Yes, But Why Is It Worth Saving?

Even discarded bits of pop culture can prove illuminating. Some years ago, Jennifer and I were listening to the Big Broadcast on WAMU in Washington, and one of the very old radio programs Ed Walker was running was Space Patrol, which in the early 1950s told the story of Command Buzz Corry and his faithful sidekick, Cadet Happy, as they patrolled the Solar System for the United Planets battling evil, accented villains such as Prince Baccarati [sp?], a generic Commie-Nazi villain of American post-war pop culture, who wanted to destroy the peaceful democratic order of the United Planets and restore his dictatorial monarchy.

In one episode, Corry and Happy, on patrol somewhere between Neptune and Planet X (Baccarati’s home base, where he plots his evil with all of his enslaved minions), are talking about why the Space Patrol is so vigilant in trying to stop all of Baccarati’s plots before he can carry them out. Being new to the outfit, Happy wants to know. Corry responds by saying something like:

If we don’t, Baccarati may stage such a spectacular attack that the people of the United Planets will be frightened into surrendering, traumatized into giving up without a fight.

The program’s sponsor was Ralston-Purina, the maker of Chex cereals, and test pilot Chuck Yeager was RP’s spokesman for many of the show’s adverts. A clear connection was made between Air Force test pilots and the valiant men of Space Patrol, between the imagined villains of Corry’s solar system and the real villains America faced in the 1950s.

Growing up in the military, and around those who made participation in the defense of the country the life’s calling, I’d always discerned something of a mixed message from them — they staunchly defend a country they aren’t entirely sure (because of its decadence, cowardice and lack of gratefulness) truly deserves to be defended. Nowhere had I heard this more clearly articulated than in this lost bit of popular culture. And not a terribly significant piece either.

But this idea doesn’t get talked about much. I do believe history belies much of this thinking — Americans did not capitulate after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and no one simply curled up and called for surrender after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Northern Virginia. But this idea, that Western societies are too fragile and too cowardly to defend themselves, especially when faced with the conspiratorial evil of Communism/Islamism, and thus need to be defended by a vigilant elite willing to do just about anything to ensure that those societies are never “traumatized” by attack, does appear to be pernicious, and it does appear to be bigger than America, as Stephen Walt notes in a recent blog entry:

What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists. 

This is really an old story: American hard-liners used to believe that the decadent Western democracies couldn’t stand up to Soviet communism, and previous generations all believed that the current wave of immigrants would bring some sort of fatal infection to an otherwise healthy body politic. We’ve suffered a similar wave of paranoia since 9/11, somehow believing that a handful of radicals in Central Asia posed a mortal threat to a society with 300 million people and a $14 trillion economy. (Of course, the real threat turned out to be the self-inflicted wounds that we suffered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on Wall Street.) By contrast, those of us who are more sanguine about such matters have greater confidence in the inherent strengths of a liberal society and are therefore more worried about departures from these principles undertaken in the name of “national security.”

For many on the right who think and speak this way, they have reduced the communities and societies which they wish to save to abstract ideals, bereft of any real people. Indeed, real people just get in the way of defending the good. I’m not sure which is more attractive here — being the virtuous defender of a noble idea, or being virtuous battler of irredeemable evil.