Saturday, January 15, 2005

ADDENDUM ON BEINART AND COLD WAR LIBERALISM: Another point in response to Peter Beinart's call for contemporary liberals and Democrats to emulate the anti-Communist liberalism of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and other Cold War liberals has recently occured to me; it's a point that has probably been made here or there in the various responses to Beinart, but I haven't seen, and don't remember, them all -- so I'll make it again.
One of the more controversial bits of Beinart's piece, on the Left at least, is his call for liberals to disassociate themselves from the likes of Michael Moore and MoveOn, and other more strident anti-Bushites. In Beinart's extended analogy these folks seem to be the counterparts to Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party (Wallace, ironically, was Beinart's predecessor as editor of The New Republic. How things change.)
Now, many have suggested that Beinart has exaggerated the power of abrasive progressives in the Democratic Party, and I think there's something to this. But I think that the comparison that he invokes is weak, whether or not MoveOn, the Deaniacs, Michael Moore, Nation readers, etc. currently shape the direction and stance of the Democratic party. First, it should be noted that the progressives during the early Cold War actually broke with the Democrats in the election of 1948, with Wallace running against Truman. Now, maybe the subtext of Beinart's piece is that the Dems would be better off if the left wing of the party pulled out (in which case, I think I disagree with him). But it is important to note that MoveOn actually worked on behalf of Kerry during the election; and many of the progressives I know seem to be committed, in these dark times, to working in support of and through the Democrats, against Bush. Today's Henry Wallace is Ralph Nader, and he seems to be pretty much a spent force.
What really bothers me about the analogy Beinart deploys, though, is the way that he seems to make wresting the Democratic Party from MoveOnits equivalent to the efforts of the Non-Communist Left to wrest the labour movement and other liberal and progressive organisations away from the Communist Party. This was the real battle that was going on: one of the distinguishing features of ADA was that it barred members of the CPUSA, or the CPUSA's front organisations, from membership. And the objection of anti-Communist liberals to Wallace's Progressive Party was that it had been infiltrated, and become dominated, by Communists.
And here we hit the snag in the analogy. There is no equivalent in the American Left today of Communist Party of 1948. The CP was a ‘disciplined, semi-conspiratorial caucus’ which aimed to control liberal organisations (according to the UDA [the predecessor of the ADA]’s James Loeb; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. compared members of the CPUSA to ‘the Jesuits, the Mormons, or the Jehova’s Witnesses’ [though TNR is not about to call for a purge of Mormons from the Democratic Party – quite the contrary; but that's a topic for another post]). It was also, crucially, controlled by a foreign government, and a totalitarian and genocidal one at that – the CPUSA clearly followed the dictates of Soviet policy: they reversed their positions utterly, and purged their own leadership, at the Politburo’s command. This cannot be said of Michael Moore or MoveOn, or even of ANSWER (whose power, within the Democratic Party, is nil anyway). I don't think that MoveOn has a secret line to Osama, and does his bidding; I don't think Michael Moore is in the pocket of the Sauds (actually, his whole claim, I take it, is that it's the Bushes who are in the pockets of the Sauds ...). Finally, the CPUSA (as the McCarthyites never tired of insisting) was committed, in principle, to the overthrow of the United States government -- not any particular administration, but the democratic, Constitutional order itself. Today, many of Bush's fiercest opponents are those who are trying to safeguard Constitutional liberties.
Those on the Left of the Democratic Party may or may not favour a course in foreign policy that will make America more vulnerable to its enemies; but they are not controlled by those enemies. This is a very big difference. As long-time readers of this blog know, I'm a proponent of liberals and leftists disassociating themselves from neo-Stalinists like ANSWER and quixotic figures like Nader, and I'm pretty critical of Moore and co. But I hardly think that the Democratic Party is suffering from Taliban infiltration.
To be fair, this is not at all what Beinart is saying; he is instead suggesting that the Democrats are too 'soft', and that more Democrats who favour a more robust foreign policy need to wrest the party away from the 'softs'. But, as I've tried to indicate here in the past, there was more to the politics of the left during the early Cold War than is indicated by the division between 'hards' and 'softs'. Once again, history provides important resources to use in thinking about the present; but we also need to think about how we use those resources. Beinart is on the right track in some respects. But I think he's also gotten a bit carried-away with some aspects of his model, and has neglected others. Hopefully he'll succeed, at least, in moving the debate foreward.
(The above quotes, by the way, are from Politics and Vision, a history of ADA by Steven Gillon -- which Beinart cites in his article).

ERRATUM: In an earlier post I chided Eric Alterman for attributing the description of liberalism as a 'fighting faith' to Kevin Mattson, pointing out the phrase comes from Arthur Schlesinger Jr's book The Vital Center, from which Mattson, presumably, took it (as he acknowledges in his book, if memory serves). Now, my sometime classmate BG informs me that the phrase originates (so far as either of us knows -- there could, of course, be yet earlier antecedents) in Oliver Wendell Holmes's dissent in U.S. v Abrams (1919):
Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly
logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want
a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes
in law, and sweep away all opposition.... But when men have realized
that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even
more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that
the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas --
that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself
accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only
ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any
rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all
life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager
our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge

(It's interesting to note, as BG does in his e-mail to me, the way that the understandings of liberalism that Holmes and Schlesinger express differ from one another -- Holmes sees liberalism, briefly, as standing aloof from fighting faiths and allowing for them to compete freely, while Schlesinger sees it as itself a fighting faith. BG suggests that this reflects a philosophical difference, which I think partly true -- Schlesinger, while deeply influenced by William James, was less of a straight-ahead pragmatist than Holmes (thanks heavily to the influences of Niebuhr and Berlin). I think this observation is valid, but I also tend to think that historical circumstances played a more substantial role in this change than the challenging or modification of pragmatism by neo-orthodoxy, existentialism and value pluralism -- or, perhaps more precisely, the success of these doctrines in challenging or modifying pragmatism was itself based on historical circumstances. When confronted with deeply anti-liberal ideologies, such as fascism/Nazism and Communism, liberalism and democracy no longer appeared to be the secure, neutral default -- and many liberals came to believe that, in order to combat aggressive, anti-liberal fighting faiths, liberalism itself had to become a fighting faith. Others retained a more Holmesian vision, both in matters of ideology and when it came to foreign affairs -- this is reflected, for instance, in the disagreements between anti-Communist liberals who advocated versions of 'containment' in foreign policy, such as George Kennan, Niebuhr, Schlesinger, et. al., and those who advocated a 'realist' detente with the Soviet Union, such as Walter Lippmann (who had himself studied under William James at Harvard).

UK WATCH: One story takes up the front pages of all of the British dailies (so far as I've seen them), and the attention of the chattering classes in Britain. This is the deeply significant fact that Prince Harry, second son of the Prince of Wales and thus fourth in line to inherit the throne, attended a fancy-dress party given by and for his posh, hunting county cronies (with the charming and sensitive theme 'colonials and natives'. Ah, the British upper classes. But I won't go into that, as it's already been perfectly adequately treated here.) A picture of Harry -- who is set to go to Sandhurst, the British military academy, but apparently can't wait to join the army, and is none too particular about what regime he wears the insignia of -- wearing the uniform of Rommel's Afrikakorps -- complete with prominent swatstika armband - was given, by some highly principled soul, to the tabloid The Sun, which then, of course, ran it.
Now, at first, I was all geared up to write about this. Then, I looked into my heart, and realised that my enthusiasm for discussing it had nothing to do with having anything worthwhile to say, but was motivated by sheer schadenfreude (the term does seem not just apt, but inescapable). So I resolved to stifle the impulse. However, since then the topic has been so omnipresent here -- and I've been too fascinated by it to simply ignore all the responses (schadenfreude again, I fear) -- that I haven't been able to not think about it. And I'm moved to put a few of these thoughts down here:
First, I'm a bit disturbed by the fact that Harry was able to get a Nazi uniform in a costume shop in the Cotswolds. I'm also disturbed by the fact that he originally wanted to get an SS uniform -- and that the shop did in fact have SS uniforms, but just not in his size (I had earlier thought to myself, 'well, at least it was just the Afrikakorps, and not any of the units that actually tortured and murdered my relatives and millions of others'; but this seems to have been due to the dimensions of Harry's frame rather than those of his soul). I mean, what the hell is up with that?
Obviously, this was a stupid thing to do -- thoughtless, short-sided, somewhat arrogantly reckless (did he really think he'd get away with it? But then perhaps, having lived so long under the scrutiny of the public and the demands of royal behaviour, Harry wanted to act out -- perhaps even to get caught, although this is probably a far too Freudian speculation, from which I now recoil)., and insensitive to a degree. But I doubt that it reflects any pro-Nazi feeling, or a desire to wound or offend anyone. And I do find the expressions of outrage from some quarters just a little over-blown -- some people do seem to be indulging in indignation simply because they enjoy being indignant (as is generally the case). I don't think Harry should be made too much of a villain for this, and I feel somewhat badly for him -- he is rather young, and is being treated very roughly. Then again, I also don't think that this should just be laughed away as youthful hijinks -- it is too serious for that, and the fact that Prince Harry seems not to have realised that is itself rather a problem. (Of all the responses to this canvassed by the Guardian in this article, I sympathise most with that of Mayer Hersh -- and not just because, as a survivor of Auschwitz, he's earned the right to be indignant, and indulgent, more than most of the others who have rushed to air their views on this, though that certainly is true too.)
To me, this incident points to the larger problem with the monarchy. One can make the case that people should not be so concerned about this, and that Harry is suffering under a level of public scrutiny, and a weight of public opinion, that private individuals should not have to endure. This was, after all, a private party, at which he did something stupid and tasteless. But should he really be beaten up across the nation and around the world for it? Did it really hurt anyone, or make any difference in anyone's life before the Sun plastered the picture on their cover?
And yet this argument, while valid to a point, won't entirely wash, I think. Harry is not simply a private individual; he's a member of the royal family. I don't think this means he shouldn't be allowed to have a private life, to make mistakes and be less than perfect -- he'll do these things anyway (being human), and this should be accepted. However, he has also reaped tremendous benefits from his position. One of the troubling things about this is the reflection that the Nazi uniform was hired with funds deriving, ultimately, from the British taxpayer. Harry has gone to the best schools, has been surrounded by flunkies and cronies, has been able to grow up, it seems, thoughtless and reckless, because of the wealth and respect accorded to his family. This wealth and respect, the prestige, status, resources, opportunities, and luxuries that he enjoys, have nothing to do with his actions or capacities. They are unearned. But they are not without their price, as the unfortunate Harry has learnt (though, given his mother's fate, I doubt that he really needed to learn that lesson.)
It seems to me equally monstrously unfair that a young man should be able to galavant in so offensive and lavish a way at the taxpayers' expense, and that he should also suffer by having his whole life be public business. Which is why I'd urge Harry to follow the example of his uncle Edward -- to chuck in the whole royalty thing, renounce the privileges, and go out and get a normal job and lead a more or less normal life. (This, at any rate, would be a rather better example to follow than that of his great-great uncle, Edward VIII -- who, in addition to abdicating amid scandal, was a Nazi sympathiser.)
All of that said, I find all this far less significant, or disturbing, than the fact that the leader of the opposition, Michael Howard (himself, as it happens, the son of a Jew who fled from the Nazis to Britain), in a recent speech refered to 'so-called human rights'. This got rather less attention, it seems, than Harry's escapade in fascist kitsch (though the tsunami had a good deal to do with that). Then again, at the moment it appears that Michael Howard has about as much chance of being PM as Harry has of being king ...
But there goes the schadenfreude again.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005


The University of Chicago, whatever it's faults, seems to be a good place for blogging. Over the holidays I had the pleasure of meeting Phoebe Maltz, a UChicago blogger at the Dissent Holiday party (this tells you something of what passes for a social life with me). I've been meaning to link to Phoebe's blog since -- though, having been linked to by Matt Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan's guest-bloggers, she probably doesn't need any further publicity. Still, I do recommend it -- the posts are consistently funny and lively, and reflect a sound judgment. Phoebe also has a fondness for Irving Howe, which is always welcome and endearing. And where else can one learn so much about fashionable boots without being exposed to libertarian ideology?

I would have liked to write something noting the death of Susan Sontag a couple of weeks ago, but traveling prevented me from blogging at the time, and anyway, I don't know Sontag's work well enough to comment usefully on it. Yet her death did affect me more than my unfamiliarity with her ideas would have led me to expect. She was, simply, always a part of the intellectual landscape, which I took for granted, and so there is something unsettling, disorienting, in her sudden absence.
The various accounts of Sontag that have appeared since her death have all, of course, been written with the knowledge of the public figure she came to be. So it was very interesting to read the account of Sontag that I came across in the memoirs of a sometime teacher of hers at Harvard, Morton White. A word about White is necessary here. Educated at City College and Columbia in the 1930s and '40s, White was part of the political and cultural world of the 'New York Intellectuals', writing for Partisan Review and other such publications. But his life has been devoted to, and his reputation made by, work very different from the political and cultural polemics that one associates with that group (though he has not shied away from polemics. It is, incidentally, a very happy fact that one can write about White in the present tense -- he is still, in his later 80s, alive, and has published two books over the past year). White's work spans intellectual history and analytic philosophy in a nearly unique way; unlike his close friend Isaiah Berlin, he never abandoned one in favour of the other. I cannot say anything about the nature or importance of his work on logic and epistemology -- though the fact that he was a friend and interlocutor of Quien and Nelson Goodman, and also that he taught courses on political philosophy with Rawls and discussed legal philosophy with Hart, suggests something of the estimation of his abilities by the most distinguished philosophers of his day -- but his work on intellectual history (particularly his early book Social Thought in America) is important and excellent, combining a rigour of philosophical analysis and a discriminating sense of similarities and continuities between ideas and the dominant characteristics of climates of opinion, that are seldom found together.
White's autobiography makes an interesting read, in part because he knew so many people and was involved in important moments -- both intellectual and institutional -- in the history of American academic life. His account of his life -- and the many extracts from letters that he includes (White, happily, seems not to throw away his or others' letters) -- reveal him to be a sincere, honest, decent, nice and judicious man. It's unfortunate that the book hasn't, so far as I can discover, received much attention; but I recommend it to anyone interested in American intellectual life in the 20th century.
And now, for Sontag, who White allowed to transfer as a graduate student from the Department of English to that of Philosophy when he was chairman of the later in the 1950s. White was impressed by her learning, sensitivity, and acuteness, and wrote her a number of recommendations -- recommendations which, interestingly, praise her command of Anglo-American analytic techniques, as well as her knowledge of Continental philosophy. White also reports on his correspondence with Sontag, which reflected her disenchantment with Oxford philosopher when she was a visiting student; while John Austin made a profound impact on her as far as epistemology went, she found the discussions of ethics, politics and religion at Oxford arid. White quotes a letter from Herbert Hart which notes Sontag's formidable refusal to be impressed by the panoramic lectures of the then-regnant Isaiah Berlin (whom she thought, rightly, careless of detail, among other sins). Even then, Sontag was notable for the seriousness which so many obituarists emphasised: Hart reports that she complained of Oxford that 'there is too much frivolity, too many jokes'. Some things, it seems, don't change.

And, advertising myself AND others, this picture is the only web-based visual representation, so far as I know, of the three original founders of what's become this blog. We are the troika in the middle.
Any speculation, from those who don't know us, on which figure posted the picture, which one went on to write Waldheim, and which one is writing this, welcome.

THE MIND BOGGLES ... And the gut churns, on reading this:
'Using naked and hooded detainees to make a human pyramid was much like what cheerleaders "all over America" do at football games, the lawyer, Guy Womack, argued. Putting naked prisoners on leashes was much like what parents in airports and malls do with their toddlers: "They're not being abused," the lawyer told the jury of 10 soldiers, "they're being kept in control."'
(Yeah. And when Nazi soldiers lined up Jews and shot them into mass graves filled with the bodies of the dead and dying, it was basically like what good, hard-working Americans do everyday in bowling alleys. WHAT THE HELL KIND OF MORALLY OBTUSE IDIOT SAYS THINGS LIKE THIS?)
This (according to the NY Times) from the trial of Spc Charles Graner, the first soldier to be tried for torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Now, I know, defending the accused, no matter how abhorrent they are (and Graner's certainly a doozy -- according to the accounts of other soldiers present, he 'laughed and joked even as detainees moaned, screamed, and pleaded with him to stop beating them') is an often unpleasant, but necessary, job. Still, this line of argument is too stupid and indecent to be justified even by the tough and noxious duty that Womack has to perform.
Another thing: Graner, who by all accounts and pictoral evidence is a sadistic thug, was said by his lawyer to be using lessons he had learnt as a prison guard in civilian life. Torture of prisoners, one fears, is not something that happens only in Iraq or Guantanamo.

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