Saturday, February 15, 2003

An angry, powerful call from an Iraqi ex-pat in Britain for the anti-war movement to stop opposing Iraq's last, best hope for freedom. Marred, alas, by the comment added by Instapundit at the end. I know some opponents of the war on Iraq; some of them are good friends of mine. They don't not care about the Iraqi people. In fact, many of them care a good deal about the Iraqi people. They just don't trust Saddam to be defeated without a fight, or the war to be won without heavy civilian casualties, or the US to do a proper job institution democracy afterwards. I hope they're wrong; but I don't know that, and I'm not sanguine --especially in light of the Bush administration's seeming neglect, nay betrayal, of Afghanistan. ZERO dollars in economic aid to Afghanistan? Yeah, that's generous. Nice work, guys. That's the sort of beahviour that makes us real popular, and real trusted, in Europe.

Friday, February 14, 2003

History of political thought makes the blogosphere! Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jacob T. Levy -- one of my favorite bloggers, certainly my favorite whom I don't know personally (mainly because he's in my own field, naturally) -- has a post about Gary Hart. He mainly talks about Hart's allegedly anti-American-Jewish remarks about not letting American foreign policy be dominated by people whose loyalties are to their original home countries, not America (Josh at OxBlog has also written on it, as have several other bloggers; Jacob Levy has links to them). Now, I'm not sure that this remark really was meant to refer to the Jews, though Levy makes a good case. Still, it's far from conclusive, and I'm willing to accept Hart's defense that he meant to refer to any group that seeks to influence national foreign policy based on the interests of another nation to which it feels a deep tie. Indeed, I'm somewhat bothered by all this jumping on Hart's statement as being anti-semitic. Because, we should be jumping on Hart's statement because, at a time of deep anxiety about terrorist threats and uncertainty about how America should proceed to protect its interests and ideals in the world, Hart's statement plays to a more general, more vague, broader suspicion of immigrants. And, while it may not be without substance, to make such a big deal about it, in such a general and vague way, seems to me ill-advised, even irresponsible.
But, that's not the main point that I originally wanted to address. Rather, I wanted to respond to JTL's attack on Hart's embrace of civic republicanism. Now, I've not read Hart's book, and JTL may be quite right about Hart's own brand of civic republicanism being scary, so I won't dispute that criticism. And I'm not that big a fan of civic republicanism myself, identifying more with the liberal tradition -- though not wholly with, or with all of, that, either. But Levy is unfair towards and misleading about civic republicanism, which was a long-lived and complex school of thought. For one thing, I think the civic republican/liberal divide, while based on important differences, shouldn't be pushed too far: many early proponents of certain liberal ideas, such as religious toleration or other personal liberties, were also deeply influenced by the civic republican inheritance (think of precursors of at least some liberal ideas such as Montaigne or Spinoza, with their links to the Taciteanism of their age, or Montesquieu's dept to the republican tradition as embodied in Roman historiography more generally). And while one aspect of civic republicanism was a heavily 'communitarian' strain which I distrust somewhat (emphasized by recent thinkers such as Michael Sandel and Philip Pettit), civic republicans also valued liberty, in their own fashion -- and their fashion was far from worthless; nor was it wholly rejected by liberal thinkers. (For an exposition of one strain of civic republican thought -- the 'neo-Roman' idea of liberty -- as manifested in 17th century English political thought, see the reading list to Quentin Skinner's current series of Ford lectures here at Oxford, which, in addition to a number of works on the subject, contains an outline of Skinner's own exposition of the idea. Now, I have problems with Skinner's account -- I think it is somewhat selective, focussing, depsite his claims to historical fidelity, on those aspects of the political thought he's describing which he finds most appealing; and I think that what he says is less novel than he makes it out to be (in part because he himself has said much of it before.) But it is valuable, and thought-provoking, and based on deep knowledge and keen analysis -- and suggests much greater intellectual richness than Levy allows for).
Basically, to sum up what I get from Skinner and other scholars, such as David Wooton (whose work, while perhaps less incisive, I'm actually more familiar with and prefer): civic republicanism was about more than an emphasis on civic unity and order and a suspicion of plurality, disagreement, etc. It was also, indeed, in many cases primarily, about resistance to tyranny, based on a belief in the importance of independence -- the belief that, so long as one CAN be subjugated to another's will, one is no better than a slave. An extreme position, perhaps, but one with implications which are in many cases attractive and positive -- the ideal of self-government, for example.
I'm also dubious about Levy's claim that civic republicanism was the Alien and Sedition Acts. Civic republicanism had a profound impact, obviously, on Rousseau; whether his legacy has been a good or a bad thing is, of course, hotly debated, but you can't say that it hasn't had its own deep impact, well after the A&S Acts were repealed. And let's also remember that the main opponents of the A&S Acts were the Jeffersonian Republicans; and Thomas Jefferson certainly owed his own, deep debt to civic republicanism. I also think there are traces of a civic republican influence in Tocqueville, though I haven't fully worked that out yet, and he's certainly far more complicated than can be allowed for within a civic republican context.
I think Levy and I basically agree about the views of most of civic republicanism's contemporary, self-professed adherents; but I think he goes wrong in projecting their views back onto the whole tradition of civic republicanism -- unless, that is, he's defining civic republicanism in a different, more restricted, way than I am, which may be valid. Still, if one's going to define civic republicanism in such a way as to limit it to the most anti-pluralistic, proto-authoritarian aspects of the broader range of thought that's sometimes called civic republican, one should note that.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

And then, the Guardian tries to get serious, and things start to go wrong. Take this column, for example. It makes some good points. But, note the fatal fall into certain mental traps which prevent thought, and distort reality. First, the list of 'victims of the war against terrorism.' These include passengers on jets, and Americans the world over, attacked by terrorists.
Right. Such people are victims of the war AGAINST terrorism. Despite the fact that they are being killed by the terrorists whom the war is intended to stop (and which, thus far, it has managed to at least frustrate in their attempts. As the man said while falling from a cliff, 'Well, this is ok -- so long as it keeps up!') Just like all the Iraqis killed by Saddam Hussein are victims of the US. And I suppose, by the same logic, people who are mugged are victims of the police force. Yes, pursuing the war on terrorism will lead to increased attacks; but doing nothing won't make the problem go away. It'll just leave us unprepared for the next attack, which will come, regardless of whether Bush and Blair go after Saddam, or not.
The point about immigration is well taken, and it is a serious problem. However, again, let's put the blame where it belongs -- largely with the xenophobic strains in British national opinion, and not with the Blair government, which is trying to disassociate the issues of treatment of immigrants and terrorism. And need I point out that the BNP was on the rise before Sept 11? The anti-Muslim riots that swept the UK did so months before the planes hit the twin towers. You can't blame Blair for this one -- or even Usama.
Note, also, the opposition between 'security state' and 'welfare state'. Again, this is knee-jerk stuff. The 'security state' and welfare state grew up together in the US; the Truman years were a time both of loyalty oaths and read hunts, and of some of the most important and lasting welfare legislation in American history. The Great Society was pursued at the same time as the Vietnam war was escalated. The welfare state in Britain, as well as in America, was built on the foundations provided by nationalisation and increased government regulation during the Second World War. [On the other hand, I feel compelled to add, there is a valid point to this security state vs. welfare state opposition: WWII did put a halt, for a time, to the reforming zeal of the New Deal, as Alan Brinkley has convincingly argued; and the shattering of the New Deal coalition over the quagmire of Vietnam undermined the Great Society. So, it is indeed likely that there will be a period of reaction, and an end to real social and economic reform, at home, during the war itself; but this could be followed by a swing the other way post-war. Or not. There's no way to know, and especially not based on historical parallels.]
As for the problems of the current British welfare state, it could have something to do with the inherent weaknesses of that state, and Blair's failure to find a way to straighten them out. The NHS and rail system were having problems, again, before the war on terrorism started; and I suspect people are more upset about these things because they're just not working well, rather than because of fear of immigrants or insecurity in the face of terrorism. Of course, as the article says, these things bleed into one another (poor choice of words there, Jackie ...); but I think that there would be problems with the British welfare state anyway. And I think that to address these fears and problems, Blair and co. are going to have to work out a better domestic policy -- rather than doing nothing about the threats that face Britain, and the world, on the international level.

Ah, the Guardian, For all its faults, it can do a hilarious political spoof. Check it out!

A neato piece on running for the Presidency from the Senate, by Sam Tanenhaus, from TNR.
Two complaints, both from the same paragraph: one, he uses the word 'studiedly'. Ugh! How about 'studiously,' Sam? Also, note the comparison of Kennedy and Kerry speaking at the end of the paragraph: Tanenhaus is emphasizing the similarities -- and there are some. But what strikes me is how much more powerful Kennedy's take on the same point is than Kerry's (who, at this point, I favour for the nomination). The effect is bathos -- and the sinking feeling that immitating Kennedy is easier said than done.
PS: I forgot to mention it the first time, but Tannenhaus does drop the interesting news that a Kerry biography is being written -- by Douglas Brinkley. Nor, DB is a well known presidential biographer in the Michael Beschloss mould, more or less -- scholarly and popular, and not quite 100 per cent either. I believe much of his work has been on Eisenhower, and I've always associated him with moderate, internationalist, patriotic (ie military) Republicanism. Now, I'm generally distrustful of predictions, especially my own: but based on this, I'm going to be watching for Kerry to move to the right, and use his war-hero credentials to argue for a tough and aggressive, though statesmanlike, internationalism. (Or maybe when I say 'watching' I mean 'hoping'. This is why I distrust my predictions.)

Check out this WSJ op-ed by a former head of Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
And people accuse the US of acting out of venal motives! Sheesh!

David Aaronovitch has another good column on the war in the Guardian: in it he confronts, as too few advocates of war do, the cost involved. Whether one regards his equation of letting Saddam remain in power to continue his reign of terror with the active killing of Iraqi citizens as valid will differ with one's views; I'm not prepared to say that crimes of omission and of comission are equivalent. However, he is surely right that either way we act, many innocent people will meet terrible fates; and he is, I'm convinced, also right that the longer Saddam is left in power, the more suffering, and the more of a potential for far greater suffering, there will be.

Ah, North Korea! My friend Paul has shared with me this site (which is as amusing as it is frightening), and the following lightbulb joke:
Q: How many Kim Jong-ils does it take to change a lightbulb?

Glorious Leader
Salute the light-bringing Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of
The Eternal Sun of humankind!
All of our hearts and minds are united of praise and love of Kim Jong-il
In the East and West, Korea is famous worldwide for strong ideology,
great politics, powerful military strength, economic prosperity,
cultural development and ideal morality and loyalty
We will win victory in any confrontation!
As he brought the new star that heralded his birth
The great successor to the glorious revolutionary cause
Will change the light bulb
Freely and independently, bringing illumination to all humans in heart
and mind!
(If you don't get it, see the site mentioned above, starting at this page, and continuing on following the arrows -- the poetry is, well, a trip. Best rhyme: 'people' with 'reap'll'!)

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Two remarkable pro-war columns from the Guardian: Julie Burchill's is crude, simplistic, at times bizarre (Julie -- get over praising Che! He wasn't such a nice guy!) -- but amidst much gross simplicity and pugnacity, she makes some solid points, which have all the more impact for being put in the baldest, boldest, most reductive terms.
David Aaronovitch also has problems with lingering affection for Communism -- 'Uncle Ho'?! -- but his detailing of Saddam's human rights violations is solid and powerful. And he makes a good point about the failure of much of the Left to oppose Saddam from the start.

Ok, one of these days I really will link to something that I didn't get from Oxblog. Honest.
For the time being, however, the dear old YDN has a piece on Nader's latest appearance in fair New Haven. And by a repentant ex-Naderite, no less. This could herald a new and, to me, welcome, though also potentially ghastly, trend: denunciation after denunciation of Nader and the Green Party by disillusioned ex-Naderites. Heck, maybe we'll even see the publication of their answer to the classic ex-Communist collection of confessions, The God that Failed. (What to call it? I don't think anyone ever really took Nader to be a god. The oracle that failed? No, that's more Noam Chomsky. The totem that failed? The fetish (in the traditional, non-sexual sense) that failed? Suggestions welcome).
All of this, of course, pleases me far too much, and makes me a bit smug (this is bad. Smugness is one of the qualities I most dislike. So now I'll wind up feeling disgusted with myself. Ah well.) After all, I've been thinking and saying these things about Nader from the start. I feel like Isaiah Berlin or Arthur Schlesinger Jr. standing beside James Kirchick's James Weschler or Stephen Spender and saying, yes, yes, I know, I know, I'm glad you've seen the light. Really rather repulsive of me, I know; but if one's as prone to doubt and ambivalence as I am, it's always pleasant not only to feel strongly, but to feel vindicated in feeling strongly.
Now, a few plums from Kirchick's article for me to gloat over:
"I'm no Saddam Hugger," the Green Party spokesman is quoted as saying, "but if we want someone to step down from office, the world would benefit if George W. Bush would do so."
No Saddam Hugger -- now there's a strong testimony of moral rectitude. Also, I'd like to point out, first, that George Bush is in office in part thanks to the Green Party (yes, yes, I know. One can blame the Supreme Court, and Gore for being so incompetent as to lose as a sitting VP during a time of economic prosperity, and Clinton ... but the fact remains that the Green Party damaged and distracted Gore during what proved to be a very close campaign; and if Gore hadn't had to worry about combatting the Greens in states he needed, and if even much of the Green vote in Florida had gone to Gore instead -- well, the Green's might not now have George Bush to complain about. But, then, I suspect that many of them are, on some level, glad that they have Dubya to kick around.) The statement also suggests a moral equivalence between George Bush and Saddam Husayn. Now, I'll be the first to agree that Bush has done, and will continue to do, a great deal of damage, both to the US (appointing Ashcroft Attorney General, nominating reactionaries like Pickering for the Bench, proposing disastrous tax cuts) and the world (pulling out of Kyoto is the first arrogant blunder that comes to mind). However, there's still a gulf between him and Saddam, and to not recognize that is, well, to miss something important (but then, not being able to make distinctions is a Green habit: remember the whole 'the two parties are the same' line from the 2000 campaign?)
Kirchick reports that one sign at the Nader speech read "There is No Reason to Bomb a Starving Nation." Now, this doesn't make sense. First, as Kirchick points out, removing Saddam would allow us to life sanctions, and get humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq. But, also, when did the starvation of their people stop tyrants like Husayn from being dangerous? Some reports suggest that he's been bartering what money and aid Iraq does receive in order to continue his quest for WMDs. In a totalitarian society, the starvation of the populace does nothing to prevent the rulers from being dangerous.
"I have deep respect for Ralph Nader, despite his purely ego-driven presidential campaign. The man has made inestimable contributions to this country as a consumer advocate."
As do I. However, it is important to note that Nader's most important work as a consumer advocate dates back to the '70s and '80s. And that's part of what's so sad about his current work with the Greens: it's done serious damage to his reputation, and has derailed a valuable career.
He labeled John Ashcroft an "authoritarian" who "in other countries would become a tyrant." He ridiculed Bush by stating that the president "always felt inferior to his father, [and] now he has the chance to play commander-in-chief." Apparently to Ralph Nader, assassination attempts by our declared enemies on a former U.S. president are something to joke about. He repeatedly referred to those in the administration as a "clique of chickenhawks" that is "marinated in Big Oil." But what Ralph Nader and the rest of the anti-war movement ignores is that if Bush's motivation for war in Iraq were all about oil then Dubya would simply be advocating for the removal of sanctions, a move that the oil industry itself has been clamoring for since the end of the Persian Gulf War. But the anti-war left ignores this simple logic because it challenges its Marxist conception of President Bush as a man who is solely motivated by greed and plunder. Their opposition to Bush and this war is simplistic and cartoonish.
Well, I agree about John Ashcroft; but isn't great that in our country he can't be a tyrant, try as he might? As for the other squibs, they are all ad hominem, some of them are weak, some unfair (is Colin Powell a 'chickenhawk'? I think not). And Kirchick's critique of the argument that the war is all about oil is telling; nicely done.
While hawks urge Saddam's removal, it is the anti-war movement whose efforts aim to keep the tyrant in power. True, the United States has a questionable history with regard to propping up dictators around the world. But in the case of Iraq, Nader and the anti-war movement state that this policy should remain unchanged -- for the sake of consistency I guess.
Another palpable hit.
He told me, "One of the things Saddam has done in Iraq is build up the middle class -- Iraq had the best health care and educational system in the Third World, which is all gone now due to the Gulf War." Like many of his comrades on the left, Brison couched his sympathy for Saddam by prefacing this flourish with, "Of course Saddam is a brutal dictator," but the damage was done. To people like Brison, the United States' enforcement of international law (by defending Kuwait) only destroyed a marvel in state-building.
[He, I hasten to add, is not Nader himself, but one of the organizers of the talk]. I really do distrust historical parallels; but I can't resist the urge to point out that many people made similar arguments about Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.
Liberals need to get over their knee-jerk aversion to this president as well as their instinctive reliance on useless authorities like the United Nations and realize the very grave danger that Saddam Hussein poses to the world. Many Democrats, myself included, are losing faith in their party because day after day its leaders sound more like the Greens.
Now, this I'm uncomfortable with. First, liberals needn't, and shouldn't, get over their knee-jerk aversion to President Bush. There are good reasons for that aversion, and liberals are going to need to remain critical of Bush in the weeks and months and years ahead, to make sure that he sincerely and effectively pursues a course of action that will give democracy in Iraq a chance, rather than using the rhetoric of humanitarianism to further an aggresive American foreign policy, only to renege on his promises. Maybe he wouldn't dream of doing such a thing; but we should still be careful to make sure that he doesn't. As for equating the Dems with the Greens: I fear that, just as many ex-Communists retained something of their former sectarianism, Kirchick's brief spell among the ranks of the Naderites has left him with a slightly impaired set of antennae for detecting distinctions. The Dems are indeed muddled and evasive, and they ought to (and, if they hope to get anywhere, really need to) snap out of it; but they are not engaging in, or blinded by, knee-jerk anti-Americanism, or simplistic neo-Marxist ideology. Their hesitancy reflects honest doubts about the momentous and risky prospect of the US entering a probably costly war without the approval of the international community. Maybe the US is right to do so; but it is still a dangerous and destructive step, and we shouldn't take it without reckoning the cost, or recognizing the risks involved. That the Dems have failed to articulate this adequately, or balance it against a resolute recognition of the imperatives of humanitarian and secutiry rationales for going to war, represents a failure of both communication, and nerve; but equivalent to the dogmatic suspicion of America, or idealistic but ineffectual pacifism
of the Left, it is not.

It's the way he tells them: Mike 'Bully Boy' Kelly has a piece blasting Joschka Fischer for his radical past in the Washington Post. All the allegations are taken from an excellent Paul Berman article from TNR -- which is among the best things I've read on the history of the European New Left; I can't recommend it highly enough. What's different is, well, who's writing it. Paul Berman, a repentant New Lefty who's now an independent, liberal-leaning Leftist who favours war to bring democracy to Iraq, carefully contextualises Fischer's radical past, without excusing it; he also shows how Fischer and his generation have traveled over time. This doesn't mean that they are wholly free of their earlier prejudices, or bad habits of moral misjudgment. But to equate Joschka Fisher's present position with his earlier associations with, and sympathy for, revolutionary terrorists is inaccurate. Indeed, Kelly has managed to miss the point of the article, which is the road that Fischer has traveled; he sees Fischer as still back at the starting point of that journey. While I'm not sure if Fischer has traveled far enough, I think that Kelly is grossly unfair to him.
He is also, of course, hectoring, sarcastic, careless (reporting allegations about Fischer without reporting the reservations that one may have about those allegations -- again, in contrast to Berman), and vulgarian. But then, that's Mike Kelly for you.
[Addendum: On re-reading that, I feel that I've been too hard on Mike Kelly -- a brute of a writer, but a genius editor, who's turned the Atlantic Monthly into a truly outstanding magazine. And, you've got to hand it to the man, he does inspire strong reactions -- as can be seen by the not one, but two, websites devoted to monitoring and eviscerating his every utterance (they're both good fun, if ultimately not much better than Kelly himself). Still, 'at the end of the day', as the House Republicans liked to say during the Clinton impeachment hearings, Michael Kelly remains the non-thinking person's Leon Wieseltier. Take that as you will.]

I've just discovered Josh Chafetz's political theory reading list. It's good -- and it depresses and shames me how much of it I, a would-be historian of political thought, has yet to read (on the other hand, I've got so much reading to look forward to ... Um, that's a good thing, right?). To the extent that I can comment on it (which, up to 1900, is fairly good -- really need to read more Hegel and Montesquieu, though; and re-read Hume), I'd largely agree, though I remain dubious as to whether Herodotus really belongs on the list. And I'd add Kant's 'What is Enlightenment?' and Constant's political writings to the list -- two very different versions of early liberal thought in the early 18th century.
I'd also plug Herzen's To the Other Shore -- a great, neglected, admittedly somewhat over-wrought work, the great critique of master-narratives of historical progress -- and cry of pain for their victims -- in a century of master-narratives -- and looking forward to a century of victimization.
As for the recent stuff, since I've recently talked about Orwell, I'd like to make a case for Homage to Catalonia. However, I feel that I should read the whole thing first. Still, from what I've heard, and what I've read, it really is a masterpiece, revealing the evils of 20th cetury Communism, and meditating -- if such a calm term can be used -- on vital questions of the relation of truth and politics.
To Strauss' Natural Right and History I'd add his essay 'What is Political Philosophy?' -- a still inspiring, and challenge, exploration of what the whole enterprise is all about in the first place, even if one doesn't entirely buy into his own vision of it.
I could add plenty to Josh's two mentions of Berlin (thanks, Josh), but will restrain myself -- he does identify the two best introductory texts (as for Berlin trying too much for a 'bright line rule', I think this is more the fault of Berlin's interpreters than Berlin's original conception, which is far subtler than -- though often quite as confused as -- most commentators make it out to be). If, however, one has The Crooked Timber of Humanity at hand (gremlin-visage and all), one may as well go on to read 'European Unity and its Vicisitudes'. It's not about the EU -- though most of the heads of the European community, and a number of others, could learn a lot from it.
Berlin's skeptical liberalism is nicely complemented by the still more skeptical, still more liberal, and rather tighter and more cogent -- if at times less ambitious -- work of Judith Shklar; her 'The Liberalism of Fear,' a synthesis of Hobbes, the liberal tradition, and the gut reaction of a sensitive European Jew to 20th century totalitarianism, is one of the most important short essays, or one of the shortest important essays, in recent political thought. I also recommend her longer, essayistic meditation on moral psychology, Ordinary Vices. Some have said that Shklar's work is too heavily negative; to which I'd respond, first, that this seems a reasonable and useful response to the dreams of earlier political philosophy, and the nightmares of her century, and, second, that she makes negativity inspiring -- her work is a great tonic.
To Havel, I'd join Adam Michnik's Letters from Prison and, to a lesser degree, Letters from Freedom -- the second, offering a wise and unillusioned perspective on the efforts of idealistic ex-dissidents to adjust to the far from ideal condition of post-Communism, might be a useful lesson in both humility and tenacity to those who hope to foster democracy in Iraq, and elsewhere. And Michnik, in addition to being tremendously clear-headed and courageous (there's an example of 'moral clarity' if ever there was one!) also has a boisterous sense of humor that in itself represents a triumph of the spirit under communism (I've always said that if Havel is a fine white wine, Michnik is a vodka martini --without the vermouth)
Finally, though there's plenty of room here for disagreement, I've found McIntyre's After Virtue, Walzer's Spheres of Justice and Thick and Thin, and Taylor's Sources of the Self far better 'communitarian' responses to Rawls than Sandel or Pettit -- and quite worthwhile in their own right; Taylor's book, in particular, though I found it quite difficult at times, is often beautiful.
However, for what I actually plan to force on students rather than what I think is good to read (there is at least SOME overlap), you'd have to see my syllabus for my Intro to Political Philosophy course (requires some scrolling down) -- which I hope to complete soon, and may post thereafter.

I may be wary and ambivalent towards Orwell, Wieseltier, Menand, etc. About some people, though, while not only good can be said, the good that can be said is what really matters, and what really needs saying. Vaclav Havel is a case in point. Thanks to David Remnick, I don't have to say anything more, other than, read this.

(Ok, this is a reposting from my other blog; but since I'm not sure when it'll actually be published -- and since no-one else seems to be contributing to this blog anyway -- why not?)
TNR declares fatwah on Louis Menand; Menand yawns in response. Leon W's the latest to weigh in -- and a weighty weighing-in it is.
Now, let's leave aside my very mixed feelings of admiration and occasional irritation I have towards a man who can both praise Isaiah Berlin to the skies, and accuse Adam Michnik of moral obtuseness. LW's onslaught is certainly damaging; and, at least early on, he's right on target in skewering Menand's airy (to put it kindly) treatment of little trifles like Stalinism.
(One minor, yet lengthy, note of irritation: he talks about liberals and conservatives battling over Orwell's legacy. What about the radicals? One of the real virtues of Menand's piece -- ok, probably its only one -- was to remind us that Orwell was a radical and a Socialist through-and-through. His temperament was conservative, and his commitment to a very 'English' tradition of bloody-minded independence, with its valuing of individual liberty, should make any good liberal proud. And, certainly, much of what he wrote, because it is true and clear and undeceived, can be read and taken up by liberals and conservatives (or honest ones, at least). So, yes, liberals and conservatives can claim to learn from, and follow Orwell. But Orwell devoted himself to a very particular, very peculiar ideological route; and to fail to recognize that is to exalt his lessons while ignoring his teachings, it is to fail to do justice or give a proper accounting of what he actually thought and meant and hoped to achieve. It is, in short, bad history. And let's remember what Orwell said about mis-remembering the past.)
Now, on to the main point: is Louis Menand so bad? At the risk of ranging myself against such mighty minds and pens as Leon Wieseltier, David Bromwich, and Linonian, I think that he's not quite as bad as all that. Or, put it differently: let's make a distinction, as with Orwell, between his full position, with all its frailties and, in Menand's case, fripperies; and focus on what Wieseltier attacks him for saying.
Menand cautions against too much certainty, too much conviction. At times he seems to caution against any conviction; and this is both somewhat ridiculous, and possibly pernicious -- though I'm not as afraid as some people are of the world sliding into post-modern nihilism. But at the heart of Menand's over-done warnings against over-doing things (little things like believing and fighting for one's belief) lies a valid insight: that people have a thirst for moral certainty, that self-righteousness is a powerful force in human life; that such righteousness, such certainty, are often dubious, and that the actions they inspire, and the attitudes they engender, disastrous. Irony has its use; it reminds us of the world's complexity, and our own frailty and, yes, often our absurdity. A certain saving skepticism is vital to intellectual health, and often to moral decency.
Ultimately, a balance between belief and doubt has to be achieved. But balancing is difficult, and we poor deluded creatures have a tendency to fall off the rope. Which is why there's some value in those who resolutely pull us towards the side of moral determination -- and also in those who gently tell us to not take ourselves too seriously. When, however, they tell us to take nothing very seriously at all, we should probably put their injunction at the top of our list of things to casually disregard.
Addendum: I've just remembered that Wiesltier ends his piece by calling Menand a -- pragmatist. Oooh! Now, if he means pragmatist with a small 'p', I've no great objection to this (on the other hand, what's so bad about being a pragmatist?) But if he means Pragmatist as in the philosophical school about which Menand has written so skillfully -- well, that's not fair, and it serves to increase my reservations about Wieseltier's moral stance. You can't accuse James or Dewey of a lack of moral seriousness -- or moral wisdom (Dewey I'll admit I've never been able to warm to, because of his style and the fact that what he says seems just too warm and fuzzy; but James, in the admittedly limited number of essays in which he addressed moral and political questions, was a first-rate, very serious, very humane, very wise thinker -- see George Cotkin's excellent study of him)

A defense of France, of all places, in The New Republic, of all places.
I must say, I've been rather uneasy with all the France-bashing that's been going on lately -- which hasn't kept me from joining in, or enjoying it a good deal. I do think that France's foreign policy in recent years has been a pathetic and angering spectacle of vanity and venality; and there's plenty wrong within French society as well, as recent anti-semitic outbreaks suggest. Still, for all the very real pathologies of their politics and political culture, do the French deserve to be mocked and condemned as 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys'? And, whether they do or not, should we do so?
I'll leave everyone to decide the former for themselves. But I will say this: one should be very, very cautious about passing judgments on -- or making comments, either snide or serious, about -- nations and peoples as wholes. It is simplistic, it is inaccurate -- and that way bigotry and blindness lie. As for the second question, let's put it this way: many people in France are, indeed, anti-American. They see America's government as crude, arrogant, offensive, power-mad, aggressive, contemptuous, crude, filled with hubris and fueled by churlish anger. It'd be nice if people like Jonah 'rube' Goldberg didn't bear there worst prejudices about America out so frequently. Sometimes taking the higher road is a good idea.

A good blasting of Bush by Paul Krugman in the NY Times. What he writes is all too true, and both articulates, and renews, my anxieties about what will happen in a post-Saddam Iraq. I'm hoping that Bush will live up to his moral rhetoric -- and that the pro-democracy types now avidly looking towards war will be able to get him to live up to it (those of us who are rather less avid about the war are unlikely to have much impact on Bush, but we can try nonetheless ...) If not, then America will have disgraced itself, and betrayed the people of Iraq, once again, and have proved all the anti-Americans right. This would be VERY depressing.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

I've said it before, I'll say it again: ANSWER is bad news for the anti-war movement (good for the organizers of the upcoming NYC protest for, apparently, not working with ANSWER -- or are they guilty of McCarthyism?)

Jacob, this one's for you.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Now, I enjoy France-bashing in jest as much as the next American living in Britain. But lately I've been feeling like it's been going a little too far. I mean, the French have given so much to civilization, and even today they continue to excel in some areas -- cinema, pour example; and where else do you find a major neo-liberal philosopher holding the youth, education, and research portfolio in the government (you go, Luc Ferry!) And France-bashing has become so pervasive, and so mean-spirited, and rather vulgar, and allied to a rather macho, chauvinistic (being chauvinistic towards the French -- talk about trying to beat someone at their own game!), simplistic tone and temper. I mean, cheese-eating surrender monkeys? Please. Grow up!
Still, I quite enjoyed Tom Friedman's squib against our wonderfully venal, baguette-eating friends (although the fact that they did give us the baguette does in itself make the French nation a Boon to Humanity). Friedman's prognosis about French lack of seriousness is fairly persuasive. Still, I have to question Friedman's own seriousness. Giving India a permanent seat on the Security Council? I mean, I like India as much as the next guy (assuming the next guy rates constitutional democracy and curry as among the most important standards for rating a country political and aesthetically [respectively]). But it might not be such a good idea to give quite so much power to a country in as tense a relationship with its neighbors, or with as powerful a fundamentalist movement, as India is and has. I mean, aren't we doing our best to offend Pakistan, and thus help topple their authoritarian military government and have it replaced by something even nastier, as it is?
Come on, Tom! You're supposed to be the Times' international affairs expert, for pete's sake!

Whoops! Just when I was actually starting to like the Blair gov't's handling of the Iraq situation, they demonstrate that they haven't yet gotten over their proclivity for acting like a dodgy PR firm (or like most of the kids I went to high school with. Cutting and pasting from the internet! Egad!)
I don't know from what I've read just how much this damages the pro-war case; though Powell did refer to the UK's dossier in his UNSC speech, I recall him relying on it pretty lightly -- so this may damage the Blair gov't's credibility more than the substantive case for the use of force in Iraq. Still, it is a good reminder to take the claims of all governments with a liberal pinch of salt.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

A terrific article from the Observer by David Aaronovitch giving the leftist, human-rights case for war with Iraq. Aaronovitch is one of the paper's stronger columnists -- think Christopher Hitchens with a bit less brilliance, and a good deal less ego -- and he's one of the first writers I've read who's reflected my own process of becoming a 'hawk' (if a rather wimpy one) on Iraq: the realization that I just couldn't explain to myself why I supported intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and not here. Of course, there are other, far stronger arguments, both for and against this particular war; and I've ultimately been convinced, and then unconvinced, and then convinced again, by them. But it was that thought that first really shook me from my dogmatic slumber of dovishness (well, that, and the pernicious influence of Josh Chafetz).

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