We are no longer a serious people
When reality suddenly becomes non-optional
Because excellent men in corrupt republics (especially in tranquil times) are considered enemies, both out of envy or other ambitions, the people follow either a man who is judged to be good by common self-deception or someone put forward by men who are more likely to desire special favours than the common good. Later, in adverse times, this deception is revealed, and out of necessity the people turn to those who in tranquil times were almost forgotten.
-Niccolo Macchiavelli, Discourses on Livy
I’ll very briefly add to the overpopulated genre of 9/11 stories by saying when the planes hit, I was asleep in a bohemian studio apartment in Berkeley alongside my half-Russian/half-East German girlfriend. The land-line phone rang, as it had to in that ancient pre-smartphone era of 20 years ago.
”Turn on the TV!” yelled my mother from Miami.
I dug out the crappiest TV imaginable, a relic an Israeli roommate had left behind, just in time to watch one building fall…and then the other.
“That’s what you get when you try to be the world’s police,” said the East German math genius as she shuffled off to make breakfast.
Thus began for me, and for every other American roughly my age, the two-decade epoch known as Post-9/11, and which ended yesterday with the ignominious fiasco of the fall of Kabul.
I am a member of two, roughly co-terminous bridge generations:
One, those just old enough to remember the pre-internet era of rotary phones and paper letters;
Two, the generation that still remembers what geopolitics were like before they became mostly about re-ordering the world economy to benefit global capital, and Middle Eastern wars of choice outsourced to the proles for the convenience of everyone else.
For those young enough to roll their eyes at what must sound like tales of dragons and mermaids and other fantastical things, I assure you this country was once wholly embroiled in a titanic, globe-spanning conflict called the Cold War, a Thucydidean faceoff with an implacable foe of diametrically-opposed politics who didn’t give a right fuck about pronouns, or #metoo, or white privilege (not that those concepts even existed at the time), or even garden variety stuff like free speech (not that we believe in it much anymore either). While that struggle ended in the early 90s and we had something like a decade of relative peace and prosperity, 9/11 shattered it all into the constant drone of low-grade and confused conflict we’ve lived with as backdrop ever since.
In that make-believe world called ‘the past’ of which I speak, mistakes were still made—often grandiosely so, such as Bay of Pigs or Vietnam—but even they were reckoned with, perhaps stumblingly so, but reckoned with all the same. You see, in the Before Times there was a reality ‘out there’, peoples and cultures unlike ours that stubbornly refused to think and act as we did (and we knew it); facts on the ground that were immune to social-media spirals of bloviation and simply could not be ignored (and we knew it). We grappled with them, debated them, rallied consensus around them, and just dealt with reality however poorly perceived it might have been. And leaders who could not deal with inarguable realities, such as Carter with his botched Iranian rescue operation, did not stay leaders for very long.
But that was all in the Before Times.
Now, while the biggest US military failure in our lifetimes is going on—the final dishonorable chapter to a saga sparked by an attack that claimed more American lives than Antietam or Pearl Harbor—both the president and his spokesperson are simply, unbelievably just…not at work. Psaki, who had plenty of time to do Vogue covers and make TikTok videos with influencers, is simply not responding to email and is apparently on vacation. Biden himself hasn’t said or tweeted anything of substance either (as of this writing he’s scheduled a speech this afternoon).
Our secretary of state, who receives gushing coverage around his band (‘very amateur guitarist’ says his Twitter bio) was the only person in the administration to show their face yesterday. (Did Roman tribunes talk about their hobbies? The history seems lacking here.) When Jake Tapper, in the only shred of accountability in a day of spiraling mayhem, admirably asked Blinken “Afghanistan…WTF??”, Blinken responded with a deer-in-the-headlights stare and canned remarks.
They’re not alone.
The progressive wing of the party in power—Bernie, AOC, the 'squad', the whole crew that normally tweets 10 times per day and has opinions on everything—goes absolutely mute when confronted by some hard, inconvenient reality outside the US liberal bubble like Cuba or Afghanistan. As the situation in Afghanistan worsened, the charismatic new face of progressive politics was…enthusing about public libraries. Yay!
The reason for this sudden silence is that in the year 2021, the cream of American society and the flower of its finest universities, can only understand the world as projections of the country’s own domestic neuroses. Our current elites, whether in media or politics, squint at the strange peoples and languages of whatever international conflict and only see who or what they can map to their internal gallery of heroes and villains: Who’s the PoC? Who’s the Nazi?
If however the situation involving foreign realities can be grafted onto simplistic domestic narratives, in however fantastic a fashion, then that issue becomes a curious side show to the main American stage. That’s what’s happened to Israel, which now features as a talking point in that same progressive wing of the party. And if the situation can’t be mapped, such as Afghanistan or the recent protests in Cuba, it’s utterly ignored for being just completely beyond human comprehension or concern.
This is the true privilege of being an American in 2021 (vs. 1981): Enjoying an imperium so broad and blinding, you’re never made to suffer the limits of your understanding or re-assess your assumptions about a world that, even now, contains regions and peoples and governments antithetical to everything you stand for. If you fight demons, they’re entirely demons of your own creation, whether Cambridge Analytica or QAnon or the ‘insurrection’ or supposed electoral fraud or any of a host of bogeymen, and you get to tweet #resist while not dangling from the side of an airplane or risking your life on a raft to escape. If you’re overwhelmed by what you see, even if you work at places called ‘the Institute for the Study of War’, you can just take some ‘me time’ and not tune into the disturbing images because reality is purely optional at this stage of the game.
It's a pleasant LARP, with self-reinforcing loops of hashtags, New York Times puff pieces and Psaki 'circling back', until one day the Taliban roll in and everyone is running for the helicopters. It's like US elites finally had the VR headset knocked from their faces and actually had a look around. And what they saw was a roomful of men with faces out of an illustrated bible looking like they’d just pillaged a Cabela’s—that’s how much top-shelf, modded-out AR hardware they captured—sitting down for a super-awkward Zoom meeting announcing a sudden change of plans for American foreign policy.
And almost nobody among the whole crew that owns this mess, not even people paid to lie for a living like Psaki, are willing to show their faces and take some damned responsibility now that the stakes have gotten very, very real indeed.
This might seem flip and 'too soon', but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.
In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.
And all we can do in the wake of it, with our brains melted like butter in a microwave by four years of Trump and Twitter and everything else, is to once again try and understand in our terms a hyper-violent insurgency of fanatics, guilty of every manner of cultural barbarism, now running a country with the population of Texas.
What we should have been asking ourselves through four presidents’ worth of Afghanistan involvement, and 2,400 American lives (and God knows how many maimed and traumatized), and almost a trillion dollars, is this: what is our role there? What was the plan, if there ever was one? More specifically, how much are we willing to pay, in American lives and tax money, to impose (for imposing is what we’ll have to do) something vaguely resembling a liberal order in a country more than a few milestones behind us in the real-world Civilization game we’re all playing.
These are the questions a serious people, armed with all the wealth and power of global empire, ask themselves as they administer their dominion. But those are the questions we are not asking, for we are no longer a serious people.