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It Can Happen Here

Don’t underestimate the depths to which Donald Trump and his enablers will go to punish their political enemies.

by Jim Sleeper June 22, 2018

Donald J. Trump isn’t a Nazi, although his father came close. It’s true that historical analogies between Trump’s policies and Hitler’s are often facile, and sometimes dangerously misleading. But here’s one that I’m not inclined to shrug off.

During a long stay in Berlin in 2009, I went often to the Grunewald railway station to have my coffee. It’s a picturesque little station, built in the 1899, fronted by a cobblestone square and surrounded by splendid, well-preserved villas of that period.

It’s also the point from which more than 50,000 Berlin Jews were shipped to concentration camps, a few hundred a week, from 1942 to 1945. At the station’s Track 17, a steel strip along the platform edge records, in raised letters, each week’s shipment of several hundred “Juden” to Theresienstadt, Minsk, Riga, Kaunas, Łódź and, later, directly to Auschwitz and other death camps.

It’s hard for most Americans, especially those of us whose parents fought in World War II, to imagine that people who boarded the trains had no idea of what lay ahead. Yet, although Jews had been vilified and some attacked on the streets since 1938, some things remained unthinkable to Berlin Jews, most of whom had been middle-class, law-abiding citizens since birth. They showed up at station on the appointed dates, children and luggage in tow, for what they’d been told would be deportation to resettlement and work centers. At worst, they expected something like what Japanese-Americans experienced in internment camps on our own West Coast during the same war.

Under the watchful eyes of German police, they took their seats in ordinary passenger coaches for many of these departures. Only later, far beyond Berlin, were they transferred to box cars. Some time after that, postcards they hadn’t written were sent to relatives or acquaintances whom they’d listed with the authorities, assuring them that all was well in their new locations.

One day in April of 2009, as I sipped my coffee at the Grunewald station alongside retirees in their 70s and near a beer-garden where younger Germans also overlooked the square, three police cars swept in and officers leapt out, commanding us, “Don’t Move.” Then approximately 45 young military officers in formal parade dress descended from a tourist bus. Their uniforms were attractive, but alien—clearly not German. As they milled about, one of the men seated near me asked a police officer, “Was is das?”

“Israelischen,” he answered. They were Israeli army officers.

A silence descended upon the square like nothing I’d ever felt, so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Not another word was spoken, but I thought that I sensed three dimensions in the quiet all around me. The first was straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind: “They’re here. They’ve come.” The second was of admiration, or at least respect, for these vibrant young officers, stunning negations of the image of “Juden” that some of these older men must have remembered from their infancy. The third dimension, I sensed from the tightened body language around me, carried a flicker of resentment at having to be reminded, instead of being left to sip one’s coffee in peace.

A black car with tinted windows ascended a ramp toward Track 17. The Israeli officers fell into formation and followed. They’d come to lay a wreath on Track 17 on Yom Ha’Shoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day. Ironically, I hadn’t remembered the day myself.

I recount this now because some Americans remind me of Berlin Jews who didn’t think the unthinkable when they should have. After watching the Trump administration tear apart weeping parents and children—on the initiative of its senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, who’s Jewish—I’m thinking that although Trump has now found it politically expedient to halt the practice, more than a few of my fellow Americans were thinking, “Well, they deserve it, unlike me, a law-abiding citizen, and a veteran.”

Those Berlin Jews had been law-abiding citizens, too, at least until 1935, and more than a few were military veterans: Some 12,000 of the Jews who had served in the German military had fallen in World War I. In an irony beyond ironies, it was a Jewish lieutenant, Hugo Gutmann, who secured an Iron Cross, First Class, for a 29-year-old corporal under his command, Adolph Hitler.

We now know that German veterans of that war, Jews and non-Jews alike, were lied to and sent into harm’s way for no good reason. So were soldiers in the Nazi Wehrmacht 25 years later, whom my father, a corporal in the U.S. Army Combat Engineers, was ordered to supervise as prisoners as his 277th battalion clanked across northern Germany, because he spoke Yiddish, which is closely related to German.

He did it with mix of grief and revulsion. One day, when his battalion commandeered a Nazi-friendly baron’s estate in the town of Hohne, my father and others scouted a cottage behind the mansion and found a white-haired, well-spoken man who said he was a caretaker but whom the G.I.’s suspected was closer to the missing baron. As some of them prodded him down the hill toward the mansion, jabbing him roughly with their rifle barrels, my father said, suddenly, almost instinctively, “Cut that out.”

“Why? You should enjoy this Sleeper, you’re a Jew.”

“Cut it out, I said.” He had no illusions about Nazism. But he was a young American, emancipated from his ancestors’ European hell, and he thought he was fighting for a world better than one in which the tables of unjust power are merely turned, a world where justice—dare one say, “due process”?—is stronger than revenge.

Watching the fires that Trump is stoking week in, week out, I wonder when his supporters and enablers will see that the unthinkable could happen to them. I’m not inclined to alarmism, but what if, a couple of years from now, veterans who say they fought for an America where people are free to speak their minds decide to speak their own minds in ways Trump doesn’t like? How far might this admirer of Vladimir Putin go against Americans he thinks are his enemies? He’s already said that he wants to tighten libel laws; his ICE agents have developed arrest-and-detention tactics that a craven Congress would let him expand with the stroke of a pen; municipal police forces are more militarized than ever before.

Yes, historical analogies are risky. But, sipping coffee overlooking the Grunewald station’s charming cobblestone square, you’d never imagine what happened there if you hadn’t been told.

Conservatives, Closing in on Power, Rediscover “The Administrative State”

By Jim Sleeper

Beneath and beyond the January 6 insurrection and the right-wing populist surge expected in Tuesday’s midterm elections, American conservative thinking is taking some confused and confusing turns. One of them involves backing away from familiar“ supply-side” dogmas and moving instead toward seizing the power of the administrative state to restore order and public virtue to Silicon Valley technocrats and to unruly masses, all under the tutelage of a “truly” conservative ruling elite. 

These thinkers aren’t flirting with Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism or Joe Biden’s new New Deal. They’re edging closer to the vaguely Roman Catholic “common good Constitutionalism” of Harvard Law Prof. Adrian Vermeule and of several Supreme Court justices, or to the old Ivy-Protestant, “Good Shepherd” guardianship of the republic, or even to the Nineteenth-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s authoritarian, ethno-nationalist welfare statism, which presaged the “national socialism” of a German political party that incorporated that phrase into its name and its public promises.

It’s a complex development, but let me try to make it as comprehensible as it is reprehensible, because it may be hard upon us after this Tuesday’s elections.

 *  *  *

 “We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives,” writes John Daniel Davidson, a senior editor of The Federalist. a conservative publication (unaffiliated with the judiciary-focused, right-wing Federalist Society). Davidson praises and echoes an argument by Jon Askanos, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, who writes in Compact, another conservative site, that “the conservative project failed” because it “didn’t take into account the revolutionary principle of technology, and its intrinsic connection to the telos [an over-determined trajectory] of sheer profit.”

Both writers want a counter-revolution against a corporate technocracy whose fixation on maximizing profit has trapped Americans like flies in a spiderweb of come-ons that grope, goose, track, and indebt us, bypassing our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets. But are conservatives who lament such developments truly urging a revolution within “free market” conservatism itself? Or are they making only a tactical shift in a strategy to support the scramble for sheer profit and accumulated wealth, glossed by religiously inflected public discipline?

American conservatives have long ridden every national gold rush, blaming liberals and progressives for trying to stop the stampeding mobs and greedy plutocrats. Most of Davidson’s articles have pounced, in synch with conservative media, on any opportunity to lambaste liberals for disrupting plutocracy’s accumulation of wealth. (See “The Biden Administration is Trying to Criminalize the Opposition”; “The Next GOP Congress Should Impeach Merrick Garland” and “It’s Not Crazy to Think Biden Sabotaged Nord Stream”)  

Yet now Davidson is warning that conservatives themselves have undermined their small-r republican virtues and freedoms by surrendering more than they’re conserving. He’s accusing them of accommodating themselves to “woke” liberals’ efforts to redress income inequality, sexual and racial grievances, and markets’ amoral reshaping of society. So doing, he warns, conservatives, too, have disfigured civic and institutional order. Once upon a time, he explains, “Conservatism was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing. Well, too late. Western civilization is dying. The traditions and practices that conservatives champion… do not form the basis of our common culture or civic life, as they did for most of our nation’s history.”

So, conservatives must seize power instead of sharing it. They must restore moral and social order, even if doing so requires using big government to break up a few monopolies and redistribute income a little to Americans whom conservatives have claimed to champion even while protecting the powers and processes that have left them behind. 

Davidson and Askanos reproach fellow-conservatives for buying into “woke” corporate capital’s intrusive, subversive technologies, which treat citizens as impulse-buyers whose “consumer sovereignty” suffocates deliberative, political sovereignty. One irony in conservatives’ making this critique is that profit-crazed media such as Rupert Murdoch’s assemble and dis-assemble audiences on any pretext — sensationalistic, erotic, bigoted, nihilistic—that might keep them watching the ads and buying whatever they’re pitching. Another irony is that conservative jurisprudence’s protection of consumer marketing’s algorithmically driven pitching — by pretending that the business corporations engaging in it are persons deserving of the First Amendment-protected speech of self-governing citizens — only hands bigger megaphones to managers of swirling whorls of anonymous corporate shareholders, leaving truly deliberative citizens with laryngitis from straining to be heard the cacophony that’s being driven by the telos of sheer profit. 

It’s no small thing for conservatives such as Davidson and Askonas to acknowledge that they can’t reconcile their claim to cherish traditional communal and family values with their knee-jerk obeisance to every whim and riptide of conglomeration or financialization. Ivy League graduates often try to finesse the contradiction gracefully and persuasively to most Americans, as John F. Kennedy and the two George Bushes did, but they “knew better” than to persuade themselves: “We are poor little lambs who have lost our way, … damned from here to eternity,” Yale’s Whiffenpoof songsters croon, clinging to lost civic virtue in formal white ties and tails but acknowledging, humorously and ruefully, the soulless life awaiting them in Dad’s firm or at J.P. Morgan or in poring over spreadsheets as corporate lawyers and business consultants.

Although Davidson and Askanos are more candid than the Whiffenpoofs about the costs of facing both ways, they stop short of crediting Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist conservative zealot who drew on his Marx to warn William F. Buckley Jr. that “You can’t build a clear conservatism out of capitalism, because capitalism disrupts culture,” as Sam Tanenhaus, a biographer of Chambers, paraphrased him in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in 2007. Liberal Democrats, too, have stopped short of challenging neoliberal capitalism’s relentless dissolution of civic-republican virtue, voting instead for “the pro-corporate and anti-worker policies that made Trump,” as Robert Kuttner reminds readers of an American Prospect column in which he filleted the centrist liberal writer Anand Giridharadas’s effort to rescue liberalism without indicting or significantly reconfiguring corporate capitalism.

Democrats celebrate their breaking of glass ceilings to install “the first” Black and/or female or gay CEO, but they do little to reconfigure those structures’ foundations and walls. While they’ve been breaking glass ceilings, they’ve also been breaking laws and regulations like the Glass-Steagall law, which restrained the investment banking, private-equity, and hedge-fund rampages that bamboozle and dispossess millions of Americans. They’ve even accepted the Supreme Court’s orchestration of George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency and its decimation via the Citizens United ruling, of campaign-finance laws that curbed corporate capital’s sway over elections of officials who are supposed to regulate corporate capital itself.

In Kuttner’s view (and mine; see Liberal Racism) liberal Democrats who wave banners of ethno-racial and sexual identity to cover for their complicity in all this have given conservatives excuses to divert a resentful public’s attention from the right’s even-more deceitful complicity in fomenting our republican crisis. Instead of offering alternatives to inequality and decay, conservatives have dined out so compulsively on liberals’ follies that they’ve forgotten how to cook for themselves and the rest of us and have abandoned the kitchen to Donald Trump.

*   *   *

After peddling demagoguery and coming up empty, some conservatives have turned to religion for cover and succor, if not salvation. But religion should scourge them, as Moses scourged the fabricators of the Golden Calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai; as Jesus did the moneychangers whom he drove from the Temple; and even as the conservative theologian Richard John Neuhaus did Senator Bob Dole, who’d condemned cultural decadence in Hollywood and had challenged Bill Clinton in the 1996 election but later made TV commercials for Pfizer, testifying that Viagra helped him cope with his erectile dysfunction. “The poor fellow looks like he’s restraining the impulse to unzip and show us the happy change,” Neuhaus sneered.

When I noted Dole’s folly in “Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea Change,” an essay for the journal Salmagundi, the conservative Christian editor Rod Dreher, then at The Dallas Morning News, republished my essay in that newspaper, explaining to the conservative Catholic magazine GodSpy that although I had made “an impassioned case” that “’the pornification of the public square’ is destroying any kind of civic-republican ethos,” I would never see my dreams realized through liberalism because “only religious faith has the power to resist our very powerful commercial culture.”

Religious conservatives such as Dreher and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have indeed sought in faith an escape hatch of sorts from conservatism’s imprisonment in the telos of sheer profit in our fallen world. Religion served that purpose, too, for William F. Buckley, Jr., who inherited part of the fortune his father had accumulated as an oil prospector and industry developer who meddled in Mexican politics during the military dictatorship of Victoriano Huerto. In 1951 Bill, Jr.’s book God and Man at Yale summoned that college’s presumptively Christian gentlemen alumni to rout the godless socialism of its professors.  

*   *   *

Buckley’s conservative movement has been at it , albeit in secular terms, ever since his passing in 2008. The lavishly funded William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale characterizes itself as a champion of “viewpoint diversity” instead of color-coded diversity, and it claims to oppose “intellectual and moral conformity” on campus. Its website features Buckley’s observation that “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Actually, the program isn’t above trying to shock left-of-center students into making censorious protests which conservative media then spotlight and lampoon, as I recounted in Salon.  Whittaker Chambers would have responded to conservatives’ zeal to own the libs with a shrug and “the sly half-smile of a melancholy man who knows better,” as Tanenhaus put it.

The fuller truth is that “viewpoint diversity” doesn’t make much headway against the Buckley Program’s own carefully managed internal conformity, as I discovered in September 2021, when its president, having read a column of mine about Yale’s star-crossed venture to establish a liberal-arts college with the tightly run city-state of Singapore, invited me to speak with Buckley student fellow, writing that “we are looking to host in-person events with Yale affiliates. Please let me know if you are and I would be happy to follow up.” 

“I’d be delighted to talk with and listen to Buckley Program participants,” I responded. “My criticisms of Yale College (which I’ve defended at times against certain outside conservative critics) are themselves somewhat “conservative,” in that I try to protect old civic-republican virtues that I think Yale should continue to nurture. I agree with conservatives that Yale doesn’t do enough of that. But… I believe that… finance capital… undermines what’s best and necessary in a traditional liberal education….  

“I could also discuss broader dilemmas that Yale faces in its role as a crucible or training center for civic-republican leadership. Again, I’ve been severely critical of some conservative critics of Yale (try this, for example! –how’s that for “viewpoint diversity”?!). But the older and wiser I become, the more convinced I am that each side of the political spectrum needs the best of the other side in certain ways, and, in this time of increasing polarization, that can’t be stated often or clearly enough.  I’d be glad to explain what I mean by this, and I’d be more than willing to listen for a long time to the Buckley student fellows’ own thoughts about this…. — Jim Sleeper  

I never heard back from the Buckley president or anyone else in the program. Ironically, my disinvitation may have had been prompted by my depiction of some conservatives’ stagey condemnations of liberals’ “disinvitations” of conservative speakers. I described Buckley board chairman Roger Kimball’s introduction of the columnist George Will to Buckley student fellows at a “Disinvitation Dinner” staged by the program to dramatize Scripps’ college’s cancellation of its speaking invitation to Will after Will had made disparaging remarks about a “rape culture” of supposedly inflated accusations and cries of victimization.

“Our colleges and universities, though lavishly funded and granted every perquisite which a dynamic capitalist economy can offer, have become factories for the manufacture of intellectual and moral conformity,” Kimball thundered, oblivious of the conformity he was enforcing on the 20 year-olds seated before him in formal wear at Will’s “Disinvitation Dinner” in an elegant hotel. More telling than this reeking strain of hypocrisy has been the conduct of the Yale Law School’s chapter of The Federalist Society, some of whose alumni guided Trump in deciding his appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal judicial benches. Here I commend a brilliant expose of the Federalist Society’s “free speech” hypocrisy by Jack McCordick, a Yale undergraduate at the time who’s now a researcher-reporter for The New Republic. 

Firebrands in the Buckley undergraduate program and the Federalist Society’s law school chapter succeed at times in baiting left-leaning students (and, sometimes, university administrators) into committing or suborning excesses that the national conservative media eagerly denounce. But when the Law School’s Federalist Society chapter did manage to sponsor a straightforward debate — “Income Inequality: Is it Fair or Unfair?” — between the progressive Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits and libertarian writer Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute — Markovits wiped the floor with Brook: See for yourself how an outbreak of “viewpoint diversity” at the behest of the Federalist Society flummoxed its organizers.

A similar embarrassment became public when editors and board members of conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal denied its writer Sol Stern freedom of speech to criticize Donald Trump at all. Stern, who’d been writing for that magazine and institute for years, outed them in an article — “Think Tank in the Tank” — for the left-liberal DEMOCRACY Journal that’s as telling as McCordick’s expose of the Federalist Society. *  *  * It’s almost enough to make one sympathize with some conservatives’ religious escapes –Rod Dreher’s embrace of what he calls the “Benedict Option,” comes to mind.

But it’s not enough to make me sympathize with the secular cries de Coeur of Davidson. “Put bluntly,” he writes, “if conservatives want to save the country, they are going to have to rebuild and in a sense re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. Why? Because accommodation or compromise with the left is impossible. ”One need only consider the speed with which the discourse shifted on gay marriage, from assuring conservatives ahead of the 2015 Obergefell decision that gay Americans were only asking for toleration, to the never-ending persecution of Jack Phillips,” the baker who has indeed been hard-pressed to defend himself legally several times for refusing to decorate a cake with words congratulating a gay couple on a wedding.

“The left will only stop when conservatives stop them,” Davidson continues,” warning that “conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about ‘small government’…. “To those who worry that power corrupts, and that once the right seizes power it too will be corrupted, they certainly have a point,” he concludes. “If conservatives manage to save the country and rebuild our institutions, will they ever relinquish power and go the way of Cincinnatus? It is a fair question, and we should attend to it with care after we have won the war.”

But when have conservatives ever shied from wielding power, except when they’ve been embarrassed or forced into relinquishing it by the brave civil disobedience of a Rosa Parks and the civil-rights movement or by the disciplined, decisive strikes and protests and electoral organizing of labor unions and social movements? If conservatives really want to “attend with care” to the examples set by Cincinnatus and George Washington, who relinquished power so that the public interest would continue to be served more lastingly and effectively by others, they’ll have to enable American working people to resist the “telos of sheer profit” that’s stressing and dispossessing them and that’s displacing their anger and humiliation onto scapegoats under the ministrations of Fox News and right-wing demagogues.

How about taking seriously Davidson’s proposal that government offer “generous subsidies to families of young children” — a heresy to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax zealot who said he wants to shrink government to a size where he could drag it into a bathtub and drown it? How about banishing demagoguery from their midst, as they often claim that Buckley banished John Birchite anti-Semitism? How about disassociating themselves, as I think Buckley would have done, from The Claremont Institute, the hard-right think tank that’s been so deeply “in the tank” for President Trump that he gave it a National Humanities Medal and followed the advice of its senior fellow John Eastman in attempting to overturn the 2020 election?     

Not only does Davidson propose that “to stop Big Tech… will require using antitrust powers to break up the largest Silicon Valley firms;” he also proposes that “to stop universities from spreading poisonous ideologies will require state legislatures to starve them of public funds.” He writes that conservatives “need not shy away from [big-government policies] because they betray some cherished libertarian fantasy about free markets and small government. It is time to clear our minds of cant.”  But American conservatives who expect to wield big-government power are moving toward something like European conservatism, which has long mixed capitalism and welfare-state spending to advance nationalist, imperialist, and even racialist purposes. That dark, dangerous tradition began with Bismarck and metastasized into Nazi “national socialism” half a century later.

American conservatives should should look carefully into the Pandora’s Box that they’re opening.   And those who crave a “godly” relation to power would do well to ponder an observation by John Winthrop, the founder and first governor of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, in his essay-sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,”: “It is a true rule, that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” In other words, not even wealthy estates can survive for long in a society that’s being disintegrated by capitalism. It’s getting very hard to imagine America’s conservative “fundamentalists, be they religious or secular, finding it in themselves to escape the English poet Oliver Goldsmith’s foreboding of doom in 1777: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a’prey, when wealth accumulates, and men decay.”
Religious conservatives such as Dreher and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have indeed sought in faith an escape hatch of sorts from conservatism’s imprisonment in the telos of sheer profit in our fallen world. Religion served that purpose, too, for William F. Buckley, Jr., who was a wealthy heir to part of the fortune his father had accumulated as an oil prospector and industry developer who meddled in Mexican politics during the military dictatorship of Victoriano Huerto. In 1951 Bill, Jr.’s book God and Man at Yale summoned that college’s presumptively Christian gentlemen alumni to rout the godless socialism of its professors.

 *   *   *

Buckley’s conservative movement has been at it , albeit in secular terms, ever since his passing in 2008. The lavishly funded William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale characterizes itself as a champion of “viewpoint diversity” instead of color-coded diversity, and it claims to oppose “intellectual and moral conformity” on campus. Its website features Buckley’s observation that “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Actually, the program isn’t above trying to shock left-of-center students into making censorious protests which conservative media then spotlight and lampoon, as I recounted in Salon. 

Whittaker Chambers would have responded to conservatives’ zeal to own the libs with a shrug and “the sly half-smile of a melancholy man who knows better,” as Tanenhaus put it. The fuller truth is that “viewpoint diversity” doesn’t make much headway against the Buckley Program’s own carefully managed internal conformity, as I discovered in September 2021, when its president, having read a column of mine about Yale’s star-crossed venture to establish a liberal-arts college with the tightly run city-state of Singapore, invited me to speak with Buckley student fellow, writing that “we are looking to host in-person events with Yale affiliates. Please let me know if you are and I would be happy to follow up.” 

“I’d be delighted to talk with and listen to Buckley Program participants,” I responded. “My criticisms of Yale College (which I’ve defended at times against certain outside conservative critics) are themselves somewhat ‘conservative,’ in that I try to protect old civic-republican virtues that I think Yale should continue to nurture. I agree with conservatives that Yale doesn’t do enough of that. But… I believe that… finance capital… undermines what’s best and necessary in a traditional liberal education…. I could also discuss broader dilemmas that Yale faces in its role as a crucible or training center for civic-republican leadership. Again, I’ve been severely critical of some conservative critics of Yale (try this, for example! –how’s that for ‘viewpoint diversity’?!). But the older and wiser I become, the more convinced I am that each side of the political spectrum needs the best of the other side in certain ways, and, in this time of increasing polarization, that can’t be stated often or clearly enough. I’d be glad to explain what I mean by this, and I’d be more than willing to listen for a long time to the Buckley student fellows’ own thoughts about this…. — Jim Sleeper”  

I never heard back from the Buckley president or anyone else in the program. Ironically, my disinvitation may have had been prompted by my depiction of some conservatives’ stagey condemnations of liberals’ “disinvitations” of conservative speakers. I described Buckley board chairman Roger Kimball’s introduction of the columnist George Will to Buckley student fellows at a “Disinvitation Dinner” staged by the program to dramatize Scripps’ college’s cancellation of its speaking invitation to Will after Will had made disparaging remarks about a “rape culture” of supposedly inflated accusations and cries of victimization.

“Our colleges and universities, though lavishly funded and granted every perquisite which a dynamic capitalist economy can offer, have become factories for the manufacture of intellectual and moral conformity,” Kimball thundered, oblivious of the conformity he was enforcing on the 20 year-olds seated before him in formal wear at Will’s “Disinvitation Dinner” in an elegant hotel. More telling than this reeking strain of hypocrisy about “viewpoint diversity” has been the conduct of the Yale Law School’s chapter of The Federalist Society, some of whose alumni guided Trump in deciding his appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal judicial benches. Here I commend a brilliant expose of the Federalist Society’s “free speech” hypocrisy by Jack McCordick, a Yale undergraduate at the time who’s now a researcher-reporter for The New Republic. 

Firebrands in the Buckley undergraduate program and the Federalist Society’s law school chapter succeed at times in baiting left-leaning students (and, sometimes, university administrators) into committing or suborning excesses that the national conservative media eagerly denounce. But when the Law School’s Federalist Society chapter did manage to sponsor a straightforward debate — “Income Inequality: Is it Fair or Unfair?” — between the progressive Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovitz and libertarian writer Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute — Markovitz wiped the floor with Brook: See for yourself how an outbreak of “viewpoint diversity” at the behest of the Federalist Society flummoxed its organizers.

A similar embarrassment became public when editors and board members of conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal denied its writer Sol Stern freedom of speech to criticize Donald Trump at all. Stern, who’d been writing for that magazine and institute for years, outed them in an article — “Think Tank in the Tank” — for the left-liberal DEMOCRACY Journal that’s as telling as McCordick’s expose of the Federalist Society.

*  *  *

It’s almost enough to make one sympathize with some conservatives’ religious escapes –Rod Dreher’s embrace of what he calls the “Benedict Option,” comes to mind. But it’s not enough to make me sympathize with the secular cries de Coeur of Davidson.  “Put bluntly,” he writes, “if conservatives want to save the country, they are going to have to rebuild and in a sense re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. Why? Because accommodation or compromise with the left is impossible. ”One need only consider the speed with which the discourse shifted on gay marriage, from assuring conservatives ahead of the 2015 Obergefell decision that gay Americans were only asking for toleration, to the never-ending persecution of Jack Phillips,” the baker who has indeed been hard-pressed to defend himself legally several times for refusing to decorate a cake with words congratulating a gay couple on a wedding.

“The left will only stop when conservatives stop them,” Davidson continues,” warning that “conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about ‘small government’…. “To those who worry that power corrupts, and that once the right seizes power it too will be corrupted, they certainly have a point,” he concludes. “If conservatives manage to save the country and rebuild our institutions, will they ever relinquish power and go the way of Cincinnatus? It is a fair question, and we should attend to it with care after we have won the war.”

But when have conservatives ever shied from wielding power, except when they’ve been embarrassed or forced into relinquishing it by the brave civil disobedience of a Rosa Parks and the civil-rights movement or by the disciplined, decisive strikes and protests and electoral organizing of labor unions and social movements? If conservatives really want to “attend with care” to the examples set by Cincinnatus and George Washington, who relinquished power so that the public interest would continue to be served more lastingly and effectively by others, they’ll have to enable American working people to resist the “telos of sheer profit” that’s stressing and dispossessing them and that’s displacing their anger and humiliation onto scapegoats under the ministrations of Fox News and right-wing demagogues.

How about taking seriously Davidson’s proposal that government offer “generous subsidies to families of young children” — a heresy to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax zealot who said he wants to shrink government to a size where he could drag into a bathtub and drown it? How about banishing demagoguery from their midst, as they often claim that Buckley banished John Birchite anti-Semitism? How about disassociating themselves, as I think Buckley would have done, from The Claremont Institute, the hard-right think tank that’s been so deeply “in the tank” for President Trump that he gave it a National Humanities Medal and followed the advice of its senior fellow John Eastman in attempting to overturn the 2020 election?     

Not only does Davidson propose that “to stop Big Tech… will require using antitrust powers to break up the largest Silicon Valley firms;” he also proposes that “to stop universities from spreading poisonous ideologies will require state legislatures to starve them of public funds.” He writes that conservatives “need not shy away from [big-government policies] because they betray some cherished libertarian fantasy about free markets and small government. It is time to clear our minds of cant.” But American conservatives who expect to wield big-government power are moving toward something like European conservatism, which has long mixed capitalism and welfare-state spending to advance nationalist, imperialist, and even racialist purposes. That dark, dangerous tradition began with Bismarck and metastasized into Nazi “national socialism” half a century later.

American conservatives should look carefully into the Pandora’s Box that they’re opening.   And those who crave a “godly” relation to power would do well to ponder the observation by John Winthrop, the founder and first governor of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, in his essay-sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” that “It is a true rule, that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” In other words, not even wealthy estates can survive for long in a society that’s being disintegrated by capitalism. It’s hard to imagine America’s conservative fundamentalists, be they religious or secular, escaping the English poet Oliver Goldsmith’s foreboding of doom in 1777: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a’prey, when wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Conservatives, Closing in on Power, Rediscover ‘The Administrative State’

(This was posted originally by the History News Network https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/184360 on November 4, 2022 and was picked up by Rawstory. )

By Jim Sleeper

Beneath and beyond the January 6 insurrection and the right-wing populist surge expected in Tuesday’s midterm elections, American conservative thinking is taking some confused and confusing turns. One of them involves backing away from familiar “supply-side” dogmas and moving instead toward seizing the power of the administrative state to restore order and public virtue to Silicon Valley technocrats and to unruly masses, all under the tutelage of a “truly” conservative ruling elite. 

These thinkers aren’t flirting with Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism or Joe Biden’s new New Deal. They’re edging closer to the vaguely Roman Catholic “common good Constitutionalism” of Harvard Law Prof. Adrian Vermeule and of several Supreme Court justices, or to the old Ivy-Protestant, “Good Shepherd” guardianship of the republic, or even to the Nineteenth-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s authoritarian, ethno-nationalist welfare statism, which presaged the “national socialism” of a German political party that incorporated that phrase into its name and its public promises.

It’s a complex development, but let me try to make it as comprehensible as it is reprehensible, because it may be hard upon us after this Tuesday’s elections.

 *  *  *

John Daniel Davidson / National Review.com

 “We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives,” writes John Daniel Davidson, a senior editor of The Federalist. a conservative publication (unaffiliated with the judiciary-focused, right-wing Federalist Society). Davidson praises and echoes an argument by Jon Askonas, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, who writes in Compact, another conservative site, that “the conservative project failed” because it “didn’t take into account the revolutionary principle of technology, and its intrinsic connection to the telos [or over-determined trajectory] of sheer profit.”

Jonathan Askonas, Catholic University of America

Both writers want a counter-revolution against a corporate technocracy whose fixation on maximizing profit has trapped Americans like flies in a spiderweb of come-ons that grope, goose, track, and indebt us, bypassing our minds and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets. But are conservatives who lament such developments truly urging a revolution within “free market” conservatism itself? Or are they making only a tactical shift in a strategy to support the scramble for sheer profit and accumulated wealth, glossed by religiously inflected public discipline?

American conservatives have long ridden every national gold rush, blaming liberals and progressives for trying to stop such stampedes by desperate mobs and greedy plutocrats. Most of Davidson’s articles have pounced, in synch with conservative media, on any opportunity to lambaste liberals for disrupting plutocracy’s accumulation of wealth. (See “The Biden Administration is Trying to Criminalize the Opposition”; “The Next GOP Congress Should Impeach Merrick Garland” and “It’s Not Crazy to Think Biden Sabotaged Nord Stream”)  

Yet now Davidson is warning that conservatives themselves have undermined their small-r republican virtues and freedoms by surrendering more than they’re conserving. He’s accusing them of accommodating themselves to “woke” liberals’ efforts to redress income inequality, sexual and racial grievances, and markets’ amoral reshaping of society. So doing, he warns, conservatives, too, have disfigured civic and institutional order. Once upon a time, he explains, “Conservatism was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing. Well, too late. Western civilization is dying. The traditions and practices that conservatives champion… do not form the basis of our common culture or civic life, as they did for most of our nation’s history.” So, conservatives must seize power instead of sharing it. They must restore moral and social order, even if doing so requires using big government to break up a few monopolies and redistribute income a little to Americans whom conservatives have claimed to champion even while protecting the powers and processes that have left them behind. 

Davidson and Askonas reproach fellow-conservatives for buying into “woke” corporate capital’s intrusive, subversive technologies, which treat citizens as impulse-buyers whose “consumer sovereignty” suffocates deliberative, political sovereignty. One irony in conservatives’ making this critique is that profit-crazed media such as Rupert Murdoch’s assemble and dis-assemble audiences on any pretext — sensationalistic, erotic, bigoted, nihilistic—that might keep them watching the ads and buying whatever they’re pitching. Another irony is that conservative jurisprudence that protects consumer marketing’s algorithmically driven pitching — by pretending that the business corporations engaging in it are persons deserving of the First Amendment-protected speech of self-governing citizens — only hands bigger megaphones to managers of swirling whorls of anonymous corporate shareholders, leaving truly deliberative citizens with laryngitis from straining to he heard in the cacophonous free-for-all that becomes a free-for-none as it’s driven by the telos of sheer profit. 

*   *   *

It’s no small thing for conservatives such as Davidson and Askonas to acknowledge that they can’t reconcile their claim to cherish traditional communal and family values with their knee-jerk obeisance to every whim and riptide of conglomeration or financialization. Ivy League graduates often try to finesse the contradiction gracefully and persuasively to most Americans, as John F. Kennedy and the two George Bushes did, but they “knew better” than to persuade themselves: “We are poor little lambs who have lost our way, … damned from here to eternity,” Yale’s Whiffenpoof songsters croon, clinging to lost civic virtue in formal white ties and tails but acknowledging, humorously and ruefully, the soulless life awaiting them in Dad’s firm or at J.P. Morgan or in poring over spreadsheets as corporate lawyers and business consultants.

Although Davidson and Askonas are more candid than the Whiffenpoofs about the costs of facing both ways, they stop short of crediting Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist who drew on his Marx to warn William F. Buckley Jr. that “You can’t build a clear conservatism out of capitalism, because capitalism disrupts culture,” as Sam Tanenhaus, a biographer of Chambers, paraphrased him in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in 2007. Liberal Democrats, too, have stopped short of challenging neoliberal capitalism’s relentless dissolution of civic-republican virtue, voting instead for “the pro-corporate and anti-worker policies that made Trump,” as Robert Kuttner reminds readers of an American Prospect column in which he filleted the centrist liberal writer Anand Giridharadas’s effort to rescue liberalism without indicting or significantly reconfiguring corporate capitalism.

Democrats celebrate their breaking of corporations’ glass ceilings to install “the first” Black and/or female or gay CEO, but they do little to reconfigure those structures’ foundations and walls. While they’ve been breaking glass ceilings, they’ve also been breaking laws and regulations like the Glass-Steagall law, which restrained the investment banking, private-equity, and hedge-fund rampages that bamboozle and dispossess millions of Americans. They’ve even accepted the Supreme Court’s orchestration of George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency and its decimation via the Citizens United ruling, of campaign-finance laws that curbed corporate capital’s sway over elections of officials who are supposed to regulate corporate capital itself.

In Kuttner’s view (and mine; see Liberal Racism), liberal Democrats who wave banners of ethno-racial and sexual identity to cover for their complicity in all this have given conservatives excuses to divert a resentful public’s attention from the right’s even-more deceitful complicity in fomenting our republican crisis. Instead of offering alternatives to inequality and decay, conservatives have dined out so compulsively on liberals’ follies that they’ve forgotten how to cook for themselves and the rest of us and have abandoned the kitchen to Donald Trump.

*   *   *

After peddling demagoguery and coming up empty, some conservatives have turned to religion for cover and succor, if not salvation. But religion should scourge them, as Moses scourged the fabricators of the Golden Calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai; as Jesus did the moneychangers whom he drove from the Temple; and even as the conservative theologian Richard John Neuhaus did Senator Bob Dole, who’d condemned cultural decadence in Hollywood and had challenged Bill Clinton in the 1996 election but later made TV commercials for Pfizer, testifying that Viagra helped him cope with his erectile dysfunction. “The poor fellow looks like he’s restraining the impulse to unzip and show us the happy change,” Neuhaus sneered.

When I noted Dole’s folly in “Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea Change,” an essay for the journal Salmagundi, the conservative Christian editor Rod Dreher, then at The Dallas Morning News, republished my essay in that newspaper, explaining to the conservative Catholic magazine GodSpy that although I had made “an impassioned case” that “’the pornification of the public square’ is destroying any kind of civic-republican ethos,” I would never see my dreams realized through liberalism because “only religious faith has the power to resist our very powerful commercial culture.”

Religious conservatives such as Dreher and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have indeed sought in faith an escape hatch of sorts from conservatism’s imprisonment in the telos of sheer profit in our fallen world. Religion served that purpose, too, for William F. Buckley, Jr., who was a wealthy heir to part of the fortune his father had accumulated as an oil prospector and industry developer who meddled in Mexican politics during the military dictatorship of Victoriano Huerto. In 1951 Bill, Jr.’s book God and Man at Yale summoned that college’s presumptively Christian gentlemen alumni to rout the godless socialism of its professors.

Buckley’s conservative movement has been at it , albeit in secular terms, ever since his passing in 2008. The lavishly funded William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale characterizes itself as a champion of “viewpoint diversity” instead of color-coded diversity, and it claims to oppose “intellectual and moral conformity” on campus. Its website features Buckley’s observation that “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Actually, the program isn’t above trying to shock left-of-center students into making censorious protests which conservative media then spotlight and lampoon, as I recounted in Salon. 

Whittaker Chambers would have responded to conservatives’ zeal with a shrug and “the sly half-smile of a melancholy man who knows better,” as Tanenhaus put it. The fuller truth is that “viewpoint diversity” doesn’t make much headway against the Buckley Program’s own carefully managed internal conformity, as I discovered in September 2021, when its president, having read a column of mine about Yale’s star-crossed venture to establish a liberal-arts college with the tightly run city-state of Singapore, invited me to speak with Buckley student fellow. “We are looking to host in-person events with Yale affiliates,” he told me. “Please let me know if you are and I would be happy to follow up.” 

“I’d be delighted to talk with and listen to Buckley Program participants,” I responded. “My criticisms of Yale College (which I’ve defended at times against certain outside conservative critics) are themselves somewhat “conservative,” in that I try to protect old civic-republican virtues that I think Yale should continue to nurture. I agree with conservatives that Yale doesn’t do enough of that. But… I believe that… finance capital… undermines what’s best and necessary in a traditional liberal education….   I could also discuss broader dilemmas that Yale faces in its role as a crucible or training center for civic-republican leadership. Again, I’ve been severely critical of some conservative critics of Yale (try this, for example! –how’s that for “viewpoint diversity”?!). But the older and wiser I become, the more convinced I am that each side of the political spectrum needs the best of the other side in certain ways, and, in this time of increasing polarization, that can’t be stated often or clearly enough. I’d be glad to explain what I mean by this, and I’d be more than willing to listen for a long time to the Buckley student fellows’ own thoughts about this.”  

I never heard back from the Buckley president or anyone else in the program. Ironically, my disinvitation may have had been prompted by my depiction of some conservatives’ stagey condemnations of liberals’ “disinvitations” of conservative speakers. I described Buckley board chairman Roger Kimball’s introduction of the columnist George Will to Buckley student fellows at a “Disinvitation Dinner” staged by the program to dramatize Scripps’ college’s cancellation of its speaking invitation to Will after Will had made disparaging remarks about a “rape culture” of supposedly inflated accusations and cries of victimization.

William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will

“Our colleges and universities, though lavishly funded and granted every perquisite which a dynamic capitalist economy can offer, have become factories for the manufacture of intellectual and moral conformity,” Kimball thundered, oblivious of the conformity he was enforcing on the 20 year-olds seated before him in formal wear at Will’s “Disinvitation Dinner” in an elegant hotel.

More telling than this reeking strain of hypocrisy has been the conduct of the Yale Law School’s chapter of The Federalist Society, some of whose alumni guided Trump in deciding his appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal judicial benches. Here I commend a brilliant expose of the Federalist Society’s “free speech” hypocrisy by Jack McCordick, a Yale undergraduate at the time who’s now a researcher-reporter for The New Republic. 

Firebrands in the Buckley undergraduate program and the Federalist Society’s law school chapter succeed at times in baiting left-leaning students (and, sometimes, university administrators) into committing or suborning excesses that the national conservative media eagerly denounce. But when the Law School’s Federalist Society chapter did manage to sponsor a straightforward debate — “Income Inequality: Is it Fair or Unfair?” — between the progressive Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits and libertarian writer Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute — Markovits wiped the floor with Brook: See for yourself how an outbreak of “viewpoint diversity” at the behest of the Federalist Society flummoxed its organizers.

A similar embarrassment became public when editors and board members of conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal denied its writer Sol Stern freedom of speech to criticize Donald Trump at all. Stern, who’d been writing for that magazine and institute for years, outed them in an article — “Think Tank in the Tank” — for the left-liberal DEMOCRACY Journal that’s as telling as McCordick’s expose of the Federalist Society.

* * *

It’s almost enough to make one sympathize with some conservatives’ religious escapes –Rod Dreher’s embrace of what he calls the “Benedict Option,” comes to mind. But it’s not enough to make me sympathize with the secular cries de Coeur of Davidson“Put bluntly,” he writes, “if conservatives want to save the country, they are going to have to rebuild and in a sense re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. Why? Because accommodation or compromise with the left is impossible.

”One need only consider the speed with which the discourse shifted on gay marriage, from assuring conservatives ahead of the 2015 Obergefell decision that gay Americans were only asking for toleration, to the never-ending persecution of Jack Phillips,” the baker who has indeed been hard-pressed to defend himself legally several times for refusing to decorate a cake with words congratulating a gay couple on a wedding.

“The left will only stop when conservatives stop them,” Davidson continues, warning that “conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about ‘small government’…. To those who worry that power corrupts, and that once the right seizes power it too will be corrupted, they certainly have a point,” he concludes. “If conservatives manage to save the country and rebuild our institutions, will they ever relinquish power and go the way of Cincinnatus? It is a fair question, and we should attend to it with care after we have won the war.”

But when have conservatives ever shied from wielding power, except when they’ve been embarrassed or forced into relinquishing it by the brave civil disobedience of a Rosa Parks and the civil-rights movement or by the disciplined, decisive strikes and protests and electoral organizing of labor unions and social movements? If conservatives really want to “attend with care” to the examples set by Cincinnatus and George Washington, who relinquished power so that the public interest would continue to be served more lastingly and effectively by others, they’ll have to enable American working people to resist the “telos of sheer profit” that’s stressing and dispossessing them and that’s displacing their anger and humiliation onto scapegoats under the ministrations of Fox News and right-wing demagogues.

How about taking seriously Davidson’s proposal that government offer “generous subsidies to families of young children” — a heresy to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax zealot who said he wants to shrink government to a size where he could drag it into a bathtub and drown it? How about banishing demagoguery from their midst, as they often claim that Buckley banished John Birchite anti-Semitism? How about disassociating themselves, as I think Buckley would have done, from The Claremont Institute, the hard-right think tank that’s been so deeply “in the tank” for President Trump that he gave it a National Humanities Medal and followed the advice of its senior fellow John Eastman in attempting to overturn the 2020 election?     

Not only does Davidson propose that “to stop Big Tech… will require using antitrust powers to break up the largest Silicon Valley firms;” he also proposes that “to stop universities from spreading poisonous ideologies will require state legislatures to starve them of public funds.” He writes that conservatives “need not shy away from [big-government policies] because they betray some cherished libertarian fantasy about free markets and small government. It is time to clear our minds of cant.” But American conservatives who expect to wield big-government power may be moving toward a strain of European conservatism that has long mixed capitalism and welfare-state spending to advance nationalist, imperialist, and even racialist agendas. That dark, dangerous tradition began with Bismarck and metastasized into Nazi “national socialism” half a century later.

If so, American conservatives should look carefully into the Pandora’s Box that they’re opening.  And those who crave a godly relation to power would do well to ponder an observation by John Winthrop, the founder and first governor of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, in his essay-sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,”: “It is a true rule, that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” In other words, not even wealthy estates can survive for long in a society that’s being disintegrated by capitalism. It’s hard to imagine America’s conservative “fundamentalists,” be they religious or secular, finding it in themselves to escape the English poet Oliver Goldsmith’s foreboding of doom in 1777: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a’prey, when wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

An imperturbably valiant lawyer

By Jim Sleeper – July 29, 2009, 1:42PM

Few if any who recall the uproar over Mahmoud Amadenijad’s appearance at Columbia University two years ago can also recall the uproar over the appearance at Columbia of Hans Luther, the first Nazi ambassador to the U.S, in 1933.

But one TPM reader could, because she’d been carried across W. 121st St. on Dec. 12, 1933 by two cops after circulating anti-Nazi handbills during the speech.

She was “a blonde, hatless, quiet, and, it seemed to me, imperturbably valiant freshman [who] stood her ground firmly but undemonstratively,” wrote James Wechsler, a reporter for the Columbia Spectator, years later in The Age of Suspicion. “I knew her name was Nancy Fraenkel and that her father was a Civil Liberties Union lawyer. I saw her much more frequently after that evening which, I learned later, was her seventeenth birthday. We were married the following October.”

Nancy Wechsler, who died Monday, at 93, never stopped showing how to stand your ground imperturbably in an uproar – a piece of political wisdom that grows from character and civic culture more than from intelligence or ideology.

Nancy and Jimmy Wechsler were young Communists in those dark years of capitalist collapse and fascist ascendancy, when democratic decency, principles, and courage like theirs saw few “fighting” alternatives to the left against the many betrayals of democracy in World War I, the Depression, and American-capitalist likings for Mussolini and Hitler.

Like some other leftists, Nancy and Jimmy soon saw through Communism’s tragedies, duplicities, and cruelties. But because their idealism and decency weren’t phony, but rooted in personal character and civic-republican principle, their disillusionment with the Stalinist left didn’t catapult them into the arms of the right, as it did some future neoconservatives, who mistake corporate capitalism’s mountebanks, bounders, and blowhards for carriers of republican freedom.

Jimmy, a hard-driving liberal and wonderfully literary journalist until his death in 1983, was targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy while he was the crusading editor of the New York Post in its intelligently pro-labor, pro-civil-rights glory days, which ended in 1977 when Rupert Murdoch bought the Post and turned it into a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony.

Nancy became a prominent public lawyer, like her father and Jimmy’s brother Herbert Wechsler. Unlike them, she needed her unflappable, feisty, but disciplined manner to become one of the first women admitted to Columbia Law School and the New York Bar.

Through political and family adversities, Nancy and Jimmy sustained a redeeming, impish humor, recalling, for example, how Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a dinner at the White House, thought of nothing better to ask Nancy than whether she baked bread. They griped about each other’s driving: Jimmy hated to drive; Nancy was a demon on the road and, even this summer was still driving back and forth from Manhattan to a summer home in Westport, CT. (In the city, Nancy seldom took cabs; as late as this year, she was still taking city buses daily from her home west of Lincoln Center to her firm at Madison and E. 38th Street.)

It wasn’t only McCarthyism that targeted her and Jimmy’s politics, though. Jimmy was also assailed by unreconstructed Stalinists who couldn’t get over his decision not to take the Fifth Amendment before McCarthy’s committee but to denounce McCarthy to his face, on the record, even while giving him the names of some old Communists who, Wechsler knew, were already on McCarthy’s lists.

He did it for reasons he explains compellingly in The Age of Suspicion, and I think he did the right thing. That book, which also describes Nancy, is especially instructive now for two reasons:

First, it’s obvious now that many leftists who assailed the Wechslers were also wrongly assailing Elie Kazan (for naming names) and defending the Soviet Union and Alger Hiss, long beyond the point where it made political, moral, or even simple cognitive sense. Jimmy’s account of how he and Nancy saw through them so early is instructive.

Second, The Age of Suspicion is even more instructive because, reading now about the Stalinists of that time, you’ll find yourself thinking of neo-conservatives who bear striking characterological, cultural, and even political resemblances, for reasons that are worth pondering.

While both left and right have valid claims to represent profound truths, both suffer from deformities of character that only a wiser balance of civil libertarianism and civic-republican discipline can offset.

Nancy and Jimmy Wechsler found their ways to that balance because they’d grown up with it in the first place, as indomitable, savvy New Yorkers who could bring the best of progressive commitments along with them toward a viable civic consensus.

Until a few days before her death, Nancy was at her firm, McLaughlin & Stern, LLP, working in that spirit on copyright cases, as she had for decades at Deutsch, Klagsbrun, Blasband. She knew that both left and right can seem morally noble when they’re going up against the more dominant side’s (and its many apologists’) institutionalized carapaces and cant. But she also knew that each side tends to cling almost tribally to its fundamental truths until they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other side is wrong.

Thus Hitler’s Nazis (“National Socialists”) seemed noble to more than a few working people while on the upswing against striped-pants capitalists who’d crafted the Versailles settlement and Great Depression. On the left, Stalin seemed noble against the fascist Franco in Spain and Hitler after 1941.

But political crises demand good judgment and sometimes humor, even when one has taken a firm and fateful stand. Because Nancy Wechsler understood this, she was a brave civil-libertarian and civic-republican, from that moment in 1933 when she handed out leaflets against Hitler’s ambassador to her last freedom-of-speech case. She would never have temporized for ideological reasons about Ahmadenijad’s Iran.

Those of us who are sometimes hard on leftists and lawyers should keep this leftish lawyer in mind. No less than conservative Southerners like that old “country lawyer” and segregationist, Senator Sam Ervin, a hero of the Watergate hearings — or even like Republican Lindsay Graham, at least in his pro-Sotomayor speech to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday — Nancy Wechsler remained rooted in and loyal to the American republic, when others were seeking political salvation elsewhere.

Ross Douthat, a Strange New Voice at NY Times

user-picBy Jim Sleeper – March 13, 2009, 8:34AM

I first met Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ newest columnist — and, at 29, its youngest-ever and perhaps its first op-ed page conservative Catholic believer — four years ago after reviewing his engaging and gutsy student’s memoir, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. I’ve recently reviewed his book, Grand New Party. So herewith some thoughts about the Times’ smart and telling but slightly risky choice.

The smart and telling part is that Douthat will outclass not only William Kristol but also a faithless, conniving, faux-populist neo-conservative strain of punditry, whose collapse has been evident recently in loud second thoughts from the historian Robert Kagan at the Washington Post and in the maunderings of David Brooks.

Ironically, Douthat’s co-author of Grand New Party, Reihan Salam, worked for Brooks at the Times in 2003-4. But Douthat comes from somewhere else and is going somewhere else, and he is not alone. He may give serious left-liberals an adversary they deserve, because, unlike Kristol and Brooks, he has more beliefs than insecurities.

That brings us to the risky part of Douthat’s hiring. Although I wrote about Grand New Party for the liberal Catholic Commonweal, which I’ve admired and written for occasionally since the early 1980s, I have no hosannas for that celestial railroad the HRC&AC (Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church). Myself a sometime carrier of the Hebraic strain in the early-American, republican civil religion, I find the Church perverse in too many ways to reprise here (i.e., Don’t get me started.)

The Church does take a long view of things, usefully keeping the tragedy of the political before us. Sometimes it props up what looks like the serenity of its faith with unseemly, Grand Inquisitorial musings about (and exploitations of) the weaknesses of the flesh in a fallen world. Some of us Hebrews take an even longer and somewhat different view of how to balance the evil inclinations in the human heart with efforts to repair a world that isn’t quite so fallen.

That Jewish orientation has its own risks, but this whole debate is lost on those who’ve been running the nervous, neo-liberal/neo-conservative Times for the past few decades. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. has found that his empire is a fragile craft in history’s tides (and God’s). So he has grasped for a pundit who respects the Catholic Bishops’ well-known injunctions on behalf of the poor and against unjust wars, but not from a knee-jerk-liberal vantage point.

In Privilege, Douthat stood almost equidistant enough from the free-marketeering right and the liberationist left to see a perverse codependency between them, as I mention in my review. Conservative though he is, he confessed to a sneaking sympathy for his fellow students’ Living Wage Campaign on behalf of Harvard’s underpaid workers. That’s the Dorothy Day part of him. Or maybe it’s the Baltimore Cathechism, which is more Tory and corporatist in the conservative “we incorporate and care for everyone” sense of that term.

Conservative Catholics tend also to be statists of theocratic inclination and to be prissily or haughtily silent about their side’s own sins — a silence of the sort to which the usually congenial Douthat is not always immune, owing partly also to his inexperience in the business and political worlds. His hauteur flashed during a long and increasingly testy defense of the late conservative Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus in a series of exchanges with Damon Linker in the New Republic. That his casuistry has a longer arc than Brooks’ sophistry makes Douthat a bit too ecclesiastical for my taste, but also, when he’s at his best, more grounded and even profound.

It doesn’t worry me that Douthat considers human life a sacred, inter-generational thread that is not to be broken by individual decisions or (as I hope he also thinks) by the state in capital punishment or in unjust wars. I do wonder what Douthat would think about capital punishment and lesser but noxious repressions if the state tended toward theocracy or just took sides on certain issues, in ways he considered beneficent.

But he’s only 29. As he travels his Via Dolorosa from the Times op ed page toward the Kingdom of God on earth, Douthat may be an interlocutor who makes liberals think through their own long-unexamined assumptions and find the missing groundwork for some of their beliefs in government action and individual rights. Neo-conservatives have derided liberals for holding these beliefs at all or for holding them badly, when in truth neo-cons held some of the same beliefs. It may be more rewarding to watch Ross Douthat transcend his conservative prematurity than it has been to watch David Brooks grow up politically so much later in life.

David Brooks, Sophist

Gail Collins tells him where to go.

Talking Points Memo Café

August 29, 2007

By Jim Sleeper | bio

Gabbing about Democrats’ pre-primary campaigning the other day on “All Things Considered,” David Brooks tried to lighten the stress he’s under while pretending to be fascinated by Iowa Dems’ opinions. He’d interviewed some in Manley, Iowa, he chortled, “because I’m so manly” –a typical Brooksian aside. 

Two days later, on PBS’ News Hour, Brooks tried to yuk it up deflecting Harold Meyerson’s observation that since markets overreact, they need to be regulated. He smirked that Congress doesn’t understand markets well enough to regulate them. Two days after that, in a column disguised as a New York Times book review, he lampooned a liberal academic for arguing that since Republican candidates hawk irrational fears and resentments, Dems should, too. The next day, Brooks was back on the News Hour, trying to put at least some wan, ironic humor on Alberto Gonzales’ demise.         

We’ve been seeing, hearing and reading a lot of pseudo-funny churlishness from Brooks – a lot of Brooks, period. Maybe NPR, PBS, and Times audiences have been calling in, demanding, “More David Brooks!”  More likely, editors and producers think him a conservative congenial to liberals like themselves. It doesn’t hurt that many conservatives think him a traitor. But could a sophist be a conservative at all? Can’t we have a conservative with integrity? The latest Brooksian overkill forces that question.

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Sophistry is clever but misleading reasoning. The conservative historian Russell Kirk described the ancient Greek Sophists as I’ll shortly portray Brooks: “‘realistic,’ sardonic,” able to pass off trickery or intimidation as righteous persuasion. They were “impelled by their passions and low interests, their illusions, even at the moment they claimed to speak as practical logicians and champions of common sense…. Sophists taught the young men of Athens… the way to material success, especially through public speaking before the assembly or in cases at law.” Too few students noticed (or regretted) that Sophists led them “not to truth but to worldly success.”

The alternative to sophistry isn’t really pure leftism or conservatism, however. Demanding either would let Brooks off the hook, for no American-republican thinker with integrity can be ideologically consistent. What we need is clarity about which principles you’re advancing and about your difficulties in reconciling them. Sophistry puts great intelligence and rhetorical charm at the service not of reasonable truth-seeking but of perversity and power. People like Brooks are drawn to it not intellectually but characterologically. The most memorable portrait of Brooks’ sophistic evasions is by Nicholas Confessore in 2004 in the Washington Monthly. I’ve occasionally sketched his evasions myself.

But what about his editors, producers, and on-air interlocutors? The old saw about New York and Washington editors is that they don’t think; they “do lunch,” and there they learn what to think. But it is unfair. They simply don’t have time to read and think about pieces like the above.

Entertainment value matters a lot, too, and you had only to watch Brooks at work in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review to know why some editors find him beguiling. Pretending to review The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Emory psychologist Drew Westen, Brooks pirouetted back and forth between cutesy and nasty, making us laugh at liberal eggheads, a riff of his that plays terrifically well with wounded neo-cons who are themselves scurrying off toward academic nunneries after abusing power. (Brooks has designs on Yale.)

Westen’s book shows that when malevolent leaders stir and stoke voters’ primal emotions to bolux their more rational reckonings with higher interests, dark fears and resentments drive their choices. He notes that Republicans have done this more skillfully (and malevolently) than Democrats.

But then Westen makes a misstep: He urges Democrats to pay Republicans back in kind, fantasizing, a moment in 2000 campaign when Gore confronts Bush: “Why don’t you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt, endangering your neighbors’ kids? Where I come from, we call that a drunk.”

Westen’s argument “raises some interesting questions,” Brooks writes, licking his chops as he prepares to do precisely what Republicans always do when threatened this way: They turn the blame on their liberal opponents’ frustrated rage and supposed viciousness and draw themselves up into a pseudo-liberal posture of arch disdain for the liberals’ own supposed fear-mongering.

Voters aren’t really as irrational as Westin claims, Brooks tells us; it’s beastly, insulting, and pathetic of Westen to claim that (as Brooks summarizes him) “Republicans have brilliant political consultants like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, who frame issues so fiendishly, they can fool the American people into voting against their own best interests.”

Brooks was on the debate team at the University of Chicago, and it shows in the “interesting questions” he claims Westen’s book raises:

“First, why did someone with so little faith in rational inquiry go into academia, and what does he do to those who disagree with him at Emory faculty meetings, especially recovering alcoholics?”

First, you see, Brooks goes ad hominem. Then, he changes the subject or turns the charge against his opponent. In reality, there’s no contradiction in a rational academic’s studying irrationality. Brooks needs to read essays by the dread Herbert Marcuse written in Europe in the late 1930s and collected in a book called “Negations.” He may be shocked to find himself staring into a mirror. As for Emory faculty meetings, wouldn’t it be more credible to cite, say, participants on panels at the American Enterprise Institute or writers of columns like those by Brooks’ old Weekly Standard colleague William Kristol?

But Brooks the sophist has changed the subject, and Gore’s imaginary explosion has eclipsed the campaign Brooks served in 2000 and, more consequentially, in 2004, when it was “Swift-boating” John Kerry at the gutter level which Brooks excoriates Westen for commending to Democrats. On the News Hour when Swift-boating was at its peak, Brooks declined to condemn it, pleading that Kerry’s Vietnam service “happened before I was born.” In his new review, Swift-boating never appears. What appears is an imagined Gore explosion.

“is it possible that substance has something to do with the political fortunes of parties? Could it be that Democrats won in the middle part of the 20th Century because they were right about the big issues — the New Deal and the civil rights movement? Is it possible Republicans won in the latter part of the century because they were right about economic growth and the cold war? Is it possible Democrats are winning now because they were right about whether to go to war in Iraq?”

This is sophistry at its deftest. As LBJ anticipated, Democrats lost the South because of civil rights, and Republican “economic growth” means Wall Street-driven quarterly bottom lining through which markets rule the public airwaves, with disastrous consequences for republican deliberation. More important, when Al Gore made this argument in The Assault on Reason, Brooks denounced “the chilliness and sterility of his worldview” — unlike that of Bush, who was down-to-earth and wise enough to give us the Iraq war, with the help of Brooks, who wrote column after column telling us how wrong Democrats were about whether to go to war in Iraq.

Let’s be clear, shall we? David Brooks does not believe that American voters are rational, and he has never used his rhetorical and political skills to help them become more so. On the News Hour in 2004, he announced that John Kerry had flunked “the Joshua test” by meeting Brooks’  young son Joshua and turning him off. “Anyone who can’t relate to a 10-year-old boy can’t relate to the American electorate,” Brooks opined, but if he was right, why does he disparage Westen for saying pretty much the same, with regret, not a smirk?

The question Westen’s book ought to prompt isn’t really whether voters are rational or irrational. As Marcuse wrote in 1938, the broader rationalism of a democratic socialism or republicanism that overrides markets at times to achieve common goods after rational public deliberation “is well aware of the limits of human knowledge and of rational social action, but it avoids fixing these limits too hurriedly and, above all, making capital out of them for the purpose of uncritically sanctioning established hierarchies.” The question Westen’s book should prompt is whether real leaders and opinion makers are needed to lift, not lower, people’s sights. “It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our own deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears,” D. H. Lawrence insisted. Does Brooks agree?

After a decade shrilling our little desires in our ears, Brooks denies or ignores the extent to which anyone is doing it at all, except Westen. Brooks asks,

“Finally, if voter decisions are driven by the sort of crude emotional outbursts Westen recommends, and if, as he writes, ‘a substantial minority of Americans hold authoritarian, intolerant ideologies….’, then shouldn’t we abandon this whole democracy thing? Shouldn’t we have a coup, led perhaps by the Emory psychology department, which could prevent the brutish and hate-filled from ever gaining control?”

Our college debater concludes triumphally:

“It’s rare that one comes across a book that raises so many questions. Of course it’s rare that one comes across a book that so avidly flatters the prejudices of its partisan readers.”

It’s also rare to come across a book review that so avidly flatters the prejudices of editors at the Neoconservative Damage Control Gazette which they have made of New York Times Book Review a few times too often since 2002. The sophistry of Brook’s supposedly rhetorical question – “Shouldn’t we have a coup?” – evades the record of his own apologetics for something like a coup from November, 2000 through at least 2005, when the conservative shock troops, spin machine and Bush factota whom Brooks promoted and defended won elections with Swift Boat and GWOT fear-mongering and a creeping coup of unwarranted surveillance, detention, and signing statements.

I’d love to think that if voters have turned against these measures and minions, it’s because they’ve become more rational than they were when they accepted them. But I fear that the real reason is that while success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan – in Iraq, in New Orleans, in health insurance, in market regulation.

Perhaps editors and producers are more rational than their stressed audiences. I’d ask Jim Lehrer at PBS, Ellen Weiss at NPR, and Gail Collins, Sam Tanenhaus, and Barry Gewen at the New York Times to read the essays linked above and ask how it has happened that all of them have offered their large, liberal-leaning audiences a smart, charming sophist, not a thoughtful, honest conservative or two who can contend worthily with Mark Shields, Harold Meyerson, E.J. Dionne, Ruth Marcus, Paul Krugman, and others.

Note: Westen himself has posted a substantive author’s response to Brooks’ review in the Huffington Post, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/drew-westen/dissecting-the-political-_b_62061.html

Barry Gewen: Not-so-closeted neo-con?

Talking Points Memo Cafe 

Neo-cons, Rising Again? 

By Jim Sleeper – February 18, 2009, 9:50AM 

 
Blogging at the New York Times under the title “Neoconservatism Lives!”, Times Book Review deputy editor Barry Gewen touts Times regular reviewer Jacob Heilbrunn’s latest suggestion — this time in The American Conservative magazine — that neo-cons are rising again.  

Gewen isn’t only being provocative, although, Lord knows, he tries. He actually likes the idea: “The Iraq war was never a partisan affair,” he explains, adding that “Many prominent Democrats and liberals like Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman and George Packer supported it.” Gewen neglects to mention that he supported it, too, along with his boss Sam Tanenhaus and most of the political reviews they published, as I showed here and in The Nation.  

And how are Times Book Review readers responding? Click here and enjoy the storm of anger and derision that Gewen wound up provoking.  

Readers aren’t impressed by his claim that, just like neo-cons, Hitchens, Berman, Packer and others “wanted to promote democracy in the Middle East.” Nobody’s impressed by Gewen’s unsubtle hint that we should all be together on the Iraq venture because he once asked David Brooks and Paul Berman “what difference there was in their positions on Iraq” and “they agreed that there wasn’t any.”  

Gewen is sanguine about Heilbrunn’s suggestion that neo-cons may insinuate themselves back into power thanks to a recent report on possible American responses to genocide — co-authored by Hillary Clinton’s friend and predecessor Madeline Albright — that Heilbrunn calls “essentially a stalking horse for liberal intervention. It would create a permanent bureaucracy with a vested interest in insisting upon armed interventionism whenever and wherever the U.S. pleases….”  

The American Conservative magazine published Heilbrunn’s warning, not to cheer what he’d written but to alert readers to the threat coming from neo-cons, whom many conservatives would like to defeat, for good reasons like those I sketched recently here and in openDemocracy. American Conservative editor Scott McConnell actually endorsed John Kerry in 2004, warning that four more years of George W. Bush would leave the conservative movement exactly where those four years have left it. In 2008, McConnell, horrified by neo-cons’ battening onto John McCain’s campaign, actually canvassed for the Obama in Virginia. 

The New York Times Book Review was and is far less horrified than The American Conservative, as Gewen reminds us by spinning Heilbrunn’s warning as far as possible from its author’s actual intent and from McConnell’s brave responses as an editor and citizen. But now Gewen’s own commenters are reminding us what neo-cons are worth to many of his and the Book Review’s long-suffering readers. Really, you’ve got to click on to the piece and scroll down to the comments.  

And when more people become acquainted with Barry Gewen’s long campaign, which he’s been conducting in the Times and the World Affairs Journal, to get readers to join him and Alan Dershowitz in thinking the unthinkable about torture, his influence — not on rigorous and necessary thinking, but on the selection and assignment of political books at the Book Review — will come into more chilling focus. 

What Martin Peretz and Harvard Got Wrong

By Jim Sleeper – September 22, 2010, TPMCafe

Well-meaning supporters of naming a scholarship fund for Martin Peretz at Harvard lost sight of something far more important to the future of American higher education and the republic than the reprehensible things Peretz wrote about Muslims on his blog. Even those opposed to Harvard’s decision today to accept the fund named for Peretz have erred, I think, in limiting their objections to his “bigotry.”

Peretz’s supporters, some of them his former students, seem determined not to notice what he has become in recent years. And Harvard seems determined not to notice what his battening himself onto a college he literally worships actually portends for its soul.

What’s really appalling — but what no one seems to want to face — is the rise of people like this who, whatever their past ideals and pretensions, haven’t kept faith with liberal education (let alone scholarship) yet are buying themselves more presence and prestige on campuses. That is skewing undergraduate education in ways few understand. Peretz isn’t the worst villain, but he is a vivid example of what’s wrong.

Donors to liberal education should be seen by name, not heard. Peretz’s preoccupation with Harvard – evidenced in The New Republic’s shamefully worshipful profiles of Lawrence Summers as a martyr to political correctness at Harvard and an apostle of economic reform in Washington — has been so unseemly that Harvard’s willingness to honor him smacks of its own disorientation and financial desperation. (At the height of the controversy, the donors upped their contribution to the Peretz Research Fund from $500,000 to $650,000, as if that would ensure Harvard’s acceptance. Perhaps it did.)

A few years ago, when Little, Brown canceled a $500,000, two-novel deal with Kaavya Viswanathan — a Harvard sophomore whose authorial voice, like her application to Harvard, had been packaged by pricey handlers — I noted in the Boston Globe that “today’s Harvard is no more likely to help her find an inner moral compass than Tiffany & Co. is to improve its customers’ morality. Students contemplate with self-recognition her fall from what one, in the Harvard Crimson, called ‘the same rickety tower of meritocracy that so many of us built on our way to our Harvard admission.'”

Peretz and his supporters don’t approve of this, of course. They just happen to be part of it — in more ways than they’ve reckoned with. They’ve grown soft on what really counts in liberal education. They’ve forgotten Allan Bloom’s warning that liberal education must resist both ”whatever is most powerful” and the ”worship of vulgar success.”

True openness, Bloom said, ”means closedness to all the charms that make us comfortable with the present.” He disdained professors who strive to become counselors to the king and forget that ”the intellectual, who attempts to influence . . . ends up in the power of the would-be influenced.” And he lamented the emergence of new academic departments like mass communications and business management, which ”wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university.” Such departments or institutes or centers — like Yale’s new Jackson Institute for Global Affairs — are now reorienting undergraduate education in ways that demand careful watching and criticism.

Harvard’s Social Studies program has been both an oasis and a vibrant center for what’s best in liberal education, in ways I won’t reprise here but which Peretz’s supporters recall. Somehow, they’ve failed to contrast their memories of Social Studies with Peretz’s public performances of the past decade.

Colleges that want to train national and global leaders must indeed strike a difficult, delicate balance between humanist Truth seeking and republican Power-wielding. And, yes, they are therefore right to let people with “real world” wisdom who can meet liberal education standards — including Marty Peretz, and, for that matter, me — teach a course or two, as leavens in the campus mix.

But, as I say in today’s Harvard Crimson, that’s is no reason to load any of us up with academic honors and institutional sway, especially because of our (I mean Peretz’s) worldly wealth and “connections.”

That is exactly what Bloom rightly wanted liberal education to resist. But it is exactly what colleges are especially vulnerable to these days, under duress as they are fiscally and ideologically (more from the right now than from the left). Turning liberal education into a game of money, power, and public relations only makes matters worse.

Why have Peretz’s supporters lost sight of this? Some have fond memories of him in his younger years. Some of them feel indebted to him for the support and direction he gave them back then. Some, like the columnist E.J. Dionne, have become captives of Beltway Comity Syndrome, in which you treat every fellow pundit as a hale fellow well met.

Dionne has been egregious at this, blurbing everyone’s book, no matter what it says, serving as moderator or panelist at everyone’s conference, and moving about the capital as if he were the bishop in Ulysses, dispensing beneficent smiles and benedictions to virtually everyone. The circle of Washington punditry is E.J.’s diocese, but this is not Christian charity, it is a subtle conceit about power that’s beginning to remind me of the false felicity of Hapsburg Vienna in 1914.

I sketched another example of Beltway Comity Syndrome here a couple of years ago when George Packer took it upon himself, in the New Yorker, to assist David Brooks in an attempted (and ongoing) political makeover, only to make them both look like monkeys grooming each other in the Chattering Classes Zoo.

Memo to E.J. Dionne: What we need in Washington now is more comity among politicians and less comity among pundits, especially between you and Peretz. I mean not that more savants should shout past one another but that they should be more forthright in challenging one another to explain themselves – and then listen when they do, and respond, with the public’s interest foremost.

Memo to Harvard: Re-read your former college dean Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education.

What on dit About The New Republic’s Literary Editor

By Jim Sleeper – September 18, 2010, TPMCafe

In French the phrase on dit means, literally, “one says.” But really it signifies what someone in the know considers it au courant and fashionable to say.

No one works harder to parade his apartness from such pseudo-sophisticated posturing than New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who dispatched the apostles of on dit last week by complaining,


“Our sophistication is merely a skill for many surfaces. … Its objective is breadth, not depth. It is… the intellectual aspiration of a dinner guest. …. We teach ourselves to become even a little haughty about what we discovered the day before yesterday. (“What, you haven’t seen Osipova?”) And the victims of our intimidation go home to bone up in private, to remediate their out-of-the-loopness and prepare themselves for a role in the on dit–except of course the strong ones among them who recognize this game for what it is, and prefer something better than sophistication, more specific and more substantive, a parcel of knowledge strenuously acquired and genuinely possessed…..”

And here is Wieseltier, recognizing the game for what it is on October 8, 2001, as the ruins of the World Trade Center smoldered, dispatching Vanity Fair sophisticates’ reactions to the calamity:

“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 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.”

Not a pawn of irony but its master, Wieseltier has consecrated himself to the kind of sincerity and profundity that, well before 9/11, made him join Richard Bruce (Dick) Cheney and Carl Christian Rove on the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Even on Sep. 20, 2001, as he was penning the comments quoted above, Wieseltier and 40 others signed a public letter to George W. Bush from the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century urging 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.”

The on dit about Wieseltier is that he keeps on repeating himself, in print and in politics, as I showed at some length here two years ago. Perhaps that is something for him to ponder and — dare one say it? — atone for. He can’t do that by banging away at people who’ve dropped him from their dinner party lists, and certainly not by sounding, week after week, as if he himself had penned my own modest proposal for his epitaph:

I am so wise,
That my wisdom makes me weary.
It’s all I can do
To share my wisdom with you.

What Victor Davis Hanson and Vulcan Ideology Do to Ancient History and US Foreign Policy

By Jim Sleeper – September 23, 2010, 5:35PM

In August, when PBS broadcast a shamefully worshipful, 3-hour “documentary” of Reagan Administration Secretary of State George Shultz’s supposedly heroic career, I posted “What Politics Does to History,” exposing the fraudulent scholarship of the man who’d written most of Shultz’s memoir and is now teaching students at Yale. At least, though, Charles Hill has had the wit to seek refuge in “literature” for his rather chilling take on history, as I showed also in Foreign Policy.

The historian Victor Davis Hanson is something else again, a magpie of misplaced, forced analogies from ancient to post-modern events. Hanson conscripts his studies of ancient Greek wars to the service of the Bush national-security agenda, which he’d love to revive. Now he’s done it again in Makers of Ancient Strategy, an anthology I’ve just reviewed for the new, fall issue of Democracy journal. And Hanson, true to form, is ranting about the review.

”When someone attacks me, I reply with twice that,” Hanson told the Boston Globe, which noted that he “has penned many a blistering response to a negative review. It’s not unlike the tactic Hanson recommends in war: ‘You do that a few times, and people stop attacking you.”’

Sorry, Victor, but the main reason people stop attacking you is that you discredit yourself without their having to bother. No sooner had Hanson submitted his counter-attack to Democracy, than he posted it, twice, perhaps expecting that this shock-and-awe approach would silence criticism.

It certainly pleased his site’s ditto-heads, but Hanson had no choice but to link the review he was attacking, and I invite anyone who can read without moving his or her lips to compare it to Hanson’s rant. The review shows that the man can’t separate his historiography of ancient wars from his Vulcan ideology, He can’t help trying to draft his scholarship — and, yes, some of history’s enduring truths — into his efforts to promote and then justify misadventures like ours in Iraq.

These are hard times for would-be warriors like Hanson, Charles Hill, and Martin Peretz, all of whom are scurrying to burnish their dubious scholarly credentials to cover their real-world blunders. But although I’ve caught Hanson trying to do that in his new anthology, some of its contributors — and, he now tells us defensively, its Princeton University Press readers — have higher standards than he does and didn’t let him get away with it entirely.

The result, as I explain in the review, is an anthology that makes Victor Davis Hanson look better than he is despite his efforts to sanitize his war-mongering solutions through scholarship. It’s all in the review; Enjoy!

Looking for America

This website’s purpose, and how I came to it

Many discouraging observations have been made about Americans, some of them clearer than truth: French observers have called us les grands enfants. The late American historian Louis Hartz rued our “vast and almost charming innocence of mind.” Those are two of the nicer assessments. Some of the more-accurate ones are scarier. Although millions of us behave encouragingly every day, often in distinctively “American” ways that I assess on this website, this is no time to congratulate ourselves. But it’s also no time to consign ourselves to history’s dustbin by writing pre-mortems for the 2022 and 2024 elections.

The following essay is a highly personal account of my reckonings with these challenges. Before you read further here, read “About This Site” in the left-hand column on this home-page and glance at my thematic survey of the increasingly dicey prospects of an American, civic-republican culture — “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free,” as the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized it. I’d like to see that civic culture transcend “woke” corporate neoliberalism, authoritarian state capitalism, right-wing, racist nationalism, Marxoid economic determinism, and post-modernist escapism, all of which are responses to global riptides that are transforming humanity’s economic, technological, communicative, climatic, migratory, and other arrangements. Sure, these swift, often dark currents are driven by capitalism, but they’re also driven by human inclinations that antedate capitalism and seem certain to outlast it. Neither the left nor the right seems able to block them or re-channel them.

More than a few Americans actually find these currents energizing as well as disorienting. That’s partly thanks to accidents of this country’s history that have enabled its commingling of faith, innovation, fakery, and force. Americans “have all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistible in a space otherwise quite empty,” the philosopher George Santayana noted. “To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career.”

Well, maybe. The 19th-century Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck is reputed to have said that “God protects, fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” The ascent of Donald Trump and of Trumpism has reinforced that impression and made many of us doubt and even despair of “American” virtues that we’d taken for granted or dedicated ourselves to upholding. I doubted our capabilities along those lines in the 1970s and more deeply in 2014, before I or anyone imagined that Trump would run for the presidency, let alone that tens of millions of Americans would be credulous and cankered enough to elect him.

“Jim Sleeper is the Jonathan Edwards of American civic culture – and that’s a compliment,” tweeted The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, referring to the formidable Puritan “thought leader” of the 18th Century and to my Salon essay “We, the People, are Violent and Filled with Rage,” which you can read later on this site. With Jeremiadic woe, I’d surveyed the civic-cultural damage of the 2008 financial crisis and the run of public massacres, including in Oklahoma City in 1995, Columbine in 1998, and Sandy Hook in 2012. Soon after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, I doubted America’s prospects more deeply still in “It’s Not Only a Constitutional Crisis, It’s a Civic Implosion,” a little essay for Bill Moyers’ website that you can read later on this website’s section, “A Sleeper Sampler.”

Hertzberg’s reference to my cast of mind was fortuitous, and not only because the damage I mentioned has been accelerating: I grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, a small town settled by Puritans in 1644, just six miles north of the spot where, in 1741, Edwards would preach his (in)famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Some of my Longmeadow public school classmates were direct descendants of the town’s Puritan founders. A few of my teachers seemed to have been writhing in Edwards’ congregation when he preached. Whenever they looked at me in school, I felt them looking into me, partly for a particular reason.

That residually Calvinist, “Yankee” discipline converged with two other cultural currents in my upbringing, inclining me to look into civic-republican society’s ups and downs. The Calvinist current drew on an older, Hebraic, Old Testament one, of law and prophecy, that was my inheritance as a grandson of four Lithuanian Jewish immigrant grandparents and that was deepened in my extracurricular but intensive exposure to it. Neither the Christian nor the Jewish current disappeared when I entered Yale College in 1965 and learned that it had been founded by Puritans who’d put a Hebrew approximation of “Light and Truth” on its seal and envisioned it as a “school of prophets.” As if that weren’t enough, Kingman Brewster, Jr., Yale’s president during my undergraduate years and a lineal descendant of the minister on the Puritan Pilgrims’ ship The Mayflower, had been born in my hometown, Longmeadow.

I wrote about the town in 1986 in a Boston Globe column for my 25th high school reunion. In 2004 I assessed Brewster’s civic-republican legacy, whose remnants I’d encountered (and embodied?) in the last of the “old,” white-male Yale. (You can read those essays later on this website’s section, “Liberal Education and Leadership.”)

Fooling around at 19, my freshman year

Still fooling around in Wellesley, MA, age 23, 1971

Beyond Calvinism and Hebraism, a third cultural current, a leftish civic-republican one, surfaced at around the time I turned 30, in 1977. Like many other New Englanders before me, I carried some of the region’s civic and moral presumptions (conceits? innocent hopes?) to New York City, although not to literary Manhattan but to “inner city” Brooklyn, where I ran an activist weekly newspaper before bicycling across the Brooklyn Bridge every day to work as a speechwriter for City Council President Carol Bellamy. By 1982, I was writing for The Village Voice, Dissent, Commonweal and other political magazines. From 1988 to 1995, I was an editor and columnist for the daily newspapers New York Newsday and The New York Daily News.

In 1987, my essay “Boodling, Bigotry, and Cosmopolitanism” sketched New York’s changing political culture for a special issue of Dissent magazine that I edited and that was re-published as In Search of New York. The “Boodling” essay was re-published yet again in Empire City, a Columbia University Press anthology of 400 years of writing about the city, edited by the historian Kenneth Jackson and the master-teacher David Dunbar.

In 1990, W.W. Norton published my The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York. The book was a tormented love letter to the city. It sparked public debate in and beyond New York. After 1999, while continuing to live in the city and writing many of the pieces referenced and linked on this site, I taught Yale undergraduates for two decades in political science seminars — “New Conceptions of American National Identity” and “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy.”

In the late 1970s I embraced, and I still affirm, a democratic-socialist politics that, unlike Stalinism and orthodox Marxism, had a distinctively American, civic-republican orientation that rejects Communists’ opportunistic (ab)uses of civil liberties, civil rights, and democracy. Democratic socialism in the 1970s steered fairly clear of the racially essentialist “identity politics” that many of its adepts now wrongly embrace by fantasizing about “Black liberation” and its analogues as cats’ paws of an advancing Revolution. If you sample my offerings in the section “Why a Skin Color isn’t a Culture or a Politics,” you’ll encounter my conviction that although ethno-racial identities are inevitable and sometimes enriching, they’ll never be wellsprings of social hope in America unless they’re transcended by all of us as participants in a thicker civic culture and citizens of a larger republic, if not of the world. Precisely because The United States is more complex racially, ethnically, religiously, and otherwise than most “multicultural” categorizing comprehends, we need to be working overtime to identify and, yes, instill, certain shared civic and moral premises and practices that I discuss in many of the pieces on this website.



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No longer fooling around. Brooklyn, age 31, 1978

Beginning in the 1990s and ever since, I’ve taken strong public stands against ethno-racialist evasions of the civic-republican mission. In 1991 I wrote a rather harsh assessment of leftist identity politics for Tikkun magazine that was re-published in Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments, edited by Paul Berman. I refined and, dare I say, elevated the argument in civic-republican terms in a 1996 Harper’s magazine essay, “Toward an End of Blackness,” that identified the emptiness of American blackness and whiteness as vessels of social hope. I summarized and updated the argument again in 2021, in a Commonweal essay, “Scrapping the Color Code.” (You can find all of the essays on race that I’ve just mentioned in this website’s section on race, “Why Skin Color Isn’t Culture or Politics.”) I’ve published a lot more along these lines and debated in many public forums, some of them linked in the Commonweal essay and elsewhere on this site. (My two books on the subject are The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream (1997).

Some of this work sparked resentment among activists and academics on the left and among journalists and other writers across the political spectrum. I accused some of them of betraying a civic-republican ethos and creed that’s under assault by capitalist, neoliberal, and even radical-racialist forces, the most dangerous of them white-supremacy, but others of them unconstructively “woke” or more subtly, seductively commercial. Some of my criticisms of writers who’ve ridden these currents have been gratuitously cruel, even when accurate.

Civic-republican strengths and susceptibilities

Although many Americans behaved admirably, even heroically, on 9/11 and in the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, what matters to a republic’s survival are the little things people do daily, when no one’s looking and no digital tracking device, cellphone camera, or journalist is recording them. Essential though a republic’s wealth and military power are to its strength, they can become parasitical on it pretty quickly when people are feelings stressed, dispossessed, and susceptible to simplistic explanations. Neither a booming economy nor massive firepower can ensure a republic’s vitality, especially when “prosperity” and power are dissolving civic-republican norms and practices.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against this in his Farewell Address in 1960, condemning what he called a “military-industrial” complex. (An early draft of his address, well-known to historians, called the danger a “military-industrial-academic” complex.) Hardly a radical leftist or rightist inveighing against capitalism or a deep state, Ike was a decent, heartland American from Kansas who’d gotten to know the military-industrial-academic complex from within as its supreme warmaker and then as Columbia University’s president.

Even more than Eisenhower’s warning or Jonathan Edwards’ and Hebrew prophets’ denunciations, developments since 9/11 have convinced me that Americans who’ve become accustomed to think well of themselves would be better off convicting themselves of their complicity in democracy’s decline. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the 18th century British historian Edward Gibbon claimed that “a slow and secret poison” had worked its way into the vitals of ancient Rome’s republic, distorting and draining its virtues and beliefs. In our own time, faster-acting, glaringly public poisons have been working their way into our republic. Yet most Americans, “liberal” or “conservative,” have been ingesting and pushing them without naming or countering them honestly.

One may insist that whatever is driving Americans’ increasing resort to force, fraud and mistrust comes from human nature itself. The republic’s founders understood that argument in Calvinist terms and also from reading Gibbon’s semi-pagan assessment of human history as “little more than a record of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” They tried to devise a republican system of self-government that “doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections and gives an order to our individual strivings,” as one of their legatees, John McCain, put it two and a half centuries later in one of his last addresses to Senate colleagues.

Assessed by these lights, Trump (who cruelly disparaged McCain) is only the most prominent carrier and pusher of imperfections and poisons that the founders knew were already in us — even in those of us who deny that we’re carriers and pushers. Even Barack Obama reinforced our “vast and almost charming innocence of mind” in 2008 by staging a year-long equivalent of a religious revival rally for the civic-republican faith across partisan, ideological, and ethno-racial lines. But he wasn’t only a performance artist; he embodied and radiated distinctively American strengths that fascinate people the world over — not our wealth and power or our technological affinities, which are often brutally or seductively unfair, but our professed commitment to a classless egalitarianism that inclines any American to say “Hi” to a stranger instead of “Heil!” to a dictator; to give that stranger a fair chance; to be optimistic and forward-looking; and, from those collective and personal strengths, to take a shot at the moon.

I don’t think that the American republic is sliding irreversibly into Nazi-style fascism, as some on the left fear and some on the alt-right hope, or that it will succumb to leftist totalitarian socialism. More likely is an accelerating dissolution of the civic-republican way of life that Daniel Aaron, who was a mentor of mine, called “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.” That subtle balance of divergent qualities and of the trust and comity they engender is being routed by the global undercurrents that I’ve also mentioned -– economic, technological/communicative, climatic/migratory, and demographic/cultural –- that are sluicing force, fraud, and mistrust into our public and private lives. A bare majority of us are holding on to common ground.

Looking across the tracks. Illustration by Philip Toolin, a film art director/production designer who’s been doing this since he was 15.

In his foreboding 1941 prophecy, What Mein Kampf Means for America, Francis Hackett, a literary editor of The New Republic, warned that people who feel disrespected and dispossessed are easy prey for demagogic orchestrations of “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and, out of these three elements, a counterfeit reality to which there was a violent, instinctive response. For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fiction as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond. The fiction is taken for truth because the fiction is badly needed.”

Edward Gibbon and Jonathan Edwards would have recognized that condition in us now. Yet its causes and subtleties often escape the notice of journalists who are busy chasing “current events” without enough historical and moral grounding to contextualize them within the “undercurrent events” that are driving upheavals and horrors around us and within us. I have a thing or two to say about that myopic side of American journalism (and I have some experiences to share) in this website’s sections on “News Media, Chattering Classes, and a Phantom Public” and on “Scoops and Revelations.”

The undercurrent events that many journalists mishandle aren’t malevolent, militarized conspiracies; they’re civically mindless, commercial intrusions into our public and private lives that derange our employment options, public conversations, and daily aspirations and habits. They do this by bypassing our hearts and minds relentlessly, 24/7, on their way to our lower viscera and our wallets, to attract eyeballs and maximize the profits of swirling whorls of shareholders. These commercial riptides incentivize (and brainwash?) many Americans to behave as narrowly self-interested investors and as impulse-buying consumers, not as citizens of a republic who restrain their immediate self-interest at times to enhance the public interests of a “commonwealth.” That word remains on our legal documents and pediments, but we’re losing its meaning, along with its “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free” ethos.

Decay and Renewal

Imagine a former auto worker, a white man in his mid-50s whose $30-an-hour job and its benefits were replaced a decade ago by a job stocking shelves at Wal-Mart for less than half the pay and who has lost his home because he accepted a predatory mortgage scam of the kind that prompted the 2008 financial and political near-meltdown. Imagine that he winds up here:

Illustration by Philip Toolin

“When the people give way,” warned John Adams (a graduate of the then-still residually Calvinist Harvard College and a self-avowed admirer of Hebrews) in 1774, “their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour…. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.”

In 1787, Alexander Hamilton, urging ratification of the Constitution, wrote that history seemed to have destined Americans, “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.”

In 1975, two centuries after James Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and others designed the republic with dry-eyed wisdom about its vulnerabilities, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt worried that “Madison Avenue tactics under the name of public relations have been permitted to invade our political life.” She characterized the then-recently exposed Pentagon Papers, which confirmed the Vietnam War’s duplicity and folly, as an example of the invasion of political life by public relations, of Madison by Madison Avenue – that is, of efforts to separate its public promises of a democratic victory in Vietnam from realities on the ground, until, finally, the official words lost their meaning and, without them, the deeds became more starkly brutal.

March on Pentagon, 1967 (National Archives and Record Administration)

What many Americans should have learned from that debacle, and what I’ve been learning ever since, reinforces Oliver Goldsmith’s warning, in 1777: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a’prey, when wealth accumulates and men decay.” A wealthy society may decay and implode not only because its prosperity isn’t distributed fairly but also because it’s only material and therefore weak against profit-maximizing engines such as Rupert Murdoch’s media, which prey upon the susceptibilities and resentments of stressed, dispossessed people such as the former auto worker and the Uber driver. If the manipulative engines aren’t stopped, they’ll grope, goose, titillate, intimidate, track, indebt, stupefy and regiment people, many of whom will crave easy escapes in bread-and-circus entertainments like those of Rome in its decline. They’ll join mobs that demand to be lied to with simplistic story lines that tell them who to blame for their pains and who to follow to fix them.

Perhaps with Gibbon’s slow and secret poison in mind, Alexis de Tocqueville described “the slow and quiet action of society upon itself” in the little daily interactions that matter as much as the high moments of national decision. Writing Democracy in America in 1835, he marveled, perhaps wishfully, at an American individualism that seemed willing to cooperate with others to achieve goods in common that individualism couldn’t achieve on its own:

“The citizen of the United States is taught from his earliest infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety….This habit may even be traced in the schools of the rising generation, where the children in their games are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established…. The same spirit pervades every act of social life. If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare, and the circulation of the public is hindered, the neighbors immediately constitute a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power which remedies the inconvenience before anybody has thought of recurring to an authority superior to that of the persons immediately concerned.”

This civic-republican disposition — to give the other person a fair chance and to back her up as she tries, to deliberate rationally with her about shared purposes, and to reach and to keep binding commitments — relies on the elusive balance of civic values, virtues and body language that’s ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free. You see it in a team sport whenever 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 how people in a contentious meeting extend trust cannily to potential adversaries in ways that elicit trust in return.

You used to see it even on Capitol Hill, as I did in 1968, while interning for my western Massachusetts Republican Congressman, Silvio O. Conte:

(That’s me in the dark jacket. standing next to then-astronaut John Glenn, who was visiting Rep. Conte (standing to his right) while planning to run for the U.S. Senate from Ohio.)

Or maybe you don’t see civic grace like that so often these days. Maybe backbiting, road rage, and the degradation of public space and cyberspace are prompting quiet heartache and withdrawal as trust in other people slips out of our public lives. Without the balance that I’m sketching here and elsewhere on this website, the United States won’t survive as a republic amid the undercurrent events I’ve mentioned.

Civic-republican grace in writing and public life

Finding a better description of civic republicanism than I’ve offered here would require harder analysis and reportage, but also more poetry, faith and, sometimes even a little fakery. You can develop an ear and an eye for it, and maybe a voice for it. I’ve been following American civic republican culture’s ebbs and flows since around 1970, when I was 23, but really since World War II, because I was born two years after the war’s end and grew up in a civic culture that seemed more triumphant and coherent than it actually was or ever had been.

Some of the writing collected here records my and others’ growing disillusionment. For me, a lot of it began as journalism, “the first rough draft of history” if a journalist has some grounding in history and isn’t just chasing “breaking news.” Whenever the chattering classes make cicada-like rackets over the latest Big Thing, I’ve tried to assess that noise in its historical and other contexts, remembering Emerson’s admonition “that a popgun is [only] a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.”

Contextualizing current events this way sometimes yields scoops and insights that others have missed. (See the “Scoops and Other Revelations” Section for a sampler of what I’ve found.) Some of those pieces spotlight fissures and fragilities in the republican experiment, and some assail public leaders and journalists who I believed had lost their civic-republican lenses and standards, along with virtues and beliefs necessary to wise reporting. (See also “Leaders and Misleaders”)

If I were to resume writing a regular column, I’d call it “Somebodyhaddasayit,” because some my work has prompted people to tell me that they were glad that I’d written what they, too, had been thinking but were reluctant to say. Somebody really did need to say it, even when saying it made enemies not only among the “villains” but also, as George Orwell lamented, among editors and other writers who cancel honest speech that might embarrass them. “Saying it’ requires not only sound judgment and tact, but also, sometimes, courage.



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Editorial writer and editor at New York Newsday, 1992

Sometimes I’ve defended people who bear the American republican spirit bravely against daunting odds. One of these pieces began in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library in 2006, when I was looking for some family background on Ned Lamont, who was making a Democratic primary bid for the Connecticut U.S. Senate seat of Joe Lieberman, in protest against Lieberman’s unbending support for the Iraq War. I ended up writing not about Ned Lamont himself but about a long-forgotten uncle of his, Thomas W. Lamont II, whose young life and supreme sacrifice in World War II seemed a fata morgana, a fading mirage, of the American republic and of the citizenship that we’re losing, not at its obvious enemies’ hands but at our own. (See the essay “Duty Bound” on this website’s section, “A Civic Republican Primer.”)

Being an American like Tommy Lamont is an art and a discipline. You can’t just run civic grace up a flagpole and salute it, but neither should you snark it down as merely a bourgeois mystification of oppressive social relations. When the Vietnam Wars brutality and folly were at their worst and official words had lost their credibility and official deeds had become more murderous, the perennial socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas urged protestors “not to burn the American flag but to wash it.” I took his point, and I work with it. Americans who consider themselves too sophisticated for that strike me as naïve.

I wouldn’t call my writing “nationalist” or “conservative,” but more than a little of it has been motivated by my and others’ American, civic-republican patriotism. I’ve written often for left-of-center sites and journals, challenging much of what’s called “conservative” in American life. But a civic-republican compass points rightward sometimes, and I’ve written once or twice in right-of-center venues to condemn racialist “identity politics” and ethno-racial banner-waving that too often passes for progressive politics even when it only compounds a racial essentialism that fuels white superracist politics as much as black-power politics.

Although American national identity was developed self-critically — and sometimes hypocritically –in universal, secular Enlightenment terms, ultimately it relies on something akin to religious faith, even though it doesn’t impose any particular religious doctrine. Living with that paradox requires skill and empathy, as some leftist activists learned while swaying and singing with black-church folk against armed white men in the American South. But precisely because the country is so diverse religiously, racially, and culturally, it needs to generate common civic standards and lenses, with help from newly potent (and therefore always “mythic”) civic narratives. We don’t refuse to ride horses because they’re strong enough to kill us; we learn to break them in. Some liberals need to learn something similar about religion and patriotism.

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

Both left and right in American life offer distinctive truths that are indispensable to governing ourselves by reflection and choice, rather than by accident, force, and fraud. The left understands that without public provision of common supports in a village that raises the child, the family and spiritual values that conservatives cherish cannot flourish. But the right understands that unless a society also generates and honors protects irreducibly individual autonomy and conscience, even the best-intentioned social engineering may reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse. Each side often clings 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 consequent damage to the public sphere can’t be undone by clinging to the left-vs.-right floor plan that I mentioned at the outset. Analysis and organizing against socio-economic inequities are indispensable, but insufficient. That’s equally true of conservative affirmations of communal and religious values that bow too quickly to accumulated wealth that, as Oliver Goldsmith noted, disrupts and dissolves values and bonds that conservatives claim to cherish. (See this website’s sections, “Folly on the Left” and “Conservative Contradictions.”)

Ever since Madison helped to craft a Constitution to channel and deflect such factions, the republic has needed an open, circulating elite – not a caste or an aristocracy — of “disinterested” leaders whose private or special needs don’t stop them from looking out for the public and its potential to govern itself by reflection and choice. When John McCain voted in 2017 against repealing Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, he admonished Senate colleagues to “learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us…Considering the injustice and cruelties inflicted by autocratic governments, and how corruptible human nature can be, the problem solving our system does make possible…and the liberty and justice it preserves, is a magnificent achievement…. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’”

Maybe McCain had a good speechwriter, but he also believed what he was saying, even though he hadn’t always lived up to it. (See the section, “Leaders and Misleaders”.) Another flawed but sincere legatee of the founders’ Constitutional project was New York Mayor Ed Koch, whom I assailed for years until I got to know him a little better.

Many Americans still do uphold that civic-republican promise as moderators of candidates’ debates; as umpires in youth sporting leagues; as participants in street demonstrations; as board members who aren’t afraid to say, “Now wait a minute, let me make sure that we all understand what this proposal is based on and what it entails;” or as jurors who quiet the ethno-racial voices in their own and fellow-jurors’ heads to join in finding the truth. Truth is a process as much as it’s a conclusion. It emerges not from radical pronouncements of the general will or from ecclesiastical doctrines but provisionally, from the trust-building processes of deliberative democracy. “[A]nyone who is himself willing to listen deserves to be listened to,” Brewster wrote. “If he is unwilling to open his mind to persuasion, then he forfeits his claim on the audience of others.” In politics, unlike science, the vitality of truth-seeking matters as much as the findings.

At any historical moment, one side’s claims may seem liberating against the other side’s dominant conventions and cant: In the 1930s, Orwell sought liberation in democratic-socialist movements against ascendant fascist powers, and his sympathy remained with workers, but sometimes that required him to oppose workers’ self-proclaimed champions, especially Stalinists, as well as their capitalist exploiters. As I wrote, Orwell “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 mis-readings of human nature make it falter in swift, deep currents of nationalism and religion, caught between denying their importance and surrendering to them abjectly and hypocritically as the Soviets did by touting ‘Socialism in One Country’ while preaching Marxism as a secular eschatology.”

The balance to hold out for against ideologues is like that of a person striding on both a left foot and a right one without needing to notice that, at any instant, all of the body’s weight is on only one foot as the other swings forward and upward in the desired direction. What matters is that the balance enables the stride. Again, it requires both a “left foot” of social equality and provision – without which the individuality and the communal bonds that conservatives claim to 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 worse.

A balanced stride can be upset by differences among individuals and divisions within every individual’s human heart between sociable and selfish inclinations. A strong republic anticipates such imbalances by sustaining an evolving consensus, without ceding ground to hatred and violence. It remains vigilant against concentrations of power because it knows how to extend trust in ways that elicit trust and reward it in return. Being ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free requires acting on virtues and beliefs that armies alone can’t defend and that wealth can’t buy. Ultimately and ironically, a republic’s or democracy’s strength lies in the very vulnerability that comes with extending trust. “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,” Brewster wrote, in a passage that is now the epitaph on his grave in New Haven.

Think of Rosa Parks, refusing to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, presenting herself not only as a black woman demanding vindication against racism but also as a decent, American working Everywoman, damning no one but defending her rights. Presenting herself that way, she lifted the civil society up instead of trashing it as irredeemably racist.

Civic grace like that is heroic, and rare. But after forty years of tracking American civic culture’s ups and downs, I believe that, ultimately, it’s all that we have.

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Looking for America, at age 61, in Allan Appel’s satirical novel, The Midland Kid, at its 2008 book launch. covered by The New Haven Independent.