Inception's Leap of Faith: Christianity v. Neo-Conservatives

Sunday, July 25, AD 2010

My wife and I went to see Inception this weekend and I’ve been mulling over it the past two days. I’ve been looking through the internet to find a good analysis and, not finding one fully to my satisfaction, look Tolkien & Lewis’s advice and just wrote my own. If you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t know why you’re reading this but rest assured you will be lost. For those who did see it, I’ll see you after the break.

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25 Responses to Inception's Leap of Faith: Christianity v. Neo-Conservatives

  • you may want to check out memento it could give you a deeper understanding on what nolan planned to do at the end of this movie, at-least with the open ending that requires your own interpretation and both answers are good answers

  • So yeah, I thought the movie was brilliant for quite a few different reasons. He, I’m assuming intentionally, sets the viewer up to WANT to make a decision as to what the meaning of the film is – interpreted through the glass of whether he truly was in a dream or not. But as I have pointed out (and you cursorily suggested here yourself), they BOTH have issues. Questions like how did the grandfather know to be there, why were the kids the same age and in the same position as in his dreams come to mind trying to indicate it is still a dream. And yet, at the same time, the top DID wobble, and it was not a scene of, “how did I get here”.

    Truth be told I think the genius of the movie was not in the fairly amazing cliff-hanger at the end, but rather in the VERY thorough representation that both sides have their defects. If you take this in light of your interpretation using Stauss, then it becomes apparent that somehow Stauss is both, simultaneously, right and wrong. I like the analogy you pulled here for a few reasons. It is CLEARLY a movie which will be interpreted by philosophers for years to come, and I think it was intended to be such. He raised a very difficult question, said which side is right, and then on a less superficial level says, “what if neither of them ARE?”

    I could ramble on much more about this movie as I thought it was downright brilliant in its acting, its casting, and its directing alike, but I think this is a set of questions that will continue to be “up in the air” so to speak for a long time to come. I’d love to speak with you in person about the movie if you’d like.

    Pax Christi

  • For those who may not know who the heck Leo Stauss was, wikipedia does a fairly good job at the link below.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Strauss

    In regard to Strauss and religion I believe this passage in the article does a good job of correcting some of the misconceptions of the views of Strauss:

    “At the end of his The City and Man, Strauss invites his reader to “be open to the full impact of the all-important question which is coeval with philosophy although the philosophers do not frequently pronounce it–the question quid sit deus” (p. 241). As a philosopher, Strauss would be interested in knowing the nature of divinity, instead of trying to dispute the very being of divinity. But Strauss did not remain “neutral” to the question about the “quid” of divinity. Already in his Natural Right and History, he defended a Socratic (Platonic, Ciceronian, and Aristotelian) reading of divinity, distinguishing it from a materialistic/conventionalist or Epicurean reading (see especially, Ch. III: “The Origin of the Idea of Natural Right”). Here, the question of “religion” (what is religion?) is inseparable from the question of the nature of civil society, and thus of civil right, or right having authoritative representation, or right capable of defending itself (Latin: Jus). Atheism, whether convinced (overt) or unconvinced (tacit), is integral to the conventionalist reading of civil authority, and thereby of religion in its originally civil valence, a reading against which Strauss argues throughout his volume. Thus Strauss’s own arguments contradict the thesis imputed to him post mortem by scholars such as S. Drury who profess that Strauss approached religion as an instrument devoid of inherent purpose or meaning.”

  • Michael, did it remind you at all of a law school exam? Almost the same amount of factors for either interpretation are there, and you can interpret it either way. I kept thinking of the instruction: “It doesn’t matter which side you come down on, just pick one and argue it, but don’t forget about the other side”.

    The funny thing is, I still think my interpretation of the ending is right, and I’ll argue with anyone who picked the other one.

  • Interesting post, apart from the subtitle — I confess I’m really tired of seeing ‘neocons’ played as the token enemy absent — 1) a clear definition of who the ‘neocons’ were; 2) what ‘neoconservatism’ is.

    Likewise, as Robert Alter puts it, “it has become received wisdom that a direct line issues from Strauss’s seminars on political philosophy at the University of Chicago to the hawkish approach to foreign policy by figures like Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Bush administration.” Several books of late have challenged this: Steven B. Smith’s Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (Excerpt); Straussophobia: Defending Leo Strauss and Straussians against Shadia Drury and Other Accusers and “Will the real Leo Strauss please stand up?” (Nathan Tarcov, American Interest).

    The movie does sound interesting, however. =)

  • Tim:

    I think I’ve been sold on seeing a few more Nolan works, Memento being at the top of the list.

    Shane:

    The grandfather being there doesn’t bother me too much. Now, as far the kids go, the article I link to states that according to the credits, there are two sets of kids: one with the girl at 3 and one again at 5. That would be consistent with the kids changing, and the ending being reality not a memory-unless of course the different actors were one for the phone call and one for the screen time. You can play these games all day; nothing is a solid argument.

    Amanda:

    Now that you say that, it does remind me of a law school exam. Thank you for ruining the movie for me eternally.

    But what interpretation of the ending do you have?

    Don & Chris:

    You both may be right in that this isn’t Strauss’s worldview. As I said, I didn’t have the time to write an article about whether it is or isn’t his position. I do think however that people have ascribed it to him and that some who call themselves neo-conservatives have that viewpoint. I probably wouldn’t have used the term “neo-con” at all if I didn’t think that the Dark Knight represented a lot of things that the”neo-cons” approve of, but I agree with Chris that the term isn’t all that useful.

  • I want to know if the movie is worth watching for someone like me that has at best a rudimentary understanding of philosophy.

    That and I caught a snippet of a review that it was a pro-environmentalist film (didn’t hear the whole review though).

    So I pretty much decided not to watch it in order to save my soul.

    But if the movie is worth watching and I won’t lose my soul over watching it, tell me without giving away the plot (I haven’t read MD’s post).

  • I probably wouldn’t have used the term “neo-con” at all if I didn’t think that the Dark Knight represented a lot of things that the”neo-cons” approve

    Why not rummage through the writings of some folk associated with the Committee for the Free World &c. and tell us all why you think they were advocates of relgion-as-crowd-control? I’ll give you five names:

    Edward Banfield
    Midge Decter
    Joseph Epstein
    Jeane Kirkpatrick
    Robert W. Tucker

  • Tito,

    If there was an environmentalist message to Inception it slipped past me.

    All of Nolan’s films are excellent. Insomnia doesn’t focus on deception vs. reality like the others, but is a fascinating reflection on conscience. And The Prestige involves the same themes as Inception and Memento.

  • Hmm.

    Since I’m bringing up neo-cons in my next post, I may as well link to a post where I discussed them before:

    http://joeahargrave.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/uncle-leo-and-the-neocons/

    One thing I never quite understand about people who take umbrage at the word “neoconservative” is whether or not they a) deny the existence of neoconservatism, placing it in the same category as the tooth fairy, or b) understand that it is a real tendency in political thought but is poorly understood.

  • BA,

    That’s enough for me!

    I’ll be catching this film later this week.

  • I admit to an appreciation of the original neoconservatives — Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz — discovered by way of the original ‘Catholic neocons’ (Fr. Neuhaus, Michael Novak) of First Things which I digested back in college.

    But since 9/11, ‘neoconservativism’ has come to mean everything from a Straussian-Jewish cabal covertly manipulating the Bush Administration to practically anybody who supported military intervention in Iraq (ex. Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld are all labeled such).

    The term has become so amorphous (much like “liberalism”) that, if used at all, I prefer context and clarification.

    (Apologies to Michael D. for getting off-topic).

  • One thing I never quite understand about people who take umbrage at the word “neoconservative” is whether or not they a) deny the existence of neoconservatism, placing it in the same category as the tooth fairy, or b) understand that it is a real tendency in political thought but is poorly understood.

    It was an intellectual circle of liberals disaffected with the run of political discourse in the Democratic Party, the media, and academic life. In some cases social policy was the primary source of disaffection, in others foreign policy and a general disposition toward the military and patriotism, and in others the degradation of the universities. Their views on most questions of public policy were variegated and a number (e.g. Penn Kemble) returned to the fold of the Democratic Party after the end of the Cold War.

    What was common to them was elements of biography and networks of personal association. Neither aspect includes an association with Leo Strauss. Norman Podhoretz’ mentor was Lionel Trilling, if it matters. The palaeobabblers who complain about ‘conservatism’ being hijacked by Trotskyists have likewise forgotten that the earlier cohort of publicists which assembled around WF Buckley was shot through with disaffected reds, Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham to name two.

    It isn’t ‘poorly understood’. It is a cuss word favored by the twits who don’t know crap from apple butter.

  • “It isn’t ‘poorly understood’. It is a cuss word favored by the twits who don’t know crap from apple butter”

    Precisely. This is a debate over foreign policy and has nothing to do with Leo Strauss and the handful of people who actually could be called neo-conservatives. What rankles self-proclaim paleo-cons is that most conservatives do not share their views on foreign policy. The neo-con charge is merely a tactic in the on-going debate and doesn’t say amything of substance in regard to that debate.

  • I have seen the movie the day before yesterday and I enjoyed it. Having said that, references to Christianity seem far-fetched to me.

    I can’t recall see anyone praying, or crossing himself; there is no sign of anyone of the main characters having any sort or organised religious life (going to Church, say), no single (serious) mention of Jesus in a film which obviously plays in the present days (the cars).

    ” The Book of Eli” was the last movie of which I could say that Christian themes were evident.

    I have seen more crossing oneself and faces put heavenward in prayer during the last Football World Championship than in a couple of years of films at the cinema. In a way, this is encouraging, we know Hollywood “doesn’t do God”, at all.

  • we know Hollywood “doesn’t do God”, at all.

    Hence why they are out of touch with society and are slowly becoming irrelevant with each new movie release.

    Look at the bombs that Hollywood continues to make and the only real successes they have are ‘family’ films.

    Yet they don’t ‘get it’.

  • Fully agree, Tito.

    The last movie with Jlo about the woman who wants an artificial insemination (how so very funny, not) has already disappeared from London’s screens. But a movie like “The Passion” becomes a worldwide success.

    It is the same with bookstores, at least here in England. The best selling books are Christian books but you find everywhere huge “gay and lesbian” section and not much (and that, often stupid) in the religion section. Often there is not even a religion section, but a “spirituality” section with a lot of new age bollocks for aging wiccans and, amazingly, books from atheist authors.

    Then they complain that Amazon & Co. increase sales whilst they go bust (here in the UK, “Books etc.” and “Borders UK” alone in the last 12 months).

  • Mundabor:

    While I agree with the idea that hollywood is shooting itself in the foot by not pursuing more Christian movies, I disagree with the way you evaluate whether a movie has “Christian themes.”

    I don’t think it’s necessary to mention Christianity explicitly to touch on a theme that is represented by Christianity. In this movie for example, they discuss how they desire to create their own world, their own cathedrals is out of a desire to play God and the movie shows how this desire ultimately is destructive.

    The point isn’t whether Inception is Christian; that’s debatable. But I don’t think it has to explicitly show someone praying or mention Jesus to be Christian. Tolkien actually thought that such mentions detracted from the message, and he managed to produce one of the greatest and most Catholic works of literature ever in Lord of the Rings. I just don’t like the idea that Christian works & themes are found only in the Christian section of the bookstore.

  • Michael,
    I agree with you that to have a Christian theme, a film does not have to be explicitly labelled as Christian. As you say, Tolkien but also C.S. Lewis, the Italians Manzoni and Fogazzaro, or in his own peculiar way G.K. Chesterton come to mind.

    But in my eyes a couple of phrases in a two-and-a-half-hour film do not really qualify for the film to be defined in that way, nor does it the general theme of the film. The theme of the Hubris leading to self destruction is very old and certainly pre-Christian; many atheists would instinctively agree with the concept without becoming an ounce more Christian.

    In my eyes, as we still live in a world shaped by Christian values it is very easy that some concepts shared by Christianity find their way in a film, but I think “Inception” stops short of the insistence and pervasiveness of Tolkien’s, Manzoni’s, Chesterton’s message.

    Just my two cents of course.

  • This movie is ENTIRELY about faith. Here’s how I interpreted the film…allow me to “enlighten” you: This movie is about Dom Cobb being stuck in purgatory. The movie starts with him there, washed up on the shore. He sees his kids, and falls alseep – from then on he is dreaming while in purgatory. God (Michael Caine) with the assistance of Angels (Ariadne, Arthur, Eames, Saito, Yusef) perform Inception on Cobb so that he may have emotional catharsis and accept his faith. So basically, Cobb is in purgatory, has a dream that allows him to forgive himself of his sin and take his leap of faith, and then wakes up on his plane “home” to Heaven with the angels. He is even greeted at the GATE by a guard (St. Peter) who says “Welcome Home.” God then personally escorts him to his children. That’s the true reason why it doesn’t matter if the totem keeps spinning or it doesn’t – since they are in heaven either outcome if justified. There is so much evidence of all this throughout the movie. Watch it again and find all of the religious references – there are TONS OF THEM! For instance, that scene where the walls are closing in on him?- Look at the screen right before he gets out. Everything is black, except for the BIG BRIGHT LIGHT at the end of the alley. He’s trying to get to it, but he can’t because he is not ready. When Cobb is training Ariadne why does she line up those mirrors that show them infinitely? She’s trying to show him eternity, but he’s not ready for it so it shatters. What is the basement where all the people who cannot dream go to dream? It’s hell. They are showing him what hell is like. Also pay close attention to Caine’s character who is simply seen as a father figure-it is never stated whether he is Mal’s Father, or Cobb’s. He is also a teacher, so: Teacher+Father to all=God. At one point Eames and Cobb were talking about how to perform inception. He then says that they need to start with the “relationship with the Father” (Cobb’s faith and relationship with God). ALSO, Fischer is Cobb’s subconscious. That’s why it’s so important that they make Fischer forgive his father and have his catharsis, since it really means that Cobb had his. Go see the movie again and you’ll realize that there are piles and piles of evidence that support this theory, and every single question gets answered. That’s why Cobb isn’t with his kids, because children get a pass from Purgatory. Mal doesn’t get to heaven because she committed suicide-which is an unforgivable sin, but in Cobb’s dream in purgatory, Mal is the devil taking the form of Cobb’s love, knowing that Cobb will just assume that Mal is his own mind’s projection. She then uses temptation and guilt to try and convince Cobb to stay in Purgatory. THIS IS JUST A TASTE of WHAT I”VE FOUND! SEE THE MOVIE AGAIN AND FIND MORE EVIDENCE ON YOUR OWN. Interpreting this film is a fulfilling adventure that just might help strengthen your own faith.

  • I’ve seen reviews comparing this movie’s worldview to Buddhism. Can someone explain that to me?
    I think one would have to BE a Christian to see any comparisons to our faith in “Inception.” The leap of faith references in the movie had nothing to do with religion, per se. I agree with the article’s explanation of the Christian “leap of faith”, which is NOT created from our dreams or imaginations or false beliefs. It is created by God through incarnate Christ. This movie was meant to be psychological, not religious.

  • I should add, I’ve seen the movie 3 times in a little over a week. It completely intrigues me!

  • We’ve gotten for the stage wherever a film that wanders remotely away the reservation stuns and wows us and leads us to believe it is terrific. “Inception” isn’t a terrible dvd. It’s definitely improved than something else Hollywood has to provide this year. Neither, having said that, is it wonderful.

  • Just one little point that you can discuss with your wife. The totem wiggles but we don’t see it fall But remind your wife that the point of having the totem is that it would only work if no one else touched it. They couldn’t be allowed to know the exact weight and shape and feel of it. In this case cobb’s totem was compromised when he washed up on the shore and the Asian man played with it.

    I think it was a dream because all the characters at the airport continued to look at him, like he maybe wasn’t suppose to be in that persons mind.

    In general i liked it and can’t wait for it to come out on DVD so i can watch it again. I just refuse to pay another $10 to see a movie in the theatre.

  • My two cents worth.

    I saw nothing Catholic about it.

    What I did see was a lot of Mormon theology.

    Being your own “god” kind of thing when they keep falling into a sleep.

3 Responses to Set Me Free (From Ideologies) Part 1

  • Just a word of caution on the authority of the Compendium. Even the Compendium itself recognizes that some of what is in it does not partake of infallibility:

    “In studying this Compendium, it is good to keep in mind that the citations of Magisterial texts are taken from documents of differing authority. Alongside council documents and encyclicals there are also papal addresses and documents drafted by offices of the Holy See. As one knows, but it seems to bear repeating, the reader should be aware that different levels of teaching authority are involved.”

    Also Catholic Social teaching as you point out, does not fit any particular political position. Fortunately, CST also notes that it does not propose any particular political solutions. That is in fact left to the prudential judgment of the laity (yes it is up to the use of prudence – the practical application of moral norm to a specific problems.) Thus CST also notes that Catholics in good faith can disagree on particular solutions. To say otherwise is in fact to act contrary to Catholic Social Teaching itself.
    Now it seems you are not doing so but you do head near the shoals of Ultramontanism (as some other Catholic blogs do) by thinking that by reading the Compendium you will come up with a specific solutions. You won’t. Specific moral principles to apply – yes. Particular solutions that all are called to adhere to as good Catholics – no.
    I agree that one has to avoid ideologies that reduce the truth to sound bites. But there is a distinction between ideologies and ideas. Long, hard, cold thought out ideas that have internal coherence and which can provide specific political solutions. These ideas which form from the understanding of history, politics etc. have internal validity as expressions of human reason and if solidly based are a valid means of approaching problems of the world today. Even you admit to some with your FDR approach. This is okay.
    Its okay to have internally consistent ideas that propose solutions to political problems as long as one is open to new understanding as the study of history, politics, etc. develop. Even the Church (in one of JPII’s social encyclicals which is lost on me now) admits this much. That some of what is in CST is based on current understanding of history, economics etc. and can develop as these disciplines and as human understanding itself develops (see my first admonition above about differing degrees of authority.)
    So the bottom line is, I don’t have a problems with Conservative/Liberal etc. But let all come forth with solid, reasoned arguments and not the raw emotionalism that Charity in Truty decries. Let the best current understanding of social problems be presented with solid economic, historical etc. understanding. Then let Catholic laypersons with solid ideas (and not ideologies) make solid, prudential decisions.

  • Appreciate the insights Phillip- I suppose my goal is not to replace a brother/sister’s ideology with another one- but to get every serious Catholic who makes a big show of being a out and proud “conservative” or “liberal” and so forth- to think again- not to convert to another ideology, but to just leave off the self-labeling when saying you are Catholic- a Christian disciple- should suffice. I recall cringing at Sen. Brownback after receiving Father Pavone’s personal endorsement for President, going around saying that he was the “true Conservative”. Is that a good public witness for Christ, given that Christ is giving us a social doctrine that doesn’t lend itself easily to ideological adherences? Personally, I don’t see how an honest reading of all the social doctrine materials can lead me to voluntarily accept the imprisonment of any merely political ideology. I have tendencies toward the FDR Democratic party mold, but I recognize the fallibility of such to address all issues for all time- I won’t suggest that it wasn’t surprising that so much of the Catholic Church faithful were inclined to the FDR-Dem party – even in the Hierarchy- given the connections people were seeing between the social teachings and the political visions offered at the time. Of course times change, and appeals to FDR are not what I am much concerned with.

    I believe we are living in a bit of a new Barbarian Age- more subtle than before, very high-tech, but also very deadly to bodies and souls- I see the Barbarian movement in the establishment Left and Right- with abortion killing millions and a serious lack of global solidarity leading to unnecessary military conflicts and unjust economic situations. America is part of the problem and part of the solution- I’m focused on getting my nation to get out of the business of being part of the problem.

    As for the Compendium- I realize that differing levels of teaching authority are in play- but the fact that they are now given new circulation in the Compendium which is a concise rendering of the entire corpus of our social doctrine should be cause for new appreciation for all of it’s contents. At minimum what is in there must be taken deeply into our developing consciences- to say that only the most explicit detail of a particular principle of social teaching is worth reading would be a major error in prudential judgment. I figure if the Magisterium or Church leader puts something down on paper for our consumption, we should attempt to take time to consume it, let it work through our minds and imaginations, so that when we set about proposing specifics on major issues, or vision statements- we will have the benefit of all of the Church’s vast wisdom. I think that too many Catholics abuse the notion of prudential judgment to simply short-circuit the papal words that don’t mix well with their chosen ideological adherences- I’m not making a personal accusation to you Phillip or anyone in particular- but I am suspicious of everyone who clings too closely to something like what Brownback said “I am the true Conservative” I’m very suspicious of true believers in political ideologies.

  • Thanks for your reply. Will respond more fully after Easter. Quick reply is that I appreciate and look forward to your insights also.

Irving Kristol, 1920-2009

Monday, September 21, AD 2009

And so we lose another giant. A self-identified liberal “mugged by reality”, Irving Kristol, commonly heralded as the godfather of ‘neo’-conservatism, has died. Hillel Italie gives an account of his life for RealClearPolitics.com:

A Trotskyist in the 1930s, Kristol would soon sour on socialism, break from liberalism after the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and in the 1970s commit the unthinkable — support the Republican Party, once as “foreign to me as attending a Catholic Mass.”

He was a New York intellectual who left home, first politically, then physically, moving to Washington in 1988. … his turn to the right joined by countless others, including such future GOP Cabinet officials as Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Bennett and another neoconservative founder, Norman Podhoretz.

“The influence of Irving Kristol’s ideas has been one of the most important factors in reshaping the American climate of opinion over the past 40 years,” Podhoretz said.

Among the host of publications he is credited as founding and/or editing was Commentary magazine (from 1947 to 1952); The Public Interest (from 1965 to 2002) and The National Interest from 1985 to 2002.

Kristol’s life, along with that of his fellow “New York intellectuals” Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer, was the subject of the 1998 documentary, Arguing the World. In July 2002 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

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The US of Empire

Thursday, January 15, AD 2009

This is a thesis that could use far more development than I can give it at the moment, but I hope I can lay it out clearly enough that to generate some interesting discussion and perhaps revisit it later.

It’s frequently complained that the US is in danger of becoming a global empire. Traditionally one elaborates on this by quoting Washington’s farewell address if one is of the right, and by citing the evils of colonialism if one is of the left.

I’d like to suggest that the imperial horse has pretty much left the stable a long time ago. The US has been a global empire since World War II, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been the sole global power. Although, like the later Roman Republic, the US has not actually taken direct political control over countries beyond its traditional borders (nor does it collect tribute from abroad) it has a sphere of influence covering much of the known world and is repeatedly involved in exerting pressure or deploying force to ensure regional conflicts do not spin out of control.

This in itself is perhaps not a terribly unusual thesis.

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29 Responses to The US of Empire

  • What of — not only lefty americans but — the countless peoples throughout the world who do not see u.s. imperialism(s) as “generally a good thing.” Do their voices matter?

    Are global empire and “isolationism” the only alternatives?

  • Also:

    Empires are obviously not the only means of “keeping the peace” and spreading “culture and technology.” What of those who see the u.s. not as a force for peace but of destabalization? The Iraq experience should at least clue you in to this possibility. Do the views of these people not count?

    Does the u.s. “keep a lid on nationalistic conflicts”? Really? Has it done so in the Middle East? Elsewhere? What of the u.s.’s own nationalism?

    I could go on. But these questions are glaringly absent in your brief reflection.

  • Its okay for me for the US to step back and let other nations resolve international issues. France has attempted to do so in Georgia and the EU has attempted in Iran.

    The problem is that these countries also have to be willing to do the heavy lifting (financial aid, military intervention etc.) when called to do so.

    As my dad says, “You drive the car, you gotta pay for the gas.”

  • One other thought. As Mr. Obama is about to find out, its one thing to make pronoucements from the grandstands, its another to actually try to call the plays on the field. I look forward to the efforts of other countries.

  • Michael,

    What of — not only lefty americans but — the countless peoples throughout the world who do not see u.s. imperialism(s) as “generally a good thing.”

    Certainly everyone “matters”, but when there is disagreement among people as to which of two alternatives should be followed the supporting of one side over the other does not mean a rejection of the worth or human dignity of those one opposes.

    The question I would ask in this regards is: Overall, do people _want_ the US to withdraw back within its own boarders and keep to itself, or do they sometimes find their pride offended by the US’s power, and yet actually appreciate the results of having it be a global power.

    I’m reminded, tangentially, of the interview I read some years ago with an Iraqi man who’d been wrongly jailed (they got the wrong guy) and suffered some of the abuse at Abu Graib. At the end of the interview he was asked, “What can the US ever do to make up for what it’s done to you and your country.” He answered immediately, “I would really like a green card.”

    Also instructive is the experience of many former British colonies. They pretty universally wanted Britain out, and yet increasingly people in places like Singapore and India are realizing they are actually much better off as a result of their colonial experience. Historical evidence would similarly suggest that most peoples brought into the Roman sphere of influence at first resented Rome’s presence, and yet the world still benefits from the legacy of Rome’s empire.

    What of those who see the u.s. not as a force for peace but of destabalization? The Iraq experience should at least clue you in to this possibility. Do the views of these people not count?

    I would tend to think that their analysis is wrong. Remember, the reason the US was even in the area in the first place is that Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, with the result that the US stepped in and pushed them out again.

    It’s certainly a subject that could be debated, but my current impression is that the US is more stablizing than destablizing.

    What of the u.s.’s own nationalism?

    As I wrote recently, I think the modern US is actually pretty free of nationalism properly definied. In that sense, it’s well placed to act on the global scene in a way that more nationalistic powers (such as China) are not.

  • Philip,

    Its okay for me for the US to step back and let other nations resolve international issues. France has attempted to do so in Georgia and the EU has attempted in Iran.

    The problem is that these countries also have to be willing to do the heavy lifting (financial aid, military intervention etc.) when called to do so.

    Agreed. I guess my contention is: I think we and the rest of the world have got used to the benefits of having some sort of global power keeping order — and none of the other candidates (as shown by the failures of the UN, EU, France, etc.) are really cut out to do the work.

    I’m not at all sure that I like that we’ve got to this position, but it strikes me that it may be a situation we need to recognize and live with.

  • What of — not only lefty americans but — the countless peoples throughout the world who do not see u.s. imperialism(s) as “generally a good thing.” Do their voices matter?

    Of course they matter, but keep in mind that neither their disapproval nor the general approval of the right makes or breaks the argument. As I note, I only bother saying this because too often I’ve encountered relativistic discourse in which “feelings” alone are the guide to anything. Arguments for or against American imperialism need to consider a number of prospects like the question you asked at the end of your first comment:

    Are global empire and “isolationism” the only alternatives?

    I like this question, because it is probably one of the most serious questions we can ask. As a global power, can we only either hide away from the world or be overbearing in the world? I would argue that global empire and isolationism are not the best way to set up the question as either-or. I would say that the first either-or is either we can interact with the world, or we can isolate ourselves. After that, if we choose interaction, we then have to ask to what degree and in what realms.

    Economic interactions seems quite sensible, since trade typically benefits both parties involved (unless one partner runs up a huge deficit importing and does very little exporting). But once economics are involved, politics have to become involved in order to protect trade investments. (I know this may be a point of contention, but simply put, do we really believe, given fallen human nature, that without political involvement trade will always proceed peacefully and justly?) And once politics are involved, then the military necessarily becomes involved, at the very least as a means of last resort.

    This does not mean that a global power must needs be overbearing in dealing with other nations. Hubris is always a problem when power is involved. But here there are also important questions to ask. Why is a particular nation a global power? If it is because it is doing things right, one could make an argument for having a stronger influence on neighbors, allies, and others. If it is because it is doing things wrong, then one could make the argument that national influence should be kept to a minimum. But then, who thinks it is going to be one way or another?

    Let’s look, for example, at the case of “exporting” democracy to the world. Now, we know that–for quite a while, anyway–that the American experiment of a democratic republic has worked with amazing results. Because we’re doing something right in here, it makes sense that we’d want to encourage others to do the same. What many–Bush included–got wrong was that they supposed some sort of “immaculate conception” of democracy, that anyone with a democracy will automatically find themselves in a better society. Yet underpinning the success of our democratic experience is the strong Christian principles that we are rapidly sloughing away. Without any firm grounding of moral, social, political, and even theological truths, democracy is nothing more than the “tyranny of the majority”. Anything goes, as long as a majority of people agree with it. Thus we have democracies that we’ve backed immediately elect terrorists into office, or at least people who hate Western values and would revert the newly democratic state back to a dictatorship.

    Back to the question of how influential a global power should be. This question essentially boils down to: what are the power’s legitimate needs, and how threatened is that power by other powers in the world? For example, how important was it to the United States to keep Hitler from conquering Europe? How important was it to the United States to keep Europe from falling under the Iron Curtain? How important is it to the United States to protect Europe from a) itself b) secularism and c) Islamic radicals? How important is it that United States deals with terrorism abroad? I’ll concur that Iraq wasn’t really necessary, by the way, but what about Afghanistan and the Taliban?

    Frankly, I think the United States could step back a ways from the national scene and let others shoulder some of the burdens, but we can’t forget that because of her power, the United States has grave responsibilities to the rest of the world. The degree of influence, I believe, is what we’re talking about, and let more learned men than myself haggle over the details.

  • “Agreed. I guess my contention is: I think we and the rest of the world have got used to the benefits of having some sort of global power keeping order — and none of the other candidates (as shown by the failures of the UN, EU, France, etc.) are really cut out to do the work.”

    Yup, I think they’ve gotten pretty used to having the military (and a large part the financial side) taken care of by the US. I just think there won’t be a desire by most countries to shoulder the responsibility their decisions will entail. At least not till we’ve refused to follow their lead and they’ve had to pay for the gas.

  • “Frankly, I think the United States could step back a ways from the national scene and let others shoulder some of the burdens, but we can’t forget that because of her power, the United States has grave responsibilities to the rest of the world.”

    I would agree. But I would also say the rest of the world has responsibilities towards the US in the use of its power. I think the debacle in diplomacy leading up to the Iraq war was fueled in large part by international powers not addressing legitimate US concerns. Also the occasionally hinted at hope for an Athens/Rome nature of a future European/American relationship smacks of European intellectual arrogance not to mention historical amnesia.

  • Ryan,

    a sphere of influence covering much of the known world and is repeatedly involved in exerting pressure or deploying force to ensure regional conflicts do not spin out of control

    I think you’ve done a great job of defending the notion that this interaction is largely good for the world.

    US of Empire…evils of colonialism

    I would suggest that opposition to the use of “empire” and “colonialism” to describe this interaction is in order as well. While it’s common in left-wing and certain right-wing rhetoric to use such language, I think that America’s world position is decidedly different from one of colonialism or empire. All of the nations in the US sphere of influence are completely free to leave that sphere and many have. They do not need to fear military reprisal, or even, in most cases economic reprisal. The use of force or sanctions against any country by the US has not been a result simply of departing the “empire” but due to other obvious reasons.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • All of the nations in the US sphere of influence are completely free to leave that sphere and many have. They do not need to fear military reprisal, or even, in most cases economic reprisal.

    You ARE aware of the history of u.s. military interventions since WWII, right? A good overview is William Blum’s book Killing Hope. It may open your eyes just a little bit.

  • How about the Friedman-ites’ economic meddling in Central and South America, oftentimes complemented by U.S. military power…

  • Michael,

    I am aware of the history of u.s. military interventions since WWII. Why don’t you tell me which ones involve a state that tries to leave the US sphere of influence and is met with reprisals? Of course, the example could not involve cases where US citizens are kidnapped or killed, US embassies are bombed, genocide or massive human rights violations are involved, as those circumstances would at least arguably be the principle reason for the US reprisal.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Mark,

    perhaps it would be best to discuss a particular instance rather than vague generalities?

    To be clear, US foreign policy has not always been ethical, and benevolent to a particular country. I’m simply on the one hand agreeing with DarwinCatholic’s assertion that US interactions have on the whole been beneficial, and on the other hand that the US sphere of influence can not be reasonably called an “empire”.

    When Ceasar puts down a rebellion he doesn’t do it with economic meddling or low-level covert operations….

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Interesting post, DC… it reminds me of a a couple books that I’d started back in November but had to return to the library before I could finish (all in good time, I guess), both by Andrew Bacevich, a conservative who came to see US policy and culture as overly militarized. (It’s one of those unfortunate realities of human nature that I was more willing to give this thesis a hearing from someone like Bacevich precisely b/c of our broader agreements… I need to keep working on that. 🙂

    He did prompt me to reexamine some of the premises which serve as the foundation for my own views on US foreign policy, among them my somewhat reflexive assumption that a foreign policy which has (military) power projection as a key component is an absolute. As he notes, this is a view which is taken for granted on both sides of the aisle in Washington, but which *needs* to be reconsidered.

    More apropos to DC’s post, I think we need to look again at the idea that if we don’t do “it”, no one else will… perhaps that’s true, but perhaps rather than simply going it alone, we might make new, differing attempts to rally others to the cause (advancing the common good of humanity). People who’ve known me for years will be shocked that I’m saying this, but wouldn’t it be great if we could redirect a significant portion of our defense budget in another manner, whether by giving it back (tax cuts), paying down the debt, or other domestic programs?

    Okay, time to shut down the rambling. As I said, DC, nice post.

    (Sorry for the absence of late, btw… between work, holidays, impending birth, and sickness, it’s been a crazy couple months.)

  • Matt,
    Read about Guatamala in 1954. The coup backed/initiated by the Eisenhower administration against the socialist government.

  • How do you see the principle of subsidiarity coming into play, in the situation of a U.S “empire” generally, but especially in those countries that experience the influence of the U.S.?

  • Zak,

    I won’t defend the CIA backed coup in 1954. However, let’s be honest about the facts around it and the concerns that led to US support for it.

    Unlike you I will actually make a case instead of telling you to read a book. In my point that this was not empire-building it is necessary to consider the point of view of American leadership, and not 20/20 hindsight.

    1. Arevalo the overthrown leader’s predecessor had greatly expanded freedoms and was moving Guatemala towards stable democracy while preserving a free-market economy. At the same time, there was a degree of communist penetration into his administration.

    2. The key opponent of Arbenz to succeed Arevalo, Franciso Arana was killed in a gunfight. While it appears this was the result of a failed coup on his part, Arbenz and Arevalo concealed this and reported that he was killed by unknown assassins. This led CIA to conclude that Arbenz had done away with his opponent to ensure his subsequent electoral victory.

    3. The US initially had hoped to work with Arbenz and considered him a moderate. He received US military aid early in his regime.

    4. Communism was becoming stronger under Arbenz. Given the the Cold War, a strong communist presence in Central America was seen as a serious threat to US security.

    5. As Arbenz electoral coalition began to fold, he relied heavily on his close friends in the PGT (communist party), this was particularly concerning to the US.

    6. A “land reform” law (read confiscation of private property, which was ruled unconstitutional by the supreme court untel Arbenz fired all the justices) that was believed to be initiated by PGT began to radicalize the moderate revolution which had been occurring in Guatemala. This radicalization would empower the PGT, and was thought to be under the influence of the Soviet Union. This radicalization was criticized by the Catholic Church.

    Subsequent investigations have mostly proven that the action taken by the US was not justified, and was unduly influenced by private concerns (US Fruit), that doesn’t change the fact that at the time the US was deeply afraid of communist expansion. Bear in mind that this was during the Korean War, which we suspected then, but now know involved participation of the Soviet Union in attempting to expand communism by force in a region that it was able to establish a foothold.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Kyle,

    US foreign policy does not well respect the principles of subsidiarity, buy then again neither does the federal government’s domestic policy, at least since FDR.

    On another note, if the US “sphere of influence” is an “empire” it seems to be a particularly ineffective one because we can’t even get our “colonies” to vote with us in the United Nations.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Matt,

    I think that you’re right generally speaking “sphere of influence” is a more accurate term than “empire” for what the US currently has. The reasons I chose to use the more inflammatory terms were basically:

    1) A case of adopting the terminology of those who advocate a much smaller global role for the US while arguing challenging their assumptions as to whether those terms necessarily connote something negative.

    2) Trying to work towards awareness. It strikes me that in many ways the US right now is in the position of the Roman Republic circa 200-150 BC, post Carthage but prior to actually taking control of any lands outside of Italy. At that point, it did not have an “empire” but was behaving increasingly imperial in the sense of enforcing order outside Roman territory, and then retreating back to Italy once they’d secured a friendly power in charge.

    It strikes me that if this way of looking at the US position in the world is accurate, it’s important to realize it so that we can make the right kind of decisions for ourselves and for others. In many ways, it was the Romans’ refusal to admit that they were running an empire of influence that led to some of their decisions which resulted in running an empire of direct authority instead.

  • Kyle,

    From a subsidiarity point of view, I don’t really like the situation, though as I said: One of my fears is that since we’ve effectively been doing this for the last 60 years, we can’t really back out now without either passing power pretty obviously to another power (as the Brits did to us after WW2) or creating a lot of chaos.

    However, I think the right course of action would be to maximize subsidiarity within the existing order in the sense of being clear about what sort of things we _should_ push for in order to maintain international order and otherwise knowing to back the heck off and let people do their own thing.

  • Michael & Mark,

    I’m not trying to argue by any means that every time the US has intervened in international situations in the last 60 years, it necessarily made things better or did the right thing. More that the benefits of the US being an empire of sorts outweight the negatives — and that since this seems to be the situation it should perhaps be acknowledged more clearly in order to maximize benefit and minimize harm.

    Nor would I necessarily say that the US has some sort of innate right to hold this role, or is ordained by God to do so or some such nonsense. Clearly, other nations have done similar things before, with varying results. The Soviet empire was pretty appalling. The British empire a mixed bag but certainly seems to have done the “anglosphere” a lot of good in the long term. The Hellenistic Greeks and the Romans both ran empires that were are times cruel and clumsy and oppressive in their actions, and yet in the long run did the world great benefit.

    I’m mostly arguing that we should both recognize what we are for what we are, and following from that seek both to do the best that we can at the position that we have taken upon ourselves and also think to the future and make sure that we work well with our potential successors (at the moment, India springs to mind) since no nation holds international hegemony forever.

  • Darwin/Brendan,

    a fair point, I guess I’m a little leery of surrendering the language on this. Your concern about crossing a threshold to true empire is valid, and something that is important to discuss while attempting to avoid the blind rhetoric.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Matt,
    My principle goal was to point out to you a case where a state tried to leave the US sphere and was met with reprisals. Your description of the events makes clear that you recognize that it happened, so your scepticism about it in your comment to Michael seems unwarrented. I will not defend Arbenz, but I will say that “fear of Communism” is the position used to justify a multitude of sins in US foreign policy, just as fear of Islamic extremism has been used to justify torture, preventive war, and a foreign policy that has diminished our ability to secure allies to achieve our goals.

  • principal, not principle, althoughI think my goal was principled.

  • DC,
    Are you familiar with the work done on Empire as an alternative model of international relations (as opposed to anarchy, unipolarity); not as a pejorative criticism? One of my professors at Georgetown, Daniel Nexon, has been exploring this subject at length.

    http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=F0168951CF6824F3DB911A28D402F80E.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=1028252

    He argues that since WWII, the structure of international relations has definitely been imperial, and that understanding US relations with Pakistan, for example, is best done using this framework (like understanding Roman relations in the Near East from 50BC through 100AD).

  • Zak,

    My principle goal was to point out to you a case where a state tried to leave the US sphere and was met with reprisals. Your description of the events makes clear that you recognize that it happened, so your scepticism about it in your comment to Michael seems unwarrented.

    I guess I should have been more clear in my post and that is my fault. Referring back to my original post:
    The use of force or sanctions against any country by the US has not been a result simply of departing the “empire” but due to other obvious reasons.

    The other obvious reasons are fear of Communist take-over followed by aggression which would ultimately lead to the destruction of the USA and her allies.

    I will not defend Arbenz, but I will say that “fear of Communism” is the position used to justify a multitude of sins in US foreign policy,

    It was expressly not my intent to defend this, or any other particular US action, but to demonstrate that it was not aimed at building or maintaining an empire, but at protecting itself from Communism (justifiably or not).

    just as fear of Islamic extremism has been used to justify torture, preventive war, and a foreign policy that has diminished our ability to secure allies to achieve our goals.

    Are you saying that the fear of communism or Islamo-fascism are not legitimate and grave enough to take extraordinary measures?

    In any event, there is no justification for torture, nor has their been any significant defense of it. Only an important argument about what torture is.

    God Bless,

    Matt
    ps. on a side note, I think the people of Guatemala today are doing much better than those still imprisoned under Castro…The ensuing events in Cuba suggest that the dangers of a communist takeover were serious and long-lasting to the inhabitants and to the USA.

  • I’m mostly arguing that we should both recognize what we are for what we are, and following from that seek both to do the best that we can at the position that we have taken upon ourselves and also think to the future and make sure that we work well with our potential successors (at the moment, India springs to mind) since no nation holds international hegemony forever.

    On the contrary, rather than simply “recognizing what we are,” perhaps we can think of what we are called to do christologically (as we are supposed to do in ethics, right?). The united states, rather than “recognizing what we are” needs to engage in a little bit of political kenosis or self-emptying, as Paul talks about. If Jesus is really Lord, and if we are really supposed to follow him, then we can’t isolate our foreign policy from his influence.

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