War and the Intellectual Wasteland

Skimming along the surface, gliding at speed over the tips of waves, blissfully unaware of the depths, is of the essence of this age. American businessman and self-appointed moral scourge Ben Shapiro, who is nothing if not of this age, is taking his usual fake-intellectual-for-profit routine to the subject of global conflict, specifically the war in Ukraine.

His speed-talking schtick — skimming along the surface of ideas to evade the responsibility of, or rather to hide his inability to undertake, the cold, inconvenient, and materially unprofitable plunge into the profound — is obnoxious enough when the subject of his high school debate champion tactics is a transient matter of domestic policy, where his carefully calculated echo chamber call-outs are merely worthless. When, however, the matter at hand is authoritarianism on the march on a global scale — not “marching through the institutions,” but rather through the real towns and kitchens of actual human beings who are losing their lives and their country to naked aggression — Shapiro’s trivial mind and cash-register principles are truly sickening. For in this case the relevant echo is not Shapiro’s own helium-inflated voice bouncing around the falsely named “American conservative movement,” but rather the voice of Munich circa 1938, the voice of Neville Chamberlain, the voice of Czechoslovakia betrayed, the voice of world-historical appeasement, and the voice of hundreds of thousands of Europeans on the brink of enslavement and destruction. Such voices, however, echo not on the glinting surface of contemporary life and political entertainment for profit, but only in the distant fathoms, where our profiteering opinion-sellers dare not go, or rather where they lack the education and moral depth to go. 

I will not quote one word of this millionaire minion’s carefully scripted attempt to appease all the major demographic groups of his Daily Wire audience (you may hear the whole dismal thing at the link in the first paragraph), sympathizing with the sad plight of the Ukrainian people and condemning the injustice of the Putin invasion, while at the same time asserting, with all the who-the-hell-does-he-think-he-is certitude of the teenage know-it-all, that of course “Russia” has legitimate security interests that must be acknowledged, that of course Ukraine has “understandable” but untenable territorial demands (e.g., national sovereignty) that cannot reasonably be met, and that, therefore, of course the United States must broker a peace that leads to some middle ground concessions from each side, since, again, Russia has, after all, legitimate security concerns about the threat of NATO on its doorstep. 

This is “today’s conservative intellectual,” aka today’s popular mouthpiece of Republican establishment talking points. No different, in ultimate worth or effect, than the Tucker Carlson Putin Propaganda Hour, or the Jordan Peterson Capitulation Is the Only Way Out Homily

It has been a long time since Americans, and not only Americans, have felt any electricity in their daily wires from a genuine thinker of any kind, especially a thinker who has engaged seriously with the meaning and psychology of global tyranny. With that in mind, let us yield the floor for a moment to a Frenchman from forty years ago, to enliven our spirits — or to offend the echo chamber, which is equally satisfying in its own way — with a reminder of what a real public intellectual and man of principle would say about these matters, were such men able to be heard today above the tinny din of profiteering podcasts and the self-aggrandizing bon mots of Twitter screeds.

Territorial imperialism’s second advantage is that it is renewed, fortified and justified by its very success. The wider an empire is, the more it is threatened and, accordingly, the more it must expand to neutralize further threats…. We have heard ad infinitum about the Soviet Union’s “fear of encirclement,” the greatest strategic farce of modern times. Obviously, the wider your ring of borders spreads, the more countries you come to touch on, and these all become potential centers of aggression against you. The simplest way to neutralize a potential center of aggression is to install a friendly government there. But this friendly power, while no longer a threat to you, is in turn exposed to the hostility of countries beyond it, the countries against which it buffers you. In fact, your real frontier becomes that of your new friend. And since this friend also has the right to suffer deep feelings of insecurity, it will surely appeal for your fraternal assistance. We know it will not appeal in vain.

Let’s be logical: the only way for the Soviet Union to make certain its borders are not threatened, that they are fully secure, is to have no more borders at all or, if you prefer, borders that coincide with the entire world. Only then will “peace and security” be guaranteed to all mankind. And it is because they absolutely must have this guarantee that, as Brezhnev told the Soviet Party Congress, “the total triumph of socialism throughout the world is ineluctible.”

— Jean-François Revel, How Democracies Perish, translated by William Byron, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1983, p. 65

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