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America’s Men Without Chests

America’s way of acting in the world, the violence it often does to the truth while asserting its will, cannot be explained simply through its alleged “interests.” The U.S. acts the way it does because of the peculiar American way of understanding what gives life and action meaning.

At the core of the American philosophy is voluntarism, the justification of action based purely and simply on the will. The distinguishing characteristic of voluntarism is that it gives pride of place to the will as such, to the will as power, the will abstracted from everything else, but especially abstracted from the good. The notion of the good is necessarily inclusive of the whole, of all sides. Concern exclusively for oneself goes by a different name.

The clearest and perhaps the best expression of American voluntarism come of age was expressed by Karl Rove during the George W. Bush administration, as reported by Ron Suskind in New York Times Magazine [1] on October 17, 2004:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

This oft-quoted statement is naively assumed to have been the expression of a single moment in American politics, rather than a summation of its ethos by one of its shrewder and more self-aware practitioners. The point of the voluntarist order is to act, to impose one’s will on global reality by any means necessary. The truth is not something to be understood, or grasped, still less something that should condition one’s own actions and limit them in any way. Truth is reducible to whatever is useful for imposing one’s will.

We can see this voluntarism at work among our forebears. The Skripal affair in Britain led to almost immediate action—the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats from the United States alone—well before the facts of this dubious incident, which has led to zero deaths, could be established. Indeed, when the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, suggested first establishing what had happened and only then acting, he was widely accused of weakness. When one is “history’s actor,” action mustn’t be delayed. That, after all, is the whole point.

The suffering of innocents should always concern us. But in Syria, the facts regarding who is the guilty party, including in this latest case of a gas attack in Douma, are very far from having been established. What’s more, though reputable investigators such as Hans Blix and MIT’s Theodore Postol have cast serious doubt [2] on the reliability of the evidence linking such attacks to Assad’s government, official accounts in the U.S. proceed as if there is not the slightest controversy about the matter.

For America’s voluntarist order, whether these events as described are true in the objective sense is of no more importance than whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. You will recall that, just prior to the Iraq invasion, the CIA waterboarded Abu Zubaydah some 83 times in order to oblige him to confess [3] a nonexistent connection between Saddam’s Iraq, al-Qaeda, and chemical weaponry. That is voluntarism in action right there. “We’re an empire now and we create our own reality.” It was not a one-off. It is now the norm to make sure the facts are fixed [4] to match the desired policy.

Voluntarism is the fruit of an anti-civilization, and of a technological way of knowing, as the great Canadian philosopher George Grant put it, that bears a striking resemblance to what C.S. Lewis described in his pre-Nineteen Eighty-Four anti-utopia That Hideous Strength. In that novel, the institution called N.I.C.E., like the U.S. foreign policy establishment today, is essentially a voluntarist bureaucracy run by men without culture, trained in technical sciences and sociology-like “disciplines” and “law” understood in a purely formalistic sense, who assume human affairs are understandable as aggregates of facts without value. Such “men without chests” (Lewis’s phrase) live in a world where the good and the true have forever been severed of their mutually defining link. The resulting, essentially irrational world they inhabit is one that has only one logic left: that of will and power.

It is an American empire where we create our own reality, the mirror image of ourselves, and it is indeed precisely hideous. If the builders of empire continue to get their way, it may all soon enough come to a violent and ignominious end. Historians, if they still exist, will marvel at our folly.

Paul Grenier, an essayist and translator who writes regularly on political-philosophical issues, is founder of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "America’s Men Without Chests"

#1 Comment By Annette On April 23, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

For another outstanding account of ‘a technological way of knowing’, check out Jacques Ellul’s ‘The Technological Society’.

Not only was this incident fabricated, it was known the preparations were known in advance. I remember reading an article two weeks before Douma about the preparations for the fabrication. Felix Somary was quite right in writing in July 1914 that “the information available to insiders, and precisely the most highly placed among them, is all to often misleading” (quoted in Jim Rickards “The Road to Ruin”).

#2 Comment By Steph On April 23, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

An excellent recommendation, Annette! And for the religiously-minded, Ellul’s theological companion piece, The Meaning of the City, is also very good.

#3 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 23, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

Volunteerism, voluntarism, the mysterious workings of the “will,” we’re famous for all of it, but this is not so uniquely American, Rove’s comment reminds me of something that Tolstoy might put in Napoleon’s mouth, actually. Pride, plus the tunnel-vision typical of technocrats, academics, specialists…

Karl Rove is a man without a chest–a “chickenhawk,” a proud and willful man puffed up on ignorance and willpower, wrecking the world–and nothing more than that, unless he wills it to be.

#4 Comment By Mark Thomason On April 23, 2018 @ 3:08 pm

Volunteerism is two things, Power to the Ladies Who Lunch, and we don’t have to pay for a social safety net because somebody else will provide it voluntarily for free.

It has no larger meaning, and no role in foreign policy.

The foreign policy described here is just Smedley Butler’s “racket” using US foreign policy and forces for private ends.

#5 Comment By Christopher Atwood On April 23, 2018 @ 5:19 pm

To piggy back on Emil Bogdan, this a useful column, except for the attempt to take the philosophical term “voluntarism” and apply it to what is simply the exuberant arrogance of seemingly total power.

There’s a famous episode from ancient China where the wicked prime minister Zhao Gao points to a deer, says it’s a horse, and then executes everyone at court who doesn’t agree with him. For 2000 premodern years since then, Chinese have been referring to “point to a deer and call it a horse” (指鹿為馬, pronounced zhĭ lù wéi mă) as a phrase for what the columnist is talking about here.

#6 Comment By Eric Mader On April 23, 2018 @ 5:37 pm

Excellent piece.

@ Mark Thomason: I think you’re off base in the assertion that voluntarism has “no role in foreign policy”. The presence of a racket, those who benefit directly from the cash cow of endless foreign interventions, doesn’t impact the main point: namely that this racket is particularly easy to run given the voluntarist mindset of the culture as a whole. Those who run the racket can count on a citizenry that increasingly doesn’t even care to know the facts before military power is projected. That is the salient fact in this piece: the toxic symbiosis of a neocon establishment and its voluntarist public.

#7 Comment By Kenneth Almquist On April 23, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

The Republican Party is largely unable to make an honest case for itself because if people were to vote based purely on their economic interests, the Republican candidate would get the votes of the wealthiest 1% and no one else, turning it into a fringe party. Not everyone votes their economic interests, of course, but the people who can most easily afford to vote based on other considerations are the wealthy. So the Republican Party needs a post-truth environment to thrive.

The statement that Paul Grenier attributes to Karl Rove captures something of the mentality of the modern Republican Party (even if Rove didn’t actually say it), but Grenier provides no evidence that either it or recent actions by the Trump Administration are representative of anything in the United States other than the Republican Party.

He tries to use the spat over Jeremy Corbyn’s statements about the Skripal affair in Britain as evidence a similar mentality has taken over Britain. However, his case is based on the claim that Corbyn “was widely accused of weakness,” and I can’t find a single instance of this. In any case, his stated thesis is about the United States, not Britain.

When the U.S.S. Cole was attacked, President Clinton declared, “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable.” The FBI had agents on the scene the next day, the start of an investigation that would involve over 100 agents. There was no assumtion that facts didn’t matter.

#8 Comment By LibertyandVirtue On April 23, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

While I don’t necessarily disagree with the author’s general argument, this is a pretty idiosyncratic use of “voluntarism”; as I’m familiar with it, it refers to the view that voluntary action is morally superior to coerced action. Ironically, the voluntarists I know, including myself, are very much opposed to both technocracy and neocon imperialism

#9 Comment By Miguel On April 23, 2018 @ 11:35 pm

So much I want to say… To begin with, with all due apology in advance, I am afraid THAT is the way the U.S. looks like for many foreigners, like me.

Arthur Koestler in “The Invisible Ink” claims that for brittons temper or character is more important than intelligence or geniuse, so there could be a chance for it to be not the fault of the americans, but a “genetical heritage”.

Bad jokes apart, I don’t think it has any to do with the way a certains human group´s culture is, but with the fact that the U.S.A. is too powerful to respect others. When you have a huge amount of power you have huges objectives and ambitions, and everything else literally BENDS to them.

I am convinced that the ends cannot justify the means because the means transmit their characteristics to the outcomes of their usage, and that translates here into the -for me- fact that you behave as your circumstancies allowe or conditionate you to behave: if you have a lot of power, you become interfering and abusive, because you have huge goals, and the means to reach them. If you are small and weak you would seem to behave better, at least from the outside; with those weaker than you…

As a summary of that fisrt part, I think it goes on the circumstancies more than the culture. There was a nazi “documentary” titled “The Triumph of the Will”, remember? I don’t pretend to take the analogy too far, but I think there is a suimilitude, and it is not cultural, but ciscusntancial. Germany needed to be expansionst, not only then, but also before the First World War and after the Cold War.

I think another element that jeopardizes U.S. foreing policy’s ethical sense is the way its economy has worked -and I must admit this sounds more cultural: since it returned to fiat currency, the limit for the development of economic value to support the U.S. Dollar was olny the U.S. capability to produce goods and services, and to consume them, and consume them fast. And that capability has been enormous.

To the point that it has been possible to convince almost every one that U.S. economy virtually has no limits. And that is a problem, not only because EVERYTHING IN THE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE HAS LIMITS, but also because, in my opinion, everything, in order to be good, MUST HAVE LIMITS.

Obviously good and ethical behavior is not reduced to respect the proper limits, but still that respect has a lot to do with goodness, and I will add, to intelligence. When limits are not recognized at all, it can be thought that ANY behavior is acceptable, as in relativism, maybe indifferetism and, I want to add, postmodernism, which tries to moderate everything but rejects every possible system of reference, rendering its own effort futile. But the problem with igniring limits isn’t only ethical or religious.

If you start to mistreat everybody arround you, they will certainly turn against you, and possibly at the same time; and there is no human power that can be infinite. If you look for too many enemies you are necessarily doomed, because your advantages will sooner or later vanish in thin air.

It is more intelligent to act in accordance to your own survival than against it; and even if now you have nothing serious to fear, things an change from that, and given enough time they will certainly do. So it will be better for you to hace behaved before that time in a manner that others can feel sympathy toward you.

That is how to respect the limits can be in your best interest, even if in the short time that can hamper your possibility to reach desired goals.

As an epilogue, I want to talk about power and information. For me, power is our capability to have others performing according to our will, or the other way arround; this is, other people’s ability to have us bending our will to their. Violence is a way to exercise power, but by no means the only, or the most convenient, since most people care about ethics, or survival, and violence tends to jeopardize both.

Now, information, once received, has a great capability to shape the opinions and decisions, even feelings on the person who receives it. That is enough to settle that information, AMONG OTHER THINGS, is a form of power, and therefore presented in order to manipulate its receivers. It shouldn’t surprise, then, if information is soo often misleading.

#10 Comment By Dr TJ Martin On April 24, 2018 @ 1:21 pm

For an even better Jacques Ellul treatise on the vanity of Technology ;

” The Technological Bluff “….. Which should then be followed up by reviewing Clifford Stoll’s original book on the subject ” Silicon Snake Oil “.. then Lee Siegel’s ” Against the Machine ”

And finally … the masterstroke ” At the End of an Age ” by John Lukacs

In as far as empires are concerned … history has shown us time and time again that ALL empires eventually meet their demise … more often than not by their own hand rather than any external forces or influences

In closing .. Information is not Knowledge – Knowledge is not Understanding – and Understanding is not Wisdom

#11 Comment By Delia Ruhe On April 24, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

I usually find myself blaming right-wing Israelis for learning too well from their 20th century enemies and practising their evil methods on the long-suffering Palestinians. But Israel cannot live without antisemitism; it’s what gives its existence purpose. In eternally oppressing and disenfranchising Palestinians, Israelis can enjoy the illusion of eternally crushing antisemitism. The operative idea here is “eternally.”

But it seems Israel isn’t the only state eager to perform ‘die Macht des Willens’ as the expression of its own grandiosity. Every war that America has fought (and lost) since the Korean war was initially an attempt to repeat what Americans like to call “the good war [sic],” won by “the greatest generation.” What really pisses off the Washington imperialists is that since the fall of the USSR, historians have finally had access to archives full of evidence that the greatest triumph of WWII belongs to Russians.

How dare those Russians steal the glory of every one of those hundreds of Hollywood stories of how it was the John Waynes and the Ronald Reagans who alone saved the world from fascism!

#12 Comment By Tom Snyder On April 24, 2018 @ 5:16 pm

Love thy neighbor. When there’s a foreign threat overseas, shouldn’t nations rise up against such a threat and take prudent action to stop it or at least contain it? That’s not a will to power; that’s a case of doing the right thing. Since America has the resources, why shouldn’t we lead? Top whom else should we defer? The European Union? Russia? China? Japan? Iran?

#13 Comment By Patricus On April 25, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

95% of the dead German soldiers were killed by Russians. The Russians took all the casualties. The US and Brits killed plenty of German civilians.

Can’t call it much of a Russian victory because they paid too high a price. Our leaders were not interested in wasting the lives of Americans and for that they should be commended.

Americans knew all along the Russians did the heavy lifting.