Posts That Are Getting All Radical


Larison has done this for me, but this is what this site is all about: following arguments in the web. So we’ll give you a play by play of the conversation between Larison, Poulos, and Millman concerning Andrew Bacevich’s introduction to William Appleman Williams “Empire as a Way of Life.” I am not as smart as these men, so I may summarize their arguments tritely or even incorrectly. Point out my mistakes.

Noah Millman’s first post is called “How Radical is Your Critique.” Millman argues that even if the radical critique of American empire is correct, the institutions cannot be thrown out. He notes that Williams is sympathetic to those Presidents who tried to tame the empire, but wonders what good taming ever did.

A key part later excerpted in Larison’s answer:

“Late in life, George Kennan speculated that the United States had simply got too big to be a functioning democracy and a responsible international actor. To preserve the Republic, the Republic would have to be destroyed, broken up into ten to twelve smaller states. Suppose Bacevich became convinced of something similar – what on earth would he do with such knowledge? No one would call Kennan “anti-American” – he was profoundly patriotic, greatly in love with and greatly loyal to his country. But his was not, ultimately, a critique of this or that policy of the American government – it was a radical critique of America itself. And once you are critiquing the very nature of your country, what’s the practical difference between an argument from love and an argument from hate if both arguments end in a similar conclusion?”

Millman ends with stating that some central tenants of American foreign policy as practiced through-out the years (such as supremecy and exceptionalism) are not “crazy”and wonders, even if one believes the critique, whether the ship can change direction.

Daniel Larison takes exception to the above quotation about Kennan. He argues that there is a difference between country and polity. Larison argues that love of country may indeed require a critique of the polity.

An excerpt contained in Poulos’s answer:

“In a less extreme way, Kennan’s patriotism and his common-sense recognition of what Montesqieu and Antifederalists knew over two centuries ago–that an extended republic cannot survive as a genuine republic–required him to question the status quo of a continental nation-state that had grown too large for the kind of self-government that had once been ours. This is not a “critique of America itself,” but a critique of a kind of polity, one that is actually far removed from much of the American experience. “America itself” is different from and more than its polity. The nature of America is not in its government, or at least not entirely or primarily in its government. Indeed, “America itself” contains the elements of many different Americas that found greater expression in a more genuinely federalist system, and which might once again find full expression in a more decentralized political order. It is natural that regimes would want to define loyalty to country as disloyalty, because loyalty to country threatens the regime’s monopoly on loyalty, but it is not required that we go along with it.”

Larison ends with defending Kennan from anti-patriotism charges.

James Poulos argues that there is not a connection between an aggressive national policy and an aggressive foreign policy (in other words, the forms of “empire” one sees on a domestic or international level are separate phenom, to some extent.)

A sentance that Larison later exerpts:

” I would daresay that it is precisely incorrect to see empire as destructive to the reification of imperial society and culture.”

Poulos states there is often a confusion as to what empire is. Hegemony may be a better word for the current American situation.

To quote Poulos again, for he sums up his argument well:

“In short, to spin Daniel’s remarks, a republic can ‘extend’ itself out of existence quite well without becoming either a domestic or international empire, although of course it can cease to be a republic in the process of doing both. Then again, simply because the United States ceased to be a ‘real’ republic does not mean that it ever became an empire. Of course, the United States did become an empire, complete with colonies, and from the perspective of the supposedly far more corrupt and imperial era we are now living in, it actually turns out that America is less of an empire now than it was then, which is to say not really an empire at all.”

Millman comes back to Larison with a post so meaty I will not summarize, because that would require quoting almost the entire thing. Millman looks at varied historical examples (Marsall Petain, René Lévesque) and whether they, in their actions or critiques, could be considered patriots. He states in the beginning:

“I’m less clear, though, that one can be a patriot while radically critiquing the very definition of one’s country’s polity.”

And ends with:

“This whole discussion started with the question: if one’s critique of America as it is gets so fundamental that one winds up saying that America should cease to exist as a polity, then in what sense can one consider oneself a patriot – or, let’s say, an American patriot (presumably one could still be a patriotic Vermonter or Texan or what-have-you). Patriotism means “love of country” – the land, the language, the customs, the people, the history, the traditions, the ethos: any and all of these are a reasonable basis for love, but the object is a country. What one’s country is, how it is defined, can be contested – is, in different ways and to different degrees, in all of the examples I gave above. But if you say, “America has gotten too big for its own good; the best thing for Americans, and for those things that I love about America and Americans, would be for the country to be broken up into a dozen smaller states” that is as much as to say, “America has gotten too big for its own good; it will die, one way or another. Better we kill it ourselves, by splitting it up, and preserve much of what we love about America and Americans in new and smaller polities, than see it die by turning into a corrupt and decadent empire empty of those virtues for which I most love it.” The latter sentiment is a sentiment born of love; I can even say that what is loved is America, the posited speaker’s country. But it is still really strange to call it a patriotic sentiment. Or so it seems to me, anyway.”

Larison responds to both these posts. First, to Poulos:

Poulos’s quote (same as above): “I would daresay that it is precisely incorrect to see empire as destructive to the reification of imperial society and culture.”


“But Bacevich isn’t talking about “imperial society and culture.” If, as Williams argues, empire turns “a culture away from its own life as a society or community [bold mine-DL],” the existence of an “imperial society and culture” is the proof that this is true. As much as historians of certain empires might not like to admit it, “imperial society and culture” are parisitic things and thrive at the expense of local and regional societies and cultures.”

Larison points out that empires require talent to relocate to large metropolitan areas. It requires high taxes and great centralization of power in few hands.

Larison’s response to Millman is to argue that country exists before polity. While Millman argues that Petain may have been patriotic but wrong, in believing he was doing best for France by surrendering and collaborating, Larison says no way:

“Petain may have been a patriot before the surrender, and even as the head of a collaborationist regime he may have believed he was doing what was best for his country, but if there is a red line that must separates patriots from traitors it is whether or not one collaborates with an invader. It really makes no difference why the invader is there. I might go so far as to say that even if one lived under a monstrous regime that cruelly misruled one’s own country, it would not be a patriotic act to aid its foreign enemies”

Larison finishes with the idea that our natural patriotic attachments are more regional and local than national.

If you need a little help with the names and faces:




UPDATE: Millman responds to Larison:

UPDATE #2: Two posts from The Gentlemen, Here’s Freddie:

“Here is what imperialism is: we come to your country, and we exert our control over it, and if you try to stop us, we kill you. Our justifications, real and professed, are always changing. Our means are always evolving, and every new military technology carries with it the promise of its use to subjugate more people, a little better, a little faster, a little more shock-and-awe inspiring. We want what you have, or we don’t want someone else to get it, or we want a “presence” in your region, or we want to move your country’s poor pawn to check the king of our rival. We want to make your life and your country a means to whatever particular end we happen to have at that time.”

And Chris Dierkes:

“My sense is mostly we have to ask here what is really possible and (from Deudney) how to maintain as best as possible republicanism.  The omni-violence abroad does impinge upon domestic republicanism (what I take to be Noah’s point)–not being prepared to deal with it has lead to over-reaction in the form of  Torture, broad surveillance, etc.   The furthering of imperial agendas abroad does weaken the republican foundations at home (what I take to be Daniel’s point).  But the two don’t necessarily grow in size simultaneously (what I take to be James’ point).  Plus of course never to forget the real  human cost (Freddie’s point).”

UPDATE #3: Larison responds to Millman:

UPDATE #4: Millman responds to Larison. He’s wrong that no one is enjoying this:

UPDATE #5: Alex Massie responds to the Millman/Larison debate on Petain and deGaulle:

“So, in other words, I think one can argue that in the circumstances of 1940 both Petain and de Gaulle were patriots but that their patriotism was operating on different timetables. That is, Petain’s was a patriotism for 1940, saving what could be saved, whereas de Gaulle’s was a patriotism that took a longer view, hlding out for an improbable victory some time in the future after which France and the Idea of France could be revived.”

UPDATE #6: Post from E.D. Kain at The Gentlemen responding to Poulos.

UPDATE #7: Poulos has a new piece up on the subject of empire.


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