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Out of Control.

Zbigniew Brzezinski is a busy man. Between "traveling, consulting, speaking, and teaching ," he required the help of no fewer than six research assistants to extrude his latest book, Out of Control. It reflects the pace of his life--harried, rushed, and at the mercy of deadlines.

At least one deadline is self-imposed. Brzezinski must hurry because the end is drawing nigh. The looming catastrophe--not environmental, but moral and political--renders lengthy research and contemplation a frivolous luxury. The outcome is a farrago of half-baked analyses which suggests an author, much like the world he seeks to describe, careening out of control.

His aim is ambitious. Each of his three theses-the significance of the failure of totalitarianism, the emerging geopolitical order, and the future of American foreign policy--might require a book of its own. Brzezinski himself declares in his introduction that Out of Control provides the capstone to his earlier books, Between Two Ages, Game Plan, and The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century. Where those works concentrated on policy prescriptions, Brzezinski now seeks to provide a sweeping philosophical grounding for American foreign policy.

Unfortunately, the sober tone and lucid prose of his previous works are scarcely in evidence. Brzezinski's philosophy, such as it is, consists largely of tirades against American sexual license and self-indulgence. His fulminations come closer to those of a crank than a geostrategist. Indeed, one of the most peculiar parts of Brzezinski's new book is his somersault from geostrategy to morality. In Game Plan, Brzezinski applies the terms "imperial system" and "empire" equally to the Soviet Union and the United States, thus stressing the fact that the confrontation between the two superpowers was morally neutral in character. (In an interview with National Interest in 1986, Brzezinski dismissed the belief that the United States stood for freedom as "a very American view.") There is something paradoxical about jumping from soft-pedaling the ideological character of the struggle between the superpowers to excoriating Americans for their lack of morality once the conflict has concluded. Finally, his book does in fact degenerate into foreign policy prescriptions that pack all the punch of a musty Foreign Affairs article. There is more foam than beer in this brew.

To be sure, Brzezinski's passages on the demise of communism form some of the soundest in his book, but they do not get much beyond the obvious. Calling the twentieth century the age of "megadeath," Brzezinski estimates that some 87 million people have died violent deaths in its course. He correctly assigns the lion's share of the blame for the century's catastrophes to the quartet of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, and he observes that the sheer number of lives consumed in the name of secular utopias makes communism "the most costly human failure in all of history."

Evil personalities alone could not have accomplished such devastation without the ideas and ideals which these dictators appropriated and transformed into deadly instruments. Embarking on a Cook's tour of political theory, Brzezinski traces a direct line from the French of 1789 to the Bolsheviks in 1917. At the same time, he draws an explicit parallel between Lenin and Hitler, arguing that both were bent on class warfare. The result is confusion. Lenin's universalist ideals are incompatible with the racist ideology at the core of Hitler's program. A byproduct of this facile analogizing is the effacement of what was distinctive about Hitler's aims. Where Lenin and the Bolsheviks sought to eliminate classes and sculpt a new proletarian man, the Nazis directed their efforts at annihilating the Jews and "honorary Jews," such as Gypsies, as a race. Brzezinski's style in this section also suffers the effects of slapdash theorizing. Take his comment that Stalin's and Hitler's "schemes quite literally verged on the lunatic,'' or that Hitler's Mein Kampf and Alfred Rosenberg's Race and Race History "justifiably raised serious questions regarding the sanity of the respective author." They did not "verge" on; they were lunatic.

The skill with which Lenin and Hitler manipulated their followers leads Brzezinski to fear that Russian, African, and Asian masses are similarly vulnerable today, and that a replay of the first half century is at hand. Yet in contrast to 1941, America in 1993 is incapable of coming to the rescue because it is rotting from within. Dubbing America a "permissive cornucopia," Brzezinksi warns that the erosion in moral standards arising from a preoccupation with material and sensual self-gratification is sapping the United States' ability to assume world leadership in the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet empire. The principal agent of destruction? ... television. Moral corruption and cultural decadence are being beamed not only to Americans, but to the world:

With audiences around the world increasingly glued to television sets, there is nothing comparable, either in the era of enforced religious orthodoxy or even at the highpoint of totalitarian indoctrination, to the cultural and philosophical conditioning that television exercises on the viewers.

This from the man who along with Carl J. Friedrich pioneered the concept of the totalitarian state! The fact is that television does not condition audiences, but rather reflects prevailing mores. These reckless statements more effectively trivialize the notion of totalitafianism than any revisionist historian has ever done. Brzezinski's complaints about decadence and "lifestyles"-- the latter term now something of a codeword for homosexuality--echo the fears of neoconservatives like Midge Decter, who were loudly worrying in the 1970s that toleration of homosexuals would weaken the masculinity and therefore the will of Americans to combat communism.

Certainly Brzezinski is right to point to the social and economic ills that afflict the United States. The soaring national debt, the collapse of the manufacturing industry, the abysmal educational system, the rise in racial tensions--all are dutifully trotted out. Brzezinski lists the problems but provides neither analytical tools nor policy recommendations to deal with them. Given his picture of an American public hooked on TV images and wallowing in material delights, it's hard to see what rational arguments could move them. Moreover, the link between the decline in manufacturing (a feature of all advanced societies) and sexual indulgence is utterly obscure, as is the connection to poor schools. But Brzezinski contents himself with mounting his favorite hobby-horse and decrying the "degree to which the most popular programs devised for young audiences ... concentrate on decadence and debauchery while applauding the rejection of traditional authority." One wonders what programs he is referring to. The Simpsons? Brzezinski, who seems to have no qualms about appearing on television as often as possible, must spend the rest of his time watching it.

Much of Brzezinski's jeremiad on morality imitates the pope's criticisms of popular culture, but Brzezinski's bristling declarations lack the calm, confident, papal tone. Christianity, asserts Brzezinski, means that Europe, unlike Japan, is "in its very body and soul universalist rather than exclusivistic ." The universalism of Europe, supposed to derive from the medieval Church, did not prevent the bloodiest conflicts and the worst atrocities in human history. Those murderous impulses linger on in the form of contempt for and hatred of foreigners and asylumseekers.

Yet Brzezinski claims that Europe's "rich philosophic and artistic tradition ... could help infuse into American mass culture ... greater intellectual content, thereby somewhat tempering its crass and vulgar edge." These assertions are likely to strike Americans as little more than snobbery. Paradoxically, for a political scientist, Brzezinski scants the political dimension. For Nazi ideologues and intellectual fellow-travelers of Nazism such as Heidegger, the "crassness and vulgarity" of democracy, especially democracy American style, called for a sweeping purge of popularly-based regimes. On the postwar European Left, Adorno and Horkheimer contended that pleasure is inimical to thought, and Marcuse lashed out in the sixties against the "Coca-Colazation" of France. In truth, vulgarity is part of democracy. It was no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the Soviet Union was more successful at keeping pornography at bay than the West.

Nevertheless, the moral and ethical criteria of America, to use Brzezinski's language, are probably at a higher pitch today than at almost any previous point in American history (and at a lowpoint in Europe, as the current rot in Italy suggests). Consider, for example, the selflessness of the expedition to Somalia and the dropping of supplies by air to Bosnia. On the domestic front, the enthusiastic response among college students at American University and at Rutgers to Clinton's appeal for national service is heartening.

Strikingly, Brzezinski wants to resuscitate the United States not in order to help Americans as an end in itself, but rather so that they will be fit and ready to assume global responsibilities. Small wonder that foreign affairs and our foreign policy elite alike are regarded with such skepticism by the public. Brzezinski would have the U.S. lead a global confcderation-a visionary scheme that he espouses but never develops. The evidence that Brzezinski adduces on the rise of nationalist tensions does little to buttress his audacious claim that only a global confederation will halt a slide into anarchy. As Boris Yeltsin's current efforts in Russia demonstrate, nationalism, if it makes for stability and is accompanied by a modicum of freedom and room to breathe, may not be a bad thing.

Brzezinski will have none of this. Determined to find a new role for the United States as the 21st century approaches, he exhorts Americans to abandon their hedonistic ways and launch a global crusade for democracy. But why should a permissive society embark on any measures of self-improvement or seek to improve the lot of others? Ironically, though Brzezinski seeks to provide a primer for a new century, his prescriptions mirror those at the turn of this century. His quaint emphasis on morality and fitness is reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt' s, General Leonard Wood's, and Henry Stimson's exhortations in 1916 to the scions of the American upper class to steel themselves for warfare. Today, such sentiments point America in the direction of endless and reckless intervention in a helter-skelter world. Those injunctions may have suited an America nervously edging onto the world stage, but on the eve of the 21 st century, they offer a script calculated to send the United States spinning out of control.
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Article Details
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Author:Heilbrunn, Jacob
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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