Friday, December 17, 2004

 

Friday Blog Blogging

As a historian myself, I really appreciate this essay by Mark Schmitt:
The Politics of Renunication

Great minds may think alike, but it only counts if you get it written down in time. Story of my life. I've been puttering for a week on comments in response to Peter Beinart's New Republic essay calling for a more anti-terrorist Democratic Party modeled on postwar liberal anti-communism, but Josh Marshall yesterday wrote almost exactly what I had drafted and what was in my head, right down to the basic structure of the argument, only better put. So this will fortunately be a good deal shorter and perhaps just a gloss on Josh's comments.

As it is for Josh, the emergence of liberal anti-communism in the late 1940s, and the founding of Americans for Democratic Action, is a great foundational myth for me, so Beinart's invocation of the period almost has me hooked. I think there is a small school of thought emerging, which includes Josh and me and others, and in a different way Beinart, that is based on admiration of that era and that tendency, which has been out of fashion since the rise of the New Left and the disintegration of the liberal consensus in the late 60s. We finally have enough distance to draw some lessons from that era for our own time, much as some liberals of the last decade, such as E.J. Dionne, drew lessons from the Progressive Era. In that light, I'd like to strongly recommend a very new book: Kevin Mattson's When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism is a group biography of Reinhold Neibuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith and the less-remembered newspaper editor James Wechsler, with cameo appearances by some equally fascinating figures such as the popular historian and commentator Bernard DeVoto. Kevin is an intellectual historian at Ohio University and writes beautifully, and I suspect that this book will be a key document in this new appreciation of the postwar anti-communist liberals.

Of course, like all history, this is contested territory, so where Beinart treats postwar liberalism as if it were indistinguishable from Whitaker Chambers' Manichean view of a final battle for civilization, Mattson is equally attentive to domestic liberalism, civil rights, and the opposition to McCarthyism that was also prominent in the ADA view. They were not the soft anti-anti-communists who forgave or forgot communist influence in the CIO and Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign, but they understood the danger of demagoguery, alarmism and false accusations and false choices as well. We know what Galbraith and Schlesinger would say today because they are alive and wonderfully productive, though Beinart treats his heroes contemptuously when they don't help him, saying, "Schlesinger, ironically, has moved toward a softer liberalism later in life." Of the others, it's quite likely that they would be no less concerned with civil liberties than mainstream liberals are today, not so much at the expense of a fight on terror as in recognition that it's not helping. Just as Wechsler noted McCarthy's record of never identifying a single actual communist, they would note John Ashcroft's comparable record of failure to identify and prosecute a single al-Qaeda terrorist. The fact that the threat is real is all the more reason to resist false choices about it and opportunistic misuse of it.
(Boldface mine.)
Of course, as Josh points out well, the metaphor is just absurdly strained. "Islamic totalitarianism" is real, it's a threat, but it is not the same kind of threat as Soviet totalitarianism in the 1940s and 50s. Soviet communism dominated half of Europe and much of the rest of the world. It controlled parties and front groups throughout the world, including in the United States. The liberal anti-communists had to deal with actual communists, supported by the Kremlin, in American labor unions and political movements. Are there al-Qaeda sympathizers in danger of obtaining direct control of major institutions in the U.S. and other countries? Are there countries or populations living under the domination of al-Qaeda totalitarianism? To ask it is to answer it. Al Qaeda is a huge and monstrous gang. It "threatens millions" in one major sense: if it gets a nuclear weapon it will use it. That's a big deal, but it's a very different deal. The one and only thing, I think, would be to make sure that they don't get a nuclear weapon. Yes, we can and should also destroy the monstrous gang. But there's no reason to believe that al Qaeda is the only monstrous gang that might aspire to commit mass murders in the future, and the others may not even be Islamic.

If the argument is about some definition of "totalitarianism" bigger than al-Qaeda itself -- Saudi Arabia, Pakistan's leadership, Syria, the Palestinian leadership, Iran, some big worldview thing -- then I'd at least want to know what it is. What tangible policy choice should we be advocating that most Democrats do not currently advocate, if we want to take Beinart's path?

The only clear thing I see is the politics of renunciation. Beinart asks us as Democrats to renounce and excommunicate moveon.org, Michael Moore, and anyone who was uncomfortable with the use of force in Afghanistan. The politics of renouncing is, like, so late '80s. Democrats were always facing demands to renounce Jesse Jackson, and Jackson was constantly confronted with demands to renounce whatever third-string black nationalist was stirring up attention that week with a "kill whitie" chant, as if Jackson was somehow responsible for everything that another black person said. It was offensive and there's no end to it. Bill Clinton finally renounced the rapper and writer Sister Souljah, as a proxy for renouncing Jackson, thus adding a phrase to the lexicon that long outlasted the brief flame of Lisa Williamson's celebrity, but that is probably the only renunciation that had any political value, although it was trivial and contrived.

As for Michael Moore - who, incidentally, supported one of the presidential candidates that Beinart rather arbitrarily identifies as more "serious about terrorism, General Clark - earlier I mentioned Kevin Mattson, author of the new book about postwar liberalism. As it turns out, Kevin has also written about Moore, critically, but with much more subtlety than Beinart. As he sees it, the problem with Moore isn't that he's soft on terror, but that "his own lampooning tendencies, his vulgar materialism, his tendency toward cynicism about American politics, his contempt for all the 'dumb guys' we have to convince" reflects a takeover of entertainment culture in political debate. I recommend it as a good example of the kind of serious, thoughtful criticism that would have improved Beinart's essay.
I love Schmitt's ability to distinguish the similarities from the differences between the current situation and the post-World War II era. I also like that he points out that McCarthy never identified a single real Communist in the government and Ashcroft never convicted a single real terrorist. I especially love the line, "The fact that the threat is real is all the more reason to resist false choices about it and opportunistic misuse of it." Amen. You wish this would resonate more strongly with bully-boys like Hannity and O'Reilly, for whom everything, really, is just a club to beat anyone they don't like with.

That said, muscular liberalism is what got us into Vietnam. Kennedy was a pure Cold Warrior and Johnson even more so. What Vietnam should have taught us was that maybe, just maybe, we can't rule the world. We triumphed in World War II, yes, partially because Japan had overstretched itself (and so had Germany) and because the Soviet Union was willing to truly bear any burden and pay any price to kick the Nazis out. But that did not mean we could win any war, and it still doesn't.

Michael Moore is just another filmmaker, albeit one with a gift for self-promotion. But even seeing him as a metaphor for the Democrats' being stereotyped as soft on national security is too much; casting him as actually responsible for the party's ills is ridiculous. Strong liberalism runs the risk of becoming left-wing Republicanism, and that's the last thing we need. We need smarter Democrats - okay, what we really need is a smarter press and public, but we're not gonna get that - we need Democrats who can look at the world as it is and make proposals based on what it really needs - not on whether or not Michael Moore will approve or the Republicans will make fun of us.
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Comments: "
Cool blog you have going here, I will check in often! I have a similar site about girl fashion game. It pretty much covers girl fashion game related stuff.
 
" "
Blast your Ad to 13,000+ Real Blog Sites!
 
" "
I like your blog, I found it looking for google blog. Could you add it to my favourite blog directory please. It has lots of blogs relating to google blog
 
" "
Have you listed your blog in a blog directory?

"scott keiths blog" is what I used to find your blog on google

scott keiths blog
 
" "
nice blog enjoyed it :)

Keep up the excellent work! and i bookmarked u!
!
 
" "
I just came across your blog about search engine and wanted to drop you a note telling you how impressed I was with the information you have posted here. I also have a web site about search engine so I know I'm talking about when I say your site is top-notch! Keep up the great work, you are providing a great resource on the Internet here!
 
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