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An imperturbably valiant lawyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ross Douthat, a Strange New Voice at NY Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Brooks, Sophist

Gail Collins tells him where to go.

Talking Points Memo Café

August 29, 2007

By Jim Sleeper | bio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our college debater concludes triumphally:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Points Memo Cafe 

Neo-cons, Rising Again? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Martin Peretz and Harvard Got Wrong

By Jim Sleeper – September 22, 2010, TPMCafe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What on dit About The New Republic’s Literary Editor

By Jim Sleeper – September 18, 2010, TPMCafe

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

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

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

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

“I always wondered what it would take to put a cramp in the trashy mind, and at last I have my answer: a mass grave in lower Manhattan. So now depth has buzz. The papers are filled with hip people seeing through hipness, composing elegiac farewells to Gary Condit and Jennifer Lopez. The on dit has moved beyond the apple martini. It has discovered evil and the problem of its meaning. No doubt about it, seriousness is in. So it is worth remembering that there are large swathes of American society in which seriousness was never out. Not everybody has lived as if the media is all there is. Not everybody has been consecrated only to cash and cultural signifiers. Not everybody has been a pawn of irony.”

Not a pawn of irony but its master, Wieseltier has consecrated himself to the kind of sincerity and profundity that, well before 9/11, made him join Richard Bruce (Dick) Cheney and Carl Christian Rove on the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Even on Sep. 20, 2001, as he was penning the comments quoted above, Wieseltier and 40 others signed a public letter to George W. Bush from the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century urging that ”even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can There Be Sagacity Without Sincerity?

By Jim Sleeper – October 27, 2010, 8:57PM

Glad though I was last summer (and am now) to see ex- war hawk Peter Beinart indict much of American Jewish leadership for corrupting the American republic and Israeli democracy out of misplaced enthusiasm for bad Israeli strategies, I’ve always found Beinart’s conversion a bit less than convincing.

In Bookforum, I argued in May that Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome, which surveys U.S. foreign-policy hubris across a century, and his criticisms in the New York Review of Books of American-Jewish Israel lobbying, sounded like testimonies in a conversion that was a little too opportune. It felt to me as if Beinart were trying to escape Beltway liberals’ disapproval more than as if he were undertaking any deep reckoning with himself or the foreign-policy history he schematically surveyed.

But it was one thing for me to say it; it’s quite another for The New York Review of Books itself, where Beinart made his criticisms of the American Israel lobby, to publish a review saying the same things. The NYRB has a clubby reputation as “The New York Review of Each Others’ Books.” But not this time, and that’s noteworthy.

You need a subscription to read Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review online, and you need to register (for free) to read mine in Bookforum. Suffice it to say that I do credit Beinart for taking sound positions but that I share (and anticipated by several months) Wheatcroft’s judgment that “[F]or all [Beinart’s] apparent new-found realism, he ends his book on a jarring note” of American self-congratulation that recapitulates the hubris whose dire consequences “he has just spent nearly four hundred pages describing….”

In other words, too much of Beinart’s book sounds like Beltway-speak — a barometer of some stirrings inside the Beltway, perhaps, but not a reckoning as wise and consistently prescient as William Pfaff’s half a century of writing about American foreign policy, including his new The Irony of Manifest Destiny, which Wheatcroft reviews in the same NYRB essay.

None of my criticism excuses attempts by some defensive Jewish organizations and leaders to misrepresent the important arguments Beinart is making now. It does mean that, sooner or later, for the sake of honest discussion, he’ll have to know — and explain more convincingly than he has — why he spent so many years saying the opposite of what he’s saying now and assailing those who were already saying it.

Peter Beinart Unbound?

By Jim Sleeper – May 19, 2010, 10:25AM

Anyone who actually writes anything about Israel that perfect strangers are likely to read had better believe he’s got the wisdom, pointillist clarity and courage to unmask others’ myopia and bad faith. Too often, though, the would-be Truth-teller, no matter where he stands on a political or religious spectrum, is less wise about Israel than he is driven by swift, dark currents in history and in himself that he may not have explored or even acknowledged.

Fortunately, I alone have gone the distance and exited the hall of broken mirrors and flying brickbats where public discussion of Israel rages. So I can explain, as no one else can, how both Israel’s brutal, devious nationalists and its arch, airy universalist scourges are getting everything wrong.

Of course, I’m joking. Yet, posting this from a vest-pocket park on Masaryk Street in Tel Aviv, I’m glancing at the Israeli workers, students, and mothers and toddlers taking breaks here or passing through, and I’m also glancing at my laptop whenever the intellectual pinball machine that is the blogosphere lights up with a new explanation of former New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s much ballyhooed conversion from his old magazine’s Zionist perversity to The New York Review of Books’ waspishly busy reprovals of that perversity.

A lot is missing from the Beinart fracas, some of it right before me at this moment. Also missing is an understanding of how Beinart’s pilgrimage began in Lithuania before he was born, and how it ran through Cape Town, South Africa, long before it took him from Martin Peretz’s desk to Robert Silvers’. Is this a pilgrimage of conscience, or a career move, or smart politics — or all three? There are several ways to approach that question. Let me at least turn over a few stones.

When Beinart was at The New Republic, he was an ardent promoter of Joe Lieberman for President in 2004 and a shrieking scourge of anti-Iraq war liberals through 2006. I recount some of this record in a review of his new book The Icarus Syndrome, which bookforum.com has just posted and which I urge you to read for grounding.

Now, in The New York Review, Beinart has come out with an apostate’s-over-compensatory ardor against the American Jewish establishment’s self-destructive efforts to align public opinion and policy with Israel’s ugliest gambits and conceits.

The liberals on my screen, among them TPM’s own redoubtable M.J. Rosenberg, an earlier and even more ardent apostate from the Israel Lobby, are touting St. Peter’s epiphany on his road from the Council on Foreign Relations and The New Republic to J-Street and The New York Review. I give Beinart my own, more measured, applause in the bookforum.com review.

Sitting here half a kilometer from the spot where Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing religious zealot, I agree with Beinart that Israel’s energetically slippery American strategists and its governing coalition in Jerusalem are further isolating and degrading the Jewish state. Yet, looking up from my laptop, I see something that’s not on screen or in Beinart’s article and book, which barely mentions Israel in its penitential survey of American foreign-policy hubris across a century. Let me try to explain what’s missing by saying something about the Israeli civil society I’ve encountered on this and other visits.

Tel Aviv’s many shabby Bauhaus buildings and cheaply built plazas suggest to some a failed politics and aesthetic as urban renewal efforts have done in many American cities. But while Israel’s wistfully modernist dimension has little elegance and even less that’s exotic, it has refreshingly less pomp or pretension of the sort one encounters in, say, Vienna. What Israel has instead is an easy elan that’s hard to dismiss and is not as compromised as many readers really insist on believing that it is by the racism or militarism that are commonly ascribed to the whole country.

When you’ve been on your own here (not in a tour group) for even just a few hours (I’m not talking about myself, since I’ve been here a bit longer than that; my first involvement in Arab-Jewish encounters here was in 1969), your aesthetic and moral centers of gravity begin to shift from American pieties and protocols of consumption to the more frank and trustworthy relations of a society whose synapses actually work. For all the growing inequalities, among Jews as well as between Jews and Arabs, that Israel’s conservative free-marketeers have pushed under banners of religious nationalism, people aren’t living as frenetically as Americans do on “need-to-know” networking and courtly ingratiation.

Jews and Arabs walk Israeli streets at any hour with none of the fear of street crime that urban Americans have coded into their body language. You can feel that curse lifting by your second day. There is very little binge drinking and alcoholism. Body language tends to be more supple and just plain relaxed. (I’ve just come from New York, okay?) Go to Israel’s health clinics and hospitals — it has one of the best and most universal public-health systems in the world — and you see Palestinian doctors, nurses, and patients alongside Jewish ones.

There are fewer Rambos because there are fewer loners, and that’s because most Israelis are or have been part of a citizen army where no one salutes anyone and everyone knows everyone through others they already know. There’s an unadorned, level-headed candor and solidarity in everyday encounters, out of uniform as well as in.

Many Americans would envy Israelis’ casual confidence that a stranger will honor a simple request or agreement. The shared civic-republican entitlement and mutual obligation are earned by exposing one’s body and life to and for others in ways most of us haven’t done. “Life is With People” was the silly title of a schlocky Schocken book about shtetls, but in Israel you feel it in a thick, civic-republican sense that makes the bad architecture seem ancillary or at best ornamental. As your center of gravity shifts, new nerve ends start growing.

Most TPM readers think of the military as too militarizing, especially in places like Israel, and so do I. But the universality of the army here complicates its norms with civilian ones in ways not so easy to parse or condemn. In America the abolition of universal conscription in favor of a volunteer army was actually a conservative master stroke against a civic-republican spirit that had been aroused by a sense of shared public destiny and the outrages of the Vietnam war. There is no doubt about a shared, imminent destiny in Israel, and you needn’t be a Zionist to know it.

So people here still get out of their cars and direct traffic to clear up jams without waiting for cops, although it must be added that they are driving like maniacs and paying the price. Employees behind counters think and respond realistically rather than euphemistically to your inquiries and requests, a refreshing contrast to even the best American response, which is usually something like, “No problem.” To me that phrase has always implied that even a simple request is almost a problem for a temp worker who’s been put there without any real training or public incentive to perform.

I am not excusing anything. Israel’s unpretentious, reliable public felicity and trust are fraying, and they’re often (though not always) missing in relations between its Arab and its Jewish citizens within the old borders; and beyond that, they unravel completely in pretty much the ways they have done at the borders of American Indian reservations and urban ghettos and in the American South, whose civic graces eddied around color bars.

But, actually, things are more complicated in Israel, owing to conflicting senses of belonging and danger that are much older and deeper than anything that even paranoid American Tea Partiers can imagine. There are too many forces intent upon Israel’s total elimination, and most of those forces come from societies that aren’t nearly as democratic.

The dark side of Zionism has several sources of its own, as I’ll indicate here, but one of them — and it maddens even the “polite” eliminationists when I say this — is a source you could understand if you could imagine what America would be like if it had had thousands of suicide bombings, proportionate to the 250 or so that drove Israel nearly crazy in the middle of the last decade but that Israel’s critics never ponder. And yet, for all the paranoia, there was more than enough civic indignation in Israel last week to force Netanyahu’s bone-heads to rescind their barring of the 81-year-old Noam Chomsky from entering the West Bank to teach at the Palestinian Birzeit University.

Chomsky embarrassed Netanyahu anyway by declining the new offer of admission and delivering his talk by video from Amman. Bully for him. I am not giving this government any credit for deciding to let Chomsky enter the West Bank; in George Bush’s America a few years ago, Chomsky had “no problem” addressing an auditorium full of cadets at West Point. He was even given respectful applause and a plaque.

Yet I’m wary of characterizing Israelis any more harshly than we ourselves would have wanted to be characterized when Bush was our president and the Iraq War was emblematic of our country’s national security strategy. Should our universities have been boycotted by the rest of the world, our scholars disinvited by other countries, on account of our brutal foreign policies? Weren’t we all implicated — in much the same way that we casually implicate all Israelis — since Bush had won in 2004 by a clearer margin than Netanyahu would win by five years later? By that logic, shouldn’t a boycott like the one proposed against Israeli universities have been proposed with extra vigor against Britain’s under Tony Blair? Why wasn’t it? Don’t Americans and Britons have a lot more to answer for?

Again, I am not excusing anything. Israel has never seemed to me more sad and disgusting than when Ehud Olmert touted it as America’s junior partner in George Bush’s war on terror or when it has mimicked Americans’ gluttonous consumerism or Singapore’s go-go, lockstep capitalism. (That got Israel admitted last week by unanimous vote to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.) Even the almost perfectly idiomatic if faintly neo-connish American English of Benjamin Netanyahu, who grew up in Washington diplomatic and academic circles, is as cloyingly off-putting as the patter of an Anglophile Jew who’s trying to get something for nothing by pretending to be something he isn’t.

Such postures evoke everything foreseen by Hannah Arendt, who assisted solicitously at Israel’s birth and worked for world Jewish organizations for many years but warned in the 1950s that if Israelis “continue to ignore [partnerships with neighboring] Mediterranean peoples and watch out only for the big, faraway powers, they will appear only as… the agents of foreign and hostile interests. Jews who know their own history should be aware that… the anti-Semitism of tomorrow will assert that Jews not only profiteered from the presence of the foreign big powers… but had actually plotted it and hence are guilty of the consequences….

“The big nations that can afford to play the game of power politics have found it easy to forsake King Arthur’s Round Table for the poker table,” Arendt continued; “but the small, powerless nations [the Jews in Palestine] that venture their own stakes in that game, and try to mingle with the big, usually end by being sold down the river.”

Beinart invokes Arendt, who nettles myopic neo-cons so much that they sputter every few years over her supposed betrayals of the Jewish people. They cannot acknowledge or review the brilliant collection of her Jewish Writings, edited by her literary executor Jerome Kohn, from which the above excerpt is taken. Adam Kirsch couldn’t do it a few weeks ago in the New York Times as he went out of his way to tie the sometime Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger about Arendt’s neck – but not about the necks of Heidegger’s other Jewish adepts, including Leo Strauss, whose philosophy was more Heideggerian than hers.

Like Arendt, Beinart, the scourge of Israel’s apologists, nettles The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, an often-reasonable and likable apologist for too much that Israel has done wrong. It is Chait who observes, on my screen here in a Tel Aviv park, that Beinart’s AIPAC-bashing is “overwrought” because he hasn’t outgrown the jejune idealism and moralism that made him declare a “liberal” war on Islamo-fascism in 2006. Beinart’s bellicosity then heartened neo-conservatives, even though he tried to distance his war-whooping and left-bashing from their war whooping and left-bashing. Should liberals really be heartened by his new moral ardor now?

Chait casts Beinart’s 180-degree turn now in terms somewhat reminiscent of the aphorism, les extremes touchent, meaning that a spectrum’s ideological poles sometimes have more in common with each other than with the middling positions in between. Stalinists become neo-cons without altering anything in their cankered and bitter psychology; Beinart, yesterday’s American hegemonic warrior against the multilateralist, anti-nationalist left, becomes Beinart, today’s apostle of multilateralism against the nationalist, power-politicking right. His mental habits don’t really change, and his moralism doesn’t abate, because he sustains it more to restore his own good odor and emotional equilibrium than to deepen his insights and convictions and to reach out to ordinary American Jews or the ordinary Israelis around me in the park.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg notes that “the essay’s placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart’s goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it. Who is he trying to convince? Timothy Garton Ash? Peter should have published this essay on Tablet, or some other sort of publication not associated with Tony Judt’s disproportionate hatred of Jewish nationalism.”

The supreme irony for Beinart is that the extremes at both ends of the Israel controversy touch each other within him in no small part because he carries both of their ethno-cultural inflections. These do matter: In the Israel controversy’s public discourse and bare-knuckled politics, it’s predominantly the descendants of Russian and Eastern European Jews — whether American neoconservatives like Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol or members of the Knesset like Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman — who drive the cankered, bitter Jewish nationalism, with its opportunistic abuses of religion and its contempt for any social-welfarism that reminds it even fleetingly of the Communist totalitarianism that some of them escaped.

At the other extreme of the controversy, it’s Britons — and British Jews who are unlucky enough to have internalized British stereotypes of Jews in their formative years — who dominate the cankered, bitter, obsessive, and hypocritically fine-spun loathing of Israel. Political decay, impotence and bitterness slither out of people in peculiar ways, and, for too many Brits, who have so much more to regret and apologize for and so much more bottomless hypocrisy to plumb than Israel ever will, the anguish of decline slithers out against the Jews in eerily disembodied, oddly passionless ways:

“How odd of God to Choose the Jews,” runs a characteristically disdainful verse by the 20th Century British journalist William Norman Ewer. (To which my own riposte is, “Moses, Jesus, Spinoza; Marx, Einstein, and Freud; no wonder the gentiles are annoyed.”)

Well, there are lots of annoying people and things in the world, but British Jews who swallowed Ewer’s hook on some playground or classroom in their early years seem condemned to writhe with it, much as American blacks who’ve internalized a standard of idealized whiteness turn it toward vicious detestation of blacks who are darker-skinned than themselves, and much as German Jews who’d internalized an idealized German kultur loathed the embarrassing Ostjuden from… Russia and Eastern Europe. Here – and let us not mince words – we are talking about self-hatred, a cold, fine-spun, exacting usurper of sound judgment.

Beinart’s ancestors came from Lithuania, but before World War I they migrated, with a sizable contingent of other Litvaks, to South Africa. In the interwar years of Wilsonian nationalist awakening In Lithuania and all over Europe, many more Lithuanian Jews saw what was rising around them in their home of 500 years and opted for Zionism, transforming their ancestral, liturgical Hebrew into an old/new language and migrating to Palestine in the 1920s and 30s. Still others opted for the more universal promise of Communism in Europe and Russia, and others for capitalist opportunity in America. Those who stayed put were slaughtered — more than 135,000 of them in the woods and fields around their towns and were buried in mass trenches by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian recruits in the summer of 1941.

Some Lithuanian-Jewish Communists had fled not to the USSR but to South Africa as well as to America, among them Joseph Slovo, a founder of the African National Congress. A few of the next generation of South African Jews were ANC sympathizers, like the young Ian Shapiro, now a political scientist at Yale. And some of these leftists later became neo-conservatives or bureaucratic apparatchiks in the manner I’ve mentioned, grafting an old mental morphology onto Established Power rather than onto a revolutionary pursuit of Power.

Beinart’s family and most other South African Jews weren’t leftists. They came seeking freedom from persecution and bourgeois. But in South Africa they internalized the idealized British standards I’ve mentioned, and few were immune to internalizing the “odd” but unrelenting British discomfort and pretended bemusement about Jews.

All this prompts many a British Jew’s own efforts at expiation and projection. Even young Beinart, although he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and attended the Buckingham Brown and Nichols School and then Yale, where he was influenced by the Jewish nationalist political theorist Steven Smith, eventually spent a year at Oxford reckoning with whatever aspirations and insecurities the Brits of South Africa had implanted in his parents and, through them, in him.

This is a recipe for the unsavory mix of aspirations and fears we encountered in his writings and his trajectory as I sketch them briefly in bookforum. Although I don’t share their positions, Chait and Goldberg have a point: Beinart, like the estimable Tony Judt, himself a British Jew, is right in principle about Israel’s worst apologists, but he overstates his case for reasons having more to do with swift, dark currents in history and himself than with the complicated realities in Israel and Palestine.

How is Beinart resolving this? He is fulfilling a certain British stereotype of Jews. Above on this page, Bernard Avishai notes that Beinart recently “told Jeffrey Goldberg: ‘…my grandmother used to say, “the Jews are like rats,” we leave the sinking ship. So yes, I’m a Zionist. I’m close enough to people who still have their bags packed.’ He takes for granted that American Jews constitute a distinct ‘community,’ replete with communitarian institutions and an ‘Establishment'”

I don’t like what kind of American this makes him. Yes, history has often forced Jews to live with their bags packed. But if America is about anything, it’s about becoming a republic where no one has to live that way. In Beinart I sense a shiftiness about this — from his bombastic, crude, and suspect patriotism of a few years ago to what he tells Goldberg now — that troubles me.

Again, I’m not excusing anything about Israel. There are plenty of dark, swift currents swirling around me here in Tel Aviv, to say nothing of Jerusalem and occupied Palestine. I’m just looking at hundreds of decent, ordinary people around me at the moment and realizing that there are wiser ways than Beinart’s to be right about what their American Jewish cheerleaders and supposed champions are getting wrong.

Israel’s Tragedy, America’s Folly

Nine columns by Jim Sleeper

Written in January and February in response to Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, these trace the arc of a thought-process about the State of Israel’s posture in the Middle East over the past 40 years. Many others have come painfully to conclusions like mine without articulating them as I do here.

Below these are two more columns, about not-so-young American neo-conservatives who cheered the miscarriage of American public thinking and policy under George W. Bush.

Israel’s Tragedy

The first column, “Can There Be Politics in Tragedy?”, confronts Israeli policy toward Gaza over the past 40 years through the eyes of a young but formidably well-informed American who has worked in Gaza. Finding his account revelatory yet incomplete in its understanding of Israel, I pose questions about the history and intentions of both sides.

The second, “How Dysfunctional Is Israel?” probes the dominant Israeli mindset in the war – and a dominant but untrustworthy mindset in some of its critics.

The third, “Gaza Needs a George Orwell Now,” warns Israel’s critics against a too credulous or one-sided reading of reports from Gaza. Hideous though Israel’s destruction has been I note that while Franco the fascist was the great villain of the Spanish Civil War, Orwell found evil, as well, in the supposedly heroic Stalinist resistance. He also found that no one wanted to know. This short column prompted a 20 minute NPR interview that is also linked below,

The fourth, “How and How Not to Assess Israel’s Moral Self-Destruction,” carries the search for full reportage (and sound premises) into a critique of Gaza reporting by Chris Hedges (a moralistic critic of Israel) and Jeffrey Goldberg (a neo-connish apologist for the war.) Instead I endorse the thinking of Avraham Burg and Jonathan Schell.

The fifth, “U.K., U.S., Drop Their (and Israel’s) Grand Strategy,” written shortly before Obama’s inauguration, summons an observation about Zionism by Hannah Arendt as my endorsement of recent comments by the British Foreign Secretary about the inutility of the “war on terror.”

The sixth, “Israel’s Only Way Out,” written shortly before the Feb. 10 elections, draws together these themes, criticizing Michael Walzer’s apologetics for the war and proposing a new way of thinking about Israel and wars of this kind.

Two other columns consider the uses of “coercive non-violence” in people’s resistance, as applied (or not) to Palestine and Israel.

American Neo-cons’ Folly 

 “The Pity of It All, about young American Jewish writers who’ve gone wrong, and

“U.S. Neo-cons Jump Conservative Ship,” about their ideological confusion, as expressed in essays such as Sam Tanenhaus’ “Conservatism Is Dead.”

A Fresh Look at John Lindsay and Liberal Leaders’ American Dilemma

By Jim Sleeper – May 6, 2010, 12:15PM

If the graying of Barack Obama as a herald of progressive change is getting you down, consider “Fun City Revisited,” the new PBS documentary about John Lindsay, New York City’s heraldic young mayor and presidential hopeful during the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s. (“Fun City Revisited: The Lindsay Years” can be viewed in its entirety via its website.)

The Lindsay story won’t exactly cheer you up, but it’ll remind you that some things seemed even worse back then: American cities and backwaters were imploding on racial hatreds and economic undertows; the whole country was exploding over the Vietnam War. Lindsay — elected only two years after the assassination of another dashing, young, Ivy League champion — revived the promise of elite liberal leadership in a style that recalled JFK’s and anticipated Obama’s. It also discredited that promise, but not without offering the lesson that we need an open, circulating elite, but one whose members would be trained with a depth and discipline that we’ve lost.

The old elite liberal leadership style involved more than just youth and charisma. It had streaks of moralism and naivete about the things that new configurations of corporate and finance capital were doing to American society. But the documentary shows in Lindsay three additional qualities that have made his liberalism and that of JFK and Obama credible, even when not successful:

1. Each of them had an aloof, almost aristocratic, intelligence, borne partly of a good liberal education. When coupled with character, that intelligence kept each man from losing his cool under pressure, even when it opened up no clear solutions. (By the way, “aristocratic” didn’t necessarily mean “rich:” Lindsay wasn’t even as well off as Obama, the best-selling author, and Kennedy’s wealth was “new,” not aristocratic. Intelligence and character mattered more: They were “disinterested” in the civic-republican sense of that term, which means that they didn’t often put their personal or special “interests” ahead of the republic. Like Plato’s guardians, they identified themselves so deeply with the republic that they let it define their self-interest more than vice-versa.)

Each of them made some colossal misjudgments: Evan Thomas’ The Very Best Men shows that Kennedy tinkered timorously but fatally with the Bay of Pigs invasion plan. The PBS documentary shows Lindsay being too moralistic with some unions when he should have been more Machiavellian. Obama has been too Machiavellian with corporate and finance capital, when he should be pushing their substantial reconfiguration, as the “aristocratic” Roosevelts weren’t hesitant to do.

Kennedy, Lindsay, and Obama have seen further ahead of their own time than have most other politicians, and each has walked (sometimes too slowly, but in Lindsay’s case perhaps too rapidly) toward those distant horizons instead of getting mired in the political passions and preferments of the moment. A serious liberal education will do that for you — or to you — if it’s coupled with character training, their second shared quality:

2. They had something called “sand” and certain essential public virtues. “Behind all the hurly burly of organized college activity lay something called the Yale spirit – usually called ‘sand’ by the undergraduates,” writes Brooks Mather Kelley of the college life that shaped Lindsay. “Sand was placed under the wheels of locomotives to make them go, and sand – grit, determination, ‘persistence, reliability, self-reliance, and willingness to face the consequences of one’s actions’ – was what made Yale undergraduate life go.”

Learning to face the consequences of one’s actions often comes only from rites of passage early in one’s life – tests of courage, prowess, and dedication that bond youths to one another and the larger society in their most impressionable, formative years under the guidance of ratifying elders.

At the schools and colleges Kennedy, Lindsay, and Obama attended, extracurricular regimens and studies of the classic epics and disputations taught that self-denial for a common good requires first a self that is strong enough to deny: What might seem just a row of automatons rowing down a river is really a seething cauldron of eight private struggles against fear and infirmity, refined to a common identity and purpose.

At its best, such training can stimulate a quiet readiness to take responsibility without sure reward; a capacity to bear pain with grace (if only because spiritual grace seems thereby assured); and a direct if understated felicity in speech and bearing, including self-scrutiny and a self-deprecating humor that deflects others’ envy and perhaps one’s own doubts about privilege. Americans have seen this in all three men, whose training linked liberal education’s Truth-seeking to the civic arts and disciplines of republican Power-wielding.

The Yale graduates of Lindsay’s time prided themselves “on being good teammates and knowing how to win. Believing that success was virtuous, they respected and rewarded dedication and ‘grit,’ the personality traits that could decide a close contest. Valuing tact and consideration, they subjected their personal interests to those of the group,” writes Isaiah Wilner in a book about the two Yale grads who founded TIME magazine in the early 1920s.

Some Yale men, like the social activists Dwight Macdonald (a descendant of two of the college’s early Puritan presidents) William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Dave Dellinger, and Staughton Lynd also carried a strain of the old Calvinist conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. At times, they actually inspired or provoked others to live by it. Lindsay carried that strain, too.

3. They also knew how to sustain trust in networking to wield power for interests besides their own. People who get their sand and moral steel from early rites of passage know how to bond and work together later on in life, outflanking demagoguery. Whenever tea-partiers, religious fundamentalists, or racist militias reprise Joe McCarthy’s terrors of the 1950s, serious public leadership knows that such rampages will crest at around 40 percent of the population — if a society’s best standard-bearers can draw themselves up, tell one another, “We can’t have this,” and work together to deflect and defang the worst of it.

To do that, good leaders have to trust one another in ways the old rites taught them to do. “To a remarkable extent, this place has detected and rejected the very few who wear the colors of high purpose falsely,” Yale’s president Kingman Brewster, Jr. told my entering class in September, 1965. “This has not been done by administrative edict or official regulation [but]by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility and mutual regard which lies deep in our origins and traditions.”

It’s easy to dismiss Brewster’s pride in this collective capacity for mutual scrutiny as nothing but a defense of clubby elitism and its conceits. Sometimes, it is just that. Writing in my class’ 25th anniversary class book, Thomas McNamee acknowledged that “one of the skills useful to a befogged Yale undergraduate is the ability to write down under-informed over-generalizations with an air of easy grandeur” and that “optimism and confidence, even when forced or false, enhance performance.”

You can see some of that in Lindsay, too, and in Kennedy. But Brewster justified his ideal of a self-reinforcing logic of trust when he wrote, in a passage that is now the epitaph on his grave in New Haven, ”The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In commonplace terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.”

JFK, Lindsay, and Obama have certainly held true to that admonition to extend trust cannily, not naively, in ways that actually do elicit trust from others and thereby enhance strengths in a free society that wealth can’t buy and that national-security strategies alone can’t guarantee.

For example, one of the first honorary doctorates Brewster gave, at Yale’s 1964 Commencement, was to Martin Luther King, Jr., who’d just been released from jail. Brewster understood, as Lindsay did, that poor black churchgoers who walked trembling into tense Southern squares were re-enacting The Exodus from slavery to freedom, opening the hearts of astonished northern WASPS and Jews whose ancestors (including Brewster’s own) had made history of that same Exodus myth in ages past.

Watching King on television from the White House during the 1963 March on Washington, Kennedy understood this, too. His own speech to the nation on civil rights shortly before his death testified to his commitment to a civic-republican community transcending time, space, and political self-interest. Doing that, at tremendous political risk, required sand, moral steel, and public trust.

The documentary shows Lindsay, too, bearing brave moral witness to that commitment as he walks through Harlem after riots in 1967 and after King’s assassination a year later. I’ve written more than a little about his blind spots and blunders, and in the film I say a little more about that. But there’s no question that his presence on the streets actually made a difference, because ordinary people still trusted civic-republican leadership like his and like that of the martyred Jack Kennedy’s soon-to-be martyred brother Bobby. Somewhat similarly, Brewster’s own leadership helped keep Yale from blowing up in 1970, as Columbia and Kent State had done not long before.

People could feel these leaders’ sand, steel, and trust, and they trusted them, knowing that they’d earned their prerogatives through self-sacrifice and moral imagination.

Narrow ideological partisanship was secondary, and party affiliation was tertiary. Not always, of course, and not always advisably. But even Lindsay’s most formidable opponent in the 1965 mayoral race, William F. Buckley, Jr., who ran on the Conservative Party line, was a product of a Yale civic-republican training that, when it worked, nourished friendships across ideological lines: Late in his life, drawing, perhaps, on what he’d learned in his early rites of passage, Buckley sensed that conservative ideologues had strayed from the civic-republican depths and comity he valued more deeply than he did the fatuous ideas he’d preached, at 24, in God and Man at Yale.

Among Buckley’s lifelong left-liberal friends was the columnist Murray Kempton, who helped Lindsay in 1965 by writing, “He is fresh, and everyone else is tired.” That became a Lindsay campaign slogan, but New York Times reporter Sam Roberts, who has edited a companion volume of essays to go with the PBS documentary, notes that when Lindsay was reminded of it many years later, he quipped, “We’re tired, and everyone else is dead.” If one knew how he’d been trained, one feels in that riposte the sand and self-deprecating humor he’d absorbed so much earlier in life.

You see a little of this in the documentary. Kennedy’s Harvard imparted some it, too; think of the Roosevelts and Al Gore. (And when you think of Dick Cheney flunking out of Yale in 1961, you begin to sense his misunderstandings of where republican strength really comes from and how it’s best defended.)

By the time George W. Bush was at Yale a few years later — in the Class of 1968, while Lindsay was mayor — the old rites of passage were breaking down, although not for everyone: John Kerry (’66) and Howard Dean (’71) were there, too. While some resentment of Ivy graduates now is manufactured by conservatives who still consider their colleges too “liberal,” more of it comes from people who’ve lost faith that these wunderkinds, liberal or conservative, still earn and uphold their leadership roles in the ways I’ve been sketching here.

Fortunately, great American leaders are trained in lots of other places — church basements, Little League lots, immigrant settlement houses, public schools, state universities, historically black colleges, labor unions, and social and political movements. I’ve been learning recently that a staggering number of these seedbeds of public leadership — including Obama’s high school in Hawaii — were founded or led by people trained with a fateful, almost missionary intensity in rites of passage at Yale. But what really counts is that a republic have an open, circulating “elite” of leaders drawn from many sources but trained with depth and discipline for their work.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama evoked and, of course, embodied some of what Brewster had honored in King and what Lindsay had walked through Harlem to affirm. But is Obama marching alone? Or, worse, has he donned the colors of high purpose falsely, as even some leftists now claim?

Obama is probably wiser than Lindsay was in deploying his public virtues against daunting odds. He understands that another liberal capitalist War on Poverty wouldn’t conquer poverty any more than Reaganite free-marketeering has done. But he also believes that no leftist war on capitalism would do it, either. It will take strong leadership that inspires trust to strike a plausible balance among bleak options.

Knowing this doesn’t guarantee that Obama will make sounder judgments, let alone achieve any more than Lindsay or Kennedy did; and both of them failed, albeit for very different reasons. What worries me more is that the spiritually deep convictions and rites of passage that produced good leadership are indeed breaking down under riptides of consumer marketing and reckless disinvestment that only civic-republican leadership, widely diffused, might counter and channel.

Our patriots of the moment don’t know this, or can’t face it. They certainly don’t acknowledge that a liberal capitalist republic has to rely ultimately on virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state itself nor markets can nourish or enforce. Somehow, liberal leaders have to be nurtured all the more intensively.

Yale did that, and Obama found his own nourishment for leadership in bits and pieces from his mother, his high school, Columbia, and Harvard Law, as well as on Chicago’s South Side in a black branch of the United Church of Christ, the Congregational church of Kingman Brewster’s Puritan ancestors. Obama wasn’t faking this in the campaign, but he was re-discovering its limits as well as its necessity.

The need to regenerate great civic-republican leadership is an American Dilemma. Only if we can address it can we develop better strategies for the tsunamis and undertows that are upon us. If “establishment” liberals can’t muster more of what the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Lindsay, and countless unsung civic leaders did, and adapt it for our time, as Obama has promised to do, then Americans will never trust liberals to help them detect and reject those who wear the colors of high purpose falsely.

PBS airs ‘Fun City Revisited: The Lindsay Years’

Tue 04 May 2010


Multiple Page View

THE DOCUMENTARY “Fun City Revisited: The Lindsay Years”

WHEN | WHERE Thursday night at 8 on WNET /13; also Wednesday at 10 p.m. on WLIW /21

REASON TO WATCH Overview of eight tumultuous years (1965-73), by veteran PBS producer Tom Casciato.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT “Tall . . . patrician . . . blue-eyed” are words that went with two-term New York City Mayor John Lindsay to his grave, and you won’t avoid them here. He was the Hollywood mayor in the big, troubled city. He was “fresh [when] everyone else is tired,” in columnist Murray Kempton ‘s memorable assessment. A Republican in name only, he tried to heal racial divides and only widened them, according to some critics. A minute after his inauguration on Jan. 1, 1966, transit union chief Mike Quill – who puckishly referred to the new mayor as “Lindsley” – called a strike, forcing New Yorkers to walk increasingly dangerous and (soon) dirty streets. A garbage strike followed and a bitter teachers’ one, too – the dispute in Ocean Hill / Brownsville was bungled by Lindsay and nearly shattered the fragile proto-Rainbow coalition he had tried to build.

Cast off by the Republicans because of political differences, he narrowly won re-election in 1969, running on the Liberal Party line. Two years later, he became a Democrat and unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for president in 1972, giving critics more ammo.

MY SAY There are many fair-minded appraisals of Lindsay here, notably by former Newsday columnists such as Jimmy Breslin and Jim Sleeper, and even onetime Newsday reporter Dick Aurelio, also a Lindsay aide. But an ex-Times reporter offers the most arresting image.

Joyce Purnick says that when she saw Lindsay leave City Hall on his last day in ’73, he was crying: “What a way to end this experiment in modern progressive liberal leadership, glassy-eyed in tears.” Lindsay was certainly not a wimp – he won five battle stars in the Navy during World War II , then spent eight years battling New Yorkers – but to this day, the word “sad” is appended to him as well.

The documentary tries to erase that troubling word, but the essence of Lindsay – who died in 2000 – still eludes its grasp. More time was needed.

Long after leaving public office, he tried different jobs, even as part-time host of ” Good Morning America ,” and was so financially stressed that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had to give him a ceremonial gig so he could get health insurance.

BOTTOM LINE Not quite a total reappraisal, the show still establishes that Lindsay had an enduring triumph – his embrace of black New Yorkers. Sometimes just a single triumph in any long political career, especially one of this magnitude, is enough.


Looking for America

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

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

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

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

Well, maybe. The ascent of Donald Trump and of Trumpism has made many of us doubt and even despair of “American” virtues that we’d taken for granted or dedicated ourselves to upholding. I doubted our capabilities along those lines in the 1970s and more deeply in 2014, before I or anyone imagined that Trump would run for the presidency, let alone that tens of millions of Americans would be credulous and cankered enough to elect him.

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

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

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

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

Fooling around at 19, my freshman year

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

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

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

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

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

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No longer fooling around. Brooklyn, age 31, 1978

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

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

Civic-republican strengths and susceptibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decay and Renewal

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

Illustration by Philip Toolin

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

In 1787, Alexander Hamilton, urging ratification of the Constitution, wrote that history seemed to have destined Americans, “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government through reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

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

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

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

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

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

This civic-republican disposition — to give the other person a fair chance and to back her up as she tries, to deliberate rationally with her about shared purposes, and to reach and to keep binding commitments — relies on the elusive balance of civic values, virtues and body language that’s ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free. You see it in a team sport whenever a player closes in on the action not to show off but to back up a teammate and help him score. You see it in how people in a contentious meeting extend trust cannily to potential adversaries in ways that elicit trust in return.

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

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

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

Civic-republican grace in writing and public life

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

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

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

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

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Editorial writer and editor at New York Newsday, 1992

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

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

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

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

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

Both left and right in American life offer distinctive truths that are indispensable to governing ourselves by reflection and choice, rather than by accident, force, and fraud. The left understands that without public provision of common supports in a village that raises the child, the family and spiritual values that conservatives cherish cannot flourish. But the right understands that unless a society also generates and honors protects irreducibly individual autonomy and conscience, even the best-intentioned social engineering may reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse. Each side often clings to its own truths so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong.

The consequent damage to the public sphere can’t be undone by clinging to the left-vs.-right floor plan that I mentioned at the outset. Analysis and organizing against socio-economic inequities are indispensable, but insufficient. That’s equally true of conservative affirmations of communal and religious values that bow too quickly to accumulated wealth that, as Oliver Goldsmith noted, disrupts and dissolves values and bonds that conservatives claim to cherish. (See this website’s sections, “Folly on the Left” and “Conservative Contradictions.”)

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

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

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

At any historical moment, one side’s claims may seem liberating against the other side’s dominant conventions and cant: In the 1930s, Orwell sought liberation in democratic-socialist movements against ascendant fascist powers, and his sympathy remained with workers, but sometimes that required him to oppose workers’ self-proclaimed champions, especially Stalinists, as well as their capitalist exploiters. As I wrote, Orwell “never forgot that both left and right tend to get stuck in their imagined upswings against concentrated power and to disappoint in the end: The left’s almost willful mis-readings of human nature make it falter in swift, deep currents of nationalism and religion, caught between denying their importance and surrendering to them abjectly and hypocritically as the Soviets did by touting ‘Socialism in One Country’ while preaching Marxism as a secular eschatology.”

The balance to hold out for against ideologues is like that of a person striding on both a left foot and a right one without needing to notice that, at any instant, all of the body’s weight is on only one foot as the other swings forward and upward in the desired direction. What matters is that the balance enables the stride. Again, it requires both a “left foot” of social equality and provision – without which the individuality and the communal bonds that conservatives claim to cherish couldn’t flourish – and a “right foot” of irreducibly personal responsibility and autonomy, without which any leftist social provision or engineering would reduce persons to passive clients, cogs, cannon fodder, or worse.

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

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

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

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.