Thursday, July 31, 2003

NORM-MATIVE BLOGGING: Sorry, couldn't resist the pun. That aside, I'm delighted to join a number of others in welcoming Norman Geras to the blogosphere. I know Geras by his thoughtful and important work in political theory -- on subjects such as Marx and Marxism, Modernity, the Holocaust, and the Enlightenment (all topics which are of considerable concern to me, as well), and as a sometime colleague of and collaborator with my good friend and collaborator Robert Wokler. It now turns out that, as of recently, Norm (as he refers to himself on his blog) is also a blogger -- and a very good one (as well as one with whom I often find myself agreeing, despite the fact that he considers himself a Marxist, while I consider myself an anti-Marxist).
Normblog is full of goodies -- nearly every post is a great post. I was particularly impressed with Norm's posts on the BBC, his long, thoughtful, forthright post on the Left's response to September 11 and the War on Iraq, and his appropriately tart response to George Monbiot. But there are other good posts too.
And he's been at it for less than a week.
If this keeps up, Norman Geras could well become one of my first stops of choice in the blogosphere. Well done, Norm!

MORE ON LEWIS COSER: A far better appreciation of the work of the late, great social theorist Lewis Coser than any of the published obits I've thus far seen (or my own account, below [permalinks bloggered, as per usual]) can be found in this excellent post by Tom at Publius Minor (a fine blog, which I recommend -- and not just because Tom has called me 'judicious'. Though that's certainly nice. Thanks, Tom!)

Monday, July 28, 2003

RED-LETTER DAY: I think that, after the last several posts, I can now officially declare it to be long-winded, self-righteous grandiloquence day here at Sitting on a Fence (for a change).
Sorry about that. I've been grading student papers all weekend, and apparently need to let off steam.

TO BE AN AMERICAN AT HOME: Over the past week, I've been re-reading Tocqeuville's Democracy in America.
It really is one of the greatest works ever written about American democracy -- and about American life and character, and democracy, and the modern world. Re-reading it made me realize how much of my own perception of the world I owe (for better or worse -- probably, on balance, for better) to Tocqueville -- and how much I still have to learn from him.
I can't sum up what I've learnt from reading Tocqueville; I can only urge anyone who hasn't read him yet, to go out and do so now -- and anyone who has read him, to do so again.

TO BE AN AMERICAN ABROAD: MY friend and sometime fellow Oxford resident David Adesnik has an interesting, self-searching, often eloquent post on how living in Oxford led him to rethink what it means to be an American.
As usual, I'm both deeply sympathetic and attracted to much of what David says, and also rather uneasy with much of it. David and I have come from, and lived in, many of the same places (NYC and NJ, followed in both cases by Yale and Oxford); and I know the sense of self-consciousness about being an American that he describes well. But, perhaps unlike David, I've also always been aware of being out-of-step with the American population as a whole -- or, at any rate, large portions of the American people outside of the rather rarefied and limited circles in which I've always moved.
This doesn't make me feel alienated from, or opposed to, the rest of America, per se (though I do seem to disagree with an awful lot of what an awful lot of Americans think about certain issues) -- just as my self-consciousness in the UK hasn't prevented me from not only appreciating, but identifying with and embracing certain aspects of British culture and life (while finding others peculiar, exasperating, or baffling). But it does make me not only wary, but largely incapable of, identifying myself with America and the American people as a whole, or adopting a self-confidently celebratory, or indeed optimistic, view of American power and American behaviour.
One of the things I love about America, and share, is our idealism; one of the things of I love about Britain, and share, is their ironic and deflationary scepticism. I find myself both moved by, and put off by, the heroic -- and, I can't help but think, rather self-congratulatory and at time preening -- rhetoric that's come out of Yale, to which David refers: embracing the mission of leading America and the world, out of a sense of responsibility and a desire to make things better, is surely noble; but there is something that I find worrisomely over-weening and even dangerously hubristic -- as well as terribly, and rather comically, self-aggrandizing and even pompous -- about seeing oneself as a future world-leader. Especially when you're 20 or so, for god's sake, and don't really know a damn thing, and are sleep-deprived and love-lorn and horny and hopped-up and caffeine and buried in books and bullshit sessions and junk-food and junk-pop-culture for much of your (all too many) waking hours (or was my Yale experience unique?) A certain amount of Oxonian scoffing seems to me deeply wise and civilized in comparison.
And yet there is something terribly self-indulgent, and frivolous, in the common Oxonian attitude, as well. I do think the purpose of education should be, first and foremost, the cultivation of one's own understanding of the world, and of oneself in the world -- and thus self-improvement. But surely, if one is going to devote all of this time to, essentially, oneself -- and if one is going to do so at the public's expense (as students in Britain do, to a far greater extent than is the case in the US), one accrues a tremendous debt to society -- and a heavy responsibility to achieve something, to do something, however small and esoteric it may be, to improve the lot of humanity in some small way? And surely it's important to take one's life and potential and duty -- if not one's immature, perplexed self -- seriously? And if recent events have taught us anything, is it not the reality of evil, and the power of foolish people and the foolishness of powerful ones -- and the need to seek to replace foolishness with wisdom, blindness with sight, in the cause of combatting human evil and assuaging, if not ending, human misery?
That's the sort of talk that one doesn't find so much of at Oxford. And in some ways that's a good thing. But I, too, sometimes miss it, and feel that voice -- with its echoes of the Puritans and the Founders (to say nothing of my Old Testament reading ancestors) -- speaking somewhere within me.
I think that the great thing about living abroad, wherever it is -- and also the great thing about being at a Univeristy, or anywhere where independence and diversity of thought are valued -- is that one internalizes a number of different voices, and learns how to listen to, and allow for dialogue between, all of them. And this internal and external polyphony, and sometimes cacophony, of competing, mutually-correcting voices and views is, I think, one of the best parts of what it is to be an American abroad.

THE TREASON OF ANN COULTER: Normally, on general principle, I think that blogging should at least strive to be a constructive intellectual endeavour -- that is, I think that ideally blog posts should try to make cogent, well-reasoned, thought-out points; what blogging should NOT degenerate into are intemperate, ranting, ad hominem attacks.
But one can only take so much, and hold out against temptation so long. And reading this excellent article by Anne Applebaum has pushed me past the limits of my resistance to my baser impulses.
So, let me just state, for the all the world -- or at least for those reading this blog (hi, Dad, hi Mom, hi Jacob) that I HATE ANN COULTER.
(On the other hand, I can say, with far greater pleasure, that I love Anne Applebaum. Anyone who can write the following can easily capture my heart: "To anyone who ever tried to understand why the political left has played such a large role in American intellectual life, or why the term "anti-communist" ever became an insult, or why so many allegedly clear-thinking people feared Joe McCarthy more than Josef Stalin, Ann Coulter's new book will certainly prove thought-provoking. I should reveal here that I have spent a great deal of time -- perhaps the better part of the last 10 years -- writing about communism, Stalinism and the West's relationship to both. Yet about halfway through Treason, an extended rant on these subjects, I felt a strong urge to get up, throw the book across the room, and join up with whatever Leninist-Trotskyite-Marxist political parties still exist in America. Even the company of Maoist insurgents would be more intellectually invigorating than that of Ann Coulter. More to the point, whatever side this woman is on, I don't want to be on it." My sentiments exactly; and god bless Anne Applebaum for having the wit to say it so well).
Now, to declare hatred for someone -- in all caps, mind -- is quite a statement. Surely I'm over-reacting here? Perhaps I'm being unfair? I mean, is Ms. Coulter really that bad?
Well, I think she is; and, having declared that I hate her, I ought to explain why I do -- and why I think any intellectually responsible and honourable person, of whatever ideological persuasion (so long as they and their ideology aren't barmy) ought to regard her new book with disgust.
As a liberal, I hate Ann Coulter, first, because she misuses the term liberalism and travesties the values and actions of liberals, and second because she is an illiberal zealot who seems incapable of respecting disagreement or nuance, or accepting opposition or ambiguity. Anyone who writes, as Applebaum quotes Coulter as asserting that:
"Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason."
"Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy."
"Liberals attack their country and then go into diarrhea panic if anyone criticizes them."
"Whether they are defending the Soviet Union or bleating for Saddam Hussein, liberals are always against America. They are either traitors or idiots, and on the matter of America's self-preservation, the difference is irrelevant. Fifty years of treason hasn't slowed them down."
doesn't know the first thing about liberals or liberalism, and is clearly an ideologically bigoted, demented, near-slandering wing-nut. (This is one liberal, Ms. Coulter, who has never committed or countenanced treason, who has never sided with America's enemies, who has never defended the memory of the Soviet Union or 'bleated' for Saddam Hussein, and who doesn't suffer from diarhea attacks at the first whiff of criticism. Nor, I like to think, do I suffer from a verborhea attack whenever someone says something I don't agree with -- in stark contrast to Ms. Coulter).
As an anti-Communist (and anti-Baathist, for that matter), I hate Ann Coulter because she gives anti-Communism a bad name. If Ann Coulter didn't exist, the pro-Communist Left would have to invent her. Throughout its history, the honourable cause of anti-Communism has suffered the fate of being hijacked by ideological extremists, nativist and reactionary bigots, and cynical political demagogues. Joe McCarthy, with his fictive lists and media circus, probably did a good deal more damage to the noble crusade against Communism than the American Communist Party; and he won the CPUSA more support from reasonable and fair-minded people than the CPUSA could ever have gotten on its own. It's people like Coulter who give those who want to forget about the failures of a good part of the American Left regarding Communism (i.e. the editors of the Nation, etc.) a welcome diversion, by making such easily refuted and, frankly, embarrasing accusations.
As a historian, I hate Ann Coulter because she simplifies and falsifies the past, perpetuating myths, ignoring not merely nuance but evidence, and spreading lies which lead people to misunderstand the past and present alike -- and, in so doing, fall into errors which we should by now be able to recognize and avoid.
Finally, bringing it all together, as a historian of liberal anti-Communism I hate Ann Coulter because she ignores, distorts, betrays, insults, and buries in obscurity a group of good, brave, honourable, humane, and, on a good many of the issues of their days (though by no means all), correct thinkers. Applebaum refers to the anti-Communist elements within the world of organized labour, to George Orwell (a life-long socialist with anarchist leanings), and anti-Communists within the Democratic Party from the Kennedys to Scoop Jackson. One might also mention the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and the liberal and even leftist intellectuals in its orbit: Arthur Schlesinger, Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol (a liberal way back then), Daniel Bell, Dwight MacDonald (for a time, at least), Reinhold Niebuhr, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Ignazio Silone, Nicola Chiaromante -- as well as the anti-Communist Social Democrats associated with Dissent Magazine (Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, and their comrades), most of the writers for Partisan Review, etc. etc. etc.
These people knew how to think, and how to write; they saw the evils of Communism and the dangers of many Western Leftists' romance with Communism, but they also, in most (though unfortunately not all) cases, saw the evils and dangers of cynical, hysterical, oppressive, simplistic, reactionary anti-Communism as represented by Joe McCarthy -- and now by Ann Coulter, that braying bubblehead who can only yap at the heels of men and women far more thoughtful, and more courageous, than she'll ever be.
I also hate Ann Coulter as an American; because she and her ilk both give America a bad name, and lead it astray. Ann Coulter's brand of simple-minded venom, erroneous and sensationalistic assertion, partisan pettiness and ideological fanaticism are and always have been bad for the Right, bad for anti-Communism and anti-totalitarianism, and bad for America. She, rather than those she attacks so vehemently and with so little cause, is the one who betrays those causes and that country which she claims to revere and serve, but which she can never understand, and of which she will never be worthy.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?