Entries Tagged as 'Uncategorized'

Sleeper, coded, Fourth of July


By Jim Sleeper

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard ‘round the world.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn,” 1837

What So Loudly We Hailed

For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ‘round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon, and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy, and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises never before held and shared as widely as they were in America.

The creation of the United States really was a Novus Ordo Seclorum, a New Order of the Ages, a society’s first self-aware, if fumbling and compromised effort to live by the liberal expectation that autonomous individuals could govern themselves together without having to impose religious doctrines or mystical narratives of tribal blood or soil. With barely a decorous nod to The Creator, the founders of the American republic conferred on one another the right to have rights, a distinguished group of them constituting the others as “We, the people.”

That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ‘round the world from 74 American schools, colleges, and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December, 2012.

These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.

They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises, practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders, and we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

Many Americans are adapting to living with variants of force and fraud that erupt in road rage; lethal stampedes by shoppers on sale days; security precautions in their homes against the prospect of armed invasion; gladatorialization and corruption in sports; nihilism in entertainment that fetishizes violence without context and sex without attachment ; the casino-like financing of utterly unproductive economic activities such as the entertainment I’ve just mentioned and the predatory lending that has tricked millions out of their homes; the commercial groping and goosing of private lives and public spaces, even in the marketing of ordinary consumer goods; and the huge, new prison industry that Americans have created to deter or punish broken, violent men, most of them non-white, only to find schools in even the whitest, “safest” neighborhoods imprisoned by fear of white gunmen who’ve often been students themselves.

Abroad, meanwhile, thousands more shots, fiendish and celebratory, are being fired into the corpses of American national-security and nation-building projects by terrorists and fanatics we were told had been decimated. These projects cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, limbs, homes, and hopes, including those of American soldiers, contractors, and idealists. Their sacrifices can’t justify retroactively what shouldn’t have been undertaken in the first place.

Stressed by all this republican derangement, millions are spending billions on palliatives, medications, addictions, and even surveillance designed to protect them from themselves. All those vials, syringes, security systems, and shootings betoken what Gibbon discerned in late-Roman republicans who, recalling their old freedoms, concluded, with Livy, that “We have become too ill to bear our sickness or their cures.”

What Went Wrong

You might argue, and quite rightly, that “We, the people” have always subverted the truths we’d held to be self-evident, beginning with slavery and continuing with plutocracy. Yet somehow the republic kept experiencing what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,” thanks only partly to the fortuitous confluence of two oceans’ protection, a vast continent’s ever-alluring frontier, and unending streams of aspiring immigrants:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame With conquering limbs astride from land to land, Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates will stand A mighty woman with a torch Whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, And her name: Mother of Exiles

True enough, the republic thus limned by Emma Lazarus in “The New Colossus,” her poem for the Statue of Liberty, needed those exiles for its labor market. And it still had a guiding aristocracy of sorts, but supposedly only “an aristocracy of talent and virtue,” as Jefferson put it, and not one of blood and ill-gotten wealth.

True, too, certain lingering Puritan beliefs had nourished in the embattled farmers (and, even long before 1775, in some of the Puritans themselves) a conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.   That injunction to defy worldly power sometimes in the name of Higher Power legitimated individual conscience and autonomy right up through the non-violent defiance of the best of the civil-rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society.

A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizens who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve.

If a young woman and a childless couple want to make a contract to produce a child, for example, as the philosopher Virginia Held explains in The Ethics of Care, neither the liberal state nor the market poses or parses the questions we should ask about contracted pregnancy as a way to bring new life into new webs of social caring.

The moral silence and often bankruptcy of states and markets leaves citizen-leaders to be nourished and trained all the more intensively in institutions that stand somewhat apart from the state and markets. The Puritan founders of America’s oldest colleges understood this, but they expected that those colleges’ graduates would serve a theocratic state that would control markets and everything else.

We’re right to dismiss the Puritans’ theocracy because it was repressive and hypocritical. But we’re wrong to have lost a side of its animating spirit that would have kept markets from controlling and devouring republican government and even our bodies and ourselves.

Symptoms and Scapegoats

Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we  find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure, and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.

They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.

Equally symptomatic, not causal, are some self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.

Even our war-makers’ and mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us.

But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman-Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.

I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes, and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.

Our cure would also require re-weaving a fabric of public candor and comity strong enough to resist the rise of ressentiment, a public psychopathology, once associated with the rise of fascism, in which insecurities, envy, and hatreds that many have been nursing in private converge in scary public eruptions that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big.

Ressentiment’s “little-big man” seeks easy targets for frustrations borne of exploitation by powers that he’s afraid to face and reckon with head-on. Blaming scapegoats warps his assessment of his hardships and options and drives him to wreak vengeance on them as soon as there are enough little-big men (and women, of course) to do so en masse under a Glenn Beck or a Sarah Palin.

Whether ressentiment erupts in racist violence, sectarian fanaticism, anti-Communist witch hunts, totalitarian show trials, politically correct cultural revolutions, or sadistic escapism, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. Under the ministrations of gifted demagogues, its grievances and pain assume a fleeting brilliance that soon collapses, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on its own cowardice and lies.

Its targets often shift. The 9/11 attacks brought a reprieve of sorts to African-Americans, the republic’s most enduring scapegoats, when the burden of white censure pivoted toward Muslims. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam lost credibility, but so did whites such as the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, who kept on insisting years after 9/11 that the first black president was a Muslim and a friend of terrorists.

The slipperiness of scapegoating became clear to me in 1993, as I wrote about a deranged black gunman, Colin Ferguson, who’d opened fire in a Long Island Rail Road car, killing six passengers. Even while holding him responsible, I saw him bearing symptoms far more widespread than his private demons.   Noting Ferguson’s enthusiasm for a politics of rage, paranoia, and death threats then prominent on a black radio station and in demagogic street politics, I warned that even deranged loners are sometimes better attuned to our subconscious hatreds and fears than we care to admit.

That was true, too, of Jared Loughner, the white paranoid-schizophrenic and anti-government fantasist who killed a U.S. District Court judge and six other people while trying to kill but severely wounding U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others in 2011.

While apocalyptic religious and racist ranting can provoke emotionally disturbed people, so can journalism and entertainment that massage hatreds too diffuse to be called racist, religious, or ideological. Some school shooters nursed the depictions of violence and lust that are pumped incessantly into young Americans’ horizons with the help of new technologies and investment strategies that ride reckless misreadings of the First Amendment.

This hasn’t been done with malevolent intent as often as it’s been done in a kind of civic mindlessness by media corporations incentivized and indeed forced by market pressures to bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets by exaggerating fears of armed home invasion, government takeover, and vengeful victory by gunplay.

The Invisible Disease

Even though relatively few young Americans follow these siren songs into acts of destruction, the public fetishizing of sex and violence without context or caring dampens many others’ faith in society during their formative years. You don’t need to know a lot of developmental psychology or anthropology to know that children crave culturally coherent tests of prowess and loyalty in symbolic rites of passage that ratify their communal belong. When such rites and symbols fail, some flail about, seeking order in private delusions, Dartmouth College fraternities, and public orchestrations of ressentiment.

In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine could urge readers like them to take their recent experiences of monarchy “to the touchstones of nature” and decide whether they would abide the empire’s abuses.

Today, those “touchstones of nature” – and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society — have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications, and even  intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord. This time, we’re all in bed with the enemy.

In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism 40 years ago, Daniel Bell – no anti-capitalist, but prophetic enough about the worship of Golden Calves — argued that free markets no longer make free men because “economic liberalism has become… corporate oligopoly, and, in the pursuit of private wants, a hedonism that is destructive of social needs.”

He warned that consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through nature’s rhythms and kinship traditions. It displaces those needs with ginned-up “wants” that “by their nature, are unlimited and insatiable…. [T]he rational calculation of efficiency and return” displace “the principle of the public household,” strip-mining and selling off fragments of cultural narratives.

Without civic wellsprings and narratives deep and compelling enough to strengthen a society’s adhesives and disciplines in the hearts of its young, neither free-market conservatives nor world-is-flat neoliberal cosmopolitans can reconcile their professed commitments to ordered, republican liberty with their knee-jerk obedience to riptides of destructive investment that are dissolving republican virtue and sovereignty before our eyes.

No wonder we’re losing our vision, in both senses of the word:

▪ Our foreign-policy savants across the ideological spectrum were too blind see that the Soviet Union was so much weaker than American Cold War propaganda and hysteria insisted that it imploded in 1989. The fabled “missile gap” that John F. Kennedy ran on in 1960 was as imaginary as Saddam Hussein’s WMD, but anyone who tried telling either of those truths was charged with a “failure of nerve” or worse by the blind war-mongers in our midst.

▪ Our business press was too blind to see that a tsunami of predatory lending would wreck the national economy and throw millions from their homes.

▪ Our market-addled Congressional committees and blue-ribbon commissions on national intelligence couldn’t discover, until Edward Snowden revealed it, that public surveillance had taken on an all-devouring life of its own.

▪ Neo-conservative and Vulcan conservative advocates of using American military force to spread democracy abroad couldn’t see that their strategy was doomed because democracy isn’t woven that way and because it was destroying democracy at home in ways that, if unchecked, will destroy the republic whose strengths they’ve so badly have misconstrued and betrayed.

▪ Our consumer society, addicted to cheap comforts and quick fixes, can’t see its own Orwellian ensnarement by commercial censors, and it couldn’t take Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” about global warming seriously enough to offset the onrushing damage with the serious sacrifices we have yet to make.

  ▪ Our gilded political consultants, pollsters, and campaign donors were too blind to see the boiling undercurrents that have swept away House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Nor can they see that Cantor’s political demise presages an inflammation of ressentiment so wild that the coming, specious, “Who Lost Iraq?” debate will be accompanied by the shot that some military veteran who feels betrayed will fire at a politician who’s been left holding the empty bag of our civic-republican hopes.

So we are flying almost totally blind, punched bloody by a Hand that we keep insisting is Invisible. We can see only the sickness of the gunmen and of the proliferation of their guns. Treatment of those symptoms is urgently needed, but it will be insufficient to curb the wrecking ball that global capitalism has become on our willfully blind watch, and triage won’t renew the civic fabric.

Exemplary Defiance Has its Place

Whenever republican candor and courage have seemed about to succumb like this to tribal and theocratic delusions or to force and fraud in the past, some citizens have roused others to fend off threats to republican premises and practices:

▪ In 1776 a young schoolteacher named Nathan Hale was caught trying to track and expose the military and intelligence operations of the only established, legitimate government of his time. But just before his hanging he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” and became an incarnation of a nascent republic.

▪ Hale’s dignity in adversity, unfathomable to many of us these days, anticipated that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and black churchgoers who walked unarmed and trembling toward armed men and dogs with nothing but their faith and their long-shot strategy to de-legitimate the seemingly impregnable segregationist establishment of their time by appealing to republican principles and an American civil religion whose theology was as vague as that of the founders.

▪ Hale’s dignity also anticipated that of three Yale seniors I came upon one wintry morning in 1968 as they gave university chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr. their military draft cards to announce their resistance to the U. S. Government on behalf of the American republic.

  “The government says we’re criminals, but we say the government is criminal for waging this war,” said one of the seniors, struggling to find his voice against a gusting wind fear. For all we knew, these guys were about to be arrested on the spot, and some of us felt arrested morally by their example because they were ready to pay the penalty of law in order to affirm their commitment to honest law itself.

Coffin, who held to a Calvinist theology that, like King’s, saw resistance to tyranny as obedience to God, was present to bless a courage that few national-security state conservatives understand, in the idiom of an American civil-religion few neoliberals and post-modern leftists understand. When he quoted Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” that civil religion seemed to awaken briefly from slumber and to walk and talk again, re-moralizing the state and the law, and the silent, wild confusion I was feeling gave way to something like awe. (I described this experience in The Washington Monthly in 2000, during the protracted “election” of George W. Bush.)

▪ Hale’s courage also anticipated Edward Snowden’s. Both young men may have been impetuous and otherwise flawed in some respects, but they showed that resistance to corrupted power requires not only prowess, means, and will, but an elusive, republican sensibility that’s cultivated in civil society and confirmed in little daily interactions long before it emerges in demonstrations of civic courage that startle and move other citizens.

With a wonderment somewhat like Hegel’s, the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas marveled at this “constitutional patriotism” in American citizens who possessed what Gibbon described as “that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command.”

When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change.

Yet republican expectations do have ways of re-surfacing whenever “We, the people” begin to imagine what our lives would be like, singly and together, if we had to live without them. Not everyone can be seduced or intimidated away from them.

Still, so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive that we have to ask: So where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend?

Nourishing a New Liberal Order

The question should prompt a quest for a political culture that isn’t too commercial and vapid and that isn’t held together only by demagoguery and delusion. No reconfiguration of today’s capitalism will be possible without something better than that. Yet no think tank, legislature, or foundation can carry that quest or that reconfiguration to a just conclusion. Nor can an Occupy Wall Street that isn’t grounded in something deeper than its own noble effort to be the change it wants us all to make.

Nor can our “illness” be cured by champions of a new foreign-policy “realism” such as Robert Kagan, who urge us to face the inevitable challenges of a world where only willpower and force can sustain the liberal order that many Americans take for granted. That’s right as far as it goes, but it begs the question of where willpower comes from and what, within the liberal order itself, is sapping that willpower.

Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Kagan speculates candidly that liberal civilization itself “runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.” Perhaps, Kagan adds, “this fragile democratic garden requires the protection of a liberal world order, with constant feeding, watering, weeding, and the fencing off of an ever-encroaching jungle.” But he can’t seem to face the challenge posed by the new shots heard ‘round the world from America: The jungle and its encroachments begin not only abroad but within our own garden.

What seems our greatest weakness could be one of our greatest strengths, although it, too, won’t be enough: Even 150 years after the founding, the philosopher George Santayana wrote that Americans still heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history precisely because they’d “all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistible in a space otherwise quite empty. To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career….”

Although there’s plenty to regret and respect in the traditions we’ve lost, there’s no turning back from the “moral condition” and “career” we face as citizens. We have no choice but to keep faith with the republic and one another. If Americans have a manifest destiny now, it’s to lead in weaving a new republican fabric that markets can serve but not subvert.

In 2008, Barack Obama seemed to incarnate so brilliantly the promise of weaving our diversity into a new republican discipline — he even invoked Puritan and biblical wellsprings in some of his speeches — that many people ‘round the world considered him a prophet who would satisfy their hunger for new narratives. Probably no national political leader ever can do that.

The narratives the world needs now will have to come from other prophets and leaders yet unsung. I do think that Americans will be strong among them, if only because we’ve had so much experience generating that hunger by generating the civic-republican-capitalist effort that has failed.

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

This column, written during the 2008 Republican National Convention, was noted and commented upon in the NY Times (see below)

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

By Jim Sleeper – September 5, 2008, 3:21AM

My father, who served in Europe in World War II in the 277th Battalion Army Combat Engineers, told me that it’s those who haven’t proven themselves who keep on touting militarism. “The biggest blowhards at the American Legion are the ones who spent as much of the war as they could at the PX,” he said.

There was so much of this in the Republican Party last night that, at one point in his speech, John McCain looked annoyed. He  knows the difference between flaunting heroism as some legionnaires do and making a political decision to showcase it. He and the Republicans overplayed the hero card because they have so little else to run on.

Several times during his acceptance speech, the party’s militaristic id – or is it a guilty conscience? — threatened to erupt. Whenever McCain touched even lightly on a military or patriotic theme, we heard from a somewhat unnervingly large contingent of young men whose repertoire of political expression consisted solely of shouting “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

They tried to dominate the rest of the crowd’s reactions even when McCain was sounding poignant or somber, not pugnacious. No matter how subtle, subdued or highly dignified his appeals to patriotism, the rising and sometimes overwhelming response was “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

In a voiceover, Fred Thompson said, “When you’ve lived in a box, your life is about keeping others from having to live in that box.”

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

Someone mentioned how, a year ago, McCain’s campaign was so strapped he’d had to let go of most of his staff, but that he’d come back in New Hampshire thanks to his grit and conviction that he would rather lose an election than see his country lose a war.

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

Sentimentally but not very convincingly, McCain named three different, hard-pressed American families whose problems he’d taken to heart, without making make clear what policies he’d support to help them. He did vow, to a family whose son had fallen in battle and whose bracelet McCain now wears, that he would “make sure their country remains safe.” As the parents grew moist, the crowd cried, “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

To introduce his theme of energy independence, McCain said, “We’re gonna stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much.”

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

McCain said that he respects and admires Senator Obama and affirmed, “Despite our differences, we are all Americans. That’s an association that means more to me than any other.”

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

I think I recognize some of the guys I saw doing this. Their buffoonish, boorish chanting is only one side of them, not necessarily the dominant one. They haven’t all curdled into fascists, as some liberals might believe. There’s a decency and clueless love in them that’s trying to find a political home, and there’s yearning for something that’s slipping away.

The problem, of course, is that the Republican Party, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are ratcheting up these hurts and pointing them toward war and nasty hatreds of dubious domestic villains. Yes, this is dangerous, and McCain isn’t on top of it.

A couple of times during his speech, lone demonstrators who’d sneaked into the audience rose, shouted out, waved some signs, and were hustled to the exits.

In that vast hall, with the media focusing on the podium, the disruptions were easily minimized – until the guys decided to counter them by chanting, “Yoo Es Ay! You Es Ay! You Es Ay!” They did disrupt McCain’s speech, far more than the demonstrators had. It was then that he looked annoyed, and rightly so.

He deflected the second uproar deftly enough, with a couple of words I haven’t had time to check. But was there any good leadership on the floor? That brings us back to the Republicans’ problem.

Compare McCain, who refused early release from captivity in Vietnam, to George W. Bush, who dodged the same war by getting into the National Guard on a phone call from his Dad and sneaked out of the Guard early. (Perhaps my father’s wisdom about blowhards who never served casts some light on Bush’s swaggering, “Mission Accomplished” flight-deck landing some 35 years after he’d left the Guard.)

It’s almost as loathsome as the Swift-Boating of John Kerry, and it highlights the larger problem: Proportionately, the Republican Party has the most members of Congress and other high officeholders who’ve never served in the military. And its loudest war-mongers, like Rudy Giuliani and, now, Joe Lieberman, haven’t served, either, although both were of draft age during Vietnam War. Neo-con war-hawks, who have battened onto McCain’s campaign, have never served, unless you count their militaristic strategizing and strutting.

Ronald Reagan never served, beyond making war movies Stateside. (George H.W. Bush did serve heroically in combat, which may have something to do with his youngest son’s desperate posturing.)

But the Republicans’ “Yoo Es Ay!” problem is about more than young men’s hormones and older men’s uneasy consciences. It’s even about more than just men, now that Cindy McCain has touted Sarah Palin at the convention as “a pistol-packing hockey mom.” (The Republican Party, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, and the National Rifle Association have all encouraged women to pack heat.)

The Republicans’ real problem is that they have too few other ideas that most Americans still believe in or even want to hear. Desperate for heroes, they don’t even acknowledge that John McCain’s war killed 58,000 Americans and countless others, in vain: After Vietnam defeated us, it entered the neoliberal global capitalist orbit, anyway, as it would have done had we never fired a shot. There’s a war memorial in Washington, but my memorial is a T-shirt on my back whose label says, “Made in Vietnam.”

To his credit, McCain worked to normalize relations with Vietnam. But Republicans are so much in denial about the Vietnam war – and so eager to milk McCain’s sacrifice in it – that they don’t even mention that the war was conceived and conducted mainly by liberal Democrats..

McCain knows, of course, and he and John Kerry once bonded over it years ago in the Senate, despite their diametrically opposite conclusions about what the war had been for. At one point in his acceptance speech, McCain mentioned the vanity of young men like him who’d rushed into war to be “my own man,” and he recounted that his torturers had cured him of it: “They broke me,” he said quietly, to silence in the hall.

“I wasn’t my own man anymore,” he added. “I was my country’s man.” He claimed that his love of America had saved him, and that now “I will fight for her so long as I draw breath.”

It was a difficult, fraught confession, somewhat dissonant and troubling. McCain said not a word – as the young John Kerry had, years before — against the senators and presidents who’d sent them to kill and be killed in a misguided, fraudulent, massively destructive, and futile venture. Its hardest lesson is that the American blood it shed does not retroactively justify, much less sacralize, America’s betrayal by its leaders. One of them, Robert McNamara, understood this and, to his everlasting credit, confessed it.

McCain seems to have drawn a different lesson. “I hate war,” he claimed in his speech, insisting that good judgment and principles are as important as the will to fight. I can believe him and acknowledge that Iraq is not Vietnam. But the Republican convention was desperately, indiscriminately seeking political clarity in fogs of war and bellicosity in all directions, and McCain played to it.

He reaped what he sowed: His account of his brutal transformation in captivity from self-regarding flyboy to selfless patriot deserved strong, voiceless applause from a mature, deeply moved audience.

Instead it got, “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/04/riveting-one-way-or-another/. It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on Sep 4, 2008 22:41:25 GMT. The current page could have changed in the meantime. Learn more

Text-only version

These search terms are highlighted: jim sleeper opinionator




September 4, 2008,  9:06 am

Riveting, One Way or Another


By Tobin Harshaw


It’s the Morning After, and the reviews keep coming. Let’s tune in to the left side of the dial:


“Sarah Palin gave a riveting and devastating nomination speech on Wednesday night,” writes Ari Melber at the Nation….

Bill Scher at LiberalOasis agrees: Gov. Sarah Palin can give a speech. She can deliver sarcastic one-liners. She can repeat long debunked misinformation about her opponents and misrepresent herself.

Closer to center (and, the Opinionator suspects, to use one of the left’s favorite terms, “reality”) is Michael Crowley at the Stump:

Several moderate-Democrat friends of mine have been emailing–few if any would ever vote for McCain–but all agree that Palin was very strong. The more liberal among them are a little panicked.

Along those lines, the most penetrating assessment comes from Jim Sleeper over at Talking Points Memo:

If you didn’t sense last night how deeply Sarah Palin channeled some of the country’s deepest, most powerful currents of pent-up indignation and yearning, you don’t sense the trouble we Democrats are in.

Rhetorically, she was the anti-Obama. She was stirring precisely because she was so artless, matter-of fact, and “American” — with no cadences or grand, historic resonances, but with plenty of mother wit and shrewdness. Credit her as much as the speechwriters.

The two currents she tapped — the ones that roared up from so deep in the crowd that you could feel them riding on love more than hate — weren’t the ones unleashed by her or Rudy Giuliani’s disparagements of Obama.

They were riptides of deeply wounded pride and groping loyalty, a yearning for vindication of something that is not to be disparaged at all.

The first such riptide was unleashed by Palin’s and Giuliani’s accounts of John McCain’s career-threatening commitment, a year ago, when his campaign was hopeless, to an American military victory in Iraq. Right or wrong — and I think it was wrong — it was a commitment grounded in an uncommon courage that will be dismissed as stupidity only by smart-asses who really want to lose this election.

The second current was tapped by Palin’s own grounded, calm confidence that “ordinary people’s” common sense – her kind, and a lot of other people’s – is what it takes to pull this country through its converging crises.

The question is where those currents will carry us; Sleeper’s answer is unsettling: “if McCain and Palin win, they will lose the America they mean to defend.”

(Among the 136 comments:)

September 4th,
2008  Correct, the most penetrating assessment comes from Jim Sleeper over at Talking Points Memo as quoted above.

The GOP candidates know the power of TV and radio to turn reality upside down. If the Dems can’t get smart about that this year, anything short of a demonstrably incipient Depression may not be enough to save them.   — Posted by Rich Turyn

September 4th, 2008
Any moderate observer of the election can only skim over the reader comments posted on the NYT these days as they get increasingly nasty and personal (NYT are you really doing your job of screening out abusive comments?). It’s a telling sign, like a deer frightened by a car’s headlight, that they really don’t know what to make of the last week.

A brilliant excerpt of Jim Sleeper’s writing. The NYT should balance up their editorial board with the likes of such a writer.

Posted by L. Ngo


Review of Excellent Sheep

Review of Excellent Sheep

Singapore roundup columns

Singapore Roundup, Jim Sleeper

A Literary Prophet’s Bad Faith


Note: This was posted on TPM on April 27, 2008, the same day as Wieseltier’s review of Martin Amis’ The Second Plane. It takes awhile for this essay to shift from reviewing that review to considering the political and personal dimensions of Wieseltier’s work.

If Martin Amis is the self-styled bad boy of English letters, Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, is the rabbinic scourge of “fine” writers who stray into public intellection. No surprise, then, that in the April 27, 2008 New York Times Book Review, Wieseltier condemns Amis’ The Second Plane, a collection of essays, reviews, and stories about September 11 written across six years and re-published in America now in a slim volume.

But Wieseltier’s review is itself so preening and melodramatic, an opera bouffe of a literary attack, proving little more than that it takes one to know one. Anyone who’s read Amis’ book as well as the review will know that Wieseltier isn’t as brave or honest as his often-stumbling target. The faults in Amis’ book are manifold, but Wieseltier’s puzzling envy and not-so puzzling bad faith are borne of a bad conscience about his own continuously bad judgment about how to respond to September 11. Amis has gotten under his skin, as bad boys will, because his very badness embarrasses Wieseltier, who actually shares many of his views but loathes and envies Amis’ brazenness in flaunting them.

Wieseltier shows  (as I did in the Los Angeles Times) that Amis is too often grandiloquent and self-regarding, his virtuosity outrunning reason and even reporting. But Amis has to be credited with two kinds of courage. First, by making few revisions in these pieces, he lets us watch him learning about September 11, fitfully, over time — as we all did — through under-informed, over-determined generalizations and contradictory, fragmentary insights that sometimes became hobby horses. His courage to be messy would seem exhibitionist only to the compulsively tidy and self-regarding.

Second, Amis is brazen as well as brave in shoving our snouts into harsh realities which he thinks too many readers have sanitized or ideologized away, in excesses of political correctness, or have simply forgotten with the passage of time.

So determined is he to make us taste suicide bombing’s depravity, for example, that he sketches the perpetrators’ psycho-sexual perversities, their “self besplatterment,” the bloody “pink haze” forming above the bodies of World Trade Center victims plunged to their deaths. His review of “United 93” credits that film for making viewers feel the passengers’ “state of near-perfect distress — a distress that knows no blindspots. . . . the ancient flavor of death and defeat. You think: this is exactly what [the terrorists] meant us to feel.” Amis makes you ashamed of trying to feel anything else.

This affronts the dark prophet of unblinking confrontation with malevolence. “What is gained by preferring ‘horrorism’ to ‘terroism’, except perhaps a round of applause?” Wieseltier complains. “Amis is the sort of writer who will never say ‘city’ when he can say ‘conurbation.'”

But Read Amis’ book and Wieseltier’s review, and decide who strains more for virtuosity. If you’re looking for sober depth, tell me whether the following wisdom about dealing with Islamist terrorists was offered by Martin Amis or by Leon Wieseltier:

“We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.”

It is by Amis, actually. And Wieseltier nearly admits to feeling upstaged as much as affronted, but only after nearly 2000 words of insults:

“Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer.”  “What we have here is a hormonal unbeliever.” “Amis will say almost anything, because being noticed is as important to him as being right.” “Amis seems to regard his little curses as military contributions to the struggle.” “I wish only to suggest that the simpleton’s view of the world that Amis is angrily promoting contributes not very much to the study of the passions that are scalding the planet.”

Only after all that does Wieseltier acknowledge “the complication” that “there is considerable justice on Amis’ side:

“[Amis] is correct in insisting upon the moral and historical primacy of the battle against theocracy and terror. He is correct that… that the defense of western conceptions of freedom and equality is not an exercise in ethnocentrism. He is correct that the skeptical discussion of religious ideas and practices must not be abrogated by the skinlessness of multiculturalism…. He is correct that opinions that seem not only spectacularly false, but also lethally false, do not have to be intellectually respected even if they have to be politically tolerated. He is correct that in Islamism the many doctrines of antimodernism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism are one doctrine.

“I have never before assented to so many of the principles of a book and found it so awful,” Wieseltier concludes – or nearly does, leaving himself room for a dig at the egregious and, here, irrelevant Nicholson Baker, whose Checkpoint drove Wieseltier into paroxysms of rage against anti-war liberals four years ago in a ranting review for the same New York Times.

Wieseltier allows that even “Martin Amis would despise” Baker’s new book, Human Smoke, yet he finds the two writers “peculiarly alike” in that they treat “the most fundamental matters of politics and philosophy… as occasions for the display of artifice and the exhibition of temperament.” But it is not only Baker and Amis who fill that bill. There is a third writer, the one who is obsessed with them.

Although Wieseltier has just informed us that Amis has principles, he can’t stop insisting that Amis is “untouched by the atrocity” because “he is still busy with the glamorous pursuit of extraordinary sentences.” Knowing that he’s writing in bad faith, Wieseltier is even busier than Amis at comforting himself with alliterative cadences:

For Amis, he insists, “the ingenuity of the image is an interruption of attention, an ostentatious metaphorical digression from the enormity that it is preparing to reveal, an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane.” Here Wieseltier invites us to behold his prose and not his point.

Seldom has a reviewer hoisted himself on his own petard so shamelessly with so many grasps at faux paradoxes, sustained by his telltale, compulsive alliteration:

“Nothing creates confidence like catastrophe.” “[Amis] has a hot, heroic view of himself.” “In Amis’ universe, you are either religious or you are rational.” “The results of Amis’ clumsily mixed cocktail of rhetoric and rage can be eccentric, or worse” “For this reason, such writings will have more impact than influence.” “[Amis] appears to believe that an insult is an analysis.”

Yet it is Wieseltier, we’ve seen, who delivers more insult than analysis. He sounds like one who is rather too enthroned in the seat of judgment, but you can trace the rudiments of an analysis among the insults, in three parts.

First, as we’ve seen, Wieseltier rules that virtuosity has overcome virtue in Amis’ writing.

Second, he decides that Amis is monocausally obsessed with the terrorists’ frustrated libidos and warped masculinity, the polluted wellspring or mainspring of Islamism. Wieseltier tells us that Amis “believes that 2,992 more people would be alive today if 19 Middle Eastern men had only found some satisfaction of the flesh.”

Wieseltier doesn’t actually believe that Amis believes this. He has written the sentence for effect. That points us back to the first part of his “analysis,” in which the pot calls the kettle black.

Only a few paragraphs later, Wieseltier decides, thirdly, that Amis’ problem lies less in an obsession with sex than with religion — with the fact that Amis’ “antipathy to Islamism is based upon a more comprehensive antipathy to religion.

In Amis’ universe, Wieseltier decides, you are either religious or you are rational.” And perhaps, after all, then, not so sexual.

What’s in Wieseltier’s own clumsily mixed cocktail of rhetoric and rage? There is, of course,  that gift for prophetic scourging, nowhere more evident than in a column he wrote in The New Republic just after September 11:

“Is it a little laughter that we need now? Then behold the contrition of yesterday’s frivolous, the new fashion in gravity. The man who edits Vanity Fair has ruled that the age of cynicism is over. He would know. I always wondered what it would take to put a cramp in the trashy mind, and at last I have my answer: a mass grave in lower Manhattan. So now depth has buzz. The papers are filled with hip people seeing through hipness, composing elegiac farewells to the days of Gary Condit and Jennifer Lopez. The on dit has moved beyond the apple martini. It has discovered evil and the problem of its meaning. No doubt about it, seriousness is in. So it is worth remembering that there are large swathes of American society in which seriousness was never out. Not everybody has lived as if the media is all there is. Not everybody has been consecrated only to cash and cultural signifiers. Not everybody has been a pawn of irony.”

This is the rod of instruction, which Wieseltier’s forefathers and mine brought forth out of the land of Egypt and passed on to the prophets and jeremiadic Puritan divines and that arose often in the homiletics of my own childhood rabbi, Samuel H. Dresner. Wieseltier wields it well against a cohort of lost, preppie gatekeepers from Exeter and Yale and their sweaty sycophants at The Times, The New Yorker and hipper Manhattan and online publications, most of them staging and watching debates more for entertainment than to satisfy any craving to clarify our fog-bound horizons.

There is another ingredient in the cocktail: Wieseltier, a child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in Brooklyn as it was changing racially in the 1950s and ’60s, pulls insights about identity and atrocity from out of his innards, as did the black writer Shelby Steele before he, too, grew comfortable in a seat of judgment funded by others. In The Closest of Strangers I was grateful to be able to quote an insight of Wieseltier’s that fit both the defensive Jews and the angry blacks I was writing about:

“The memory of oppression is a pillar and strut of the identity of every people oppressed….  [It] imparts an isolating sense of apartness… Don’t be fooled, it teaches, there is only repetition. …In the memory of oppression, oppression outlives itself. The scar does the work of the wound. That is the real tragedy: that injustice retains the power to distort long after it has ceased to be real. …. This is the unfairly difficult dilemma of the newly emancipated…: an honorable life is not possible if they remember too little and an honorable life is not possible if they remember too much.”

The prophetic truth is there, and it should be acknowledged and treasured. But there is also an almost-incapacitating pain in it that predisposes Wieseltier to monitor the suppressed or misdirected pain of others. That predisposition has its uses, too, and it has certainly been useful to upper-middling thinkers and editors who’ve found in Wieseltier’s prose a kind of deliverance — gravitas for hire.

At his best, Wieseltier keeps and sometimes rouses our consciences. For example, in the New Republic  column on 9/11 linked above, he scourged some “fine” writers, such as Adam Gopnik and John Updike, who’d responded to “atrocity with sensibility.” Quoting Updike’s “Smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure’s vertically corrugated surface,” Wieseltier noted that “such writing defeats its representational purpose, because it steals attention away from reality and toward language. It is provoked by nothing so much as its own delicacy. Its precision is a trick: it appears to bring the reader near, but it keeps the reader far. It is in fact a kind of armor: an armor of adjectives and adverbs. The loveliness is invincible.”

But so is Wieseltier’s own tidy prose, lovely as the Rose of Sharon even when justice is not on his side. For there is something more, or less, than prophecy and personal pain in Wieseltier’s curiously mixed cocktail of rhetoric and rage, something that you can sense as he rummages through his old grab bag of suffering to condemn Amis in what seems at best a retread of a past jeremiad: “After the mind breaks, it stiffens in the aftermath of grief, it lets in only certainty. In a time of war, complexity is suspected of a sapping effect, and so a mental curfew is imposed. From the maxim that we must know our enemy, we infer that our enemy may be easily known.”

Amis does not infer any such thing, and Wieseltier, as we’ve seen, will eventually admit that Amis is not simple but complex. His inability to stand by his own grudging admission suggests the deeper problem in his review of Amis’ book.

Here is that problem: Even as Ground Zero lay smoking, Wieseltier signed a letter to President Bush, dated September 20 and written by neoconservative Field Marshall Bill Kristol on the letterhead of his Project for the New American Century. The letter’s 42 well-known neoconservative and Vulcan signers informed Bush that ”even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”

It wasn’t by fluke that Wieseltier signed. He is as comfortable with Kristol’s crowd as he is in the seat of literary judgment. In 2007 he wrote one of 200 letters urging clemency for his friend I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney who had been convicted on charges of lying, perjury, and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame affair.

In his letter, the scourge of preeners preens, departing from his testimony for Libby to assure the judge that “I am in no sense a neoconservative, as many of my neoconservative adversaries will attest. I am, to the contrary, the kind of liberal who many neoconservatives like to despise, and that’s fine with me.”

It would have been fine with the court, too, surely, had Wieseltier forgone such stylized bleating on his own behalf, but he did have tracks to cover after serving with Richard Bruce (Dick) Cheney, Carl Christian Rove, and others as an unlikely member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a now-defunct cousin of Kristol’s PNAC and the American Enterprise Institute.

Wieseltier is an “adversary” of neoconservatives, then, only in the way that he is an adversary of Martin Amis:  He wishes these bad boys would stop embarrassing him by saying so brazenly what he would say blamelessly.

Wieseltier is nowhere more dishonest  about this than when he tells us that Amis “writes as if he, with his wrinkled copies of Bernard Lewis and Philip Larkin, is what stands between us and the restoration of the caliphate.” Wieseltier knows well that the essay in which Amis quotes Lewis and Larkin — “Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind,” written on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 — pivots on Amis admiration for the insights of Paul Berman, whose Terror and Liberalism he quotes more often that the work of Lewis or Larkin.

Yet, to acknowledge this, Wieseltier would have to credit Amis with the discernment that he himself thinks he showed in publishing Berman’s excoriations of liberals’ “naïve rationality” about terrorism in The New Republic. Wieseltier cannot condemn Amis honestly without condemning himself . So he condemns him dishonestly. And his writing assumes the flat, vacant intensity he imputes to Amis.

The only credible explanation for this dirge-like denunciation of a mere bad boy is that, since 9/11, it is Wieseltier who has stiffened. The Holocaust, the horrors in Israel and Palestine, and the horrors of his own misbegotten crusading after 9/11 have become scar upon scar, opening an ancient and terrible wound. Here is a man who will wander through life intoning his epitaph wordlessly as well as wordily:

I am so wise

That my wisdom makes me weary.

It’s all I can do

To share my wisdom with you.

Why Rudy Giuliani Really Shouldn’t Be President (2007)

(This appeared in TPMCafe on March 8, 2007)

The deluge of commentary on Rudolph Giuliani’s presidential prospects has forced me finally to break my long silence about the man. Somebody’s gotta say it: He shouldn’t be president, not because he’s too “liberal” or “conservative,” or because his positions on social issues have been heterodox, or because he seems tone-deaf on race, or because his family life has been messy, or because he’s sometimes been as crass an opportunist as almost every other politician of note. Rudy Giuliani shouldn’t be president for reasons more profoundly troubling. Maybe you had to be with him at the start of his electoral career to see them clearly.

Throughout the fall, 1993 New York mayoral campaigns, I tried harder than any other columnist I know of to convince left-liberal friends and everyone else that Giuliani would win and probably should.

In the Daily News, The New Republic, and on cable and network TV, I insisted it had come to this because racial “Rainbow” and welfare-state politics were imploding nationwide, not just in New York and not only thanks to racists, Ronald Reagan, or robber barons. One didn’t have to share all of Giuliani’s “colorblind,” “law-and-order,” and free-market presumptions to want big shifts in liberal Democratic paradigms and to see that some of those shifts would require a political battering ram, not a scalpel.

I spent a lot of time with Giuliani during the 1993 campaign and his first year in City Hall, and while a dozen of my columns criticized him sharply for presuming far too much, I defended most of his record to the end of his tenure. He forced New York, that great capital of “root cause” explanations for every social problem, to get real about remedies that work, at least for now, in the world as we know it. Some of these turned out to be preconditions for progress of any kind: I saw Al Sharpton blink as I told him in a debate that twice as many New Yorkers had been felled by police bullets during David Dinkins’ four-year mayoralty as during Giuliani’s then-seven years and that the drop in all murders meant that at least two thousand black and Hispanic New Yorkers who’d have been dead were up and walking around.

Giuliani’s successes ranged well beyond crime reduction. As late as July, 2001, when his personal and political blunders had eclipsed those gains and he had only a lame duck’s six months to go, I insisted in a New York Observer column that he’d facilitated housing, entrepreneurial, and employment gains for people whose loudest-mouthed advocates called him a racist reactionary. James Chapin, the late democratic socialist savant, considered Giuliani a “progressive conservative” like Teddy Roosevelt, who was a New York police commissioner before becoming Vice President and President.

Yet Giuliani couldn’t carry his methods and motives to the White House without damaging this country, for two reasons that run deeper than such “horse race” liabilities as his social views and family history.

The first serious problem is structural and political: A man who fought the inherent limits of his mayoral office as fanatically as Giuliani would construe presidential prerogatives so broadly he’d make George Bush’s notions of “unitary” executive power seem soft.

Even in the 1980s, as an assistant attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department and U.S. Attorney in New York, Giuliani was imperious and overreaching. He “perp-walked” Wall Streeters right out of their offices in dramatic prosecutions that failed. He made the troubled daughter of a state judge, Hortense Gabel, testify against her mother and former Miss America Bess Meyerson in a failed prosecution charging, among other things, that Meyerson had hired the judge’s daughter to bribe her into helping “expedite” a messy divorce case. The jury was so put off by Giuliani’s tactics that it acquitted all concerned, as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus recalled ten years later in assessing Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s subpoena of Monica Lewinsky’s mother to testify against her daughter.

At least, as U.S. Attorney, Giuliani served at the pleasure of the President and had to defer to federal judges. Were he the President, U.S. Attorneys would serve at his pleasure — a dangerous arrangement in the wrong hands, we’ve learned — and he’d pick the judges to whom prosecutors defer.

As mayor, Giuliani fielded his closest aides like a fast and sometimes brutal hockey team, micro-managing and bludgeoning city agencies and even agencies that weren’t his, like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Board of Education. They deserved it richly enough to make his bravado thrilling to many of us, but it wasn’t very productive. And while this Savonarola disdained even would-be allies in other branches of government, he wasn’t above cutting indefensible deals with crony contractors and pandering shamelessly to some Hispanics, orthodox and neo-conservative Jews, and other favored constituencies.

Even the credit he claimed for transportation, housing and safety improvements belongs partly and sometimes wholly to predecessors’ decisions and to economic good luck: As he left office the New York Times noted that on his first day as mayor in 1994, the Dow Jones had stood at 3754.09, while on his last day, Dec. 31, 2001, it opened at 10,136.99: “For most of his tenure, the city’s treasury gushed with revenues generated by Wall Street.” Dinkins had had to struggle through the after-effects the huge crash of 1987.

Remarkable though Giuliani’s mayoral record remains, it’s complicated by more than socio-economic circumstances and structural constraints. Ironically, it was his most heroic moments as mayor that spotlighted his deepest presidential liability.  Fred Siegel, author of the Giuliani-touting Prince of the City, posed the problem recently when he wondered why, after Giuliani’s 1997 mayoral reelection, with the city buoyed by its new safety and economic success, he couldn’t “turn his Churchillian political personality down a few notches.”

I’ll tell you why: Giuliani’s 9/11 performance was sublime for the unnerving reason that he’d been rehearsing for it all his adult life and remained trapped in that stage role. When his oldest friend and deputy mayor Peter Powers told me in 1994 that 16-year-old Rudy had started an opera club at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, I didn’t have to connect too many of the dots I was seeing to notice that Giuliani at times acted like an opera fanatic who’s living in a libretto as much as in the real world.

In private, Giuliani can contemplate the human comedy with a Machiavellian prince’s supple wit. But when he walks on stage, he tenses up so much that even though he can strike credibly modulated, lawyerly poses, his efforts to lighten up seem labored. What really drove many of his actions as mayor was a zealot’s graceless division of everyone into friend or foe and his snarling, sometimes histrionic, vilifications of the foes. Those are operatic emotions, beneath the civic dignity of a great city and its chief magistrate.

I know a few New Yorkers who deserve the Rudy treatment, but only on 9/11 did the whole city become as operatic as the inside of Rudy’s mind. For once, his New York re-arranged itself into a stage fit for, say, Rossini’s “Le Siege de Corinth” or some dark, nationalist epic by Verdi or Puccini that ends with bodies strewn all over and the tragic but noble hero grieving for his devastated people and, perhaps, foretelling a new dawn.

It’s unseemly to call New York’s 9/11 agonies “operatic,” but it was Giuliani who called the Metropolitan Opera only a few days after 9/11 and insisted its performances resume. At the start of one of them, the orchestra struck up a few familiar chords as the curtain rose on the entire cast and the Met’s stage hands, administrators, secretaries, custodians — and Rudy Giuliani, bringing the capacity audience to its feet to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with unprecedented ardor. Then all gave the mayor what The New Yorker’s Alex Ross called “an ovation worthy of Caruso.” A few days later Giuliani proposed that his term be extended on an “emergency” basis beyond its lawful end on January 1, 2002. (It wasn’t, and the city did as well as it could have, anyway.)

Should this country suffer another devastating attack before the 2008 primaries are over, Giuliani’s presidential prospects may soar beyond recalling. But the very Constitutional notion of recall could soar away with them. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Giuliani was right for his time on a stage with built-in limits. But we shouldn’t have to make him the next President to learn why even a grateful Britain dumped Churchill in its first major election after V-E day.

American Journalism in the Coils of ‘Ressentiment’

The subtitle of William McGowan’s new book Gray Lady Down — What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means For America– all but ensured its dismissal by book-review editors who aren’t drawn to anything quite so portentous.

According to the book’s website, McGowan tried to gin up a controversy over the fact that the Times didn’t review it, despite book-review editor Sam Tanenhaus’ supposed promise to him that it would. No controversy ensued, because Gray Lady also wasn’t reviewed in Times rival Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, or in the Washington Post, or in any other major daily. Or in Bookforum, The New York Review, or any other thoughtful venue.

So McGowan has been haunting the conservative noise machine’s studios and websites, hawking his claim that while “The New York Times was once considered the gold standard in American journalism,” now “it is generally understood to be a vehicle for politically correct ideologies, tattered liberal pieties, and a repeated victim of journalistic scandal and institutional embarrassment.”

Language like that has been ricocheting around the conservative echo chamber for so long now that it almost echoes itself. So why is the decidedly un-conservative, ever-young Washington Monthly publishing a review of McGowan’s book by yours truly? And why am I writing still more about it here?

Click here and read the review to see how McGowan miscarries his mission to rescue journalism from political correctness by succumbing to another kind of ideological partisanship, one that trumps his good intentions. Then, if you care about journalism, return here to think further with me about how to distinguish attacks like his from serious criticisms of papers like the Times that do need to be made.

These days, it’s hard to tell the serious criticisms from the opportunistic, right-wing ones, because liberals as well as conservatives resist facing an unpleasant truth:

Newspapers such as the Times sometimes do accelerate the decay of American public life, not because they’re “liberal” or “politically correct,” as McGowan claims the Times is (and, indeed, it sometimes is), but because they’re housed in big media corporations, which care about marketing more than about serious journalism, which is definitely not the same thing: Even when the more liberal newspapers are assiduously “green,” or gay-friendly, or cosmopolitan, they still serve a casino-finance, corporate-welfare, military-industrial, consumer-marketing juggernaut that’s degrading American life and dissolving the republic.

McGowan insists he’d like nothing better than to restore the Times to the sober, civic-republican glory he thinks it reached in the 1970s, when the elder Arthur Sulzberger was publisher and A.M. Rosenthal was executive editor. Yet, as I show in the Washington Monthly (and a bit more below), he violates the standards of accuracy, open-mindedness, and civic vision he claims to want to restore.

Like Ahab, he’s been pursuing the Gray Lady so long and obsessively, with support from investors and commentators hell-bent on slaying her for their own pecuniary and partisan/ideological reasons, that he’s wound up blaming the deterioration of our public sphere more on Times political correctness than on the other, more powerful currents I’ve just mentioned — of casino financing, corporate welfare, and degraded consumer marketing.

These currents are warping journalism at most news organizations, no matter what political poses they strike in order to ingratiate themselves to anticipated markets. McGowan’s anti-liberalism isn’t just a line dictated by conservative-movement paymasters; it’s part of a deeper distemper, a product of the powerful currents I’ve mentioned, that’s infecting our public life.


One name for the distemper that’s sinking this man and so many others — ressentiment — denotes more than just “resentment.” The word (in French it’s pronounced “ruh-sohn-tee-mohn”) refers to a syndrome, a public psychopathology, in which gnawing insecurities, envy, and hatreds that have been nursed by many people in private converge in public, presenting themselves as noble crusades in scary social eruptions. These movements diminish their participants, even while seeming to make them big.

In ressentiment  the little-big man seeks “easy” enemies on whom to wreak vengeance for frustrations that are only half-acknowledged because they come from his exploitation by powers he fears to reckon with head-on. Ressentiment warps the little-big man’s assessments of society’s hardships and opportunities. It shapes the disguises he tries on in order to wreak vengeance without incurring reproach until there are enough of him (and her, of course) to step out together brazenly, en masse, with a Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin.

Whether ressentiment erupts in a medieval Catholic Inquisition, a Puritan or McCarthyite witch hunt, a Maoist Cultural Revolution, “Tea Party” assaults at congressional “town meetings,” or nihilist extremes of “people’s liberation movements” or political correctness, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria.(The Tawana Brawley and O.J. Simpson cases became psychodramas of black ressentiment — understandable, but destructive.)

These gusts of collective passion touch raw nerves under the ministrations of demagogues and an increasingly surreal journalism that prepares the way for them by brutalizing public discourse. These movements’ legitimate grievances often goad them to a fleeting brilliance, but soon they curdle and collapse, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on their own cowardice, ignorance, and lies.

For all McGowan’s pretensions to be saving the Times’ soul, he, like other bearers of ressentiment, is trying to burn it at the stake. Surreal journalism like his — sometimes slick, sometimes rough — softens up the public sphere for something much worse.  The journalist Michael Tomasky tried to inject some clarity and sanity into this when he took McGowan on in a debate in Brooklyn, sponsored by conservatives and aired on C-Span. Not surprisingly,  this debate isn’t mentioned or linked on Gray Lady Down’s website.

In principle and often in practice, the New York Times stands against ressentiment in public discourse. The best of its journalism disrupts the self-reinforcing ignorance that drives consumers of the New York Post and Fox News and that also drives bottom-lining business jocks who hang on every word of commentary in the Wall Street Journal. No wonder we’re witnessing a battle to the death between Murdoch, who owns all three of these media engines, and the Times, with McGowan one of the combatants.

Sometimes an elitist ressentiment does creep into the Times’ own news analyses and commentary on pseudo-liberations and post-modernist titillations that enrage McGowan and sometimes anger me, too. It’s one thing to report on the degradation of sports, entertainment, and public mores, and on the spread of gladiatorial fighting, nihilist and exploitative sex, and worse. It’s another thing to seem to celebrate these trends as if they were liberating just because they’re breaking certain “bourgeois” or working-class conventions.

Some Times coverage and commentary makes that mistake, seeming to tout trends that are actually degrading and demoralizing. (Here’s a truly pathetic example  that I noticed in last Sunday’s Times — written by a runner-up in the paper’s “Modern Love” essay contest, no less.)

Striking the right balances can be tricky: In a 1994 New York Daily News column, for example,  I warned of danger in Times editorial-page editor Howell Raines’s penitential but imperious racial moralism, which converged with the political correctness of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to distort the paper’s coverage. A decade later, Raines, by then executive editor, was forced out largely by the fabrications of a young black reporter, Jayson Blair, whom he’d shielded from others’ warnings, very likely dismissing the complainers as racists for voicing their doubts.

A few years later, a chapter of my Liberal Racism focused on the folly in Sulzberger ‘s pursuing his crusade for “managed diversity” as if it were a profit-center for the paper, corrupting both diversity and journalism. The Times in those days often gave the impression that anything “black” or “gay” was inherently progressive or otherwise beyond reproach. McGowan educes wince-making examples.

Barack Obama has failed so far to head off the rise of ressentiment because he hasn’t been telling Americans enough truth for more of them to reckon head-on with the undercurrents I’ve mentioned that are swamping the republic. But his leadership in racial politics has been everything some of us yearned for in the 1990s, and his 2008 election campaign, however lucky or fortuitous, advanced the public learning curve on race. Yet McGowan is right to charge that even the post-Jayson Blair Times threw itself into an “Obamamania” that was sometimes unworthy of Obama’s own campaign and that the paper still sometimes coddles black-power poseurs, miscreants and suspect American Muslims, simply because they’re black or Muslim.

Too many of McGowan’s charges are stretched beyond credibility, though, by his own preconceptions and resentments involving race, sex, and immigration. These sometimes make him more censorious of the people and movements the paper is covering than he is of flaws in the coverage itself.

For example — and here, in order to illustrate my larger theme, I’m going to cite several of his blunders I didn’t have room for in the Washington Monthly review  — while McGowan condemns the Times fairly enough for its slowness in probing the career of Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre, he pounces on other Times lapses so eagerly that he gets carried away by his own prejudices, a sure sign of ressentiment.

He assails the Times for downplaying orthodox Muslims’ intimidation of a liberal Imam in New Jersey, and the paper did take too long to report that the imam had had to flee halfway across the United States to escape his tormenters. But McGowan adds insult to injury by writing, “The fact that it took months for the story to get into the paper suggests a reluctance to admit that much of the Islamic community is filled with intolerance and violence.”

Much of the Islamic community is filled with intolerance and hatred? Would McGowan have written similarly about the Irish-Catholic community of 1880, when a Times editorial declared, “A bad Irish-American boy is about as unwholesome a product as was ever reared in any body politic.”? Would he have applauded the paper then for saying that much of that community was filled with intolerance and violence? Or does he just have a thing about Muslims? Or (as I suggest in the Washington Monthly) about immigrants from India? Or about non-European immigrants in general?

Whatever its dimensions, this is ressentiment, and it drives distortions like McGowan’s mischaracterization of a Times “Editorial Observer” column of  2007 that cautioned against using the phrase “illegal immigrants” to denote the undocumented. McGowan presents the column as an instance of politically correct powers at the paper making sure that ugly truths about illegal immigrants are “airbrushed out of the record, Pravda-like.” But when I checked the Times for three months after that column, I found the phrases “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” in the first paragraphs of 40 stories and four headlines. By leaving his own readers to assume that politically correct mandarins cracked down on such usages, McGowan himself air-brushes out the truth.

The only two daily newspaper reviews of the book mentioned on McGowan’s website are a polemical column from Murdoch’s New York Post, by kindred spirit Michael Goodwin, and another in the <em>Miami Herald</em>, by columnist Glenn Garvin. But McGowan has relied far more heavily on Murdochians than he acknowledges. Among the many who are quoted in the book, he does disclose the affiliations of James Taranto, who pumps resssentiment into The Wall Street Journal’s online section every day, and the more judicious Journal columnist Daniel Henninger.  But neither of them nor anyone else at the Journal has written about McGowan’s book there. <em>Gray Lady’s</em> promotion seems to have been remanded to the nether regions of Murdochia.  (See “Media” and “Reviews.” By the way, under “Reviews,” you’ll also learn all you need to know about McGowan’s integrity by noting how he excerpts my Washington Monthly review!)

In the book, he gives us only decorous identifications of “Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum,” “the syndicated columnist Phil Valentine,” or “military analyst Ralph Peters;” he doesn’t tell us that Pipes — a Muslim-loathing neo-con who tried hard in 2008 to convince Americans that Obama is a Muslim — is a Fox News and Murdoch newspaper regular, or that Valentine, a low-rent Glenn Beck, appears on Fox frequently; or that Peters is a strategic analyst for Fox and a New York Post columnist since 2002.

Each such omission might not matter by itself, but taken together, they blank out McGowan’s collaboration with Sulzberger’s biggest rival on earth, if not in heaven. Had McGowan’s faintly sanctimonious invocations of these supposedly disinterested experts been accompanied by mentions of their affiliations with Murdoch and the noise machine, his civic-republican disguise would have dissolved and left only an open testament to ressentiment.

Getting the facts straight is the necessary even if not sufficient condition of serious journalism — and of serious criticism of journalism. McGowan cites an internal Times memo warning editors and reporters after a debacle that if they can’t find better ways “to check a story’s key facts, names, graduation claims, etc., we should hold the story until we can verify them.” But while he’s had eight years to check his own facts, his book misspells the names of Times reporter Alex Kuczynski and of D.D. (Don) Guttenplan, biographer of I.F. Stone, (who becomes “David Gutterplan”), not just once but whenever those names appear, even in the index.

He derides an “anodyne February 2002 headline over a blasé report” that he tells us blamed landlords for illegally subdividing the apartments housing their immigrant tenants. But the story, by Manny Fernandez, ran in 2009, not 2002, and it reported honestly that tenants themselves, not their landlords, subdivided the apartments to take in extra cash. It’s hard to see how the Times is coddling immigrants here, unless one is wearing McGowan’s tinted lenses.

Diction sometimes matters, too, and surely McGowan and his book’s editors had time to catch the sentence declaring that Al Sharpton “raised the rabble” (instead of “roused” it) and the one reporting that Times Corporation board members who delayed ratifying young Sulzberger’s promotion to publisher “wanted to ensure [his father] that they weren’t rejecting him.” Surely they wanted to assure the elder Sulzberger.

If I had the time and resources that McGowan had for his book, I’m sure I could find more errors. (I mention some more of them in the Washington Monthly review.) But since Gray Lady Down has no footnotes — and since, unlike a newspaper, it can’t have letters or posted comments from readers – I’d have to spend even more time than I could to prove what I hope I’ve demonstrated well enough already here and in the Monthly.


McGowan’s most important omission is his willful neglect of developments at other news organizations that would give some context to his assessment of the damage done by faddish Times liberalism. He doesn’t report that other newspapers are corrupted by other political and marketing strategies, such as hawking the hate-filled sound-bites that bring temporary but debilitating relief to many of the angry, patriotic people whom McGowan means to defend.  Why doesn’t he assess the newspapers they actually read, such as Murdoch’s  Post, instead of relying on and fronting for them?

And why doesn’t McGowan explain that market pressures are turning still other newspapers into witless titillation machines that gyrate in whatever directions their bean-counters think will boost profits, with no special ideological or partisan mission beyond their bottom lines? Recently, for example, I tried to link a book review I’d published years earlier in The Washington Post, in order to share it with other readers. The Post’s archive had no record of it, and the “Help” option directed me to a clueless, barely literate functionary, who directed me to an associate editor, who in turn referred me to Alan Shearer, director of the Washington Post Writers’ Group, who replied, “Well, you wrote the review as a freelancer, so you own it. We do not, and it is outside our Web archives.”

I reminded Shearer that “The Washington Post assigned the piece, edited it, paid me for it, and sent it out into the world for the edification of its readers. If the Post has institutional pride — let alone a responsibility to a civic mission or the historical record — why doesn’t it archive what it published?” A dozen of my <em>Post</em> reviews, like reviews by countless other freelancers for the paper, are similarly off-limits to anyone searching the paper’s archives or Google, unless I trouble to scan and publish my own paper copies of them on here, with reviews of books by Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, Benjamin DeMott, and C. Eric Lincoln, and here, of a wonderful book about Harold Washington by Gary Rivlin. (You won’t find these reviews anywhere else.)

“Is the Post just an intellectual property-rights and profit-making machine?” I asked Shearer. “Or does it have a more public sense of its purpose?”  I expected no response to those questions, and I got none.

New York Times media critic David Carr got no answers from the managers of billionaire Sam Zell’s Tribune Company to a different set of questions prompted by Carr’s reporting of the devastating fiscal and sexual indecency of corporate bottom-liners at the company’s Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Newsday, and Baltimore Sun. Carr showed managers at the Chicago Tribune degrading workplace morality and decency in ways Woodstock Nation ever imagined.

More than a few workers in Chicago are churchgoers; it’s not unusual to see foreheads marked on Ash Wednesday. Reading about how Zell’s top dog Randy Michaels instituted a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment along with economic harassment and dispossession, I couldn’t help but wonder why tribunes of public decency such as McGowan and John Leo, William Bennett, and Gertrude Himmelfarb would waste time worrying about Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and the legacies of Woodstock while ignoring the sickly smiles on the faces of decent, stodgy lifers at the Tribune who tried to keep their jobs with these creepy capitalists by pretending they were having fun.

New York Times liberalism isn’t the villain there or at the Washington Post. Where’s McGowan’s outrage at what corporate bottom-lining is doing to news organizations?  Why doesn’t he at least note what it’s doing?


McGowan’s conservative benefactors, handlers, and collaborators bear some responsibility for his blind spots, errors, and dissimulations. As far back as 2003, the conservative Earhart Foundation —  anti-“diversity,” environmentally unfriendly, national-security-obsessed  — gave McGowan $10,000, through the conservative Social Philosophy and Policy Center, “for completion of a book, ‘Gray Lady Down: How the New York Times Has Lost Touch With America,'” and he has been associated with the center often since, sometimes as a “media fellow.” Yet he doesn’t mention the center or Earhart in his acknowledgments or anywhere else in the book.

He does thank Tom Tisch of the conservative Manhattan Institute and David DesRosiers, that institute’s vice president and a founder of Revere Advisors, which gives discreet guidance to corporate and other donors to projects they don’t want to be associated with in public. McGowan’s conservative backing began well before 2003: His book <em>Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism</em> (which I reviewed more favorably for the Los Angeles Times in 2002) had been supported since 1995 with nearly $50,000 from the conservative Bradley Foundation, again through the Social Philosophy and Policy Center.

He’s had conservative handlers at a more intimate level, too: <em>Gray Lady Down’s </em>acknowledgments give “a thousand thanks to Peter Collier, editor emeritus of Encounter Books” — McGowan’s publisher, which is to today’s conservative “Con-intern” what International Publishers was to the old Stalinist Comintern – for being “an effective taskmaster whose experience, editing, and insight through many manuscript drafts are responsible more than anything else for bringing this vessel to shore.” McGowan also thanks Roger Kimball, Encounter’s own publisher, “for his extraordinary patience and his confidence in me.” Kimball, a well-known conservative polemicist, also edits the journal The New Criterion, which has excerpted the book.

Yet I doubt that these conservative collaborators, funders, and handlers are as much to blame for what’s wrong with this book as is the ressentiment I’ve sketched here: McGowan’s lapses aren’t mercenary, or even ideological, as much as they’re psychopathological, in a way that does have capitalist and conservative antecedents but that has taken on a life of its own amid the rise of ressentiment.

As a son of a New York City police captain and a large, Brooklyn Irish-American family, McGowan has reason to resent the Manhattan, preppie subculture that Sulzberger epitomizes. In Gray Lady’s acknowledgments, he thanks his seven brothers and sisters by name, “as well as my enthusiastic nephews and nieces, cousins, aunts, and uncles,” and throughout he hews to the white-ethnic social and moral codes which he accuses Sulzberger and his cohort of disdaining.

I’m not suggesting that McGowan is a stereotypical, white-ethnic racist. He would hotly proclaim himself pro-integration and trans-racial. These days, of course, such  pious professions of color-blindness are also the positions of the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, Exxon, you name it. But a few corporations, like Sulzberger’s own Times, stray so far down the “multicultural sensitivity” path that you’d almost think they were trying to re-balkanize their workforces subtly in order to divide and conquer them along racial lines.

The capitalism we have today is so protean and absorptive of racial and libidinal currents that it’s defusing the left’s charges of “racism/sexism/homophobia.” But it’s not resolving the grinding, systemic inequalities that have nothing to do with race. Apologists for this system are rearranging the deck chairs a little, as anyone can see by looking at what’s happening to American workers and homeowners of all colors. McGowan gets halfway toward acknowledging this by showing that some of the apologists’ anti-racist posturing is really a hypocritical way of shoring up class divisions by legitimizing them as “fair.” But, of course, he stops short of saying that, and of confronting the unfairness itself.

That McGowan attended the leafy, liberal-arts Middlebury College in Vermont seems only to have deepened his resentment of upscale liberals who think they’re rattling their gilded cages by accepting some tokens from below and romanticizing wrongdoers at the bottom while dismissing brave “first responders” like the McGowans. Elite Manhattan liberals’ blithe assumption that urban white ethnics and Southern rednecks aren’t good citizens because their stand-pat, neighborhood loyalties submerge individual “merit” and independence was up-ended by 9/11: Suddenly, the group solidarity and self-sacrifice that first responders had learned in parish schools and sports leagues awed their frightened beneficiaries. McGowan has said that he walked over the Brooklyn Bridge to lower Manhattan that morning to volunteer in the rescue efforts.

If some of those virtues have curdled into ressentiment, it’s at least partly because people in Sulzberger’s class have been doing far too well in our casino-finance, corporate-welfare dispensation to be all that serious about reconfiguring it to redress the inequities it imposes on McGowan’s class and clan. Tellingly, though, that’s not really McGowan’s complaint. What enrages him is that Times liberals aren’t serious enough about defending the present regime, whose unsustainable inequities he avoids facing even more than they do. He excoriates their lofty posturing against white working-class racism, sexism, and homophobia, which shifts most of the blame for the larger problems, of which these are symptoms, onto people like him.

McGowan’s white-ethnic “Reagan Democrats” are far from alone in their inclination to blame elite liberals and poor scapegoats for their shrinking horizons, instead of standing up to the powers that are really pressing them down. Many political writers, including Jewish neoconservatives, are drawn or driven, by their own culturally inflected insecurities and resentments, to play roles like McGowan’s on our darkening, late-republican stage.

These keyboard warriors, who’ve been crewing up in recent years on conservative ships that are run as tightly as the old Stalinist Comintern, often mistake those ships for vessels of bold thinking and high purpose. Others embed themselves in more “neutral” or even nominally liberal outlets, including the <em>Times.</em>

And so The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin; the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka; the Murdoch scribblers Eve Kessler and Eliana Johnson (and her father, the Powerline bogger Scott Johnson); the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and Hugh Hewitt; the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, and the neo-connish blogger-activists Ronald Radosh, David Horowitz and Ira Stoll consider themselves brave truth-tellers against liberal orthodoxies that once bamboozled them or their elders. They’re so preoccupied with escaping those orthodoxies that they’ve jumped from a frying pan into a fire, without actually changing their morphology of mind.

Even when the rigors of Con-intern message development make them sound a bit like old Comintern Daily Worker writers trying to justify the Stalin-Hitler pact the day after its signing, each of these throwbacks is proud of staying tough in adversity, being part of a team. Like McGowan, each starts out with justified indignation and commendable courage, but also with insecurities and resentments. And, like him, each gets swept up by darker, swifter currents that are running in society as well as in himself. Ahab, too, began as a pious young Quaker, only to end up possessed by his prey.


Every so often someone breaks free and tells the truth. Reagan budget director David Stockman has done it in his exposes of voodoo economics since defecting in 1986. David Frum is trying to do likewise. Sometimes, a loyalist blurts out the truth almost despite himself: The muckrakers Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul once provoked a Democratic Party machine City Councilman in New York to defend his subservience to corrupt bosses this way: “You think it takes courage to stand up for what’s right? No! What takes real courage is to come in here day after day and stand up for what’s wrong!”

Being that kind of stand-up guy can be alluring not just to bag-men or mobsters but to others carrying heavy loads of internalized, culturally inflected self-loathing passed down a generation or two from family pasts in immigrant Irish or Eastern European Jewish tenement neighborhoods, African-American ghettos, and even rich but repressed WASP enclaves. While some are well paid for their services to the Conintern, some live on their misplaced purity and passion, and most of them, unlike that too-candid City Councilman, no longer know what they do.

If they could step back for six months and reckon quietly with themselves and recent developments around them, instead of spinning and re-spinning their <em>ressentiment</em>, they’d still find plenty to blame on the <em>Times.</em> But they’d also have to blame the more powerful enablers of their own wired perversity.

Both left and right have credible claims on certain republican truths, and, at any historical moment, one side’s claims may be the more liberating in its uphill struggle against the other side’s institutionalized premises and cant. 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.

Usually, these one-sided surges crest with the support of less than a majority of the population, and then they recede. They certainly recede in a basically sound society, which, like a healthy person, strides on both a left foot and a right one, without stopping to notice that at any one instant, all of the body’s weight is on one and not the other. A good society needs a left foot of social provision for equality — without which neither the individuality nor the communal values that conservatives cherish could flourish — and a right foot of irreducibly personal liberty and responsibility, without which even the most brilliant social engineering would reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse.

When left or right get stuck in their imagined upswings, it’s because those who’ve been harnessed to them out of ressentiment clamor to shift all the society’s weight onto one foot until it swells almost beyond repair. The morphology of one’s mindset doesn’t change with this kind of “flip” from left to right, or vice-versa: The real problem, George Orwell wrote, is “the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”

That’s what accounts for the uncanny resemblance of so much American conservative opinion journalism to the Stalinist kind that Orwell exposed when he wrote <em>Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm</em>, and 1984. The tactics and tropes of today’s neo-conservatives mirror uncannily those recounted with rueful humor in The Age of Suspicion, by my cousin James Wechsler, an anti-communist liberal who graduated from Columbia in 1937 and edited The New York Post during its liberal heyday, until 1977, when Murdoch took over and turned it into a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony.


It’s easy enough to be right about how the other side is wrong, and McGowan savors the moment, a decade ago, when Times editor Raines had to watch him accept a National Press Club award for the more creditable Coloring the News. Looking over at Raines — who was in the audience because his own son was getting another award — McGowan said, “It would have been easy to turn an eye of polite indifference to this book as some in the profession have done.”

He told the Neiman Foundation soon afterward that “Many journalists were all too ready to read racial ill will into the book’s critique of the diversity crusade or to dismiss it as a ‘right wing’ screed and describe me as a conservative ideologue with an agenda….. They did their best to discredit it with blithe dismissals or unfounded charges about the book’s ‘dubious scholarship.’ I had been told to expect such treatment, and while it certainly did not outweigh the positive responses, something about the abusive tone and inaccuracies of these broadsides was disturbing.”

I understand how he felt. I recognize the temptation to rush into the conservative noise machine’s well-funded echo chambers. But the temptation has to be resisted, because the machine is accelerating and rationalizing the degradation of public debate and the dispossession of families and hopes like McGowan’s.

It’s because he won’t acknowledge this that he’s fallen so hard and sadly into its coils, his fate anticipated, ironically, in the 1978 Hollywood movie “Gray Lady Down,” in which a nuclear submarine sinks off Cape Cod. The New York Daily News said that the movie “capture[s] the intensity of living under water.” Had it reviewed Captain McGowan’s book, too, it might have noted a very similar intensity.

McGowan unwittingly mimicked the worst of the old Comintern’s Popular Front last year when he tried to promote his book in a little gossip item that ran in Murdoch’s <em>Post. </em>  The item was about NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams’ buying rounds of drinks for fellow NBC-staff softball players after a game. But McGowan helped the Post gossip columnist to praise Williams as a man of the people by recounting, as the Post put it, that the NBC anchor “‘tipped the waitress in cash — more than 30 percent,’ said our spy.”

Our spy? Well, it just so happened, the Post columnist noted, that “William McGowan …. was there celebrating his delivery of the final manuscript of his New York Times book, Gray Lady Down” and that he and Williams “talked about the journalistic importance of staying close to regular people, and [Williams] told me about dropping out of community college and also about being a volunteer fireman on the Jersey Shore. Total class act.”

A total working-class act, anyway. Here McGowan and the New York Post gossip columnist themselves sound like characters out of the proletarian theater of the old Stalinist Comintern. That faux populism has been taken up by the Con-intern, from Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck; McGowan, who internalized the Murdoch playbook years ago, is using it here to promote his book attacking the Times, in a newspaper that seldom misses an opportunity to do just that.

nlike McGowan and the New York Post, though, the left wouldn’t have touted a celebrity’s tip to a waitress as a substitute for siding with her and others to demand better wages and working conditions. It’s not Brian Williams who’s at fault here; McGowan and the Post are celebrating “the people” on a celebrity’s time, for their own ideological and pecuniary reasons. It’s quite like the old Hollywood Popular Front hypocrisies that provoked Ronald Reagan to spend the rest of his life trying to turn the tables on those he felt had conscripted him into an ideological agenda. Similarly, and ironically, I can imagine Brian Williams telling McGowan and the <em>Post</em>, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

For some fresh air I commend not just my Washington Monthly review but the whole magazine, founded by Charles Peters and edited by Paul Glastris. In 2007, <a href=”http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2007/0712.ednote.html”>Glastris bore witness against “The Politics of Resentment”</a> in a brief, rich, moving editor’s note, prompted by a profile the magazine was running of (drum roll….) <em>Norman Podhoretz</em>, the very apostle of neoconservative ressentiment!

The Monthly has given the American public sphere such civic-republican tribunes as James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, Mickey Kaus, Jonathan Alter, Nicholas Confessore, Joe Nocera, Katherine Boo, Suzanna Lessard, Nicholas Lemann, Nicholas Thompson, Robert Worth, Steven Waldman, and others who trained there just after college and whose editing and bylines now command wide respect.

Some of them, blessed with the opposite of ressentiment, may be a bit too inclined to hope for the best from what this country is becoming instead of being more scathing about it. But compare this roster with the conservative talking machine’s by visiting McGowan’s “Media” and “Reviews” sections, and you’ll wish that there were even more Washington Monthly alumni in the news media. As you read the magazine along with them, savor a small irony: Many years ago, a young editor-in-training there was a recent college graduate named William McGowan.

The lesson: Never give in to ressentiment. And never take media criticism from a man like this at face value.

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?

Fareed Zakaria’s Problem — And Ours (8/18/11)


Fareed Zakaria’s Problem – And Ours

By Jim Sleeper – August 18, 2011, 8:42PM

Many people defer to Fareed Zakaria’s virtuosity and sheer ubiquity as the neo-liberal consciousness-shaper of the moment. An Indian Muslim by background whose parents have been prominent in Indian politics and news media, he owes a lot of his credibility as a journalist to American civic-republican premises and a generosity of spirit that had some force in undergraduate life at Yale when Zakaria was a student there. (He graduated in 1986, then earned a PhD from Harvard). But now that America’s civic-republican premises and practices are waning, Zakaria’s own recent behavior makes me wonder how well they ever “took” with him in the first place.

At age 28, he was managing editor of Foreign Affairs; later, as editor of Newsweek International, he began hosting his Emmy Award-winning CNN program “GPS,” where he holds forth now while writing for Time magazine. Certainly, he has given America a lot, though often by dishing out more “wisdom” than he takes in return as he weans us of what he considers our democratic naivete.

Steely in command of his facts and allusions, he’s as deft as he is disciplined: Asked to assess the Iraq War this year at an inaugural convocation of Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs (home now of Stanley McChrystal), he said that while “it’s clear now that costs outweighed benefits and that anyone who says he’d do it over again is not being honest or is not in command of the facts,” we must remember that South Korea, too, seemed “a big mess, a brutal dictatorship, until the 1980s,” when it stabilized and became hospitable to Western values as well as investments. All the same, he added, we should try to “re-balance American foreign policy away from these crisis centers that are riven by 15th-century feuds.”

That strikes me as an example of how Zakaria manages to eat his cake and keep it, too, when parsing the movements of the powerful if myopic titans whose policies he so often and so smoothly defends. So it was something of a surprise to see him lose his cool and his command of the human prospect last week, on the Charlie Rose show, in an id-like eruption over the political psychologist Drew Westen’s darkly prophetic, potentially game-changing New York Times essay, “What Happened to Obama?”

Like the 13th chime of a clock, Zakaria’s arrogant outburst not only surprised; it cast doubt on the previous 12 chimes of the centrist, high-Democratic bloggery and flummery that he sometimes superintends as concert master of our national orchestra of high-minded liberal opinion.

Understand first what’s at stake in all this. During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama – a kindred spirit of sorts to Zakaria (though not an immigrant or a Muslim like him, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding) — was photographed boarding a plane holding Zakaria’s best-selling The Post American World. That book had followed another best-seller, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, and both have been translated into 20 languages.

CNN’s “GPS” stands for “Global Public Square,” but Zakaria is a Global Positioning System by himself, a one-man Davos for the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-bamboozling wrecking ball whose directors, grand strategists, investors, and apologists brandish pennants of their “diversity” as talismans against having to answer to any actual polity or moral code, national or otherwise.

He sits on the governing corporation of Yale University, a career-networking center and cultural galleria for the new global elite so memorably (and scathingly) depicted by Chrystie Freeland in The Atlantic. (Yale is just now establishing a whole new liberal-arts college in Singapore, a city-state that, as Maureen Dowd noted, thinks and acts more like a global corporation than a republic.)

Although Zakaria is also a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, he considers himself enough a Democrat — and democrat — to tell the masses, via CNN and Time, why the neo-liberal dispensation of Obama, Bernanke, Geithner, et al is inexorable and inescapable and why, with public acquiescence to the judgments of such experts, it’ll probably be all for the best, or at least better than any alternative.

He assesses that dispensation’s costs, benefits, and (limited) opportunities for democratic mitigations in the style of a grand-strategic memo-writer, his rat-a-tat-tat diction issuing in firm, clear judgments graced with felicitous apercus. If he rests, it’s because he’s disarmed all intellectual and moral resistance, at least for the moment.

The New Republic’s American-politics blogger extraordinaire, Jonathan Chait, teamed up with Zakaria on the Charlie Rose show in a show of force against Westen, who is himself the author of a best-seller, The Political Brain. Zakaria and Chait deferred to and praised each another more often than they actually addressed Westen, whom they dismissed as an ivory-tower moralist with no political experience. They dispensed Beltway realism about the filibusters and the fiscal-crisis constraints that supposedly moot Westen’s demand for a President who’ll tell Americans more of the truth about the crisis they face, in an empowering, explanatory, narrative in the manner of FDR, Martin Luther King, Jr., or even Harry Truman.

Rose opened the show with a clip that showed Obama falling well short of the standard that Westen invokes, the President blaming Congress and not the larger powers to whose tunes it dances. “This downgrade you`ve been reading about could have been entirely avoided if there had been a willingness to compromise in Congress,” Obama said. “See, it didn`t happen because we don`t have the capacity to pay our bills. It happened because Washington doesn`t have the capacity to come together and get things done. It was a self-inflicted wound. There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics.”

Westen counters that Obama’s account isn’t enough of the truth to be even credible: There’s “something wrong” not just with our politics but with that global juggerrnaut that’s distorting and, indeed, dissolving it.

For example, manufacturers that have outsourced their jobs and/or closed their plants were doing fine with, say, a 15% rate of profit before their new, publicly traded conglomerate owners demanded, say, a 22% rate of return. By what God given or natural right? By no right besides a long train of decisions by the corporate bought-and-paid for Congress or the courts and by global market pressures that no polity is permitted to challenge.

That Obama won’t say this clearly is a point of Westen’s essay. Drawing not just on his knowledge as an academic psychologist — as his critics suggest disparagingly — but also from history, anthropology, and his own substantial experience as a Washington political consultant, Westen writes that:

“The stories our leaders tell us matter… because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be…

“When Barak Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters…. Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end….”

Westen tells the story he thinks Obama should have told: “This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out…..”

He sketches the parameters for a solution that Obama should have proposed: “We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back into the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets…”

Such a story, he claims, would have “inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two-and-a-half years of failed government, idled factories, and idled hands. [It] would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities on both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country…. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism and the deficit – a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

“And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative,… that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

“But there was no story, and there has been none since,” Westen writes.

This was all too much for Jonathan Chait, who told Rose that Westen’s is “a dramatic overestimation of the power of rhetoric to affect policies in Congress and to affect public opinion. There`s just not a lot of evidence that it has that kind of effect, anything like the effect that — that he says.

“I think liberals have a hard time holding on to power and being comfortable with power and the compromise is held with power,” Chait continued. “I think it`s something in the liberal psyche…. I am not the psychologist here, but liberals turn against every single Democratic President with regularity. That was what the whole Nader campaign in 2000 was about, this fury that Clinton was a sell out.

“Now we`ve had a President who`s been vastly more successful in advancing the liberal agenda through Congress and you`ve got liberals angry again…. But the anger at Obama to me is just sort of baffling.”

Zakaria, no slouch at reductio ad absurdum in combat with liberals — and a near-screecher whenever he has to talk about leftists — outdid Chait, even while siding with him:

“Jonathan is entirely right but he doesn`t go far enough for my purposes. As Jonathan says in a very brilliant blog post, [Westen’s] is the version of the American presidency you get from Aaron Sorkin in [the movie] “The American President”: The President gets up, and makes this incredibly moving speech which is, of course, deeply liberal. The entire country cheers and all of a sudden all the problems that are — that he encounters are waved aside.

“You remember, in the movie, of course, it was gun control and environmentalism that was the big problem. Now, the idea that if Barack Obama were to give a speech on gun control, suddenly he would be able to, you know, wave aside the Second Amendment and the — settled convictions of a large percentage of Americans is — is we would recognize nonsense.

“The reality is that Obama is working within a very constrained political environment,” Zakaria continued, citing Obama’s accomplishments against great odds; “I`m a little hard pressed to see what the great liberal betrayal has been other than from some kind of fantasy version of liberalism where the American — you know, finally a Democratic president comes in and America becomes, I don`t know, Sweden.”

Little of this had anything to do with Westen’s argument, and as the discussion got down to political specifics, Chait and Zakaria went on about the filibuster and the self-interest of members of Congress, blaming them and the American people, not the President.

Finally, Rose asked, “….Yes, [Obama] had a difficult Congress to deal with, but if he had a different set of skills and was less of a conciliator, might he achieved more? That`s the question that Drew raises.”

Chait: “I don`t think that`s right. He only had four months in which he had 60 votes in the Senate. Other than that period, Republicans were committed to blocking his entire legislation no matter what, pretty much even if it included ideas that they had once endorsed. The President just has very limited tools at his disposal….

Rose: Drew?

Westen: “Well, I will say that I have more empathy for the President now after feeling like what it`s like to have a filibuster proof super-majority of two against one.”

Then Westen disposed of the filibuster argument: “President [George W.] Bush never had the size of the Senate behind him that President Obama had when he walked into office and that he then had three months later.

“And President Bush ….got through ‘No Child Left Behind,’… tax cuts …. heavily weighted towards the wealthy. He got through an unfunded Medicare plan that gave lots of money to Big Pharma. He got through an unfunded Iraq war, an unfunded Afghanistan war. And where was the screaming about the deficit then? Where was the screaming about the filibuster?

“By January of 2009, when [Democrats] could have changed the rules in the Senate, [they] chose not to…. They knew who they were dealing with. Obama certainly knew who he was dealing with after the first couple of times of banging his head against the wall and realizing, wait a minute, these are not Rockefeller Republicans. So why didn`t they change those rules? Why didn`t he push them to change those rules?”

Zakaria changed the subject, going back to blaming the people. “Look, the American people… they want jobs. They want the budget deficit cut. They, by and large, don`t want much taxes, many new taxes other than on the very rich. They don`t want Medicare cut, they want Social Security preserved, they don`t want the interest deduction on mortgages to be taken away but they want many large cuts. You know, this is a conglomeration of incompatible desires.

“And, to Drew`s point again, why is Obama worried about this? …. We have a budget deficit that is 10 percent of GDP. It`s the second-highest in the industrialized world. We have a gross national debt that will approach 100 percent in three or four years. So, you know, we`re not in the 1930s when — when government debt was minuscule in comparison. We can`t just say let`s spend $5 trillion jump starting the economy and see where that gets us.

“[This] does not show that Obama has been captured by bankers, He is properly concerned that there is some outer limit about how much you can spend and therefore a long-term deficit reduction plan is the right thing….. : I think sometimes being a conciliator is being a leader, particularly in a divided country.”

Westen: “Do you really think, though, that what we need right now, when we`ve got a Tea Party dominating the House, is someone who`s trying to conciliate people who you`ve just said a minute ago can`t be conciliated?”

Zakaria: “Drew, Drew, the stimulus package, such as it was, passed by one vote. The idea that if you had added on another $400 billion it would have sailed through, I mean this is what he could get through…..”

Westen: “Well, I actually was asked by the leadership of the Senate to help out… with Wall Street reform. And one of the things that [we] said was, “Look, do what the Republicans did to you: call votes. If you`ve got 59, call a vote, and … you say, look, we`ve got us voting for Main Street, we`ve got them voting for Wall Street.”

“Harry Reid did that, I think, three days in a row and the 60th vote was there [because some Republicans, frightened by the public criticism, defected.] That was what could have been done… with the stimulus, but was not done.

“And in fact, at that point the President had 80 percent popularity of the American people… He had 57 sure votes in the Senate,… an overwhelming majority in the House. ….I never thought I`d ever say anything good about George W. Bush — but you do what George Bush did,… you go over the heads of members of Congress….

“And you say to [the moderate Maine Republicans] Susan Collins and…. Olympia Snowe, ‘Listen, the story is that 750,000 people a month are losing their jobs right now. I want to show you… a picture of a little girl who just lost the room in her house that was taken away from her. If you`re going to vote against this stimulus package, I`m going to make sure that when we get 58 votes or 59 votes tomorrow, the American people are going to hear about why it is that they`re still losing 750,000 jobs a month.’

“And I`ll bet you it would have taken three votes that he would have gotten the stimulus package he wanted.”

It was at this point that Zakaria, seeing that he wasn’t going to crush what he’d thought was an ivory tower moralist, lost his composure. “Look I — what I would say, and I`m not going to get into the what-ifs of a professor, you know, who has never run for dogcatcher advising one of the most skilful politicians in the country on how he should have handled this. It`s a – “

Rose intervened, saving Zakaria from himself: “The former would be you and the latter would be President Obama? “

Zakaria, deft on the uptake, trying to right himself, said, “Yes, exactly. The whole idea that all of us who`ve never run for anything have you know, have — can brilliantly explain how to maneuver another $400 billion through the Senate. You know, maybe. Maybe.

“But I will say. maybe we would all agree [that] it isn`t clear what you can do. You are facing a very serious economic crisis….. a very deep jobs crisis…. It`s happening because of globalization: It`s happening because of technological change that is causing companies to be much more productive. It`s happening because of a degradation of educational skills of the American work force. It`s happening because of this huge de-leveraging that`s taking place which is making all businesses less risk-seeking…..

“So I`m also a little uncomfortable with people who have facile answers if only he would have waved his magic wand. “

Oops, again.

Rose, again: “I don`t think anybody`s arguing that there`s a magic speech to be made. I do think people can make a legitimate question, which is, Did this president exhibit the kind of skills that he may or may not have that would have produced a different result at various stages in his presidency? These have to do with leadership skills….”

* * *

A day after the show, Zakaria scrambled to cover his gaffe in two blog postings that tried to slam the lid down on it. At 6:35 am on the Saturday after the Thursday night show, he posted on his CNN blog, under the headline, “What Liberals Fantasize About”:

“Thursday night I was on Charlie Rose talking with Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and Jonathan Chait, a senior editor with The New Republic.

“Drew wrote a provocative article in the New York Times called ‘What Happened to Obama?’ It’s a scathing critique of President Obama’s leadership. Then, in a brilliant blog post, Jonathan Chait called Drew’s argument a fantasy…

“Here’s a lightly edited excerpt of our conversation where I discuss the fantasy of liberals and why many need to grow up.”

But Zakaria edited his transcript of the show heavily, dishonestly. His excerpt is 1588 words long; the actual Rose transcript of the same portion of the show is 5700 words. Zakaria’s version obliterates Westen’s arguments about the missed opportunities in Congress and other political specifics, along with Zakaria’s own condescending response to the professor who’d never run for dog-catcher. In the last half of Zakaria’s version, he and Chait end up talking to each other as if Westen weren’t right there on the show. “Visit CharlieRose.com for the full video,” Zakaria advises piously in a note at the end of his post, knowing that few who’ve read his version will bother.

In another blog post, this one for Time, Zakaria frets that “The air is thick with liberal disappointment. In the days after the debt deal, liberal politicians and commentators took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to mourn the agreement. But their ire was directed not at the Tea Party or even the Republicans but rather at Barack Obama, who they concluded had failed as a President because of his persistent tendency to compromise.

“As the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, this criticism stems from a liberal fantasy that if only the President would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his poetry. In this view, writes Chait, ‘every known impediment to the legislative process–special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion–are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.'”

Again, Zakaria compounds Chait’s own reductio ad absurdum and contempt for what Westen has actually argued: “The disappointment over the debt deal is just the latest episode of liberal bewilderment about Obama,” Zakaria writes, characterizing Westen as “confused over Obama’s tendency to take ‘balanced’ positions”. Zakaria argues, falsely, that Westen suggests “that his professional experience– he is a psychologist –suggests deep, traumatic causes for Obama’s disease. Let me offer a simpler explanation. Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good.”

Zakaria then intones that “while banks need better regulations, America also needs a vibrant banking system, and that in a globalized economy, constraining American banks will only ensure that the world’s largest global financial institutions will be British, German, Swiss and Chinese.” He writes that Obama understands “that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are smart people who, in long careers in public service, got some things wrong but also got many things right.”

This seems to have been written by someone a bit too defensive and full of himself to respect his readers’ intelligence. Sure enough, Zakaria pulls out the elite card:

“Obama’s temperament was eloquently expressed by the late Bart Giamatti, a former president of Yale and former baseball commissioner, when he urged students not to fall prey to ideology from the right or left… ‘My middle view is the view of the centrist,’ he said, before quoting law professor Alexander Bickel, ‘who would … fix “our eyes on that middle distance, where values are provisionally held, are tested, and evolve within the legal order derived … from the morality of consent.'” To set one’s course by such a centrist view is to leave oneself open to the charges, hurled by the completely faithful of some extreme, of being relativistic, opportunistically flexible, secular, passive, passionless … Be of good cheer … To act according to an open and principled pragmatism, to believe in the power of process, is in fact to work for the good.'”

Ah, well. I understand the temptation to wax a bit nostalgic about the wisdom of the Yale president of one’s undergraduate years, as Zakaria has done here. I’ve sometimes done that myself in praising Kingman Brewster, Jr., a descendant of the minister on The Mayflower, who gave a Yale honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964, when that was a very controversial, not centrist, thing to do. (Giamatti got his own real doctorate the same day).

If it’s enlightened “centrism” we’re looking for, Brewster bucked more than a little alumni resistance when his gesture helped to draw King into the center of his time, a center that otherwise might not have held. Now that our own center is imploding, what would Zakaria do about it?

He and other apologists for the Democratic Party’s neo-liberal paradigm probably haven’t expected to end up looking like the “old Blues” who protested Brewster’s honoring King. But they’re beginning to sound like charter subscribers to the Beltway dog and pony show’s crackpot “realism,” its feints toward an American pragmatism that has succumbed to the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-defrauding premises it no longer questions.

Some dimensions of philosophical pragmatism may actually weaken or distort civic-republican affirmations like Westen’s and, with them, real movements for social justice. What, for example, is pragmatism’s defense against those like Zakaria who confuse the hubbub of free-markets with democratic deliberation and celebrate global capitalism itself as pragmatic, anti-absolutist, inherently democratic, and historically liberating?

The American historians Christopher Lasch and Jackson Lears have warned that the wealthy and powerful sometimes cling not to the old racist, nationalist, or religious nostrums that most people associate with power but to swift market currents that assume the benign mantle of pragmatism even as they destroy the communities and values on which many people depend.

What Zakaria hails as “centrism” becomes, in his hands, little more than an excuse for elites who are wreaking such destruction and are seeking desperately to rationalize it. (No one lamented this more, by the way, than Zakaria’s hero Giamatti, who described a university president’s life as that of a fund-raising song-and-dance man).

Sometimes, adopting such rationalizations does involve telling national governing elites certain hard, “pragmatic” truths that do have to be reckoned with. At Yale’s Jackson Institute, Zakaria told his audience that “A billion people now do jobs that American middle class and workers, blue and white collar, used to do.” And he doubted that either political party could do much about it. Once, Americans had all the capital and the know-how, he said, but, now, other peoples “have the resources, and they know how.”

The audience was silent in gloomy acquiescence, but why? Zakaria’s interlocutor on stage, Yale President Richard Levin, an economist, opined that a bigger stimulus might have a more redemptive multiplier effect on the economy than Zakaria allowed, and that is only the beginning of what ought to have been said. Neither man questioned the rules of the game under which corporations have evolved, not only on their own initiative but through decades of jurisprudence that amounts to an extended lie the United States has been telling itself about the nature of its economy and of itself a republic.

That’s a story for another time; suffice it to say here that an alternative narrative — even a “centrist” one that Giamatti and Brewster might have endorsed — would ask whether and now the rules of global capitalism need to be rewritten.

In other times and places, people with the integrity required for such a challenge led unarmed, seemingly powerless, yet deeply sensible and well-organized movements that, against all expert and elite expectations, brought down vast-national security states anchored in injustice — apartheid South Africa; the segregationist regime of the American South that even Clarence Thomas called “totalitarian;” the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe with a minimum of armed conflict: “How many divisions has the Pope?” Stalin once quipped. When Pope John Paul II stepped off a plane in Warsaw, greeted by a million unarmed Poles, Stalin’s successors got their answer. The best explanation of this kind of power is in Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World. I commend it to Zakaria and Chait for a long, slow reading.

One of the places it worked was, of course, British India, two decades before Zakaria’s birth. But is there a nerve or bone in his body that responds sympathetically to such movements?

“When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice,” Westen writes, “he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend….. He… knew that whether a bully hid behind a [policeman’s billy]club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.”

As Zakaria spoke darkly about the professor who’d never run for dog-catcher and who thought he could wave a magic wand, I thought I saw the face of a bully’s consigliere. Our one-man Davos, usually so camera-ready and composed, morphed into something almost cadaverous, a caricature of a bewigged Tory chiding Levelers. He did it again on his own CNN program, telling “liberals” to “grow up.”

What Westen wants is — in his own words, in the Times essay that deserves re-reading at the end of this discussion — is “a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative,” one that explains “that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so that they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.”

It would be heartening to see Zakaria, Chait, and other writers — who have more freedom than presidents, yet who seem driven to defend the corporate state and the Democratic Party in their present forms — form their own mouths around the following words:

The global casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-bamboozling juggernaut may feel inexorable and inescapable to most of us. But for that very reason it is becoming illegitimate and is unsustainable. Our responsibility as writers is to help to develop public narratives that pose the right questions and possibilities.

I mentioned in a recent post that Westen’s courageous essay is especially

gratifying to me because, when he was a freshman in a Harvard expository writing class I taught in 1976, he recounted a story, worthy of the movie “The Insider,” about his own father’s brave but suppressed efforts to get the tobacco company where he worked as a research scientist to come clean about the health risks of its products. I can’t help wondering if Zakaria would have overlooked or minimized those risks had he been around at the time when Westen’s Dad was trying to air them.

Obama himself has written of his debt to “the prophets, the agitators,… the absolutists…. I can’t summarily dismiss those possessed of a similar certainty today.” Why can’t Zakaria and Chait write that, too, especially when the “agitator” is as reasonable and sophisticated as Drew Westen? What drives them to portray him as some kind of naif or crank? Was it the long list of talking-points rebutting Westen that the White House reportedly issued the morning his essay appeared?

The pundits have circled their wagons, but “Thought is not, like physical strength, dependent on the number of its agents,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. “On the contrary, the authority of a principle is often increased by the small number of men by whom it is expressed. The words of one strong-minded man, addressed to the passions of a listening assembly, have more power than the vociferations of a thousand orators….. Thought is an invisible and subtle power, that mocks all the efforts of tyranny.”

And of tyranny’s deniers and obfuscators, too.

Dear Fareed, Jonathan, Barack: What seems inexorable and inescapable to you ma seem illegitimate and unsustainable to millions before long. The more that reasonable truth-tellers like Drew Westen take their stand against it now, the fewer cranks, agitators, and absolutists you’ll have to contend with later.

I really suggest re-reading Westen and, instead of nit-picking and deriding, connecting with the arc of justice as other unlikely but transformative movements in history have done.


From The New Republic’s list of 'overrated thinkers':
Fareed Zakaria is enormously important to an understanding of many
things, because he provides a one-stop example of conventional
thinking about them all. He is a barometer in a good suit, a creature
of establishment consensus, an exemplary spokesman for the
always-evolving middle. He was for the Iraq war when almost everybody
was for it, criticized it when almost everybody criticized it, and now
is an active member of the ubiquitous “declining American power”
chorus. When Obama wanted to trust the Iranians, Zakaria agreed (“They
May Not Want the Bomb,” was a story he did for Newsweek); and, when
Obama learned different, Zakaria thought differently. There’s
something suspicious about a thinker always so perfectly in tune with
the moment. Most of Zakaria’s appeal is owed to the A-list aura that
he likes to give off—“At the influential TED conference ...” began a
recent piece in The New York Times. On his CNN show, he ingratiates
himself to his high-powered guests. This mix of elitism and banality
is unattractive. And so is this: “My friends all say I’m going to be
Secretary of State,” Zakaria told New York magazine in 2003. “But I
don’t see how that would be much different from the job I have now.”
Zakaria later denied making those remarks.

Faith vs. Churches?

Gods and Monsters, Bookforum, Feb/Mar 2012, a review of the British (and Manhattan New School) philosopher Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless: Experiments on Political Theology, with some observations about Manhattan’s downtown, gauchiste left.

‘I, Barack Hussein Obama, Do Solemnly Swear,’ TPM, January 20, 2009. This little essay, which ran also in the Yale Daily News, in the Italy-based Reset: Dialogues on Civilizations website, and elsewhere, had an interesting reception, as here in Daily Kos and by the neo-conservative Obama-basher Daniel Pipes.

American Brethren: Hebrews, Puritans, and Civic-Republicanism. World Affairs Journal, Fall, 2009.  (In some respects, this essay is my revision of — and rebuttal to — David Gelernter’s fatuous Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, which I reviewed two years earlier in The Boston Globe)

Faith and Social Justice, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Nov. 16, 2003, Review of historian David Chappell’s book, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, which shows the ways in which the civil-rights movement, often at its best, was anything but “liberal”.

What the Next 24 Hours in Tehran Will Tell, TPM, June 26, 2009  (On the character of the massive protests about fraudulent elections).

Religion in Politics: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It, TPM, March 26, 2010.

Why Niebuhr Now? Bookforum, Summer, 2011.  Review of John Patrick Diggins’ posthumous book of that title, on the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s continuing resonance in American thinking. Here I suggest that some of the public intellectuals who’ve professed great admiration for Neibhur have invoked him a bit too conveniently.

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.