The title of this post comes from an essay by Robert Nisbet that first ran in Commentary circa September 1961 and was later reprinted as a pamphlet in 1978 by the Institute for Humane Studies. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been collected anywhere — there are several important Nisbet essays, including his brilliant piece on the radicalism of the American revolution, that are woefully out of circulation.
Though first published 45 years ago, the essay’s practically as relevant now as the day Nisbet finished it. A sample:
What else but transcendent moralism lies behind what George Kennan, in Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin, calls egocentrical and embattled democracy: “It [democracy] soon becomes a victim of its own war propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts its own vision on everything else. Its enemy becomes the embodiement of all evil. Its own side, on the other hand, is the center of all virtue. The contest comes to be viewed as having a final, apocalyptic quality. If we lose, all is lost; life will no longer be worth living; there will be nothing to be salvaged. If we win, then everything will be possible; all problems will become soluble…”
In this way we carry our absolutist conception of history, our sense of destiny, into war and peacemaking. The enemy — whether German or Russian or, almost comically, Cuban — becomes not merely the ready scapegoat for all ordinary dislikes and frustrations; he becomes the symbol of total evil which the forces of good must mobilized to destroy completely.
Not only does this mentality prevail even long after the Soviet Union’s collapse — applied as ludicrously to Hitlers-of-the-month like Saddam and Slobo as it once was (and still sometimes is) to Castro — but the same idiocy now characterizes America’s internal politics: in this sense, the culture war really is the sequel to the Cold War. In neocon nomenclature, according to which there have been three or four or umpteen World Wars, the culture war must be the second (or third or fourth or fifth?) Civil War.