Clancy was both inspirational and troubling.
Let me start with the inspirational part. When I saw him, I was in the midst of a twenty-something phase, during which I had become increasingly frustrated with America and enamored with European and especially educated British culture. I was working toward my doctorate and living in Oxford, but in the process of learning about early modern religious epistemology, I also found out about the value of cognitive dissonance and ideological diversity. During this time, I discovered that encountering international difference was similar to reading great books (as C.S. Lewis argues in his preface to Athanasius On the Incarnation): it helps identify blind spots or unfounded assumptions in our own minds even as we spot errors in others. For instance, whereas I don't think I personally knew a single evangelical Christian in 1990s America who was a Democrat (except for my high school history teacher Mr. Cox), I soon found that I couldn't find an evangelical Christian in 1990s Britain who liked Margaret Thatcher or wasn't some form of socialist.
American and British Christians truly perplexed each other whenever we would sit down for a meal and chat. I shocked my fellow students when I told them that I was a Christian, but also owned firearms that were being stored back in the U.S. They were equally amazed that I thought Thatcher and Reagan were like two graphic novel superheroes who fought the twin evils of labor unions and international "commies."
Despite all this, I still wanted to soak up all that Britain had to offer, and--with the exception of my unshaken appreciation for Ron and Maggie--I began to act as if American stuff was lame and British stuff was cool.
That is, until I had two experiences: watching the Broncos (my team since I could walk) win back to back Superbowl victories and watching Tom Clancy bludgeon progressive European political and economic ideas without the slightest interest in protecting the thin skin or polite protocols of the students who gathered to hear him speak in the Oxford Union's library.
Before offering his take on global politics with Oxford's budding scholars and politicians, Clancy asked if he could light up a cigarette in the library. He was told, unequivocally, that he could not. There was no problem with smoking indoors back then, but there were oaths sworn throughout Oxford that no match could be lit--no flame kindled--in these libraries. After all, they held old, priceless volumes. Despite learning that smoking was officially off limits, Clancy pulled out a cigarette, tapped it on a marble fixture, lit it, smoked it, and ashed on the head of someone important's sculpted bust. Clancy was just getting started.
Here was an American author unashamed of his bold and independent American spirit. He answered typical progressive questions in typically politically incorrect fashion. He was not an academic and thus had no need to make friends amongst the intellectual elites. All of that was refreshing for me in those days. While his presentation might have been a caricature of conservative political values, and his swagger probably fed the "ugly American" stereotype, there was something empowering about his wild colonial way of kicking down obstacles to common sense, freedom, and human self-determination.
Even when he started getting combative with the horrified progressive audience, I could only smile. "What about the environmental affects of US policies?" one student asked. "F--- the environment," Clancy replied. "What about the role of women in politics?" "I'd take Thatcher over most of you weakling males any day?" None of these really ought to have quotation marks. I'm recalling all this a couple decades after the fact, so treat my recollections like those of Plato recounting Socrates' defense in the Apology: well-intentioned, close to the original statements, but potentially misremembered. Nevertheless, whatever offensive paraphrases I can recall, trust me when I tell you that there likely has never been a more bombastic American presentation to Brits within Oxford, and likely never will. And despite the crass and impolite nature of the exchange, this aspect was more entertaining than troubling.
So what troubled me? The ease and confidence with which he asserted that military spending for the US and its close allies is almost always a good idea. His novels highlighted the ability of the good guys (Americans) to beat the Communists through the best war machines and technology, and he presented these ideas explicitly as geopolitical truisms in his lecture. Since Reagan and Thatcher outspent the Soviets, as his story went, they inevitably brought about the demise of the Soviet Union. Thus, continued spending and global engagement promised to bring about a neocon utopia. Moreover, he said that we ought never fear a massive military structure adjoined to a superpower that is democratic. There never has been, and never will be a war of aggression carried out by a truly democratic nation, he argued. The basic principle seems compelling. With democracy, you have to get people to vote in such a way that they effectively volunteer to put themselves and their young men in harm's way. Certainly, he was right that such checks and balances can mitigate unjust wars and make a nation less belligerent. Nonetheless, the cavalier manner in which he suggested that one could consistently apply his core ideology struck me as dangerous. Plus, groups of people can occasionally be as cruel as ancient despots.
Keep in mind that, in a recent podcast, Dan and I came to agree that Americans cannot and should not completely disengage from global issues and conflicts. Isolationism is no longer an option. But we also recognized that there might be times when we would vote unwittingly to attack another nation, like Syria, even when that might unleash a greater evil. The best intentions--even when expressed through democracy--can lead to unintended harm, both to other innocent humans and to the US itself.
This blog is called "Penultimatum" because we think that principled people ought to serve their neighbors in ways that recognize the messiness of our current cultural and political landscape. Utopian thinking tries to enact the perfect, ultimate world order. Some ultimate ideals are better than others. But all can create an ethos in which we are uncritical about moral and international dilemmas. Thoughtful people are called to evaluate each action carefully. There can be no easy template for success in global standoffs. Pacifists as well as neocons must own up to occasional moments when following their principles with perfect consistency will lead to unjust action (or in the case of pacifism, potentially unjust inaction). As Dan always reminds me, we ought not make perfect the enemy of the good.
Clancy's novels obviously were not the major impetus for US policies related to foreign engagement. Nonetheless, they reflected, and in some cases contributed to, a sort of bold ethos within conservatism that made it possible to think that toppling Saddam would be relatively swift, or that we could trust our military establishment and its intelligence arms to get it right every time, or that we could fight terrorism the way we opposed our superpower enemies. Novels and films have a way of tricking people into thinking they provide evidence of how things work, and how they work best. The ideas Clancy shared at Oxford are at the heart of the plots in his books. As good as the mythology of his novels might be for both entertainment and also creative thinking about global conflicts, they ought not be read as if they are empirical case studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of neoconservative ideals.
Our condolences go out to Clancy's family and friends. Let us all be thankful for the lives of creative folks who live out their vocations with excellence and contribute to the larger cultural conversation. But let us also keep in mind that the best sort of conversations are those that maintain an appropriately critical and nuanced spirit. The best conversations invite several voices to challenge our assumptions and allow us to speak faithfully, and with civil courage.
Jeff Mallinson, D.Phil.
Director, The League of Faithful Masks