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About this site

This site isn’t a blog; click on “Latest Work” at the top of the screen to see my most recent posted and published work, going back to 2008. The rest of the site offers selected columns, reviews, essays, and audio and video commentaries that are grouped in thematic sections listed here below. To open a section, click the heading. Write with any comments. If a pdf won’t open, msg me and I’ll try to send it as an attachment.

Looking For America

A Civic-Republican Primer

Liberal Education and Leadership Training

The News Media, the Public Sphere, and a Phantom Public

Leaders and Misleaders

Israel’s Tragedy, America’s Folly

New York Nonsense and Urbanities

Folly on the Left

Conservative Contradictions

Our Chattering Classes

Race: Why Skin Color Isn’t Culture or Politics

Scoops and other Revelations

The Obama Chronicles, 2008

Faith vs. Churches?

What Politics Does to History, via George Shultz & Charles Hill

In 2010 Foreign Policy magazine published one of the more difficult and damning reviews I’ve ever written, of Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, by Charles Hill, the former executive assistant and speechwriter to Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz. As I was reading Hill’s book that year in Frankfurt and Istanbul, PBS was broadcasting a documentary based on Shultz’s 1993 memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, which was written mainly by… Charles Hill.

Liberal critics and PBS’ own ombudsman criticized the film’s hagiographical, conservative slant and its heavy funding from donors close to the Hoover Institution, where both Shultz and Hill are fellows. But the deeper problem is Hill’s crafting of Shultz’s memoir, which reveals, unintentionally, what can happen when former statesmen try to write or teach history.

We are not talking here about Winston Churchill’s magisterial A History of the English-Speaking Peoples but about two wily old duffers trying to cover their butts. Hill is also trying to puff himself up to overawe undergraduates and college administrators, with implications for liberal education that would be amusing if they weren’t so sad — and, we can at least hope, instructive.

In his own Grand Strategies, Hill, an energetic autodidact, interprets great literature to justify his mottled Foreign Service record and his paleo-conservative convictions, which are really more pagan and Vulcan than liberal or civic-republican. That might suit the schoolmaster of a high-school military academy better than a teacher of liberal arts, yet Hill teaches classics to freshmen and “Grand Strategy” to seniors at Yale, where he’s “Diplomat in Residence” and, although lacking a PhD, holds more honorific titles than the Emperor Franz Josef. That’s partly the Yale administration’s way of thanking him for helping so sinuously to put out some fires set by bashers of “liberal Yale” who have been his own confederates in conservative policy making and Wall Street Journal punditry.

When Hill’s former student Molly Worthen, who was moved to write a book about her teacher, asked him a few years ago why he’d never written a book of his own, he only smiled and said there was no better way to get people to pay attention to one’s ideas than to write them beneath the bylines of great men such as Kissinger, Shultz, and Boutros Boutros Ghali, for all of whom he has ghosted.

Grand Strategies shows that he wasn’t telling Worthen the whole truth, and it sidesteps the question of what happens to the ideas of the great men themselves when those who virtually write their memoirs, as Hill did Shultz’s, twist the record to help themselves and their principals evade the judgment of History and of the Iran-Contra Independent Counsel.

Because Hill’s book elucidates his worldview by proposing literary precedents for his own foreign-service modus without ever elucidating the latter, it hides as much as it reveals about his mis-handlings of both diplomacy and liberal education. In real life, as I show in the Foreign Policy review, his dissembling compromised Shultz and foreign policy making. And now it’s compromising an old college’s three-century long struggle to balance humanist truth-seeking with training for republican power-wielding.

Here’s how Hill miscarries that struggle, let alone his pretensions to scholarship, in ways I couldn’t cover in reviewing his book:

• In 1993 The New York Review of Books published a damning review of Shultz’s Turmoil and Triumph by Theodore H. Draper, the grand historian of Communism and of the Cold War (which had been sputtering toward its close in the Reagan-Shultz years). Draper faulted Shultz’s facts and his methodology in presenting them.

That prompted  a letter from Hill to the Review contesting Draper’s judgment but, ultimately, discrediting his own. The letter contends that the factual errors Draper flagged in the memoir reflect Shultz’s sound decision to confine his narrative “to what he knew or was told at the time” and, so doing, to exclude “information and evidence which came to light after a decision or event occurred.”

In defending this strange methodology, Hill unintentionally reveals what’s untrustworthy in his own and many statesmen’s methods. He claims that Shultz’s decision to report only what he knew of past events as they were unfolding (or only what Shultz and Hill want readers to think he knew) “makes Turmoil and Triumph a unique, irreplaceable and unchallengeable historical document, as it reveals a reality that ‘memoirs’ invariably obscure: decisions of statecraft must be taken on the basis of partial and sometimes erroneous reports.”

Parrying one of Draper’s factual corrections, Hill acknowledges that “it may be true that [Iranian-born arms merchant Albert] Hakim, not [CIA official George] Cave, was the… drafter [of a memo on the Iran-Contra deal], but Shultz at the time was told it was Cave, and to be true to how things actually were, Shultz’s narrative must say ‘Cave.'”

But mustn’t Shultz’s narrative also add what he learned to the contrary soon after? Shultz isn’t Simon Schama, after all, and Hill’s casuistry is all-too common in memoirs written by or for statesmen seeking to sanitize bad decisions they made on the basis of their own blunders and lies, as well as those of others. Don’t such memoirs “invariably obscure” that, too?

Hill concludes his justification of that hoary practice with a try at literary grace: “In this review… Draper reads every note, but never seems to be able to hear the music.” But Hill’s own music is meant to distract attention from his flimsy rationale for Shultz’s presenting as factual the many suppositions that he and Hill knew – but never tell their readers – had already been discredited by the time they were writing the memoir.

Such gyrations would offend Thucydides, and they open a Pandora’s box or Orwellian Memory Hole in the writing of History: Hill’s is a very “peculiar interpretation of ‘how things actually were,'” Draper replies, since the truth, as he and Shultz knew when they were writing the book, was that “Hakim was the [memo’s] drafter, so that is how ‘things actually were,'” while “Shultz was told at the time that it was Cave, so that was how things actually were not. But even if we accept [Hill’s] strange premise that Shultz had to put in his book only what he was told at the time, however erroneous, a question arises: Was not Shultz obliged to tell the reader what the truth was? As for notes and music,” Draper concludes, tweaking Hill, “the music cannot be right if the notes are wrong.”

• This is no trivial exchange. It bares something wrong not only in Hill’s writing but also in the slippery historiographical and pedagogical modus he imparts to Yale students in lecture halls, seminar rooms, and campus publications. This should disqualify him from teaching at a liberal-arts college, but, as Worthen reports and his former students have told me, and as I’ve sometimes witnessed firsthand, he uses his position as a supposed guide to the great humanist conversation across the ages not to deepen students’ encounters with the humanities’ lasting challenges to politics and the spirit but to advance his Vulcan logic or his superiors’ strategic interests.

In campus forums and the Yale Daily News, Hill speaks about world events as a Foreign Service press officer would, his brisk assertions cowing inexperienced undergraduates, impressed by his firmness and intimacy with the great and powerful. Too many Yale students already spend too much time learning how not to say that an emperor has no clothes — and how to step forward to supply the necessary drapery if someone less clued-in is incautious enough to say it. Both Hill and a student reporter seemed disposed to find such drapery in a Yale Daily News interview a month after 9/11:

YDN: [M]any have noted a change in President Bush’s behavior in the last month, the New York Times going so far as to say that he has achieved a certain degree of “gravitas.” Do you agree?

CH: I think that people with basically sound leadership instincts… will find them growing stronger over time. So it seems to me that what we have seen in the president’s behavior is a string of more and more able performances, more and more firm and definitive performances. And this is what you want to see. It’s a growing process, and I don’t see any limitation to this growth. It seems to me that he’s able to take on what comes at him.”

Hill is not participating here in a humanist “great conversation” or teaching his student readers how to conduct an inquiry in the spirit of liberal education. He is not promoting honest communication in an open society such as John Dewey envisioned. He is engaged in a calculated – for him, almost instinctive – misrepresentation of what is actually going on in order to reinforce political instincts and premises he believes the young reporter and his readers already share, or should.

Hill does this every time he speaks to the Yale student press. The Foreign Policy review reprises one of his worst howlers, concerning his role in working with neo-conservatives on and before Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign.

• Hill particularly loathes Rousseau, whose understandings of equality and the General Will threaten the Lockean liberalism and Anglo-American hegemony Hill claims to defend. Never mind that the real threats to Lockean liberalism and American hegemony now come not from the revolutionary left but from casino-finance capital and corporate welfare — which would have horrified Locke and Adam Smith — parading under the banners of “free markets;” a few years ago Hill made the students from his freshman class in Yale’s classics-oriented Directed Studies program recite in unison, from wherever each was seated within a large assembly of the program’s other freshmen and faculty, a Rousseauian Creed, in order “to depict Rousseauianism as proto-totalitarian (itself a rather dubious move,)” as one of the participants later wrote me.

“We went in feeling rather excited about it,” the student added, “but as soon as it happened, I felt rather uncomfortable… There was something disturbingly authoritarian in Hill’s getting students to recite certain words at his prompting. In trying to combat a particular sort of group-think, Hill actually wound up emulating what he claims to oppose.” A faculty member who was present confirms that impression and more. “People were at each other’s throats over it afterward. ‘This isn’t liberal education,’ some of us felt.”

•In 1998 Hill wrote another duplicitous, doomed letter to the New York Review, this one charging that Joan Didion’s review of Lion King, Dinesh D’Souza’s hagiography of Ronald Reagan, recycled an “erroneous story” that Reagan claimed falsely to have seen the Nazi death camps in person during World War II. (Actually, he never left the U.S. and saw only footage from military cameramen which he edited into briefing films.)

Hill, eager to protect Reagan (as the Iran-Contra Independent Counsel had found him eager to do when that scandal broke), cites Shultz’s claim in Turmoil and Triumph that Reagan had showed the footage of camps to the visiting Israeli President Yitzhak Shamir, who then told this to “the Hebrew language” press, whose reports of the meeting were garbled in translation back to English, giving the mistaken impression that Reagan had claimed to have been in the camps.

Didion’s reply showed that Hill’s effort to deny Reagan’s blurring of romance and fact was itself wishful, at best. She cited Washington Post correspondent Lou Cannon’s report that both Shamir and Elie Wiesel told friends that Reagan, in separate, unrelated meetings with them, had given them the impression he’d visited the camps himself, and that both men had sincerely believed and been moved by what they understood to have been his experience.

Perhaps what we have here is four “statesmen” embellishing the past as they wander through the fog of Reagan’s mind, but more likely Hill has only compounded Reagan’s dissimulations. Scholars are reluctant to do such things. Foreign Service officers are expected to do it.

• Hill shouldn’t be doing it at Yale, but, there, too, his footwork is so fancy that it sometimes compounds the suspicions he’s trying to allay. In April, 2006 the Yale Daily News noted that “An article published in the Yale Israel Journal by Charles Hill… has become the center of a debate over alleged plagiarism in a lecture delivered by… George Shultz at the Library of Congress. The controversy arose when a group of Stanford students revealed last week that they had come across 22 sentences in Shultz’s 2004 Kissinger Lecture that had previously appeared in Hill’s article, published the prior year.”

It was really a non-story, given the two men’s long relationship, but with colleges struggling to prevent plagiarism as opportunities for it proliferate, students are concerned and confused about what it really entails. In this case Hill need only have explained that he’d been Shultz’s speechwriter and confidante for many years and that the mix-up that led both to publish the same words under separate bylines didn’t really involve one person wrongly claiming credit for another’s work.

But Hill couldn’t leave well enough alone, because, as a teacher at Yale, he had to defend his scholarly integrity as well as that of Shultz, by then a “professor” at Stanford. Hill’s first feint was to fall nobly on his sword for his superior, as a Foreign Service officer would: “It was my doing, and [Shultz] is being blamed for it. He is blameless,” he told the Yale Daily News before explaining that he, too, is really blameless because he and Shultz meet every summer “to discuss and debate current world issues, usually while taking notes and writing throughout.”

Hill then told the paper “he believes that after one such trip a few years ago, when Shultz was preparing for a lecture, they both took notes on their discussions, and then each returned home and wrote something up. Although Hill did not intend to publish his paper, he submitted it to the Yale Israel Journal when he was approached for an article on a short deadline. While he and Shultz later corresponded about the latter’s upcoming Library of Congress Lecture, Hill said, he found a copy of the paper he had written and recommended that Schultz take a look at it, forgetting that the paper had been published.

“[Shultz] got blindsided and it was my fault because I just didn’t recall any of this,” Hill said. “I guess I plagiarized something in reverse by using my own thing and gave him something he had contributed to without knowing it, so the whole thing is kind of upside down.”

The image of Shultz and Hill scribbling madly as they “discuss and debate current world issues” in the California sun and then writing up their notes in their rooms soon afterward seems too clever by half — an effort to spare Shultz some embarrassment over what shouldn’t be embarrassing to a former public official with a life-long amanuensis and few scholarly pretensions.

But Hill was also still trying to live down what his voluminous note-taking for Shultz had done: It had proved to federal investigators, who wrested the notes from Hill only with difficulty, that Senate testimony he’d prepared for Shultz on Iran-Contra was false. The report of the Independent Counsel called Hill’s efforts to blame others “unworthy” in ways you can read about in the Foreign Policy review. He is “Diplomat in Residence” at Yale because he is a diplomat in exile from Washington who tried to return as the chief foreign-policy adviser Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign — as, again, you learn from the Foreign Policy review.

• The last telling instance of Hill’s prevarications that I’ll present here highlights the dangers of entangling a state’s corruption of public discourse with a university’s teaching of the liberal arts. This time it was the late Tony Judt, not Theodore Draper, who did the unmasking.

Reviewing a book by Hill’s Grand Strategy colleague John Lewis Gaddis in The New York Review in 2006, Judt noted sardonically that “Gaddis’ account of [Mikhail Gorbachev] gives the Reagan administration full credit for many of Gorbachev’s own opinions, ideas, and achievements–as well it might, since in this section of the book Gaddis is paraphrasing and citing Secretary of State George Shultz’s memoir, Turmoil and Triumph.”

Not only did Hill ghostwrite Shultz’s claim; he made the same claim in his own voice, in the Hoover Digest in 2001, writing that “through the quiet pressure of Secretary of State George Shultz,” the United States had become in the 1980s “a guide for [the Soviet Union’s] ridding itself of much of its socialistic economic system.” Judt counters that “what changed [Gorbachev’s] perspective” on Communism and capitalism” was not… Shultz’s private lectures on the virtues of capitalism (as both Shultz and, less, forgiveably, Gaddis appears to believe) but the catastrophe of Chernobyl and its aftermath.”

Chernobyl isn’t mentioned by Shultz, Hill, or Gaddis or by Hill’s and Gaddis’ former student Worthen in her five-page account of Hill’s role in this stage of the U.S.-Soviet endgame. Her account — in her book about Hill – is Hill’s account, polished by Gaddis, with whom Worthen took a course in biography before writing the book and whom she thanks in her acknowledgments for having “read every chapter” in manuscript.

So Gaddis, in his own book The Cold War, credits Schultz’s account in Turmoil and Triumph, which was really written by Gaddis’ own Grand Strategy partner Hill; and all three men also use a 24-year-old, prepped by Gaddis and Hill, to tell the story as they want it told.

What I’ve been sketching here are eerie and highly subjective, self-indulgent claims to omniscience by certain people who think themselves entitled to frame a republic’s grand strategies. It’s not enough to answer that since the American people elected the President who appoints the strategists, they can be trusted. A lot depends on how they’ve been trained.

The predominantly Ivy graduates whom the late David Halberstam dubbed, with leaden irony, The Best and the Brightest helped to mastermind the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam debacles, and their successors our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wrong training reinforces an arrogant ignorance of how the world really works. A republic has to determine its most vital interests and its greatest strengths by taking its innermost bearings through teaching and public discourse quite unlike Hill’s.

A republic does need a trained but open elite – an “aristocracy of talent and virtue,” as Jefferson called it, not of breeding or wealth. Hill pays lip service to this goal, and he is quite right to charge, as he often does, that some academic liberals and leftists have abandoned it in the name of a specious and facile “equality” and cultural relativism. But strategists who are drawn inexorably to top-down crisis definition and management can easily corrupt both the republican ethos and the liberal education they say they want to rescue from liberals.

A fuller, richer accounting of that sad tendency would go far beyond this post, and only time will tell who really wants that whole story told. But it’s time even now to stop applauding old frauds and their funders who induct the young into networks that mistake presumed omniscience for clear-eyed assessment, maximum surveillance for genuine security, and chronic public lying for appropriate discretion. Whose vital interests do they really serve?

Looking For America

Looking for America
An account of this site’s main theme and of how I came to it.

Many unflattering generalizations can be made about Americans, many of those for good reasons. But every so often people in this country do things that strike me as not only typically “American” but appealingly so, in ways I’ve sketched and tried to account for in some of the writing collected on this site.

It’s a truism, acknowledged around the world, that many Americans did appealing things on 9/11, notably in New York. Many more do such things less dramatically every day, usually with so little public notice that we need remind ourselves that a republic’s strengths depend precisely on the things that ordinary people do when no one’s looking.

A republic — especially a liberal-capitalist one — has to assume, or at least pretend, that a significant minority of its citizens have taken certain values to heart enough to live by them and that they have enough self-discipline to do that without surveillance and policing.

Early in 2008, Barack Obama’s speeches revived those assumptions (or were they only pretensions?) across many of the usual partisan and ideological and even racial lines. He received more white votes, proportionally and absolutely, than his two white predecessor Democratic nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore; and he defeated John McCain among whites under 30.  He seemed to embody the “American” qualities that fascinate people the world over — not our wealth or power (which can be trashy and brutal, and which we’re squandering), but an egalitarianism that, at least until recently, inclined most Americans to say “Hi” to anyone rather than “Heil” to a leader; to give the other guy a fair shot; and, out of that kind of strength, to take a shot at the moon.

Such inclinations don’t come from nowhere. And they may well not survive.

I don’t fear that the American republic is sliding toward fascism, as some on the left think, or toward communist totalitarianism, as some conservatives warn. Far more likely, and no less frightening, is a dissolution of the civic-republican fabric that becomes increasingly coarse and dispiriting, as happened to republican virtues in ancient Rome. Is that happening here now? A republican way of life waxes or wanes in what Tocqueville called “the slow and quiet action of society upon itself,” the little daily interactions that count for as much as high moments of national decision.

Sustaining a disposition to give the other person a fair shot and to back her up as she tries; to deliberate with her rationally  about common purposes; and to reach and honor binding commitments — all depend on maintaining a graceful if elusive American civic balance of values, virtues and body language that the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.” You see that civic-republican grace in a team sport when a player closes in on the action not to show off but to back up a teammate and help him score. You see it in the ways people who are deliberating in a contentious meeting decide to extend trust to a potential adversary cannily, in ways that elicit trust in return. You see it in the ways that people whose friendship or comity have been assailed still give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Or maybe you don’t see that kind of grace so often anymore. Maybe backbiting, road rage, and the growing degradation of public space and prime-time fare are prompting quiet heartache or a sense that something cherished but nameless has slipped out of our lives together. Without the civic balance I’m sketching here, this country can’t survive as a republican project that, for all its flaws, has nourished seeds of its own transcendence and pointed beyond its patriotism and its borders.
Giving American civic grace a better description than I have so far requires not just hard analysis but also some probing and poetry, some fakery and a lot of faith. You can develop an ear and an eye for it, and maybe a voice for it. I’ve been at this one way or another since around 1970, when I was 22. Sometimes I get it right, and people tell me so. Sometimes I don’t, and people tell me that, too.

This website is culled from more than 2000 columns, essays, reviews, posts and appearances in print and electronic venues, including a few books such as Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers, and a couple of anthologies. The rest of this introductory essay gives you some assumptions and experiences that guide my work. Beyond that, the pieces linked throughout this site will speak for themselves. In some sections I’ve added additional introductory thoughts — on journalism, race, conservatism, and the left. Bur first let me say a little more about what I assume and what I reject, and about how I came to believe what I do.

Civic-republican grace in writing and public life

I mentioned that the spirit of a republic can rise — as the historian Gordon Wood showed it doing in America in the 1770s — or recede — as Edward Gibbon showed it doing in his chronicle of ancient Rome. I’ve been following the civic-republican spirit’s American ebbs and flows since World War II, although I was born two years after that war’s end. This website offers some of my soundings.

Much of the writing collected here is journalism, the proverbial “first rough draft of history” when a reporter actually has some grounding in history and some experience in politics and enterprise beyond covering other people‟s politics and enterprise. I worked as a journalist in New York for 20 years, but I’m not mainly a journalist (or a New Yorker). When I do break news (See “Scoops and Other Revelations”), I do it mainly to explore intuitions and ideas which events of the moment are driving or illuminating. More often, I plough my writerly furrows before dawn at the margins of the news cycle, working counter-cyclically and counter-intuitively to track republican currents that are moving beneath and sometimes against what’s “news”.

When the chattering classes are making a cicada-like racket over the latest Big Thing, I try to live by Emerson’s admonition not to quit my hunch “that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.” Doing that sometimes yields scoops and insights that others miss. Some of these highlight the fragility of the republican experiment, and some have prompted me to assail public leaders and journalists who I think are increasing that fragility by being heedless of it, losing their civic-republican lenses and the balance of values and habits I characterized with Daniel Aaron’s “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

For instance, I upbraided a TIME magazine writer for his almost-celebratory profile, in 2007, of Rupert Murdoch, a man I consider a republic-wrecker but whom too many people respect, for reasons I tried to describe. A different kind of civic-republican scourging came 25 years earlier, in this account of an idealistic, young editor‟s delicate interactions with an urban warlord in Congress.

Seen through civic-republican lenses, both Rep. Fred Richmond, D-Brooklyn, NY and I were on a dark and slippery slope, but only the young editor (me) recognized it. I do also recognize a cruel streak in some of my past writing. Sometimes writing that feels cruel to its target is really a laser beam in its interpretive, truth-telling power, and it’s necessary and bracing:

If I ever resumed writing a regular column, as I did for the New York Daily News in the mid- 1990s, I’d call it “Somebodyhaddasayit.” As in the two pieces I’ve just linked, somebody really did have to say it. But saying it can also be scarily and unfairly intrusive, causing hurt and making enemies unnecessarily. Ultimately there’s no substitute for good judgment, self-doubt, tact, and compassion. It took me too long to learn that difficult truth.

I do also defend and sometimes celebrate people who bear the American republican spirit bravely and shrewdly against great odds. Here’s an example, written “before dawn” in the stacks of Yale‟s Sterling Memorial Library in 2006, as I looked up the family background of Ned Lamont, who was then making an anti-war Democratic primary challenge to Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. I wound up writing not about Ned Lamont himself but about a long-forgotten uncle of his, Thomas W. Lamont II, who died toward the end of World War II and whose story I render here as as a fata morgana of the American republic, a fading mirage of the kind of citizenship we’re losing not at terrorists’ hands but at our own.”How’s that for countercyclical?

Actually the story, in The American Prospect, pdf’d here with a photo of Tommy Lamont in 1941, was widely linked, and I spun part of it off as a New York Times op-ed column that linked in the Prospect story itself. Being an American like Tommy Lamont is an art and a discipline. Most people do it only half-consciously or intermittently. The American republican spirit is pretty exceptional, which is why it’s often in trouble. You can’t run American civic grace up a flagpole and salute it, but you shouldn’t tear it down and cast it aside as merely a bourgeois mystification of oppressive social relations or something worse.

When the Vietnam War‟s brutality and folly were at their worst, the perennial socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas urged young protestors of my generation “not to burn the American flag but to wash it.” I took his point, and I work with it. Americans who think themselves too sophisticated for it strike me as naïve. For one thing, the American republican spirit keeps them out of prison, but there is a lot more to it than that.

One couldn’t fairly call the writing collected here “nationalist” or “conservative.” Lately I’ve written in left-of-center sites and journals (Talking Points Memo, The American Prospect, The Guardian, Dissent, The Nation), challenging much of what passes for “conservative” in American public life. But a civic-republican compass does point rightward sometimes, and in the 1990s I wrote a few times in right-of-center venues (including even The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages and, on one occasion each, the neoconservative Weekly Standard and Commentary) magazines, condemning the racialist “identity politics” that passed for progressive politics at the time.

Long immersion in black inner city neighborhoods had showed me the folly of guilt-ridden or ideological indulgence of ethno-racial flag-waving, whether in multi-culturalist pedagogy or in racial street theater that often passed for “civil rights” activism at that time. I’ve mentioned here
above that American national identity doesn’t rightly express any primordial kinship in ethno- racial claims of “blood and soil” or in a vision of national salvation through Christ or Allah. But more than a few Americans have yearned and fought to make it do those very things. They haven’t succeeded, and mostly they’ve been wrong. But not wholly so.

The American national identity was drawn up self-consciously and irreversibly in Enlightenment terms, as a civic-republican experiment, yet it does rely on something close to religious faith in its citizens even though it can‟t impose a religious doctrine on them without losing its civic soul. Living with that paradox requires a dark, sometimes acrobatic skill.

Americans are fated “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government through reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” as Alexander Hamilton put it. To “accident and force,” he could have added, “or on fraud or divine command.”

Hamilton’s intentions in posing his challenge were tactical and sometimes murky and even fraudulent. Yet what he wrote, in the Federalist Papers, does pose a personal as well as political challenge to every American — a challenge that many people slide or slink away from most of the time. Being American really does mean standing up for the civic-republican project, though — embodying it with easy yet determined grace against exclusionary racial, religious, and economic currents that run right alongside the republican project, within it, and against it.

Think of Rosa Parks on that bus in Montgomery, presenting herself to not only as a black woman demanding vindication against racism but, also as a decent American working woman — a fellow citizen, too, like any other, boarding a bus and trying to enjoy her rights in a way that should have threatened no one and that. Parks didn’t call the bus driver a racist “mo-fo.” The way she presented herself in defending her rights lifted up the whole civil society instead of just trashing it as irredeemably racist and evil.

Civic grace like Parks’ is heroic, and rare: In fact, she had trained for it as an officer of her local chapter of the NAACP. But possibly you’ve seen something of that disciplined civic-republican grace more than once in other places; certainly if you look for glimmers of it, you find them in school corridors, playing fields, corporate offices and shopping malls. But, again, maybe you don’t find them so often. Maybe social epidemics from obesity to road rage act out a spreading, unspoken frustration at the loss of civic grace and neighborly trust.

When Americans stop feeling like fellow citizens as well as self-marketers, we have nothing else to fall back on, no myths of “blood and soil,” no firm religious doctrines or dispositions. Tocqueville worried about this even in 1835. I do, too, in several of the articles linked on this site. Whatever becomes of Obama’s presidential run, he has embodied something beautiful in becoming an American along the lines Hamilton sketched: Voters of all colors who elevated him through “reflection and choice,” not “accident and force,” made something achievable that at times transfixes the world: our ability to slip out of race knots, blood feuds, and cobwebs of superstition that equate having a skin color with having a culture.

“It‟s not something he’s doing,” Dartmouth Professor Joseph Bafumi said of Obama to the New York Times; “it’s something he’s being.” American civic grace has its undertows and other dangers – not primarily the alien terrorists or domestic subversives whom Rudolph Giuliani the neoconservatives consumed themselves in warning us about, but undercurrents within Americanism itself that displace our fears, hatreds and sins onto others, abroad and at home. It may take a second American revolution against new concentrations of power, on behalf of a faith that transcends them, to vindicate what‟s stirring beneath our epidemics and acrimony.

Wherever I see people exercising civic-republican leadership, on a street corner or in a boardroom, extending trust in little ways that beget trust, I try to describe and explain its revolutionary potential in ways that strengthen it. Most of the essays listed in the “Sleeper Sampler” tried to do that. I mentioned that a civic-republican standard has prompted some ahead- of-the-curve insights about American public life.

Some of those prophecies are linked in “Scoops and Other Revelations”: My republican compass or radar showed me things as trivial as that Joe Klein was the “Anonymous” author of the novel Primary Colors and that New York Times editor Howell Raines would do that newspaper more harm than good, and as significant as that multicultural “rainbow” politics was going to implode in city after city and that liberals and leftists would have to let go of racial and other “identity politics” go as the central organizing principle of their politics. Precisely because this country is so diverse racially, religiously, and culturally, we have to work overtime on nourishing the common civic standards and lenses I use.

How (and How Not) to Think About Left and Right

Both left and right as we see them in American public life endorse certain civic-republican truths. Each side has contributed something distinctive and indispensable to governing ourselves through reflection and choice rather than accident, force, and fraud. But each side tends to cling to its own truths so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong.

The damage this does to the public sphere won’t be undone by imposing upon American politics the left-vs.-right floor plan of the French Chamber of Deputies, where such distinctions began. Yes, our economic and social classes make a mockery of expectations of organic community or egalitarian democracy. But we don’t have class consciousness or a pursuit of “equality” in the Marxist sense. Marxist analyses are indispensable, I think, but inadequate to engaging American politics.

Much the same is true of almost all of what passes for conservative analysis. See the sections, “Folly on the Left” and “Conservative Contradictions.” Ever since James Madison wrote about factions and helped craft a Constitution to channel and deflect them, the republic has needed an open, circulating elite of “disinterested” leaders who rise enough above class origins to look out for self-government by reflection and choice more than by class war. Jefferson sought such an elite in founding the University of Virginia to cull from the populace a natural aristocracy of talent and virtue, not of inherited wealth and breeding.

It’s an open elite in the sense that, because membership in it has to be ratified both by other members of the leadership group and by voters’ common sense in assessing leaders, people can fall out of leadership as well as rise up to it. How this happens matters a great deal. At the same time Madison and Jefferson were imagining the new republic, the great British conservative thinker and Member of Parliament Edmund Burke (a supporter of American independence) pleaded with his constituents in Bristol that they offer to their elected leaders what I would say those leaders should also offer to their followers: If “we do not give confidence to their minds, and a liberal scope to their understandings; if we do not permit our members [of Parliament] to act upon a very enlarged view of things; we shall at length infallibly degrade our national representation into a confused and scuffling bustle of local agency.”

D.H. Lawrence made my additional point that “it is the business of our Chief Thinkers to fell us of our own deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears,” he wrote. I am always looking for members of that open elite, however humble, who offer such leadership. They are everywhere, and they need recognition and support.

A Marxist would say that people who try to nurture an aristocracy of talent and virtue in a capitalist society are naïve or lying. But Americans still believe that every citizen should stand up for the civic-republican promise, whether as the moderator of a presidential debate or the umpire in a Little League game, as a participant in a street demonstration or as a board member who says, “Now wait a minute, let me make sure I understand what this proposal is based on and what it entails….,” or as a juror who quiets the ethno-racial voices in his head to join other citizens in finding the truth together. We do this through shared reflection and choice, not through radical pronouncements of the General Will or promulgations of religious doctrine or esoteric philosophy.

In politics, unlike science, the vitality and generosity of our truth-seeking matter even more than the validity of the findings. At any historical moment, the left’s claims or the right’s may seem the more liberating against the other, dominant side’s conventions and cant. In the 1930s, George Orwell sought liberation in democratic-socialist movements against ascendant fascist powers, and his sympathy remained with workers. But at times that required him to stand against workers’ self-proclaimed champions as well as against their exploiters, and at times he looked sympathetically into the religious and folkoric interstices of English life as it was, not as he might want it to be.

I’ve done some of that, too, in controversies turning on race and class, becoming scathingly critical of leftist and black protest politics of the 1980’s and 1990’s. As I wrote about Orwell, “He never forgot that both left and right tend to get stuck in their imagined upswings against concentrated power and to disappoint in the end: The left’s almost willful misreadings of human nature make it founder in the swift, deep currents of nationalism and religion, leaving it pitching between denying their importance, on the one hand, and surrendering to them abjectly and hypocritically on the other: “Socialism in One Country,” Marxism as a secular eschatology.

Yet Orwell never forgot that the corporate-capitalist state and its political leaders and apologists posed Nineteen Eighty-Four’ish dangers, too. He remained conservative enough to look sympathetically into nationalism, patriotism, and religion and to savor life in their interstices. He
was always on the left enough to seek solidarity in struggles against capitalist overreach without losing an irreducible personal dignity and responsibility that sometimes balk at solidarity itself. “

The balance I hold out for against ideologues and partisans of “the left” and “the right” is analogous to that of a healthy person who walks on both a left foot and a right one without having to notice that in many instants all his weight is on one foot or the other. What matters is the balance and the stride. A society needs a “left foot” of social equality and provision – without which the individuality and communal bonds which conservatives cherish couldn’t flourish – and a right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility and autonomy, without which any leftist social provision or engineering would reduce persons to passive clients, cogs, cannon fodder, or something even worse.

A walker with a balanced stride doesn‟t notice when all his weight is on just one foot rather than the other. So, too, with a society. But in a society, each “foot” – the left foot of common provision, and the right foot of irreducibly individual freedom – isn’t really a foot but a constellation of interests and powers, each with its partisans (and parasites?) certain that their opponents have made the other foot too strong.If such claims aren’t modulated as much as Madison wanted, the side that gains dominance hobbles society‟s stride. The balance itself is always contested, of course.

Even if we could ordain equality and moral clarity, the irreducible differences among individuals and the divisions between the sociable and the selfish inclinations in every heart would upset the balance. A republic anticipates this. It sustains an evolving center without succumbing to hatred and violence. Doing that requires vigilance against concentrations of power, using institutional checks and balances; it also requires knowing how to extend trust to others in big and little ways that elicit trust in return.

That‟s what’s ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free, shrewd and generous. It’s what requires fakery and faith. It draws on virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor free markets alone can nourish and that armies alone can‟t defend and wealth alone can’t buy. Ultimately, and ironically, our strength lies in the very vulnerability that comes with extending trust.
A republican leader who was gifted in that art, Yale’s president of the late 1960s, Kingman Brewster, Jr., put it this way in what is now the epitaph on his grave: “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In common place terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.”

The generosity Brewster prescribed isn’t material but “of spirit.” Anyone, however poor, can reciprocate it, thereby winning fuller membership and opportunity. Civil-rights demonstrators did that by crediting racist whites with more good faith than sophisticates were inclined to do, thereby shrewdly shaming everyone into bending. Conceivably, Brewster’s generosity of spirit does include a material component. Conceivably, a republic can make itself enough of a community to extend opportunity and support in ways that enhance reciprocity and initiative and thereby speed real “inclusion.”

In the civic-republican way, though, material generosity doesn‟t precede the spiritual; it responds to it. It‟s the “hand up” that implies prior mutual recognition, not the hand-out that implies distancing or pacification. Mutual aid doesn‟t reduce the spiritual to mere sentiment, derided by economic determinists. left and right. Nor does the republican spirit dismiss material aid as inevitably debilitating of spirit. In an American balance, neither the left foot of social provision nor the right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility gets very far without the other.

How I Came to This

Three cultural currents in my upbringing and early adulthood inclined me to look out for the civic-republican challenge Hamilton described. The first two are Old Testament prophecy and New England Calvinist propriety. I chafed under both of them but took them to heart as a grandson of four Lithuanian Jewish immigrants growing up in a stereotypically New England Yankee town, Longmeadow, Massachusetts, in 1950s and ’60s.

In 1986 wrote rather innocently about Longmeadow in a newspaper column prompted by my 25th high school reunion. In 2004 I wrote more knowingly, but still sympathetically, about the larger civic-republican tradition of Kingman Brewster, a direct descendant of the Plymouth Pilgrims’ minister on the Mayflower who was born in Longmeadow and who was Yale‟s president while I was an undergraduate there in the late 1960s.

A third cultural current grew stronger in me around the time I turned 30: Like many New Englanders before me, I took my civic and moral presumptions to New York -– not to literary Manhattan but, for 10 years, to hard-pressed Brooklyn neighborhoods where I ran an activist weekly newspaper (that’s me, in the jacket and tie). I did a three-year stint in city government as a speechwriter for City Council President Carol Bellamy. After that I wrote for the Village Voice, Dissent, and daily newspapers, mostly Newsday and the New York Daily News. I made occasional forays into the New York Times and the New York Post, the latter of which my second-cousin, James Wechsler, had edited in its liberal heyday before Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1977 and transformed it into what it is now, a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony.

I also became a writerly supporter of the social-democratic left, working for the Village Voice and for the quarterly Dissent under its founder Irving Howe. Two essays that carry that current are “What‟s Wrong With Fred Richmond?” in the Voice and “Boodling, Bigotry, and Cosmopolitanism,” a sketch of New York in the late 1980s that ran first in a special issue of Dissent on the city, “In Search of New York,” which was published under that title in paperback by Transaction Books, and again in Empire City, a Columbia University Press anthology of 400 years of writing about New York, edited by David Dunbar and Kenneth Jackson.

The social-democratic left I joined has been an American left, with a strong civic-republican orientation. Unlike the Stalinist left, it wasn’t subversive of democracy and so didn’t have to cover many hypocrisies (such as its opportunistic use of civil liberties, civil rights, and democracy itself) with a bombastic patriotism like that of the American Communist “Popular Front” of the 1930s and 1940s. Nor was the social-democratic left drawn irresistibly toward racial identity politics as the “cat’s paw” of an advancing Revolution.

In New York I took strong stands against leftist evasion of the civic-republican challenge. One of the earliest was a harsh assessment leftist identity politics in the wake of the bitter Crown Heights race riots in New York in 1991 and, later, in a Harper’s essay on the future of American blackness and whiteness. For more on my long experience in and around racial politics, see the “Race” section elsewhere on this site. I’ve mentioned that essays like these, among others, made me some enemies.

I hope that that’s putting it too strongly. The essays on race did anger some activists, liberal and conservative. So did my often-raw criticisms of journalists for betraying their craft’s civic- republican raison d’etre. (See the sections “News Media, the Public Sphere, and a Phantom Public” and “Our Chattering Classes” on this site.) Beyond also commending two of my prescient books, The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 ), I’ll suggest that you click on “Latest Work” at the top of this website’s homepage and follow what I’ve been writing lately.