Victor Davis Hanson “Live” with TAE

Hanson comments on topics from the Iraqi war to decline of the West

The American Enterprise

Professor Hanson was interviewed for TAE by Los Angeles journalist David Isaac.

TAE: What first aroused your interest in the classics? After all, you were a farm boy in Selma, California, taught in a largely Mexican-American public school system-not exactly the most likely background for such a career path.

HANSON: It was a wonderful practical schooling with some pretty rough characters, though not one steeped in literature and language. But there were two things in college I immediately appreciated as a freshman. One was that the Greek tragic sense of self resonated with a lot of the values I learned from farming: We all age. We all die. We all have responsibilities. We don’t have as much free will as we imagine, because we are obligated to honor and protect our family, our nation, and especially the weaker among us.

The second thing was that I had grown up in a blunt, free-speaking family. And I noticed that the Greeks, contrary to modern American literature, practiced no self-censorship; honesty, not pretense, was valued. Old age was not called the “Golden Years.” It was considered ugly and debilitating. People accepted that those who were weak would be beaten in war. Homer and Sophocles, Thucydides especially, were not afraid to describe reality as they saw it. Even then I noticed that freshness and appreciated it, even when I disagreed with it.

TAE: How did that Greek tragic sense grow out of your experience of farm life?

HANSON: Farmers only got paid one time a year: when the crop came in. It seemed that almost every year my parents or grandparents would say, “When we get the raisins in, we’ll build this house, or buy that thing.” Then something always happened. Either it rained, destroying the crop, or there was a labor shortage, or the price collapsed, or it would freeze in the spring, or somebody would get sick and die. And these disasters were beyond the ability of men to correct. I grew up with the idea that there are certain forces in the world that are beyond our control. You don’t find such a tragic sense in our current world of professed utopian perfection.

TAE: Your book Fields Without Dreams describes your experience trying to make a go of it with your brothers on the farm even as the fruit market collapsed. You conclude that the small farmer is finished, yet also that the viability of our system of government may depend on the continuation of the small farm, which not only grows food but also excellent citizens. What values will we lose with the eclipse of the yeoman farmer?

HANSON: The small farm had one added dividend: it demanded that you work with nature to produce something good and necessary like food. Farmers weren’t naive environmentalists, and they weren’t rampant developers out to destroy nature either. They struck a balance.

So often in our society we don’t have practical people involved in conservation. In fact we don’t use that term very much anymore. We say “environmentalism” instead. I’m worried that environmentalism will increasingly become an academic enterprise, in which people don’t see for themselves the consequences of their actions, suffer economically for their abstract agendas, or really participate daily in nature. Or if they do, it is for a weekend in the Sierras. A software engineer goes up to the mountains to hike, but he’s not really one with nature.

TAE: What is the worst aspect of America’s current farm system?

HANSON: Multibillion-dollar subsidies to corporate-sized farms. It’s hypocritical that we preach free trade to the world and subsidize our own agriculture, even as our farmers claim to be individualistic and autonomous.

My family and I have never been subsidized. The government doesn’t subsidize plums, peaches, celery, or carrots. I can’t figure out why some farmers are supposed to make it without subsidies, but not others. Is cotton more vital than peaches, or honey than grapes? We’d be better off just to eliminate them all, and try to go back to a free market with government scrutiny of antitrust violation and distortions of the market.

TAE: After nine years devoted to classical studies, including a Ph.D., you threw it all overboard to go back to the farm in 1980. Why did you do it?

HANSON: I was young and impulsive, headstrong and idealistic. I was 26. For years I had been around many people for whom I had very little respect. My academic life was turning into a parlor game, with people from prep schools or elite academies arguing over the clothes some professor was wearing that day.

But the move was hard. People would drive by, see me pruning in the vineyards, and scoff, “There’s that Hanson kid who has a Ph.D. from Stanford, pruning. That guy could have done something with his life.”

TAE: As classics programs were crumbling elsewhere, it’s remarkable that you were able to establish such a program from scratch at a place like Fresno in 1985.What were the arguments you encountered against it?

HANSON: “We don’t need a rarified classics program. What are they going to do with it?” Some people added, “This guy is from Stanford. He thinks he’s too good.” Then those same people would turn around and say, “This guy is a bumpkin farmer from Selma who tracks in mud on the carpet.” So I got it from both sides.

TAE: How did you set out to run the program?

HANSON: We tried to run this rarified program in as populist a manner as possible. We were at work five days a week. Students didn’t have to make an appointment to see us. We ate lunch with them. We had them over to our houses. One kid used to park his motorcycle in my office all the time. We wore jeans and T-shirts. We were determined to make a program where students would feel familiar and wouldn’t be put off-at the price, of course, of learning to read and write Latin and Greek and working extremely hard.

TAE: What is your idea of a perfect curriculum?

HANSON: My curriculum is old-fashioned. It’s a zero sum game, and there are only so many disciplines that will always exist: literature, mathematics, biology, hard science, foreign language, politics, philosophy. To make space, I would eliminate anything that has the word “studies” in it: ethnic studies, women’s studies, cultural studies, American studies. That would free up about 25 percent of the current therapeutic curriculum.

Most of the new things that universities are trying to introduce are not academic subjects. They’re just popular culture dressed up as learning. Not only are these not university subjects, but they come at the expense of time diverted from real education. For every hour a kid is in Chicano studies or environmental studies classes, he’s not learning history or philosophy.

TAE: What is the biggest problem in higher education in contemporary America?

HANSON: I don’t know where to start. I guess it is really about the lack of accountability. Tuition rises faster than inflation. If you ask why nobody does anything about it, the answer is that with tenure and faculty governance there’s no accountability. There’s no accountability for administrators either. It’s a fantasyland immune from the laws of American oversight and audit. I think that’s coming to an end, because the people in charge are not doing a very good job. We can put up with the idea that universities are fat cats that overcharge Americans, but not when they also fail to educate kids. Americans are getting angry, and looking for new solutions.

TAE: You are critical of both leftist utopianism and laissez-faire capitalism.

HANSON: My criticism of corporate America isn’t that it’s evil or anything so silly as that. Indeed it provides us with affluence undreamed of in any earlier age. It’s just that it’s pretty unconservative. Whether it’s rap music or two women kissing on prime time or the schlock of Mexican TV that increasingly dominates our airwaves here in California, it’s usually not some left-wing conspirator who’s behind it, but rather a big corporation making money by appealing to the lowest common denominator, without regard to cultural consequence or any effort to uplift. The arbiter of values is always profit. They don’t realize that they can be a very radical, revolutionary force.

TAE: In your recent book, Mexifornia, you argue that our goal should not be a multicultural nation but a multiracial nation with one culture.
Could you elaborate?

HANSON: I was getting frustrated with this term everyone used: “multicultural.” The very affluent, mostly white, liberal people who use it don’t actually want the police in their neighborhood to have the culture of Mexican officers. They don’t want to be treated with the same medical protocols that prevail in China. They don’t want their daughters to have clitorectomies as in Sudan. So what do they mean with this idea of a salad bowl of culture?

What they really mean is they want a core culture that is Western, enhanced by exotica on the periphery, such as fashion, food, literature, and movies. That’s a very different concept from multiculturalism. What we have to agree on is one culture, one language, one notion of what the law is, respect for private property, faith in democracy, capitalism, a transparent society, free speech. And those things are pretty much confined to those countries that are Western or Western-inspired.

TAE: You trace U.S. military power to the Greek traditions of discipline, rationalism, free inquiry, dissent, etc., and say that free citizens are history’s deadliest fighters. I’m going to give you a list of some recent changes in Western attitudes and technology and ask you whether you think they’ll have a significant impact on our ability to wage war in the future.

First is our unwillingness to sustain significant casualties.

HANSON: It’s been the mantra of modern society—whether it’s Mogadishu or the war against Milosevic—that a prime reality of American military operations is we can’t take casualties. And I’m not sure I agree. It’s more that we can’t stand casualties in something that’s not immediately relevant to our national interests. This is a country that bled in Vietnam and is risking thousands in Iraq. We are a tough people.

I know lots of people are becoming skeptical about the war in Iraq, but I haven’t heard any mainstream person say, “Let’s leave the country.” And I don’t think they will—even though an American or two may be killed every other day for some time.

TAE: A second change is increasingly restrictive, self-imposed rules of engagement. To take just one example, our unwillingness to eliminate Iraqi forces fleeing at the end of the first Gulf War—because it would have been too much like a cruel turkey shoot.

HANSON: I’m very worried about that. It’s hard for an affluent Westerner to see that people in battle are not simply victims. Lots of Iraqi soldiers, for example, were only too happy to rape and plunder their neighbors. On the “Highway of Death,” perhaps 500-600 killed soldiers were magnified by broadcast television imagery into thousands dead. We ceased bombing, and we felt good. Unfortunately, a few weeks later we saw pictures of whole hillsides of Kurdish children out in the snow, starving to death, or heaped corpses of Shiites—victimized by those very soldiers who were allowed to flee Kuwait and re-form into the nucleus of an army that butchered the innocent.

We saw the irony of misplaced clemency again in the latest Iraq war. Our moral inability to destroy the enemy core outright, the assumption being that the Baathists were simply pawns used by Saddam Hussein, meant that a lot of them were able to throw off their uniforms and start killing Americans and innocent Iraqis as irregulars.

There’s this terrible paradox in war: The degree of post-bellum tranquility is usually directly related to the degree to which the enemy has been defeated, even humiliated, and suffered punishment. That’s what eliminates bellicosity. But in postmodern society we don’t want to inflict punishment on the enemy. So there’s no reason the enemy necessarily feels he’s been defeated. Thus he goes on doing terrible things after you’ve ceased shooting at him.

TAE: Change three is the acquisition of powerful weapons based on Western science by people lacking Western scruples against misusing them.

HANSON: We don’t stay up all night worrying about weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the French, because they also have Western institutions of democracy and civic audit and courts and elections that monitor the use of these weapons. But there are parasitic societies who want to cherry-pick Western culture, taking the innovations that lend us power, while rejecting the freedoms that produce those innovations and administer their application. If these societies—especially tribal or autocratic ones—take just our science without embracing our other institutions, then the innovations of freedom can be turned against us.

At that point the only thing that prevents the use of these weapons by our enemies is our own vigilance and deterrence. But how do you deter somebody who wants to blow himself up? So it’s something we have to worry about.

One defense is to remember that terrorists don’t work in a vacuum. Every terrorist group has to have money, institutional backing, some physical sanctuary. They have to have land inside some country. And those countries and institutions that provide land and capital to terrorists must be treated as synonymous with terrorists. Then deterrence can work, once we make it clear that we can be even more ferocious and unpredictable in a just cause than they can be in a cruel one.

TAE: What about the loss of cultural conviction in the West, the growth of an attitude that we in the West are the worst problem, often fostered in our universities? How can this stand against the deep, if rash, conviction of Muslim fundamentalists?

HANSON: It’s a sort of curse of Western civilization that because it produces so much largesse through capitalism and private property, and such a high degree of freedom through constitutional government, that we sometimes become skeptical, cynical, almost consuming ourselves out of boredom or smugness rather than cherishing and protecting our freedom and material security. Complacency descending into decadence has always been a danger to the West, whether it’s Petronius’ Satyricon, the antics of an eighteenth-century French court, or France and Germany from 1925-30. How do you inculcate values of community, hard work, sacrifice, and a tragic view of nature when you can sit down and have a latte and biscotti any time you want?

We fight this using education, using family, using religion. But when we lose government as a tool to inculcate discipline and hard work, and lose the universities as an inculcator of strong values-indeed, when they become part of the problem-then we’re stuck with only the family and church. That’s what the cultural divide is about right now. The family and the church are on one side, and government, the intelligentsia, and the media are on the other.

TAE: Given that Iraq lacks all the traditions you identify as underpinnings for consensual democracy, what are the chances that the U.S. will succeed in its effort to transform Iraq into a democracy that will serve as an example for similar transformations in the region?

HANSON: We have a 75 percent chance if we persevere. Iraq does have natural wealth. So we won’t have to deal with famines or want if consensuality comes. And Iraq has the full attention of the United States right now. Almost every issue that Americans are concerned about at present—the European relationship, the United Nations, the next Presidential election, the war on terrorism, the future of the Middle East—they’ve all settled on Iraq. So if we lose, we lose a great, great deal. And if we win, to the victors go even greater rewards.

We have so much at stake. I think most Americans realize that if we were to withdraw from Iraq and allow it to be Lebanonized, or to allow another Saddam Hussein, then the repercussions would be absolutely catastrophic. And there is no nuclear-tipped superpower backing the Baathist insurgents, limiting what we can do in the region. If we find that Iran or Syria are importing RPGs or terrorist cells, we can take them out if need be.

TAE: How do you see Iraq 10 years from now?

HANSON: I think it’ll be something like Turkey. I think it’ll be a primarily Islamic country that will have a multiparty system. It will probably be closer politically to Europe than it is to us, but it won’t be a receptacle of plots to assassinate U.S. presidents, attack foreigners, or commit genocide. And in the Middle East that’s saying a lot.

TAE: You’ve argued that the truism that democracies don’t war against other democracies has not really been historically true, and will not necessarily hold true in the future. Where do you think the greatest threat now lies?

HANSON: I’m worried about Europe. Its democracies are becoming increasingly undemocratic. The E.U. is growing statist and totalitarian without an opposition, and I don’t quite buy the idea that Europe is demographically enervated. Remember, Europe is the embryo of the Western military tradition. If a continent that has more people and greater GDP than the United States were to be run by 80,000-90,000 bureaucrats without oversight, then watch out.

TAE: Could you see the E.U. becoming a totalitarian entity with a strong military?

HANSON: Not now. I’m talking 30 or 40 years. The E.U. has no bicameral legislature. It has no independent judiciary that can overturn the administrators. It’s very adverse to local referenda by the people. I just don’t see an institutionalized check on the power of the utopians at the center, who don’t believe in consensus or rebuke.

It’s a very elitist system. All the Europeans I talk to start out on the left, but within three minutes or one drink they’re attacking the United States from the right. Whether it’s our fashion, our food, our music, or our movies, they say we are corrupting European standards of taste. The lower classes create the popular culture in this country. That’s frightening to many Europeans, though it’s also radically democratic, which is supposed to be the dream of every French philosophe as he sips coffee after a hard day on the barricades.

TAE: You say dissent is important for democracy. You note the importance of Greek dissent before the Battle of Salamis. But are there times when dissent can be deadly?

HANSON: Self-critique has always been a burden. The Roman Republic struggled with a lack of support back home. It’s a price that we pay in the West for our openness. The dividends are a variety of voices and ideas and proposals that enhance our strength and war-waging ability. The downside is if we allow our efforts to be subverted by the voices of a few who have a preconceived idea that something’s wrong. I’m very worried about that at present. I can’t pick up a newspaper and read anything positive about Iraq, even though I think it’s the revolutionary event of our times, and is bringing great good to the world.

TAE: Which figure from the ancient world does President Bush most remind you of?

HANSON: He reminds me of a sort of modern-day Epaminondas, who got it into his head that the way to stop attacks on Thebes was not just to fight back near Thebes (although he did that very well), but go to the heart of darkness and free the helots. George W. Bush got it into his head that the way to defeat these people who’ve been killing us for 20 years—recently on the USS Cole, on September 11, at the first World Trade Center attack, and on and on—was not to simply swat them, but to go right into their countries and destroy the conditions that created these fanatics.

But, then again, after Epaminondas freed 250,000 slaves, the Thebans put him on trial for his life.

TAE: French President Chirac?

HANSON: He reminds me of an array of petty fourth-century B.C. Greek leaders: Aeschines, for example. He was a post-classical Greek statesman who had no power, but a large imagination and ample nostalgia for things of the past—a man who had no military, but wanted to be respected precisely on grounds of power, a man who lived in a tiny, shrinking country, but had visions of global grandeur.

TAE: French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin?

HANSON: He reminds me of someone out of the Satyricon…yes, a Eumolpus. He’s a perfect Eumolpus. There are so many layers of his comical absurdity beyond the hair. He’s a bad poet, a bad biographer of Napoleon, he lives in a fantasy world of French power, and he’s duplicitous. And he’s vain—a fraction of the person of a Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld. Very sad. A bad literary figure who can’t distinguish the moral difference between a Jefferson and a Napoleon.

But he’s also a frightening figure as well, because he’s symbolic of the post-World War II generation in Europe. In some deep, deep way these French ex-radicals had to account for the fact that their army, the largest in Europe, crumbled in six weeks to the Germans and then was saved by unsophisticated Americans. I don’t think you can understand French cynicism, postmodernism, everybody from Sartre to Foucault, without understanding such a wound. They had to create alternate fantasies to account for the fact that their nation just fell over in the Ardennes. DeGaulle was the original personification of the malady; de Villepin is a poor epigone.

TAE: Why did Tocqueville call religion the most valuable legacy that aristocracy bequeathed to democratic countries?

HANSON: I think that was originally a classical notion. A lot of classical rationalists, even the sophists, and especially people like the historian Thucydides, understood that religion could provide a very valuable social force, a break or buffer against man’s appetites.

TAE: Civilizations come to an end. Do you think, given the threats to the Greek values underpinning our Western civilization, that ours may be coming to an end?

HANSON: Most liberal societies fail when they’re unable to transmit their values from one generation to the next. It’s not because of poverty, but due to wealth, not hardship, but leisure. It tells me something that everyone in America is talking about this crisis of faith and spirit right now. We worry there’s something wrong with America, something wrong in us, morally. We don’t want to be a bankrupt generation who, instead of fearing, rightly, our fathers, now fears our children much more.

Nearly every public issue today, whether illegal immigration or failing schools, boils down to an inability to speak the truth, to act on it, to believe in right and wrong, and use moral judgment. So we have figured out the problem. But how do we of the comfortable suburb go back to the hard work and discipline of the past that are essential to the tragic view? That will be a key problem for the next generation. Are we going to leave children behind that are as sturdy as our parents were?

What saves us for the moment is that this country is such a wonderful, powerful, rich society that it can run on the fumes of greatness for probably another century. But I’m not sure it can be quite like it was unless we wake up now and rediscover what this country was all about at its founding.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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