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Lest darkness fall – The Atlantic

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Democracies overseas are under siege, and some Americans think the United States should stay out of those struggles. But supporting our friends and allies against barbarism is both in our national interest and part of our identity as a people.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

Wars of Conquest and Extermination

Last week, I mentioned the field of counterfactual history, the intriguing what-ifs about how great events could have turned out differently. One of the most celebrated of all such stories is a 1941 novel by the prominent science-fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp titled Lest Darkness Fall, in which a 20th-century archeologist named Martin Padway finds himself suddenly transported to sixth-century Rome. Padway knows he has arrived just before the final Gothic War, after which Europe would descend into the Dark Ages, and he uses his knowledge of history and technology to fend off Rome’s collapse. In the end, he secures a better future for Europe and perhaps the world: “Darkness,” the book concludes, “would not fall.”

Padway succeeds because he has the gift of hindsight. He knows with complete certainty what will happen, when, and why, and so he can intervene at key moments to avert disaster. In real life, the rest of us have to plod along in sequential time, doing our best with what we know at the moment.

But sometimes, history shows us the darkness in the distance. We are living through such a moment now. The conflicts in Ukraine and Israel are warnings of the darkness to come.

For many Americans, wars in faraway places seem to be only dangerous snares that might lead us into the jungles of Vietnam, the mountains of Afghanistan, or the sands of Iraq. Involvement seems pointless. Advocates of a more isolationist foreign policy quote what they see as a prescient warning from John Quincy Adams to stay out of the global fray: America, Adams said as secretary of state in an 1821 address to the House, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Wise words in 1821. Today, however, free nations cannot hope to keep their liberties safe in a hothouse while authoritarian tornadoes bear down on them. America and its allies might not want to go abroad looking for monsters, but sooner or later, the monsters will be looking for us. We all have every incentive, in the most personal and concrete way, to prevent such regimes from roaming the Earth at will.

Step back for a moment from the specific nations at war in Europe and the Middle East right now, and think about what kinds of conflicts we’re seeing.

In Europe, a giant, paranoid, nuclear-armed dictatorship has embarked on a war of conquest and genocide against its democratic neighbor. The aggressor, abandoning all pretenses, has simply declared that another nation should not exist and its people must accept their new masters or die.

In the Middle East, a militarized terrorist organization is undertaking a campaign of slaughter, with the intentional aim of inflicting gruesome torture and murder on as many people as possible.

Two wars: one of conquest, one of terror, both aimed at national extermination. As the Atlantic contributor and Johns Hopkins professor Eliot Cohen has put it, these conflicts pit civilization against barbarians. If the barbarians win, they will inflict more devastation, expand their goals, and encourage other regimes to engage in similar barbarism. Over time, they will join hands and ally against us. They will have one another’s backs not because of any tripe about “honor among thieves” or Milton’s “firm concord” among devils damned but because they are not fools: They know that their survival depends on supporting one another in their crimes.

If these barbarians succeed, they could one day affect the lives of Americans in ways most citizens cannot imagine. They could control the passage of goods across the skies and seas; they could hold hostage U.S. citizens who dare to travel abroad; they could imperil American lives by denying access to any number of resources. And if we squawk about any of it, the nuclear-armed powers among them can threaten to immolate an American city as the price of resistance.

The safety and the security of the United States is the easiest case to make for maintaining our commitment to help Ukraine and Israel. But we should not fall back on such narrow definitions of utility and interest. If we are not willing to offer our help and support to Ukraine and Israel at this moment, what does it even mean to be an “American”?

Blood-and-soil nationalists would dearly love to have Americans think of themselves as people attached to only borders and dirt (and, for some, particular strands of DNA) rather than an idea. But “American” is not an ethnic identity. It is a choice, a bond to the Constitution and its ideals. America is not a defense compact or a customs union. It is a statement: Human beings have rights that can never be taken away, and our nation values and defends those rights.

For Americans to say that they will protect such rights only for ourselves is to betray a fundamental part of our identity as a nation and as a people. But what can the average citizen do? Stay engaged. Just a third of Americans can find Ukraine on a map; be an informed voice among your fellow citizens. Stay in touch with your elected representatives. Do not let the most irresponsible voices be the only voices. Members of Congress—and I speak from experience as a former staffer—do in fact pay attention to messages from their district.

And remember that voting matters. Poland on Sunday turned back an authoritarian challenge with an approximately 73 percent voter turnout. Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana just elected the far-right-wing lawyer Jeff Landry as governor with a turnout of about 35 percent, meaning that Landry will walk into office as the choice of 18 percent of Lousiania’s eligible voters.

We live in an exceedingly dangerous time. And yet we continue our childish bickering. We wring our hands over false choices. And, perhaps worst of all, some Americans seem interested only in how these crises can help in their grotesque and sometimes inane efforts to score political points. Darkness threatens to fall. But it can still be stopped, if Americans can summon the maturity and the will to embrace their responsibility as the leaders of the free world.


Today’s News

  1. A federal judge issued a limited gag order on Donald Trump, restricting his speech related to Special Counsel Jack Smith’s prosecution of his alleged attempt to interfere with the 2020 presidential election.
  2. The Department of Justice has begun a federal hate-crimes investigation into the stabbing of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy and his mother in Chicago this weekend. The boy was killed, and his mother was wounded.
  3. The Biden administration agreed to a settlement that, if approved by a federal judge, would prevent federal authorities from separating migrant parents who violate immigration laws from their children for eight years.

Evening Read

Why Children Are Everywhere in Louise Glück’s Poetry

By Walt Hunter

Louise Glück, the American poet and Nobel laureate who died last week, was repeatedly drawn to stories about families. Her last published book was a short novel about twins in their first year, Marigold and Rose. And children appear throughout her 1975 book, The House on Marshland, in which she developed her instantly recognizable intimate voice. By placing children and mothers, in particular, at the center of her poems, Glück explored a world made of equal parts myth and reality, sketched out by her precise, timeless language.

When I learned that Glück had died, I found myself drawn first to “The School Children,” which begins with a trip to school.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

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Read. “She Who Remembers,” a new short story adapted from Jesmyn Ward’s forthcoming novel, Let Us Descend.

Watch. The first Saturday Night Live episode (streaming on Peacock) since the end of the writers’ strike, hosted by Pete Davidson. He might be the comedic hero we need right now.

Play our daily crossword.

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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