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The Obama Chronicles, 2008 – 2012

I began writing about Obama in 2007,  using a “civic-republican” pen, and I’ve traced the arc of his rise and travails in American political culture. As some of the following columns show, I suggested often during his 2008 campaign that he is more a “Harvard neo-liberal” than a progressive, let alone the wild-eyed socialist his opponents conjure up. But it wasn’t really until the debt-ceiling crisis of the spring and summer, 2011 that I became disillusioned enough to begin to regard him coldly.

In the summer and fall of 2011, I did battle with neo-liberal Obama apologists such as Fareed Zakaria and Jonathan Chait, siding, against them, with Drew Westen and others who advocated not that he be more “leftist,” much less “radical,” but simply that he tell more of the truth about the inexorable pressures he faced — and their costs to the country — of  our casin0-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-bamboozling economy. Following “my” advice and that of others, Obama found what I do think is his truer civic-republican voice again in the fall of 2011, as the 2012 election approached. There  is no need to be either naive or cynical about this, but it’s important to understand clearly.

Whatever Obama’s future, I’ll always credit him with confirming and advancing a shift in American racial politics, a dimension of our national experience I’ve had  more than a little experience with and that  I address in many of these posts about him and in a late-2011 review of Randall Kennedy’s The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency. But the bitter irony of Obama’s teuure, at least so far, is that even as his election reduced racism as an obstacle to economic reform, the economy changed for the worse in ways he’s failed to describe truthfully and that I try to sketch in some of these posts.

The enormous countervailing forces that a president must face place limits on how much truth-telling he can do. But there’s a difference between being prudent and abdicating the presidential responsibility to be a great communicator.  Obama has often lost his balance in handling that difference. The last thing he needs is apologetics by the Washington Beltway pundits who, fancying themselves the great realists of national power-brokering, have leaped to discredit substantial and constructive criticism of his leadership strategies.

“The Obama Chronicles” trace the arc of my skepticism, support, criticism, and disillusionment with Obama since 2007.  But first I begin with a few recent  posts on his  leadership in the recent debt-ceiling and jobs crises of the spring and summer of 2011. Then I go back to 2007 and present all of my posts chronologically through the campaign and inauguration and early months in the White House.

I. The Obama Chronicles, 2008 to the present

The more “classic” of these posts (the ones that have stood the test of time and ought to be used by historians) are titled in bold.

Why Rudy Giuliani Really Shouldn’t Be President, TPMCafe, March 8, 2007. To judge from the links and discussion this post provoked, it was a game-change among the pundits, and for a good reason: I knew him well.

If I Vote For Obama, It’ll Be Because…. TPMcafe, January 8, 2008, the morning after his second-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary.

David Brooks Scurries to McCain…. via Ted Kennedy! TPMCafe, January 30, 2008

Obama’s Biggest Weakness, TPMCafe, February 6, 2008. Written as returns from SuperTuesday were still coming in.

Why it’ll be Obama vs.McCain, TPMcafe, February 2, 2008. Just before SuperTuesday. Here I was behaving as an
anthropologist more than a partisan. Some readers were not amused.

Obama, Crowds, and Power, TPMCafe, February 13, 2008. Just after Obama won the “Potomac Primaries, a cautionary note.

Obama in a Valley of Insinuations and Lies: TPMCafe, February 27, 2008. The historian Sean Wilentz’s  bizarre and desperate attack,

How to Really Put that Farrakhan Endorsement to Rest TPMCafe, March 4, 2008. Why no “furor” over Farrakhan is likely to fly, even though some people will keep trying to launch it.

In Philadelphia, Obama’s Historic Challenge, TPMCafe, March 18, 2008. And, in Brooklyn, a lit of history behind controversies like the one for Obama’s Pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Billary’s One-Two Punch Has Changed the Game, TPMCafe, March 26, 2008. How the Clintons became a part of American democracy’s problem, not the solution. A few unfortunate phrasings left this one open to both innocent and willful misreadings. Please read it with “Obama, Crowds, and Power,” here below, and with “The Campaign We Really Need,” above.

The Campaign We Really Need, TPMCafe, March 28, 2008. A clarification concerning the column just before this one.

Why Obama’s Leftist Critics Are Sputtering,TPMCafe April 3, 2008. Obama’s racial wisdom vs. holdouts left and right, TPMCafe, April 1, 2008. Both conservative black writers like Shelby Steele and many leftists academics are misjudging his campaign and his motives.

The Ur-Story Behind Obama’s ‘Cling’ Gaffe in PA, TPMCafe, April 16, 2008. His problem with working-class whites is deep, though not his fault.

How Republicans Gamed the Pennsylvania Primary, TPMCafe, April 22, 2008

Obama’s Way Out of the Race Trap, TPMCafe, April 23, 2008. After losing the Pennsylvania primary, Obama had to re-connect with working-class whites. I suggested that calling for class-based affirmative action would turn a lot of heads and gain a lot of ground electorally and for social justice.

Obama in the Wilderness. TPMCafe, April 29, 2008. As Obama staggered under the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s preening shortly before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, some historical and religious perspective.

Obama in the Straits, TPMCafe, June 5, 2008. As Obama claimed the Democratic nomination after the last primaries, a meditation from Istanbul at dawn on the racial dimension of the challenge and the opportunity his candidacy has put before the country and the world.

Obama: Neoliberal or Civic Republican? TPMCafe, June 13, 2008.  He’s really a bit of both, I argue, and he has the capacity to vindicate the Republic against the worst of global capitalism. Whether he will depends on whether our national economic and social crises deepen — and on what people seem ready to hear.

Has Obama the courage of black voters’ convictions? TPMCafe, August 8, 2008. A congressional election in Memphis was a win-win-win opportunity for Obama to endorse the white incumbent, against a black challenger — and in a majority-black district! But he didn’t do it. This is also a case study of where 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act went wrong.

It Won’t be Obama’s Veep Who Saves Him, TPMCafe, August 22, 2008. Written the day before Obama announced his choice of running mate, this piece went looking for what seemed the missing fire in his belly.

What Biden Brings, TPMCafe, August 23, 2008. This was written just before Obama’s introduction of Biden and the latter’s speech in Springfield, which fulfilled my anticipations here. Now the other shoe will drop, and Biden will put his foot in his mouth a few times this fall. But he’s a great choice, all things considered, even if he’s not the answer to the fundamental challenges I raised in the column before this one.

Another One Bites the Dust, TPMCafe, August 28, 2008. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, a Hillary Clinton dead-ender, had to be ushered off the stage the night that Bill Clinton made clear that Barack Obama is ready to lead.

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!” TPMCafe, September 6, 2008. The Republican tragedy in John McCain’s acceptance speech.

John Quixote, Sarah Panza, and the Windmills of 2008, TPMCafe, Sept. 9, 2008. How McCain and Palin are blaming the wrong elites in this election.

Thoughts on Casting a Vote in New York City at 6 am, TPMCafe, Nov. 4, 2008

A Pundit Fails the Republic, TPM Cafe, October 13, 14, 2008. As the presidential election approached, David Brooks, liberal editors’ favorite conservative, parried and then ducked the truth that John McCain had proven himself unstable and incompetent as commander-in-chief of his own campaign. Serious conservatives such as Christopher Buckley told it like it is.

A Pundit’s Day of Reckoning — And Ours, TPMCafe, October 14, 2008. As McCain’s campaign became increasingly embarrassing, this column predicted well how NY Times columnist David Brooks, formerly a sinuous McCain supporter, would ride out the election.

The Neo-con Merry-Go-Round Runs Down…., TPMCafe, October 17, 2008. Tortured defections from McCain tell the tale.

A ‘Sad’ Reckoning That Isn’t, TPMCafe, October 26, 2008. How not to think of McCain nine days before the election.

My Hidden Stake in an Obama Win, TPMCafe, Oct. 27, 2008. Whether or not it succeeds on November 4, Obama’s candidacy has come to represent and confirm positions I’ve taken on racial politics for years.

Things We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Race, Dissent, Oct. 27, 2008. Eight days before election, everyone is talking about whether “the Bradley effect” will sink Obama’s apparent lead.

How to Gauge Racism in This Election, TPMCafe, Oct. 28, 2008. Don’t ask Jack Shafer, Slate’s blowhard press critic, who thinks that liberals, enraptured by Obama, are just getting jittery. A viral e-mail I got clears things up.

Burdens of History, Reconciliation, and Fatality.  TPMCafe, Nov. 5, 2008 A victory night reflection on what we and Obama face — and on why he seems so deeply well equipped to face it.

“I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear….” TPMCafe, Nov. 9, 2008. Why he should use his middle name at the inauguration, and how his full name vindicates what is still exceptional about America. (A similar version ran in the  Yale Daily News on November 14 and again in TPM on Inauguration Day, 2009.)

What I’m Learning (Slowly) From Obama, TPMCafe, Nov. 11, 2008. A columnist’s confessions.

II. Obama’s pre-2012 Election Leadership “Crisis”

The Republic After Obama, TPMCafe, Aug. 1, 2011. A major statement about the nature of Obama’s failure of leadership. This should be read along with Debt-Crisis Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, Airheads, and the Rest of Us, TPMCafe, July 21, 2011, a taxonomy of Obama’s opposition at the 11th hour before the federal debt-default deadline.

How (and How Not) to Assess Obama’s Debt-Crisis Leadership,TPMCafe, July 29, 2011

Plus ca change…. In April of 2011 I wrote that Obama’s debt-crisis strategy was inadequate. Three months later, at the 11th hour (July 27),  I decided that I couldn’t change a word. So I didn’t: TPMCafe, July 27, 2011

Fareed Zakaria’s Problem– and Ours. The problem isn’t Drew Westen, whose essay criticizing Obama’s leadership took the liberal world by storm; he was only Zakaria’s most obvious target. This spat is over something much deeper. TPMCafe, August 18, 2011

Bluster in the Beltanschauung. Why Obama’s neoliberal apologists in the Washington Beltway are letting him and us down. August 30, 2011. HuffingtonPost, TPM, Alternet Siding with Drew Westen and others of Obama’s left-of-center critics against Fareed Zakaria and other neo-liberal apologists for Obama’s leadership failures, I argued apostles of Washington Beltway thinking have a world-view, or Weltanschauung, all their own — hence, Beltanschauung. The essay is as long (4300 words) as it is damning, so it should be copied onto a document and printed out. By the way, we critics of the Beltanschaunng won the debate, at least insofar as Obama changed course in the direction Westen urged: To be more forthright and feisty about what Republicans are doing to the economy and the country. Whether or not Obama will follow through is an open question, though, because it’s not clear that he doesn’t ultimately share his apologists’ neo-liberal premises and politics.

On Sept. 4, 2011,  in  Great Orations vs. Great Obfuscations, HuffingtonPost, and also in TPM, I managed to say in 499 words what it had taken me 4300 words to say in the longer posts just above: That Obama’s critics on the left aren’t urging him to give a magic speech, as his Beltway apologists self-servingly imagine, but to….  Well, it’s only 499 words, so click and read it yourself.

Obama’s neo-liberal Beltway apologists can’t stop defending his compromises. (Nov. 8). This was prompted by a review of Ron Suskind’s book about Obama by Ezra Klein in the New York Review of Books. Klein is another very astute observer of Capitol-corridor realities, but he spends too much time with those realities to recognize that a president must point us all toward broader horizons. Huffington Post, TPM. A few days later, fed up with Obama’s apologists, I tried to show what a 58-word presidential grand narrative should be.

Guess Who Obama Was Channeling in his Populist Kansas Speech? (Dec. 8, 2011) It was a terrific vindication of  the political psychologist Drew Westin, whose  criticisms of Obama I’d been defending since August (see below) against Obama’s Washington apologists. Obama’s Kansas speech showed he’d gotten Westen’s message (and OWS’ message). Huffington Post, Alternet, TPM

In  The Persistence of the Color Line, Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, Harvard Law prof Randall Kennedy explains why a politics of racial grievance and paroxysm won’t hit the moving target of plutocracy. I was glad to review this book for The Nation (“False Comforts,” Dec. 19, 2011), where, years ago, I was assailed sometimes times for making arguments much like Kennedy’s in my own books, Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers. (Half a chapter of Liberal Racism is about Kennedy.)

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Scoops and Other Revelations

Scoops and Other Revelations

The freedom to break “news” energizes journalism and democracy.  But breaking new ideas often matters even more. Without ideas that are more flexible and dynamic than the dominant ideologies and conventional wisdom of the day, the deluge of new information and data points scrambles old ways of thinking but doesn’t produce any real public “intelligence;”  it just overwhelms the interpretations of unfolding events that effective public decision-making requires.

For most  journalists, breaking new ideas is a daunting challenge that they’d rather not meet. Writing on tight deadlines about situations they’re thrown into without much preparation, they have to rely on whatever story lines are already in their heads — in other words, on the conventional wisdom or, depending on the news outlet, a dominant ideology). Such familiar story lines can make the reporting seem sensible enough to readers or viewers who are busy and/or who want their preconceptions confirmed or at least accommodated. But recycling or dramatizing the dominant story lines doesn’t strengthen public give-and-take or, with it, democracy.

Often these days, the events being reported upset the conventional wisdom, as the attacks of 9/11 surely did in the United States and as the near-meltdown of the U.S. economy did during the 2008 presidential campaign, and as did the Tea Party and Republican capture of the debt-ceiling process after 2010. At such times, the best lose all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, as W.B. Yeats put it, and serious journalists — if there are any — have no choice but to try to lead, not just follow. That’s when journalism really does become  “the first rough draft of history:”  Writers like Orwell, in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, look not just for “news” but for better interpretive lenses or story lines that help them to notice, alert others to, and explain developments that the old wisdom would have missed or denied.

To make sound judgments about what really matters, reporters need to be able to draw on historical memory and some philosophical dispositions. They need to have a sense of context that‘s rich as well as clear. That’s why the best preparation for journalism is a strong liberal education.

Here are some of my experiences of situations in which historical memory and informed judgment benefited me as a reporter or commentator and, I’d like to think, members of the public who encountered my work.

1. Exposing Election Fraud in an Historic Black Congressional Race.

The first instance is the most conventional. It was the first time I understood how to break news. It came one Saturday morning in 1982, when I walked into the Brooklyn Board of Elections as a Village Voice writer. There I found supporters of Brooklyn State Senator Vander Beatty “checking” voter registration cards in a Democratic primary election for the retiring Rep. Shirley Chisholm‘s historic Bedford Stuyvesant congressional seat — a crucial primary election which Beatty had just lost to a far more worthy State Senate colleague, Major R. Owens.  Beatty, a classic “povertycrat” whose anti-racist rhetoric had secured him some protection by the corrupt, mostly white Democratic Party machine and by a timid white liberal elite, had been endorsed in the primary by the New York Times.

What the Beatty assistants whom I saw at the Board of Education were really doing was forging signatures on the voter-registration cards they were supposedly checking.  Beatty‘s lawyers would then submit these Saturday morning forgeries to a judge as evidence that Owens had rigged the votes on Election Day. Beatty would sue to invalidate Owens’ victory.

I hadn‘t just stumbled upon these shenanigans that Saturday morning at the Board of Elections by accident. A political operative who knew people on both sides, and with whom I’d had many conversations about the election, called to tip me off. He didn‘t need to explain much on the phone: A Voice cover story of mine on Beatty‘s long record of corruption had been published before the primary and had played some role in Owens‘ victory. All he had to say was, “Get your ass down to the Board of Elections and see what the Beatty people are doing.”

I’d already had to defend my blockbuster Voice expose of Beatty on the local NPR station just before the election. (One vehement Beatty supporter who called in to argue that my story was an example of white manipulation of the election was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who I’d later get to know very well.) But if I hadn‘t rushed down to the Board that Saturday and known what to expect when I arrived, Beatty would have won his suit in Brooklyn‘s compliant (indeed, complicit), machine-dominated judiciary. And black politics in Shirley Chisholm‘s district would have taken an emblematically disastrous turn.

So a lot was at stake in my new Voice story about what I’d found. “Look at it this way,” said my tipster; “[Beatty] is either going to jail or he‘s going to Congress.”

The party machine‘s hack judges did rule for Beatty at first, anyway, in the local and appellate courts. But my reporting stoked a controversy about that. The Times’ Sydney Schanberg read it and alerted the rest of the world in his op-ed page column. That did it: The Democratic Party and the courts began to bend. They started to do what they’d supposedly had been established to do in the first place.  New York‘s highest court overturned the rulings. Owens, who said that throughout his months-long post-election ordeal he’d felt as if he‘d been in Mississippi.

Owens went to Congress, served honorably, and retired in 2006. Beatty was convicted in federal court a few years later of corruption unrelated to his election scheme. In 1990, he was assassinated by a non-political rival. It‘s all in four stories linked here.

The experience of trying for months to alert others to Beatty‘s malfeasance taught me something important about journalistic storytelling: Even bona-fide scoops may not interest most news media if a story comes from the wrong side of the tracks and its larger implications aren‘t made bluntly clear.

A would-be truth-teller has to persist against conventional wisdom and indifference. Sometimes only an advocacy journalist will keep at it, inflamed by commitment to get the truth out against others’ indifference, self-interest, or prejudice. Even a highly professional journalist may not have the motivation, or be given adequate resources, unless he or she makes a strenuous effort to summon them.

I learned, too, that even persistence can fail if a writer hasn‘t enough historical memory and sound judgment to find the “story” in a deluge of impressions. People will resist facing even incontrovertible evidence if its implications are counter-intuitive and therefore seem to them to “make no sense”. That‘s what happens when readers lack an interpretive story line that explains why the facts matter. They have to trust the journalist to “break” sound new ideas as well as news itself. In the Beatty case, selling the story meant shattering white indulgence of black corruption by persuading readers of the need for reformers like Owens.

Could a Twitter strategy by the Owens camp have accomplished what only an investigative reporter like me was able to accomplish in 1982? Only if the Owens volunteers were trained and organized to do more than just swoop down on the Board of Elections and get into fights with the Beatty operatives who were forging signatures. There would still have been a need for well-informed reporting and for a communications strategy to sort out the mess and make it clear to the larger society that, wittingly or not, had a stake in the outcome.

2. Blocking a dubious indictment of a future national leader.

News of serious flaws in the preparation of a pending indictment of New York Congressman (now Senator) Charles Schumer in 1982 fell into my lap wholly through a conflict of interest of my own. That made the story very hard for me to report. Indeed, I wound up having to report it not as a journalist but as a lonely citizen, writing unpaid guest columns for a small Brooklyn weekly, The Prospect Press.

The problem was that no other journalist seemed engaged or motivated enough to report the story at all, partly because it involved malfeasance by other journalists: The reason I couldn‘t tell the story in the Village Voice — where I’d been freelancing regularly, as in the Beatty-Owens election recounted above — was that Voice writers there were involved in trying to gin up an indictment of Schumer, whom they disliked intensely for not being “progressive” enough. It was they who’d urged his prosecution upon an ambitious and receptive young U.S. Attorney for Brooklyn, Edward Korman, who’d recently brought down Congressman Fred Richmond, as described in one of the Voice essays linked in “A Sleeper Sampler” and elsewhere on this site.

My Voice colleagues and the prosecutor were pursuing the case for moralistic and personal reasons with scant legal justification. I knew this only for a reason that undermined my own credibility, though: My girlfriend was working in Schumer‘s office and was giving me the other side of the story.

Not surprisingly, the only people inclined to believe my account were those who had reasons of their own to distrust the Voice muckrakers and/or the U.S. Attorney. To grasp the injustice of the case, one had to shed the righteousness of “white hat” muckrakers. You had to know that the criminal justice system itself is highly susceptible to abuse if its skeleton of laws lacks a “cartilage” of extra-legal trust and integrity among prosecutors.

My columns in The Prospect Press, the small neighborhood weekly, were handed around and played a role in alerting people in the Justice Department and the courts to the flaws in the indictment. It was dropped before being formally brought, but only after a lot of publicity and controversy.

Ironically, the probe had been instigated not only by partisan Republicans but also by leftist muckrakers, and it was closed down by senior Reagan Justice Department officials after Schumer’s attorney, Arthur Liman (later the Democratic counsel to the congressional Iran-Contra commission) went to Washington and confronted them with the bizarre truth about the inquiry.

Twenty five years later, in 2007, I had a reason to tell the whole story of the Schumer case again as Schumer, by then on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was investigating the Bush Administration‘s efforts to politicize U.S. Attorneys‘ prosecutions of Democrats. Again, the “cartilage” of trust and professionalism had worn thin, but by 2007 I must have been the only reporter to recall that Schumer had been the victim of a politicized, prosecutorial investigation.

Schumer has many faults, and he can certainly be criticized robustly by people to his left as well as his right. But trying to “nail” him — as the Voice reporters crowed to one another that they were doing —  through selective prosecution for a minor indiscretion that many of their’ own heroes were also committing, was a miscarriage of journalism.

3. Exposing a pundit’s primary colors

In 1996, as people puzzled over the identity of the anonymous author of a political sizzler of a novel Primary Colors, which was scathing in its revelations about a fictional president who was obviously meant to represent Bill Clinton, I had an intensely strong hunch that the author was Joe Klein, then a prominent Newsweek columnist and television commentator.

I called Washington Post media columnist William Powers with my claim that Klein was “Anonymous”. Powers‘ column published the charge, which I kept reaffirming even after Klein’s vehement denials had convinced most people in the news media that he hadn’t written the book. (“It wasn‘t me; I didn‘t do it,” he told CBS News flatly. For the same broadcast, CBS had taped me insisting it was Klein, but his denial was so firm that CBS didn’t run my part of its footage.)

So I wrote a column that began, “May I remind Joe ‘I didn‘t do it‘ Klein of O.J. Simpson‘s vow that he will ‘leave no stone unturned‘ until he finds Nicole Brown Simpson‘s killer?…. If Klein didn‘t write Primary Colors, let him devote his far-more-considerable investigative skills to finding the author.”

No one would publish that column; I was only freelancing at the time, and this was well before blogging, so I had literally no recourse, no way to make my argument in public unless I could persuade someone else in the media to run with it. Had I been able to post my column in TPM, as I would now, it might have generated some open debate and collaborative investigation, but because I wasn’t able to do that, and my arguments lost traction. Only months later, when a reporter discovered the novel’s original paper manuscript with Klein‘s handwriting on it, did he confess that, yes, he’d written the novel and had lied about it.

What had made me so sure of his authorship all along? Again, memory and judgment played an important part. I’d read Klein‘s columns in New York magazine in the late 1980s, and I remembered his characteristic locutions and obsessions about liberals and race – tropes that popped up in the novel.

So when I saw an op-ed column in the Baltimore Sun by David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, voicing a suspicion similar to mine about Klein, I read the novel closely, and Klein just leapt off the page: At one point, when the novel recounts the maunderings of a feckless, aging hippie-cum-leftie holdover from the 1960s, Klein’s narrator can’t help thinking, “Yikes.” The minute I saw the word in that context, I said, “That’s Joe!” and called Bill Powers, whose Post column introduced the “Kusnet/Sleeper theory” that Klein was the author. (Klein, still in public denial, left me an exasperated voice-mail message: “Jim, I don‘t have a patent on the word  ̳Yikes‘!”)

Again, though, as in the Beatty case recounted above, most journalists, having accepted KIein‘s denials, weren‘t as open as Powers to a literary cross-examination like mine. I had ventured into a gray area, after all, in which I “knew” the truth thanks to memory, some literary acumen, and political judgment, but couldn’t actually prove that someone hadn’t done a brilliant job of copying Klein’s style. Only months later, when the discovery of Klein’s notes on his own manuscript forced him to confess his authorship at a press conference with Random House‘s Harry Evans, did I have the satisfaction of being there and watching him look away. In a Wall Street Journal column published soon after that (It’s on the pdf with the Powers column that’s linked above,) I offered my interpretation of why he‘d lied so vigorously and what I thought was at stake for journalism and politics in the lie.

4. Somewhere over the Rainbow

A lot of my work involves not breaking news but trying to scope out societal learning curves, a little ahead of their time. The matter of how our interpretive frames rise and fall is as interesting to me as the facts we weave into those frames. As a Daily News columnist in the summer of 1993, I ―knew,” not from polls but from years of immersion in black and white-ethnic neighborhoods in the city’s outer boroughs, that Rudolph Giuliani would defeat New York‘s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins, in that fall‘s election.

The Daily News columns I wrote about the mayoral campaigns became pretty insistent and combative, cutting against the conventional grain, as in the Schumer and Klein stories.

Shortly before Giuliani won, I enlarged my frame of reference and analysis by comparing New York‘s electoral upheavals with those in other cities. A cover story in The New Republic was the first time that my “breaking” a new idea and a new interpretation, instead of just news, became national news in itself.

That set off a long train of columns, reviews, and appearances in which I challenged liberal as well as conservative racial thinking. Some of that thinking was racialist in an obsessive, piously doting way that reinforces racism itself; some of it was ideologically leftist and reductionist in assigning blacks revolutionary roles that very few of them sought or fulfilled.

Almost all such bad thinking presumed that having a skin color automatically means having a “culture.” In 1997 I wrote Liberal Racism against that assumption. The book prompted interviews on NPR and with The Atlantic and many debates, plunging me deeper into arguments and acrimony, sometimes on Charlie Rose and in NPR commentaries, sometimes in the columns, essays, and reviews filed on this site in the section on race, with additional reflections on the subject.

One scoop in this vein required visiting the Rockefeller Foundation archives in Tarrytown, NY to look into the background of Prof. Leonard Jeffries of the City College of New York, whose diatribes about Jewish complicity in the slave trade had been fanning a spark of truth into a political conflagration. I read letters and memos written by Jeffries’ early funders and enablers and wrote a not-wholly unsympathetic column in the Race Doctors at City College, Daily News, in 1993, but in The Nation I admonished some on the left for indulging him.

5. Another side of September 11, 2001 – and of November, 1948.

Bringing memory and judgment to bear on news sometimes yields small discoveries that others persist in ignoring. Shortly after the ordeal of New York firefighters on 9/11, I noticed that their department emblem, the Maltese Cross, is a relic of medieval battles between the Knights of Malta, who were Christian Crusaders, and Muslim Saracens trying to block their way to the Holy Land. That seemed a haunting precedent given George W. Bush‘s brief characterization of the confrontation with Islamicist terrorists as a “crusade.” But, perhaps because he hastily dropped the term and the implicit analogy, no one ever mentioned the fire-fighters’ Maltese Cross. To read about it, scroll down to the third column on this link, from The New York Observer.

Similarly, Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott‘s fateful praise in 2002 of Strom Thurmond‘s racist, Dixiecrat presidential campaign of 1948 against Harry Truman unleashed a deluge of commentary about the implications of that campaign, which had nearly cost Truman the election to Republican Thomas Dewey. But no 2002 news analysis or commentary about the 1948 election mentioned an important “fourth party” in the 1948 election, this one on the left, that had also endangered Truman by drawing away liberal Democrats just as Thurmond was drawing away conservatives.

When the History News Network published my account of the Communist-backed presidential bid of Henry Wallace, who had been FDR‘s vice-president for a term, nothing happened. No news analyst or columnist who‘d written about the 1948 campaign made a correction. The silence seemed a result of sheer dissonance, given the eagerness to nail the racists Thurmond and Lott, but also perhaps a touch of professional embarrassment at having missed the full story of Truman‘s near-defeat.

6. Forebodings about the New York Times

I found myself writing about journalism itself in a Daily News column in 1994 that explained why the New York Times’ then-editorial-page editor Howell Raines was bad for the paper and for journalism. Raines is a talented man with large flaws, including a penitential Southern anti-racism that gets tangled up in its own moralism, as I’d argued in 1994.

I said it again at length in 1997 in Liberal Racism, in a chapter called “Media Myopia.” But my intuitions about him were confirmed only 10 years after the News column, when Raines was consumed by the scandalously false reporting of Jayson Blair on his watch as executive editor, were my intuitions confirmed.

By the time of his editorial demise in the Blair affair I was no longer at the News, but I did write an ―I told you so‖ in the Hartford Courant (it follows the Daily News column in the link here) that was linked at sites such as Slate and reprinted, even in the Jerusalem Post, which had its own, neo-connish reasons for highlighting a crisis at a liberal newspaper.

7. The cheapest kind of flattery.

The Raines flap had an ironic twist that prompts a final observation: Interpretive scoops that break new ideas as well as facts are very easily stolen. When 18 paragraphs of a Washington Post review I’d written of Marshall Frady‘s biography of Jesse Jackson wound up under someone else‘s byline a few weeks later in the San Francisco Chronicle, the reasons were instructive, if depressing.

Here is my review, with accounts (by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post and by Dwight Garner, now himself  a book reviewer for the New York Times) of how the review was plagiarized. Some years later, in a Hartford Courant column that’s the second of the pdf’s here, I had occasion to recount a bit of what was at stake in this sad experience.

8. Early warnings about Rupert Murdoch’s assault on the American Republic

Long before the recent scandals involving phone-hacking by Murdoch reporters in Britain, I showed, in a series of widely noted pieces, that Rupert Murdoch’s journalism poisons every body politic it touches. In 2007, when he was about to acquire The Wall Street Journal, I wrote two scathing posts in TPM and one in The Guardian, the British paper that would break a key story in the phone hacking scandal in 2011. In one TPM post, “Rupert vs. the Republic,” I cited a warning by a brave Wall Street Journal reporter. In another, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” I took apart a fawning profile of Murdoch by a reporter for TIME magazine.

After the scandals of 2011 broke, I showed again — this time in Dissent and TPM — why Murdoch’s journalism would still be a danger even if his reporters had never broken a single law, paid a single police officer, or corrupted a single politician, as they have done so often. It’s important to understand this distinction, because too much of what Murdoch outlets to do legally is also done by other media companies. As the title of the Dissent essay reads: It’s not a scandal, but a syndrome. At TPM, I expanded on what the British bombshells about Murdoch’s operations really reveal, and what’s at stake in the scandals. And I excoriated and rewarded some of Murdoch’s apologists and critics at the New York Times.

Looking For America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civic-republican grace in writing and public life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Came to This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folly on the Left

I’ve been there. I’m still there now, in some ways, but only by default. My civic-republican compass sometimes points rightward, but at bottom I believe that neither “left” nor “right” as we know them in America is a vessel of hope. See “Looking for America,” the introduction to this site.

Many blunders by Marxist ideologues have left us with a taboo against criticizing capitalism, whose twilight they announced rather too often. But aren’t we now in a relationship to capitalism analogous to that of American colonials to the British monarchy and mercantilism of the 1760s?

Most colonists then still professed affection for and reliance on the crown and empire, even as they began to sense that British interests couldn’t be reconciled with their own. Eventually they decided to risk their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to rearrange matters.

So now, too, perhaps, something basic has to change in how we configure and charter the vast profit-making combines that are degrading the rhythms and security of our daily lives and incapacitating us as cultural actors and free citizens. Just as the divine right of monarchs had to be discredited as a fanciful cover for too much exploitation, so will our current version of divine right: The Invisible Hand.

Like most Americans of the early 1760s, we would rather not face this daunting challenge. So we tolerate a growing burden of distractions and distempers, eroticizing our pains or projecting them violently and expending tremendous energy on false solutions.

Left and right alike need to rediscover the American civic-republican tradition and to sacrifice ideological as well as physical comfort to revive it. In that tradition, a healthy society walks on two feet — a left foot of social provision that acknowledges that it does take a village to raise a child and that without it, the individual autonomy and virtues which conservatives cherish could never flourish; and a right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility, grounded in some kind of faith that’s beyond the reach of politics; without this, even the most “progressive” social engineering would reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse.

While both left and right have credible claims on certain truths, each side clings to its own claims so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong. At any historical moment, one side may be insurgent, and its truths may seem the more compelling and liberating while going up against the dominant side’s institutionalized carapaces and cant.  But each side tends to get trapped in its imagined upswings and to disappoint in the end: The left’s almost willful misreadings of our divided human nature make it founder in swift currents of nationalism and religion, pitching between sweeping denials of their importance to abject and hypocritical surrender: Stalin’s “Socialism in one country,” Marxism as a secular eschatology. I get at this a bit more in the first essay here on George Orwell:’

Orwell’s ‘Smelly Little Orthodoxies’ — and Ours. from the volume Orwell Into the Twenty-First Century, developed for a conference at Wellesley College on the centenary of Orwell’s birth.

“Folly on the Left,” This review-essay on Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims (Salmagundi, 1983) touched on the tendency of activists, left as well as right, to turn distant lands into giant projection screens for their unexamined fantasies of tribal and ideological solidarity.

Why Isn’t the Left Able to Deliver?, New York Observer, 1988

The Left’s Wrong Turns in the Politics of Race, Tikkun, 1991

“The Social Failures of “Money Liberalism,” Newsday, 1992, a review of Mickey Kaus’ The End of Equality

Forgetting Henry Wallace, the real third-party candidate of 1948, History News Network, 2002

Dissent: An Unlikely Pragmatist

Click here to view the document Dissent: An Unlikely Pragmatist

Jim Sleeper, Biographical Sketch and CV

Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). His reportage and commentary have appeared in Harper’s, The New Republic, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Washington Monthly, Dissent, and many other publications. He has appeared several times each on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, the Charlie Rose show, and National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” and has been an occasional commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

As the New York City political columnist for the New York Daily News for three years during and after the pivotal 1993 mayoral campaign in which Rudolph Giuliani defeated the city’s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins, Sleeper anticipated and interpreted Giuliani’s victory in a widely noted series of columns on the city’s changing political culture, written across the eight months of the campaign. He had served earlier on the editorial board of New York Newsday (1988-1993) and was deputy-editor of its opinion section.

Sleeper is a member of the editorial board of Dissent, for which he edited In Search of New York (1987), a special edition re-published by Transaction Books, containing original essays by the quarterly’s founding editor, Irving Howe, as well as by Ada Louise Huxtable, Michael Harrington, Alfred Kazin, and many other distinguished contributors.

A Longmeadow, Massachusetts native and Yale College graduate (1969), Sleeper holds a doctorate in education from Harvard (1977). In the 1970s and ’80s, he taught urban studies and writing at Harvard and Queens Colleges and at New York University. In 1982-83 he was a Charles Revson Fellow at Columbia University, studying urban housing development. In 1998 he was a fellow at the Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

At Yale Sleeper has taught seminars on new conceptions of American national identity and on journalism, liberalism, and democracy.

Books

Liberal Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) (First edition published by
Viking/Penguin, 1997 and 1998).
The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York
(W. W. Norton & Co.), 1990; paperback (Norton), 1991.
In Search of New York (Transaction Books), 1988. Editor. An anthology of
reportage, essays, reminiscences, and photography.
The New Jews (Vintage paperback), 1971. Co-editor; essays by young religious
radicals of the time.

Chapters in Anthologies

Orwell Into the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Cushman and John Rodden, eds.
(Paradigm Press, 2005). Chapter: “Orwell’s Smelly Little Orthodoxies – and
Ours”

A Way Out, Owen Fiss, Joshua Cohen eds. (Princeton U. Press, 2003); Essay,
“Against Social Engineering,” a response to an “urban removal” manifesto by
Yale Law Professor. Owen Fiss.

One America?, Stanley Renshon, ed. (Georgetown U. Press, 2001). Essay:
“American National Identity in a Post-national Age.”

Empire City: New York Through the Centuries, Kenneth Jackson and David
Dunbar, eds. (Columbia U. Press, October, 2002). Chapter: “Boodling,
Bigotry, and Cosmopolitanism,” about New York City in the late 1980s.

Post-Mortem: The O.J. Verdict. Jeffrey Abramson, editor (Basic Books, 1996).
Essay, “Racial Theater,” about the public staging of the O.J. trial.

The New Republic Guide to the Candidates, 1996. Andrew Sullivan, editor
(Basic Books, 1996). Essay on Bill Bradley, the non-candidate, and his
concerns about civil society.

Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments, Paul Berman, editor (Delacorte,
1995). Chapter: “The Battle for Enlightenment at City College,” on CUNY
Prof. Leonard Jeffries and identity politics.

Debating Affirmative Action. Nicolaus Mills, editor. (Dell, 1994). Essay,
“Affirmative Action’s Outer Limits.”

Tikkun Anthology, Michael Lerner, editor, 1992. Essay, “Demagoguery in
America: Wrong Turns in the Politics of Race.” (One of the early, classic
critiques of identity politics in the American left.)

Teaching
(Adjunct and Lecturer only)

Harvard College, Expository Writing, 1975-76 (two one-semester courses)

Northeastern University, Sociology of American Literature, 1976 (one semester)

Queens College, Expository Writing, 1977-78 (two one-semester courses)

New York University, Metropolitan Studies Program, “Cities in Transition,” fall, 1985, and “Urban Housing,” spring, 1986

The Cooper Union, Humanities Department, “Race and Civil Society,” 1993

Yale College, Residential College Seminar, “New Conceptions of American National Identity,” fall, 1999.

Yale College, lecturer, Political Science Department, “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy,” spring, 2001, fall, 2002; “New Conceptions of American National Identity,” spring 2003, spring 2004, fall, 2004, spring 2006

(Yale student course evaluations, 2003 and 2004, below)

Journalism

Essayist, book reviewer, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post
National Public Radio, 1997-present. Occasional commentator, “All Things Considered.”
New York Daily News, 1993-96. Political columnist, op-ed page, twice a week;
covered city government and politics, race relations.
WCBS-TV “Sunday Edition”, New York “Reporters’
Roundtable,” regular panelist, 1994-1995
New York Newsday, 1988-93. Editorial board member; deputy editor, op-ed pg.
New York Observer, 1987-88. Columnist, op-ed page, city affairs.
Dissent, editorial board.
Village Voice, Prospect Press, City Limits, 1982-87. Freelance writer, columnist.
North Brooklyn Mercury, 1978-79. Editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper serving predominantly non-white neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Fort Greene.

Government

New York City Council President Carol Bellamy, 1979-82. Speechwriter.
U.S. Rep. Silvio Conte (R-MA), 1968. undergraduate intern, Capitol Hill office.

Looking For America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civic-republican grace in writing and public life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Came to This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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