Masque of the Reds’ Death

If you live in what Americans’ obnoxiously refer to as the Heartland or those places, as I do, where residents more obnoxiously claim the title despite their geographical and cultural liminality, you have been hearing an awful lot in the past week about how the President has failed to protect his charges. The beheadings were bad enough, but now there’s the Ebola virus to inspire panic.

Tales circulate of indifferent passenger screening, inconsistent medical guidelines and, above all, a Federal government seemingly unwilling or unable to coordinate local response to potentially deadly vectors because its leaders are too consumed by the midterm elections to do their jobs properly. And, while there is plenty of hostility to go around, it is the White House that has borne the brunt.

It’s not hard to see why. All of the traits that Barack Obama’s detractors were singling out years ago have been thrown into sharp relief by the crisis. He is so intent on projecting an image of cool rationality that even a hot zone barely quickens his pulse. Yet this paradoxical investment in appearing disinvested — sometimes wryly so — doesn’t translate to the decisiveness people crave in a head of state. Instead, he prevaricates while waiting for his pollsters to tell him what to do.

At least that’s the impression that even supporters of the President are finding hard to dispel. His opponents on the Right, delighted to have discovered a vulnerability that the majority of voters perceive, are already using it to fortify their campaign to win both houses of Congress. As difficult as it may be to mount a defense of the President’s leadership, however, it is crucial to recognize that his failings are largely a function of the American public’s carefully cultivated antipathy towards so-called “Big Government”.

If Obama’s time in office can be summed up by an ironic reversal of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous dictum — he speaks loudly and carries a small stick — the blame rests primarily with the assault on the welfare state championed by Ronald Reagan. Although the furor about the expansion of executive power under the past two administrations is legitimate, it only applies to military concerns. Besides, this President has exhibited precious little consistency and clarity in that domain, letting both domestic and international pressure change his course, even as his legal team has vigorously insisted on his right to make decisions independently of the legislative branch. But when it comes to matters of health and economic policy, his problem isn’t indecisiveness but impotence. He just doesn’t have the tools to work with.

That would be the case even if this crisis were primarily domestic in nature, as the Federal government’s flawed responses to disasters like Hurricane Katrina makes clear. But when other countries’ problems also become American problems, this deficiency is greatly magnified. Historically, the White House has often encountered resistance when it tries to cope with international problems that fall outside a traditional definition of war. Aside from the formation of the United Nations and the Peace Corps, there is precious little to show for Presidential efforts in this area. But the situation today, after over three decades’ worth of seeking to downsize Washington, is as bad as it has been since the 1920s. Because while the cultivation of a me-first worldview may have made Americans more indifferent to the welfare of others within their homeland, it has also greatly diminished their interest in the plight of less fortunate nations.

The cultural and political myopia that even made things difficult during the height of the Cold War, when “Big Government” could be justified as a response to Communism, has surged to the point where talk of Neo-Isolationism is inevitable. During a recent trip to Disneyland, I was struck by how out-of-date the park’s Small World ride has become. Yes, its cutesy stereotyping of different cultures would be unlikely to pass muster today, in the era of so-called “political correctness”. But what really turns the ride into a time machine is its insistence on celebrating those cultures by underscoring what they all have in common.

The rise to prominence of first Ron Paul and now his son Rand, advocating for a sanded-down libertarian platform, testifies to the weariness many people in the United States feel towards globalism. Although some of that has to do with the cost of being the world’s policeman — or its doctor — the resistance goes deeper than that. Conservative pundits make the case that thinking about international problems turns them into national ones. Aside from military imperatives, they promote an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach, as if merely ignoring news of droughts in Australia, rising seas in Bangladesh and refugee walruses were sufficient to protect Americans from danger. And when a crisis becomes too big to ignore, they coolly blame the President for not responding to it in a timely fashion.

As political maneuvering, this cynicism is rather brilliant. If many Americans still don’t believe that their leader with the “foreign” name is one of them, it makes sense to conflate him with those problems that threaten their isolationist bubble. But in the case of the current Ebola panic, the inadequacy of this ideology is laid bare. The way to prevent the disease from making inroads in the Heartland is not to tune out reports of its toll in West Africa or acknowledge them just enough to conclude that Obama is to blame, but to interpret them as a call to arms. The dream of a small government that is somehow able to sustain its most basic functions, those which can loosely be construed as “defense”, without taxing its citizens unduly, proves bankrupt in the face of a truly international crisis like this one. No magical combination of market forces is capable of dealing with a situation in which fear takes precedence over the profit motive. If private contractors are not directed by Washington to undertake difficult tasks, as they were during the mobilization of World War II, they might perform them inadequately or refuse them outright, as has apparently happened in Texas.

What is needed, rather that this laissez faire isolationism, is a coordinated effort among nations in which their individual interests will be transmuted into a single collective interest. Internationalism, in short, not the “balance of powers” approach that neo-conservative icon Henry Kissinger once again idealizes in his new book World Order. From his perspective, the right of individual nation states to determine their own internal affairs must be paramount. Yet, while this negative form of cooperation may help to prevent certain military conflicts, it simply cannot handle this kind of crisis. When the internal is being externalized in ways that heed no boundaries — with Ebola being perhaps the most extreme figure for such a quandary — a political philosophy rooted in the logic of quarantine proves woefully inadequate.

When confronting both short-term crises like the Ebola virus or long-term ones like climate change, it would be far wiser — the irony is inescapable — to turn to The Communist Manisfesto, which explicitly confronts the limitations of thinking nationally. If we reimagine this strangely timely text as a polemic about the relation between different states rather than different groups of workers, it delivers a powerful message about the perils of nationalist panic. We have to understand that it is precisely isolation that leaves us most vulnerable, whether dealing with an epidemic or rising seas. To a degree, this sense of common purpose was what the League of Nations and United Nations were created to facilitate. But whereas those organizations were largely set up to avoid difficult economic questions, any successful response to crises like the Ebola virus will have to confront them head-on. Because as long as the inhabitants of wealthy nations resent paying the bill for others, parochial concerns will undermine every attempt at truly collective action.

Edgar Allen Poe’s famous story “The Masque of the Red Death” provides a useful allegory here. Intent on avoiding a plague that is ravaging the European countryside, a group of patricians holes up in a castle with a wealth of amusements. But when they hold a costume ball, a mysterious figure circulates among them, spreading the disease. Their efforts at isolationism fail miserably. Such will be the fate of nations like the United States, eventually, unless they acknowledge that contagions are bound to circumvent every boundary we set up. The challenge is not to keep them out, but to figure out a way to cope with them.

From an American perspective, this means reviving one of the grand gestures of the 1960s, when Lyndon B. Johnson conducted a “War on Poverty”. Yes, he was conducting a conventional war at the same time. But the impulse to treat poverty as a military problem was ingenious because it reconceived national defense in social and economic terms. Waging that struggle was expensive, though, requiring sacrifices that Americans today are too rarely willing to make. If we can fight a perpetual War on Terror, we can do the same for a War on Disease. Unless we are willing to pay for it, though, and, what is more, accept that such payment must be the rule rather than the exception, we will have nothing more than empty words that will one day demand their pound of flesh.


U.S. Army Africa photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy, Liberia. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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