairs of others.
I am not an apologist for Rand Paul or any other particular candidate. Frankly, Paul’s position about our southern border confuses and somewhat worries me. I do not advocate, either, for the platform of any particular party or movement. It seems to me that what I have written here is very basic constitutional and common-sense reasoning. I certainly hope that a lot of my fellow citizens see it the same way.