Entries Tagged as 'Uncategorized'

What Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza should have taught us

(Author’s Note: You’re about to dive into an Orwellian Memory Hole. The following was posted at Talking Points Memo in 2009, but you won’t find it there now. Along with a few other writers’ columns concerning Israel, this one disappeared from TPM. The site’s founder and editor, Joshua Micah Marshall, told us that a technical snafu had disrupted the site and its archive. Fortunately, I had saved all of my columns, and I sent them to him, but they were never restored by TPM. Links to the columns that were provided by pieces on other sites now take you only to TPM’s homepage. not to the relevant columns.

The irony, if it is an irony, is that the following column, posted on TPM in 2009, was so prescient about Israel’s current, 2024 war in Gaza that large portions of what I wrote then read now, almost uncannily, as if they been written just now, in 2024. Very occasionally in what you’re about to read, I’ve inserted in italics a brief editorial note to update a fact or simply to remind you that what you’re reading was indeed written in 2009, not yesterday. Send your reactions to jimsleeper12@gmail.com, and re-post the column or share it with your list.)

How and How Not to Assess Israel’s Moral Self-Destruction

(Posted on Talking Points Memo, January. 13, 2009, but then disappeared.)

Israel’s blind, crushing, doomed war on Gaza has ended the Jewish people’s 65-year-long reprieve from anti-Semitism since the Holocaust, a reprieve that encompassed most of our lifetimes, during which even dedicated Jew-haters bit their tongues.

No more. Amid a cacophony of justified condemnations of Israel, you can hear strains of an older, creepier chorus. It’s not too much to say that Israel has brought this upon itself, but it is also not too much to say that some rather perverse people have wanted and tried to orchestrate the cacophony.

I don’t mean that strong critics of Israel should quiet down. It’s long past time to break the taboo in the U.S. media on talking about Israel’s blunders at least as frankly as many Israelis themselves famously do. But I do mean to say that Israel’s conduct of this war (Note: at this writing,, in 2009), would be hideous and heartbreaking enough without the encouragement it’s getting from its impassioned defenders as well as from critics who don’t know their history and who sometimes sound as if they don’t want to know.

And there is a deeper political problem: Like the bloody combatants of the IDF, Hamas and Hezbollah, armchair warriors on all sides don’t see that the odds of winning justice through state violence and wars of “liberation” have sunk since World War II. Yet many commentators’ blindness is as willful as the commanders’, and it’s as fateful, not just for Palestinians or Jews.

Look briefly at an accomplished writer on each side of this war — Chris Hedges, a scourge of Israel, and Jeff Goldberg, a sinuous defender. Then look at how Abraham Burg and Jonathan Schell argue, far more constructively and from no less experience, that although human nature hasn’t changed, the costs and consequences of violence have, as have the most effective ways to defeat tyranny and secure human dignity.

You may not think that we need to hear from dreamers at a moment like this. But Burg and Schell are the realists. Historic shifts in freedom’s always-cloudy prospects have confounded not only grand strategists and their apologists in national-security states (Britain, the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and fortress Israel), but also guerrillas and supporters of national-liberation movements in China, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Palestine. Neither group seems aware that better movements, led by Gandhi, King, Mandela (after prison), Havel, Michnik and Northern Ireland, have re-constituted political power away from violence, sidelining established tyrannies and even the would-be tyrants and nihilists within their own movements. Writers and observers can help this transition if we believe that creative, disciplined non-violence isn’t merely a dream of chumps, naifs, or schlemiels. Tough, savvy veterans of conflict have shown that we don’t have to rush into the dead ends toward which the combatants and enablers of IDF and Hamas are beckoning us.

In 2002, amid the war on terror and the run-up to the Iraq war, Chris Hedges, a former New York Times war correspondent in Bosnia, Latin America, and Israel, published his mordantly titled book War is a Force That Gives us Meaning. More recently, he has published American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America and a torrent of articles about injustices perpetrated by elites at home and abroad, not least through and by Israel.

A Characteristic of Hedges’ torrent of condemnations is this passage from “The Language of Death,” a Jan. 12 post in Truthdig:

“The incursion into Gaza is not about destroying Hamas. It is not about stopping rocket fire into Israel. It is not about achieving peace. The Israeli decision to rain death and destruction on Gaza, to use the lethal weapons of the modern battlefield on a largely defenseless civilian population, is the final phase of the decades-long campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestinians. The assault on Gaza is about creating squalid, lawless and impoverished ghettos where life for Palestinians will be barely sustainable. It is about building ringed Palestinian enclaves where Israel will always have the ability to shut off movement, food, medicine and goods to perpetuate misery. The Israeli attack on Gaza is about building a hell on earth.”

Hedges may well have read a cooler but otherwise wholly compatible assessment of Israel’s 42-year mishandling of Gaza which I showcased here on January 4, by Darryl Li, a former public information officer for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. But I think that Hedges and Li could do more to advance justice if they’d help us answer questions about violent resistance such as the following:

Is it true that Hamas is what it is mainly because Israel’s policies are what they are? Or is there more to learn about how and why Zionism and Palestinian nationalism arose at the same time?

Would Hedges and Li prefer a two-state solution, or Israel’s absorption into a bi-national, democratic state whose majority would be Palestinian? If the latter, would human rights and civil rights fare better there than they have under Israeli occupation and within Israel’s 1967 borders, for the 1.5 million Arab citizens of Israel within those borders? What new balance of Israeli responsibility and Israeli-Palestinian interdependency might release these enemies from their degrading mutual loathing?

When Israelis say that they see no Palestinian or Arab disposition to serious self-government, to what extent are they right? To what extent are they just being racist? To what extent are they rationalizing their obsession about their own security at the expense of everyone else’s? Have Israelis been devoured by war as a force that gives them meaning? Won’t peace depend on getting the balance of truth right as much as it does on condemning the fighting?

Finally, does Hedges, who often recounts his firsthand witness of Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children for sport, think it inevitable that every drop of blood drawn by the oppressor’s lash will be avenged with blood drawn by the Arab sword, perhaps until Israelis are driven into the sea, having brought their destruction upon themselves? Does Hedges also accept the 19th-century blood-and-soil presumption that Jews never belonged in the Middle East any more than they belonged in Europe? Or does he see a more complex truth and a better way to reconcile power and justice?

I’ve read much of Hedges’ and Li’s work, but I haven’t yet found their answers to such questions.

Chris Hedges Doesn’t Hedge

I do know that the passage I’ve quoted from Hedges is about more than Israel and Palestine; it’s also about his justified but not-so-well-focused rage at injustice and hypocrisy in the world, especially when it’s sown by the American national-security state and its apologists. Hedges has become a volcano, erupting in Truthdig, Harper’s, and other venues. Recently, for example, he wrote with molten fury of the supercilious disdain he’d experienced at the hands of preppies and parvenus while in college. He has also laced into “America the Illiterate,” the Christian right, Bush’s nuclear apocalypse, fellow war correspondents, and more.

Hedges grew up in Maine and in rural parishes in upstate New York, where his father was a Presbyterian minister. He comes from a tough, old, working-class Yankee culture for which I have a fond if somewhat testy regard. A one-time Harvard Divinity School student, he erupts along the venerable if somewhat predictable lines of a New England Puritan jeremiad, the denunciatory sermon whose purpose, in the hands of latter-day Puritans such as the 19th century abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe, has been to blast open new pathways to redemption on earth, if not in heaven.

America would be poorer and meaner without these prophets. They strengthened Lincoln’s melancholy commitment to the divine inexorability of bloody justice, steeling him to fight the Civil War to its bitter end. But who is the equivalent of “The Union” in Palestine, and who are the rebels? Israel in Gaza now resembles the Union General Sherman’s rampage in Atlanta, but if you look around a bit, you find that Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran have been playing a long, slow game to turn the tables and do the same. They’re tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, and the demographic and moral odds may soon favor their theocratic, blood-and-soil vindication.

Hedges knows that his own ancestral Yankee Protestantism blessed the dispossession and slaughter of the inhabitants of the lands in New England that his family now calls home. He knows that that Protestantism drew heavily on the Old Testament to emulate and also encourage Zionism. The Rev. George Bush, a fifth-generation lineal antecedent of our President George W. Bush, was the first professor of Hebrew and Arabic at New York University in 1835. He wrote a long tract on the Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel that foretold the restoration of the Jews to Palestine from all over the world for Armageddon.

If Hedges (and certain editors at Harper’s and Truthdig) can acknowledge even subliminally that their Puritan forebears have a thing or two to live down but that they displaced or projected onto the Jews, the stars (Note: of recent events in 2009) have certainly aligned to encourage his current eruptions. Both Israel and Palestine may have to undergo their own civil wars or internal revolutions to defeat the fanaticism that is now driving them. but Hedges’ anger seems to have driven him to a somewhat reductionist analysis of the causes and consequences.

A similar moralism has sometimes led supporters of “national liberation movements” to look away when those movements become brutal, tyrannical and even genocidal in the very lands that they “liberate”. I cannot say that Hedges has gone that far, but he confines blame of Hamas to an elliptical line or two. He does give Israeli dissidents some credit, but he seems to hold no more hope for them than he does blame for Hamas.

Jeffrey Goldberg hedges, but only for one side.

On January 13, 2009, a few days after Chris Hedges’ condemnation of Israel appeared in Truthdig, the New York Times op-ed page ran Jeffrey Goldberg’s “Why Israel Can’t Make Peace With Hamas.” There, as in virtually every article of Goldberg’s I can recall, we learn that Goldberg — a Long-Island, New York-born and bred American, but also an Israeli army veteran — has often defied amazing personal dangers as a reporter in Africa, in Lebanon, in Gaza, and more. He has walked right up to and questioned people who, he lets us understand, would just as soon slit his throat as squint at him. In a variation on this theme, other Goldberg articles parade his easy familiarity with great leaders from Senator John McCain to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who for some reason talk to him as frankly they might talk in a private conversation with a brother-in-law.

I can’t pretend to account for how Goldberg accomplishes these journalistic feats, but I think I can take some account of what they accomplish. If Chris Hedges has become a volcano of denunciations of American imperialism and elitism and its spawn, Jeffrey Goldberg has become a geyser of irresistibly entertaining, informative, but cagey explanations for everything from the likelihood of a Saddam Hussein-Osama bin Laden connection to the fractured nobility of John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid and to Israelis’ damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t bravery in the face an Arab world that, we are assured, has wanted to exterminate them since long before 1948, let alone since 1967 or last month.

The one exception to Goldberg’s neo-con’ish propagandizing that I can recall is a chilling piece he wrote for The New Yorker in 2004 about fanatical Jewish settlers on the West Bank. He has not written for that magazine for awhile now and seems more comfortable with the crypto-conservative Atlantic Monthly, where he has a blog [he is now the editor-in-chief of that magazine].

It’s thanks to such editors that we have had no shortage of op-ed pieces by Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, or the American Enterprise Institute’s talking drone Danielle Pletka. They have certainly opened the gates to Goldberg (Note: Goldberg wrote for many publications in 2009 and was not yet the editor of The Atlantic, as he is now, in 2024). In yesterday’s Times op ed he reintroduced us to the late Hamas chieftain Nizar Rayyan — “husband of four, father of 12, scholar of Islam and unblushing executioner,” an “important recruiter of suicide bombers until Israel killed him two weeks ago” – who in 2006, Goldberg tells us with feigned nonchalance, “confessed to me one of his frustrations.” Goldberg tells us that Rayyan confessed that he despised fellow Palestinians in Fatah as sell-outs to the Jews, who are descended from pigs and apes and are “a curse to anyone who lives near them.”

Ever self-dramatizing, Goldberg wants us to marvel that Rayyan even talked with him – and talked theology with him, no less. He makes clear that Hamas’ intractable beliefs discredit Israeli leaders’ expectation that “Hamas can be bombed into moderation. This is a false and dangerous notion,” Goldberg warns us. “It is true that Hamas can be deterred militarily for a time, but tanks cannot defeat deeply felt belief.” Yet Goldberg hastens to add, on the evidence of the same fanaticism that he has so entertainingly presented, that “Hamas cannot be cajoled into moderation,” either.

We are left to conclude that we might as well bomb the Palestinians. “The only small chance for peace today,” Goldberg adds somewhat airily, “is the same chance that existed before the Gaza invasion: The moderate Arab states, Europe, the United States, and mainly, Israel, must help Hamas’ enemy, Fatah, prepare the West Bank for real freedom, and then hope that the people of Gaza, vast numbers of whom are unsympathetic to Hamas, see the West bank as an alternative to the squalid vision of [Hezbollah in Lebanon] and Nizar Rayyan.”

Does Goldberg really have any faith in this hope, which he twirls like a velvet cape to conclude his performance? Mightn’t this have been the moment for him to raise instead the possibility that Israel’s invasion of Gaza has discredited Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is now widely thought by Palestinians who are fleeing Israeli bombs to be the obsequious collaborator with Israel that Rayyan says he is?

Mightn’t this also have been the moment for Goldberg to note that Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, of America’s “Nation of Islam,” both subscribed to the same theology that considered whites, and especially Jews, as descendants of pigs and apes? Mightn’t he have noted that Malcolm X changed toward the end of his life (Note: Malcolm became somewhat more ecumenical and ‘peace’-oriented) and that, last summer, Farrakhan made a penitential, almost desperate endorsement of Barack Obama, who exemplifies for Muslims and Jews a peace-making way to campaign that Goldberg didn’t understand or expect would win?

No matter, for surely Goldberg’s Times piece has cajoled or scared at least some liberal readers into concluding that Israel must fight in Gaza to the bitter end. Maybe he’s right. Maybe his scoop on the thinking of Rayyan explains why.

Except that, on January 2, shortly after Rayyan was killed, Chris Hedges wrote, in Truthdig, that “I often visited Nizar Rayan [different spelling, same man]…who would meet me in his book-lined study….” Hedges is a lot more regretful than Goldberg that when Israeli F-16s attacked that house, Rayan “was decapitated in the blast. His body was thrown into the street by the explosions. His four wives and 11 children also were killed.”

Other reports, including Goldberg’s, inform us that two of the four wives were killed, but Hedges is engaging in literary protest as much as in reporting. When he acknowledges dark sides of Rayan that would lead most of us to conclude that Rayan had to be stopped, you know that a “but” is coming:

“Rayan supported tactics, including suicide bombings, which are morally repugnant. His hatred of Israel ran deep. His fundamentalist brand of Islam was distasteful. But as he and I were students of theology, our discussions frequently veered off into the nature of belief, Islam, the Koran, the Bible and the religious life. He was a serious, thoughtful man who had suffered deeply under the occupation and dedicated his life to resistance. He could have fled his home and gone underground with other Hamas leaders. Knowing him, I suspect he could not leave his children. Like him or not, he had tremendous courage.”

The rest of Hedges’ “but” is his description of Gaza City itself. Here he rises briefly to great reporting that Orwell might have given us, on the deprivation and squalor Israel has forced upon Gaza. He doesn’t question whether recruiting suicide bombers is an effective response, any more than Goldberg questions whether Rayyan’s fanaticism justifies Israel’s destruction of Gaza City.

There are Other, Better Voices

Both Hedges and Goldberg know of Avraham Burg, the former Knesset Speaker and head of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization. As an officer in the paratroop corps, Burg became disillusioned during Israel’s Lebanon war of 1982. In1983, he was wounded by a grenade, not in Lebanon but in a Peace Now demonstration he’d joined in Jerusalem. Both Hedges and Goldberg need a long sit-down with Avraham Burg now.

Hedges needs it because Burg, who shares most of his criticisms of the Israeli government and public, could broaden his understanding, sensibility, and horizons. And Goldberg needs it because Burg, who knows everything that Goldberg knows about Israel’s enemies and more, has reached different conclusions about how Israel should respond.

Here I must let Burg speak for himself, as I did Darryl Li of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights on January 4. Then I’ll close with a few words about the writer and Yale lecturer Jonathan Schell, a veteran war correspondent in his own right and a brilliant expositor of new prospects for re-balancing power and violence.

In a recent column for the Israeli daily Haaretz entitled, “Why the West Can’t Win,” Burg writes the following, as only Israelis, who’ve all served together in a citizen army, can sometimes write to one another. (Note in 2024: If I could force Benjamin Netanyahu to do anything, it would be to memorize the following paragraphs by Burg, written prophetically in 2009:)

“Beyond the two piles of bodies and the mourning and bereavement of both peoples, through the fragmented voices of Israel’s leadership, it’s already possible to feel the sour taste of the next combat loss. We haven’t won anything since the Six-Day War. We managed to be saved from disaster in 1973, we got ensnared but survived in 1982, and there is no lack of other examples….. I think it’s no longer possible to win wars. We’re not the only ones who can’t; the West as a whole is incapable of doing so. It’s hard for me to remember a single war in the past 60 years that the United States clearly and decisively won…. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, and from there the West embarked on a new path.  

“Western Europe almost totally abandoned the war option. It doesn’t fight, and in any case isn’t assessed on the basis of its ability to win wars. The United States, by contrast, went from isolationism to being the country chiefly responsible for Western state-sponsored violence. It…. knows better than anyone how to deploy its forces to the starting line, but from there onward something always gets messed up. Korea wasn’t a wonderful victory, Vietnam ended in disgrace, and the Gulf wars are not considered great military achievements.

“[S]omething in the DNA of the West no longer allows it to declare war like it used to do…. The wars of the previous century, along with the Holocaust of European Jewry, taught the West several lessons, central among which is the abolition of the doctrine of war; the West went from destroying and humiliating the enemy to maintaining [the enemy’s] ability to rehabilitate itself, preserve its dignity, change and become a partner instead of a rival.

“….That’s where the new type of victory began – the kind that doesn’t wipe out the possibility of dialogue with yesterday’s rival. ….. The question remains as to how a just society fights enemies who do not share the same value system, and how to redefine what victory is.

“It seems to me that if the goal of a war is the destruction of the enemy, it is a war that is doomed to fail. For reasons that are well-known to us, it is no longer possible to annihilate nations or at least suppress their aspirations of independence. …. And if no dialogue with the enemy develops, then the war must be deemed a failure. “It therefore appears that Israel’s leadership in the Gaza war is due to fail in our names – just like the Palestinian religious leaders ushering their people to another failure rooted in ignoring the metamorphosis of the concept of victory, from subduing to talking, from slaughtering to bridge-building. Just as bridges were ultimately built above the tempestuous waters between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, between Dresden and London, and between Catholic and Protestant Dublin, there is a bridge between Sderot and Gaza. Those who do not tread on it will lead their nations to failure in all their wars.”

But what is that bridge, when Israel is facing Hezbollah’s 30,000 rockets to its North, Hamas’ intransigence to its South, a rising proportion of increasingly disaffected Arabs within its own borders, and Iran’s connivances and nuclear ambitions to its East?

For those chastened and disciplined enough to go beyond Hedges’ logic of Puritan condemnation of beleaguered, paranoid Israelis and Goldberg’s jaunty neo-conservative defiance, Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World is the best way to survey the history and emerging premises of the very different logic that guided Gandhi, King, the later Mandela, the European dissidents, and the peacemakers of Northern Ireland. Schell does not address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he does show how peoples that were as oppressed, beleaguered, and overpowered as the Palestinians managed to neutralize or even win over their venomous oppressors without eliminating them, and, indeed, without much bloodshed.

Self-censorship by Fear, or by Seduction?

There’s a difference between being wisely, appropriately discreet, on the one hand, and keeping inappropriately, unjustly silent, on the other. Some self-censorship is prompted by fear of speaking up because it might cost you your job and, in a repressive state, your freedom. But some self-censorship is driven by the allure of power and by a desire to get closer to power by proving that you can be trusted never to say that the emperor has no clothes.

In a talk to undergraduates at Yale in 2012, I criticized what I called a galloping culture of self-censorship that’s been woven into the lives of ambitious undergraduates at elite colleges. Such a “culture” reigns in many corporations and state bureaucracies, but a good liberal education wouldn’t train students to adapt to it. A liberal education would enable anyone to question and test conventional wisdom, not only as a student, but also, later in life, as an adult citizen of a republic and/or of the world.

The first 15 seconds of this recording are unclear, but the microphone was adjusted, and it’s very listenable after that. The talk was given outdoors, on Yale’s Beinecke Plaza.

uu007 by unknown – untitled / uu rhythm (soundcloud.com) or Stream Y Syndicate music | Listen to songs, albums, playlists for free on SoundCloud

A readable but somewhat-edited text of the talk is here on my website, but please listen to it instead at uu007 by unknown – untitled / uu rhythm (soundcloud.com)

By Jim Sleeper / September 20, 2012

The text of the talk, in 2012:

I’d like to say something today about the role that protest and remonstrance can play in restoring this depth of purpose to liberal education. And let me begin this little talk with a caveat: Not all protest or free expression advances freedom. First Amendment absolutists who push every envelope of conventional wisdom—whether in street demonstrations, in nasty Super-PAC ads, or just to play political “Gotcha” or make quick bucks—tend to forget that the people and institutions they’re pushing against aren’t wholly wrong or bad and are often more vulnerable than even the critics want them to be.

For example, those of us who’ve protested Yale’s sad slide into its dubious adventure in Singapore and into its own business-corporatization here at home are actually trying to affirm, strengthen, and even rescue something that’s vulnerable in this university and that we must be careful not to trash. Little is gained and much lost by shooting off one’s mouth and trying simply to shock the complacent into action.

But that’s not actually the argument I want to emphasize today. I want to say that discretion and caution at Yale have been carried too far, not only among administrators and faculty but even among students, who should be learning the arts and disciplines of truth-telling as well as power-wielding. That’s what you are doing in here in the Y Syndicate, but, in some other parts of this college, I notice a galloping culture of self-censorship that requires some comment.

In Singapore and in some American business corporations, self-censorship is prompted by fear of established power. That kind of self-censorship assumes many subtle modulations and guises in daily life. Even here at Yale, as I saw last spring when I attended a panel discussion called “Singapore Uncensored,” this self-censorship of fear, evident among the Singaporeans on the panel, was reinforced by some in the audience who engaged in what I’d call a self-censorship of seduction. It is prompted not by the fear of state or of corporate power but by the allure of power: Some students silence themselves almost enthusiastically, hoping to get closer to insider networking and to high status and power by proving they can be relied on never to mention that an emperor has no clothes.

Any hope for a return on this kind of self-restraint is a terrible delusion. It hastens the decay of trust and freedom inside and outside the halls of power. It has a long and quite embarrassing record at Yale, stretching back to Yalies who emerged from the college’s secret societies in the 1940s and ‘50s to perpetrate blunder after ignorant blunder in American foreign policy, from installing the Shah of Iran and stage-managing the Bay of Pigs fiasco to promoting the Vietnam War and its successors.

There’s a legitimate difference between being discreet and being silenced—between exercising a sound judgment not to do something and accepting blindly that something is simply “not done.” Agreeing to take certain things off the table can help a discussion and freedom of thought at times. But Yale today is doing little better than its old secret societies have done at teaching students when and how to draw such distinctions on behalf of a real republic, not a corporate state.

I want to tell you about some Yalies who broke courageously and constructively with both the self-censorship of fear and the self-censorship of seduction. I witnessed exactly that, right here at this war memorial, when I was 19, almost 45 years ago, and it has never left my mind.

One cold, windy, wintry morning in 1968 I was plodding across this plaza on my way to a class when I noticed about fifty undergraduates gathered silently around three students and the university chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. One of the three was speaking almost inaudibly because of the gusting wind and also because he was trying to find his voice against fear. “The government claims we’re criminals,” he was saying, as I leaned in to listen. “But we say that it is the government that is criminal in waging this war.” He and the other two were about to hand Coffin their draft cards to refuse conscription into the Vietnam War upon their graduation three months later.

Coffin, speaking in the idiom of an American civil religion that too few liberals these days understand, was there to bless this demonstration of a civic courage that too few national-security conservatives understand. Near us in the Woolsey Hall rotunda were all those names young Yale graduates, graven in icy marble, under the admonition, “Courage Disdains Fame and Wins It.” The seniors before us were challenging us to join them in disdaining fame, too, but without hope of a memorial’s posthumous regard.

“Believe me,” said Coffin, himself a veteran of the CIA in Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, “I know what it’s like to wake up feeling like a sensitive grain of wheat lookin’ at a millstone.” It was a burst of Calvinist humor, a jaunty defiance of Established Power in the name of a higher one, and some of us grasped at that ray of hope, because we were scared. For all we knew, these guys were about to be arrested on the spot. Certainly if they refused induction three months later, they’d commit a felony punishable by five years in prison, and we felt arrested morally by their example because we were all carrying draft cards just like theirs in our wallets.

Yet something in these seniors’ bearing made them seem as patriotically American as Rosa Parks had been when she’d refused, only twelve years before, to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery. In both cases, the protesters broke the law openly and non-violently to evoke and elevate something noble in the very concept of law and in the whole society. Parks didn’t use freedom of speech to call the bus driver a racist mo-fo; and while the seniors did say that the government was criminal—and they would be proven right about that—by taking their stand with readiness to accept the penalty, they were also crediting the rest of us, whether we were bystanders or war supporters, with some integrity by speaking to us with clear dignity even as they exposed our shortcomings. By breaking the law in the way I’ve described, they were upholding law.

They were resisting the government in the name of a republic that stands for more than patriotic salutes to nationalist “blood and soil,” or than chants of “Yoo Es Ay!”, or even than global free-markets whose riptides are dissolving the republican virtues and sovereignty those Yale seniors were trying to redeem. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas marveled at such demonstrations of “constitutional patriotism,” not flag-lapel patriotism.

Nathan Hale affirmed a nascent constitutional patriotism against the established but corrupted government and military of his time. And the true Tea Partiers dumped a multi-national corporation’s property into Boston Harbor to protest its collusion with a corrupt government. As I watched the seniors speaking in 1968, the old civil society of the American republic seemed to be rising from a long slumber and walking and talking again, re-moralizing the state and the law. And as Coffin intoned Dylan Thomas’ admonition, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” my silent, wild confusion gave way to something like awe.

I tell you this not just because it happened right here, and not because anyone’s going to criminalize what we say here. I tell it because the Yale administration, which claims that it’s acting on behalf of liberal education as surely as architects of the Vietnam War claimed that they were acting for freedom and democracy, has signed a pact with, and sold its name to, a tightly controlled corporate city-state that does criminalize and otherwise intimidate people who would speak as I’m doing here.

I’m also trying to make a point about the nature of protest. Good protest requires giving clear reasons for what you are doing, even if others aren’t listening. It requires making a binding commitment to uphold what you’re affirming, not just sounding off against what you are opposing. I and other critics of the Singapore venture aren’t wishing it ill or trying to provoke an upheaval or scandal; we anticipate that the project will proceed all too smoothly. The subtle, ubiquitous and cunning self-censorship of fear that I witnessed at the “Singapore Uncensored” panel and described in the Huffington Post is meshing all too smoothly these days with the self-censorship of seduction I’ve seen growing at Yale.

The university is transforming the college from the crucible of civic-republican leadership that I saw in 1968 into a career-networking center and cultural galleria for a new global elite that doesn’t answer to any republican polity or moral code.

I’m not idealizing the past. Although Howard Dean was a freshman here in 1968 and John Kerry had graduated two years before, George W. Bush and his gang lived near me in Davenport—he was president of my roommate’s fraternity, DKE—and not everyone considered the Vietnam War a duplicitous folly. What I’m trying to show is that protest for protest’s sake accomplishes little if the protesters aren’t as serious about making clear what they’re affirming as they are about making clear what they’re exposing and opposing.

What the civil-rights movement learned from Gandhi, and what every generation must re-learn to keep a republic or a liberal-arts college, is that these institutions are fragile because they have to rely on citizens’ or students’ taking to heart and acting on certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the institutions nor markets themselves do enough to nourish or protect and that, indeed, their wealth and power may actually weaken.

Only a civic love that’s disciplined and canny enough to renew an institution’s or a republic’s higher purposes by challenging its misjudgments can accomplish anything lasting. Otherwise, as we see elsewhere, twitter revolutions and armed upheavals can intensify chaos. Only an activism that balances group organizing with the irreducibly personal conscience and courage that enabled Rosa Parks and the Yale seniors to risk their standing and security to “arrest” others morally can awaken more people to the subtle dangers to freedom. In other words, a protest strategy has to draw on wellsprings of civic faith, as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and even secular activists like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik in Eastern Europe certainly did.

When self-censorship is generated by fear of a state or a corporate employer, the fear leaves no fingerprints, as Slate political editor William Dobson put it in his new book The Dictator’s Learning Curve. In university administrations and faculties, too, there are no smoking memos that order people not to say this or that. Yet Yale’s tenurati and emeriti conduct too much of their communication only with arched eyebrows and significant silences, not with the candor and robust give and take that are the oxygen of self-government.

What troubles me even more is the culture of enthusiastic self-censorship that’s been rising among some students, driven not by fear of the state or the Yale Corporation but by the allure of becoming a powerful “inside player” after proving that one can be relied on to keep one’s mouth shut. That self-censorship is destroying the republic far more than riotous street demonstrations are. It is rendering our political and financial systems illegitimate and unsustainable. The failures of pathological, multi-problem elites in any sector you can name have become impossible to ignore.

Yet that’s precisely what too many of you are being trained to do, and it’s why there are now so many books and articles in which Yale is despised. Like fear of power, seduction by power slowly asphyxiates candor and passion in public life and generates cynicism, prurience, and hazing instead.

I’ve already mentioned the Singapore Uncensored panel, which no campus publication found the courage to report on honestly. You can read my report in the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-sleeper/yale-has-gone-to-singapor_b_1476532.html

A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that when Grand Strategy students visited West Point to discuss a book about Iraq with cadets, the Yalies “decided not to record the discussion because they did not want to have ‘views expressed in the spirit of intellectual debate be used against them at a Senate confirmation hearing’” according to Grand Strategy’s associate director, who treated this as something to brag about. Unlike the Yalies, the cadets, who’d soon put their lives on the line to defend free speech, had no fear of recording the session.

And earlier this year, when posts in The Atlantic and Foreign Policy asked why General Stanley McChrystal is teaching an off-the-record course in “leadership” in the Jackson Institute, some of his students leaped into the public arena with a statement insisting robustly that he had never asked them to sign any pledge not to disclose what’s discussed in the class. But they only wound up proving that their seminar’s supposedly broad, open discussion of “leadership” could not, in fact, be shared with anyone outside it, not even with professors teaching other courses on similar matters who invited McChrystal himself to share his insights, only to be rebuffed.

This sad misunderstanding of scholarly and democratic deliberation bears the same relation to robust freedom of speech as military music does to music. The students’ claim that freedom is fostered this way unwittingly mimicked the new Yale-National University of Singapore college’s policy of quarantining freedom to the classroom, as if it could flourish that way. Such facile misunderstandings compromised McChrystal’s own leadership on several occasions in Afghanistan before Yale hired him to teach about leadership behind closed doors.

“The sinister fact about censorship… is that it is largely voluntary,” George Orwell wrote in 1944, as his manuscript of Animal Farm was receiving rejection after rejection by frightened British publishers. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…. Because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. It is not exactly forbidden to say this or that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness….”

A true liberal education would show students how to put words on things in ways that not only expose public corruption but enlarge personal and public hope. Only by doing both can leaders lead in ways that others can trust. What I learned that wintry morning at Yale is that to kindle such trust and the courage it requires, you have to be willing to “think without banisters” at times, as Hannah Arendt put it – she meant, without a predetermined ideology — and to deepen your own and others’ love of a society or an institution by standing intelligently and affirmatively against what’s wrong in it by summoning the better angels of its nature.

_________________________________________________________

http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/sep/21/levine-a-more-intellectual-yale/

A student’s comment on my talk, in the Yale Daily News:

By Gabriel Levine

Friday, September 21, 2012

We’ve been seduced: by a 6.8 percent acceptance rate, by the extracurricular bazaar and by the career fair. Most of all, we’ve been seduced by Tony Blair and Stanley McChrystal. We’ve been convinced, whether we ever think of ourselves in these terms or not, that we are, to use a phrase once employed to describe my high school, the “joyful elite;” that we are engaged, that we are passionate and that we are on our way to careers of real worth and standing.

We’ve been seduced — and we’ve been silenced.

Yesterday afternoon, Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in the Political Science Department, spoke to a seminar-sized group of students about what he terms “the corporatization of Yale.”

In Sleeper’s account, the University, in pursuing legitimate ends such as global engagement and fundraising, has been caught in a tide overwhelming all academia. Yale has been carried away from the values that undergird its educational mission, towards a model of opaque authority that treats students as customers.

While Sleeper’s critique focuses on the Yale administration, he contends that corporatization has also crept into the student body. Students ingratiate themselves to authority figures and take care not to jeopardize their eventual senatorial prospects. But the confusion about the purpose of the University runs deeper: Too often, we at Yale forget that we came here because we are intellectual omnivores.

We prioritize the extracurricular over the curricular. We are overwhelmed as freshmen by the number of organizations in Payne Whitney — most genuinely interesting, most of genuine value. Nothing wrong with that: Yale really is one of the few places on Earth where so many smart, motivated people are together in one place.

Yet somewhere between being swept away by the energy of our peers and the feeling of obligation to do great things with our lives, we develop unctuous habits of mind and action. We seek to distinguish ourselves within a narrow conception of professional success, prizing high grades over challenging courses, default subjects of study over those that might truly interest us and e-board meetings over office hours. These habits draw us away from the very reason Yale attracts us in the first place: academic excellence.

In short, we come to feel that what sets us apart from the rest of the world — those who didn’t get in — isn’t our intellectual prowess but what we surely will accomplish as alumni. Intrinsic motivation is crowded out by the extrinsic. Who, after all, remembers what Tony Blair studied in his Oxford days?

Hopefully, some among us will do great things in and for the world. But for many, the price of that opportunity is too dear: How many of us would say that, above all else, we are seeking out the kind of first-rate education Yale can still offer?

The Yale administration abets this. It hires with pride world leaders who bring titles with enough sheen to surpass the blemishes of their blunders on the world stage, including such gems as the Iraq War. It gestures towards educational principle by instituting distributional requirements and then abandons all pretense of rigor by offering An Issues Approach to Biology and Planets and Stars.

Even Provost Peter Salovey’s signature class, Great Big Ideas, is based on the premise that intellectual exploration is something students can’t be bothered to do outside a class.

Perhaps worst of all, the Admissions Office fails to emphasize — the way, say, the University of Chicago or Swarthmore does — that one comes to Yale to learn.

It’s easy to treat education solely as a path to gainful employment, especially when that’s so hard to find. But Yale can provide haven from those practical pressures. These are the only four years in our lives when we can devote ourselves to thinking.

As the University selects its 23rd president, we students must do everything in our power to ensure that the first priority of those who lead our institution is to rejuvenate its intellectual climate. Of course, President Levin, over the last two decades, has been invaluable in ensuring that the facilities and faculty are of the highest caliber. But those efforts will have been wasted on Yale College if we take no joy in the life of the mind. Now, from the bottom of this University, we must reclaim our highest intellectual ideals and demand that those at the top do the same.

Gabriel Levine is a junior in Trumbull College.

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

(Posted first on History News Network, Nov. 4, 2022)

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.

section break

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.

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 2024 election and for the republic itself.

The following essay is a highly personal account of my reckonings with these challenges. Before you read further here, please read “About This Site” in the left-hand column on this home-page and glance at its survey of challenges now facing an American, civic-republican culture that a mentor of mine, the late literary historian Daniel Aaron, once characterized, felicitously, as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

I’d like to see that civic culture transcend and outlive “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. These swift, often dark currents are driven not only by capitalism but also by human inclinations, including to greed and power-lust, that antedate capitalism by millennia and seem certain to outlast it. Neither the left nor the right seems able to block them or re-channel them, let alone to redeem us from 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.



This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mail
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 feeling stressed, dispossessed, and susceptible to simplistic explanations. Neither a booming economy nor massive firepower can ensure a republic’s vitality, especially if 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 it, rightly, a “military-industrial-academic” complex.) Ike, who was hardly a radical leftist inveighing against capitalism or a rightist railing against “the deep state,” was a deeply decent, heartland American who’d gotten to know the military-industrial-academic complex from within, as its supreme warmaker and then as Columbia University’s president. He didn’t like everything he saw there.

Even more than Eisenhower’s warning or Jonathan Edwards’ and the Hebrew prophets’ jeremiads, several developments since 9/11 have convinced me that Americans who are accustomed to think well of themselves would be better off convicting themselves of complicity in democracy’s decline. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the 18th century British historian Edward Gibbon noted 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, 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 them honestly.

You 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. 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 an 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, 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 -– 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 “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 bypass our hearts and minds relentlessly, 24/7, on their way to our lower viscera and our wallets, to attract eyeballs to their ads, to 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 is still 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 that 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 on June 6, 1947, two years after the war’s end and three years, to the day, after D-Day, so and I grew up in a civic culture that seemed, at least to a child, more triumphant and coherent than it actually was or ever had been.

Some of the writing collected here records my and others’ growing disillusionment. A lot of it began for me in 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”)

I’m collecting some of my essays for a book that I’ll call Somebodyhaddasayit. Some my work has prompted people to tell me 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 doing so 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. I’ve sometimes “said it” with too little fact or courage.



This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_1543-5-1.jpg

Editorial writer and editor at New York Newsday, 1992

But usually I’ve defended people who bear the American republican spirit bravely, against daunting odds. One of my pieces began in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library in 2006, when I was looking for family background on Ned Lamont, then a little-known computer executive (now Governor of Connecticut) 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 himself but about a long-forgotten uncle of his, Thomas W. Lamont II, whose young life and supreme sacrifice in World War II seemed to me a fata morgana, a fading mirage, of the American republic and of the citizenship that we’re losing, not at its 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 like his up a flagpole and salute it, but neither should you snark it down as just a bourgeois mystification of oppressive social relations. When the Vietnam Wars brutality and folly were at their worst and when official words had lost their credibility and official deeds had become murderous, the perennial socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas told protestors “not to burn the American flag but to wash it.” I took his point. I work with it. Americans who consider themselves too sophisticated for that are naïve.

Although one can’t credibly call my writing “nationalist” or “conservative,” more than a little of it has been motivated by my and others’ 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 at times, and I’ve written once or twice in right-of-center venues to condemn racialist “identity politics” and ethno-racial banner-waving that passes for progressive politics even when it only compounds a racial essentialism that fuels white superracist politics more than black-power politics.

Although American national identity was developed self-critically and sometimes hypocritically in secular Enlightenment terms, ultimately it relies on something akin to religious faith, even though it doesn’t impose a 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. Precisely because this country is so diverse religiously, racially, and culturally, it needs to generate shared civic standards and lenses, with help from newly potent (and therefore “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 instead of refusing them entirely.

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 instead of by accident, force, and fraud. The left understands that without public 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, honors, and defends irreducibly individual autonomy and conscience, even the best-intentioned social engineering may reduce persons to clients, cogs, or cannon fodder. 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 and that still limits many people I know. Analysis and organizing against socioeconomic inequities are indispensable, but they’re insufficient. That’s equally true of conservative affirmations of communal and religious values that bow quickly to accumulated wealth that, as Oliver Goldsmith noted, preys upon 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 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 the civic-republican promise –as moderators of candidates’ debates; umpires in youth sporting leagues; participants in street demonstrations; 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;” and 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 can 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.  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, denying their importance yet surrendering to them abjectly and hypocritically as Soviets did by touting ‘Socialism in One Country’ (i.e., while touting Russian nationalism) and preaching Marxism as a secular eschatology” (i.e., as a religion).

The balance that we should hold out for against ideologues is like that of a person striding on both a left foot and a right one without noticing 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 by the divisions within every individual’s human heart between sociable and selfish inclinations. A strong republic anticipates such imbalances. It sustains 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, it acts 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 it very vulnerability, which comes with extending trust. “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept,” Kingman Brewster Jr. wrote, in a passage that is now the epitaph on his grave in New Haven. “In common place terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.”

Think of Rosa Parks, refusing to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, presenting herself not only as a black woman craving 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.

DSCN9065.JPG
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.