Here’s the thing. We want individualism. We want as much freedom as possible for the individual without it limiting the freedom of other individuals. This is what we are about. Happily, having such a thing goes hand in hand with peace almost always. Unhappily, it also goes hand in hand with: ignorant or indifferent citizenship in the republic that makes it possible, an absence of political community unless politics becomes a branch of the entertainment industry, rampant consumerism, narcissism, and vast, ever-expanding inequalities of wealth. It means, increasingly, no public intellectuals worth a damn, no public, ultimately, no republic.
We also want democracy. We want as much commitment to an intelligent, educated engagement in our political institutions as possible. This is what we are about. We want people to set their sights higher than their next smartphone or how many of their Tweets get re-Tweeted. We want people to care about the fate of democracy both here and abroad. We want to nurture and grow the institutions and values that create this kind of citizenry.
Unhappily, that goes hand in hand with war. Just that: war. Only war can make people care about something larger than themselves, even when, perhaps especially when, it is a war for freedom itself. Only war makes people step out of their private lives long enough to care about the state of their community, and especially their political community. War makes political values literally a matter of life or death rather than a matter of attention or inattention, entertainedness or unentertainedness. Only war can make elites care enough about social cohesion to want to redistribute wealth in any serious way. Only war can make elites care that their fighting populace is healthy. Only war can make elites care that their working class is accommodated in any meaningful way. It’s not just that war and socialism go hand in hand: we cynics have always known what no progressive is ever quite able to see. It’s that public-spiritedness even on behalf of individualism itself requires death. (Don’t believe me? Before journalists started getting murdered in their offices, when was the last time you thought about, let along acted on, the Voltaire maxim about defending to the death the right to say things?) But idealistic war is a task that can have no end other than in enforced defeat by a superior power. With endless war comes empire, and eventually the curtailment of the very institutions that make democracy possible. It means, ultimately, no republic.