Hawks in the rain

August 22, 2010

Like the proverbial poor, well-meaning warmongers we have always with us.

Salon’s Jordan Smith reminds us, in a useful mini-essay, that the spirit of bloody do-gooderism never dies away. Behold these quotes:

“A lot of liberals are still caught in habits of thinking that were formed during Vietnam,” says [Jeffrey] Herf, a historian who supported the Iraq war. “Guys like me and Paul [Berman], Leon Wieseltier and Marty Peretz — we have moved on.”

Now here’s a quote from the same guy, later on in the essay:

“If Iran gets a nuclear bomb, we will have a crossed a threshold,” Herf says. The Persian nation will have proved to the world you can thumb your nose at the U.S. and the U.N. and the international community and succeed, he says. “As a historian of Nazi Germany, I’ve learned that when leaders say lunatic things, they mean them.”

In other words, he’s one of those guys still caught in habits of thinking that were formed by World War II, and hasn’t moved on. The trick is to pick the right war, you see.

Or, as Wieseltier wrote recently: “If I had known that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I would not have supported the war; but I do not, for that reason, believe that the Iraq war has been a catastrophe for Iraq and its region, or that the Iraq war is all or most of what we need to know about America’s role in the world, or that the Iraq war should be promoted into the primal scene for all subsequent American foreign policy.”

Like most practiced liars, Wieseltier hides his rancid truths behind a pedantic style, in which double negatives and pointless qualifiers (“I would not have supported, but I do not believe,” “for that reason,” “all or most”) rub away at his sentence until it emerges practically devoid of meaning. Most of these Atlantic/New Republic twerps speak in a kind of perky, mock-casual patois (“I almost hate to do this to a guy who feels so bad, but he’s massively over-reading the lessons of this episode”), but Wieseltier’s tone is grave and professorial. He wouldn’t want you to think he’s not a Serious Person, for God’s sake. One longs for the brashness of a genuine con-man, the blatant lying of an old-fashioned carnie — anything but this adenoidal agony.

The background to these remarks is the potential — which fortunately isn’t much of a potential — for a U.S. intervention against Iran. In a recent Atlantic cover story, Jeffrey Goldberg did his best to make the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran — the dream of the most right-wing of right-wing Israeli nationalists — seem like nothing more than yet another Reasonable Option On The Table, perhaps the most Reasonable Option of them all. This anonymous exchange sums it up very well:

One Arab foreign minister told me that he believes Iran is taking advantage of Obama’s “reasonableness.”

“Obama’s voters like it when the administration shows that it doesn’t want to fight Iran, but this is not a domestic political issue,” the foreign minister said. “Iran will continue on this reckless path, unless the administration starts to speak unreasonably. The best way to avoid striking Iran is to make Iran think that the U.S. is about to strike Iran.

Imagine an elected official of the United States daring to consider the wishes of mere “voters” as if they mattered as much as the views of right-wing Israeli politicians!

The truly incredible thing about these remarks is that they reveal that the last decade has changed nothing in the minds of certain influential ideologues, even as it has stunned the rest of the country into being more suspicious of foreign interventions than it’s been in nearly a century. In the minds of these “liberal hawks,” war is always an option “on the table,” to be used not as a last but as a first resort if it gets the job done. (“The job” to be done varies from protecting Israel, a powerful country with a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East that is somehow forever on the brink of total annihiliation; to stabilizing the global order, whatever that is.) What unites them is scorn for the boring world of domestic affairs. Like the anonymous Israeli foreign minister, they couldn’t care less about what goes on in America, with its 7-Elevens and zone ordinances. “I care most about foreign affairs,” snapped Martin Peretz this year, “and my party does not give a damn.” Oh, but they do, Mr. Peretz, even if your definition of giving a damn is sending others to hell.

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans oppose the Afghanistan War. Foreign Affairs magazine ran a brilliant series of articles in the wake of Obama’s 2009 promise to “finish the job” that demonstrated, beyond all doubt, that the war was unwinnable. In fact, calling it unwinnable is somewhat misleading because it fails to suggest just how ridiculous the idea of “winning” this occupation is in the first place; “winning” would require us to leave behind a completely different country. A country that can’t even afford to keep playgrounds and public pools open during the summer isn’t likely to come up with another Marshall Plan. Yet the war continues, because Serious People want it.

It’s astonishing how little shame these self-proclaimed “liberals” feel about being implicated in the despicable act of sending American soldiers off to die — and kill people — for the sake of a trifle. But they channel what shame they feel into a kind of nauseating public display of hand-wringing “thoughtfulness.” Their usual routine is to pound the war drums along with everybody else and then belatedly moan about “mistakes” that were made, regret that their war wasn’t sufficiently “planned” enough, then ultimately dismiss it as a “blunder,” a mere anomaly in a long stream of stunning interventionist successes. The ever-unpredictable Joe Klein, a centrist among centrists, recently took it into his head to rashly promise that he would never support any war “unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again.” To which one of The New Republic’s apparatchiks, Jonathan Chait, riposted that Klein had “over-learned the lesson” of the Iraq War:

Klein’s argument that “we should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack” is a pretty extreme position. It would rule out not just the intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, but also the Gulf War, the Korean War, and going to war against Germany in World War II, not to mention obviously Vietnam and World War I. Probably the only wars such a standard would permit would be fighting Japan in World War II and, arguably, the War of 1812.

This statement is actually false, since Nazi Germany declared war on the U.S., but what an incredible idea — that opposing war except as a last resort is an “extreme position.” It seems to be the overwhelming sentiment of most Americans, which explains why the Bush Administration spent nearly a year bombarding them with propaganda in 2002 and 2003 before daring to launch their war. It seems, incidentally, to be the position of just about everyone who ever actually fought in a war. (Chait, who seems to have had little existence outside the world of the Washington liberal intelligentsia, is not among them. Neither is Jeffrey Herf, Paul Berman, Leon Wieseltier, or Martin Peretz. Or Jeffrey Goldberg or Joe Klein. Once upon a time, wars were fought by Chaits and Hefs and Bermans and you and me and everyone else; now they’re fought by kids who want to pay for college.)

But that extreme position, like certain other “extreme” positions that happen to be held by a majority of Americans (like tolerance of abortion), is an entirely reasonable one. Leaving aside the War of 1812 as an inevitable, belated confrontation with the British Empire, the United States has only been attacked twice: by the right-wing southern secessionists in 1861 and the Axis Powers in 1941. A non-interventionist position need not be a pacifist one (though that is an entire honorable position as well). That America, with the largest military in history and a long line of politicians who regard war as a quick way to distract disgruntled voters, is not continually consumed by three Vietnams at once is a testament to the fact that we still retain our basic gut feeling that war ought to be a last resort.

What is the point, you may ask, of paying attention to such a pack of obvious fools? The reason is that these poltroons, buzzing around and around the realm of Serious Persons like so many enraged wasps, have far more of a chance of being heard in the enclaves of our rulers than the plain, unamplified voices of any of us. They are affected by reality not at all, because they are barely part of it; the falling of bombs in a distant land, the progress of which is observed with keen interest on their BlackBerries, affect them less than whether it will rain on them tomorrow. So it is with most of us; the difference is that we do not clamor for bombs to take away the mundanity of living in a land of 7-Elevens and zone ordinances.

Farewell, reform; hello, triangulation.

December 22, 2009

Here’s President Obama today:

Obama said the public option “has become a source of ideological contention between the left and right.” But, he added, “I didn’t campaign on the public option.”

And here’s what he said last year:

…the Obama plan will: (1) establish a new public insurance program available to Americans who neither qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP nor have access to insurance through their employers, as well as to small businesses that want to offer insurance to their employees.

In fact, here’s what his campaign website promised:

Offers a public health insurance option to provide the uninsured and those who can’t find affordable coverage with a real choice.


Through the Exchange, any American will have the opportunity to enroll in the new public plan or an approved private plan… The Exchange will require that all the plans offered are at least as generous as the new public plan and meet the same standards for quality and efficiency.

As usual, Obama framed his triangulating as sensible centrism, pretending that he opposes the extremes of left and right alike. Why, then, did this eminently sensible, cool-headed, unflappable non-extremist prominently include support for a public option among his campaign promises? And why is this crackpot, extremist, highly unsensible public option favored by most Americans? In October:

Americans remain sharply divided about the overall packages moving closer to votes in Congress and President Obama’s leadership on the issue, reflecting the partisan battle that has raged for months over the administration’s top legislative priority. But sizable majorities back two key and controversial provisions: both the so-called public option and a new mandate that would require all Americans to carry health insurance.

Independents and senior citizens, two groups crucial to the debate, have warmed to the idea of a public option, and are particularly supportive if it would be administered by the states and limited to those without access to affordable private coverage.

That was two months ago. Where do things stand today, now that most Americans “mostly disapprove of” the neutered health care bill that just passed through the Senate? This way:

While voters oppose the health care plan, they back two options cut from the Senate bill, supporting 56 – 38 percent giving people the option of coverage by a government health insurance plan and backing 64 – 30 percent allowing younger people to buy into Medicare.

How to explain this disparity? Simple: A majority of Americans clearly understand that without a public option “to keep insurance companies honest,” as Nancy Pelosi herself put it, this “reform” bill is just another bailout, another massive government subsidy for big business. The difference is that insurance companies hold an even more terrifying power over ordinary Americans than do banks. It’s mildly awe-inspiring that, after a year of being told that a public health care option will bring about another Cultural Revolution, the majority of Americans remain level-headed about the issue.

What can Obama do now? Well, there is one thing he can do: He can wage a full-blooded political war to get the public option restored in committee, by urging Americans to put pressure on their senators to support it. A sustained outcry from the citizenry could conceivably put the fear of God into enough senators to restore it. But it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll do that. Both Howard Dean and Russell Feingold have put the blame for the public option’s disappearance from the bill on Obama, with Feingold declaring that “the lack of support from the administration made keeping the public option in the bill an uphill struggle.” And in politics, as Obama ought to know, not to support something is to effectively oppose it, just as not opposing something is effectively supporting it. As Arendt put it, politics isn’t the nursery.

President Obama may be a lot of things, but he’s no fighter. He’s made that eminently clear with his surrender to what might politely be called “politics as usual” on one issue after another. Guantanamo, habeas corpus rights, Afghanistan — on the one hand, there was what the citizens wanted, but on the other hand, there was what the Washington establishment and the money power wanted. Of course, he has again and again opted for the latter, usually with a long, eloquent, apologetic speech addressed to the former. Now he’s on the verge of sacrificing the well-being of every American for the sake of “politics as usual.” Ironically enough, that was the very thing every American who voted for him thought they were voting to kill.

“Probably a clinical narcissist.”

October 6, 2009

What is it that makes ordinary columnists decide to hand out medical diagnoses as if they were licensed practitioners? Lust for perpetual fame, no doubt. This week, Marty Peretz of The New Republic suspects that Obama is “probably a clinical narcissist.” Coming so soon after the death of the late William Safire — whose most famous moment came when he dubbed Hillary Clinton “a congenital liar,” prompting Bill Clinton to threaten to punch him in the nose — it’s hard not to wonder if Peretz is trying to get his name in the obituaries. Not his own, but the president’s: Mr. Obama’s first year in office was turbulent. One prominent publisher called him “a clinical narcissist.” Nice try, but it doesn’t pack the wallop of “congenital liar,” which may well wind up somewhere in the first three paragraphs of Clinton’s farewell.

Incidentally, reading that Safire column today — with its blizzard of now-incomprehensible references to Whitewater — is a surreal experience. No wonder politics in the ’90s seemed so boring. Every episode of “Meet the Press” must have sounded like this:

NELSON: My old man can’t get a beer because his old man won’t give a bear to another old man! Let’s get him!
JIMBO: Wait! Why are we getting him?

Farewell to the ‘godfather.’

September 19, 2009

Arts and Letters Daily, your daily nudge in the ideological ribs, today links to a bunch of fawning encomiums to the late Irving Kristol, dead Friday after a lifetime of boosting “neoconservatism,” a term he himself coined.

The best I can say of Mr. Kristol is that he wasn’t Norman Podhoretz (my vote for the single worst American “intellectual” of the last century, a man utterly without redeeming value), and that he wasn’t his odious son Bill Kristol, whose know-it-all smirk will probably continue to blight the cable news channels for decades to come. But to read these tributes — offset by not even one dissenting voice, unless the New York Times’s chatty, disinterested obit counts — you’d never guess that Kristol’s “ideas” had been utterly disastrous. Their consequences, virtually without exception, have led to ruin. These “ideas” were not based on “reality,” as well-meaning Andrew Sullivan puts it today; they were based on a cranky and misanthropic view of humankind and a barely-concealed adoration of state power.

There was one thing Kristol shared with his conservative offspring: tolerance for the most degraded populism. “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocably anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.” That’s Kristol in 1952. Since the “spokesmen for American liberalism” presumably included the Truman administration, which had just dragged the United States into a horrific and bloody war in the name of preventing the spread of communism from one puny Asian nation to another, we are entitled to doubt Kristol’s sincerity. We can be excused, perhaps, for thinking him an opportunist and a liar.

Unlike, say, William F. Buckley, who never abandoned his lifelong suspicion of government power, Kristol only disliked an overweening state when it did something he didn’t like. In truth, Kristol and his neoconservatives never quit being “Trotskyites.” They continued to harbor contempt for the ignorant masses and call for the enforced return to the old Victorian virtues. Beneath the neoconservatives’ professed disdain for programs that might help ordinary people lay a barely concealed terror of what might happen to their own social status and specialness — their closeness to the crooks in power — were the ugly masses to ever rouse themselves and overthrow the ruling class, as the fundamental principles of the Republic itself dictated. That is why neoconservatives sided with the authoritarian Nixon administration over the mild-mannered McGovern campaign in 1972. What did Nixon’s attempt to wield dictatorial powers matter, when his opponent’s faction included gays and feminists?

Kristol was the quintessential American intellectual. He pretended to lionize the virtues of “ordinary people” while detesting everything about them. He complained about the overblown state while dining at the White House and accusing war opponents of hating America. He was a man who complained about liberals ignoring reality and then helped foist supply-side economics on the country, ruining the economy in the early ’80s and wrecking God only knows how many lives. As Newt Gingrich himself acknowledged today, Kristol’s true legacy was the malicious and hypocritical modern Right, which drowns itself in social issues (gay marriage, abortion rights, pornography) and applauds official spying while pretending to disdain government intervention into private life.

What remains of the conservative “movement”? Nothing save apologies for the Republican Party, which has done its best to uproot and obliterate political liberty and blight the hopes of ordinary people for three decades, replacing the Republic with a brutal Spartan state in which military triumph is the highest of all virtues and individual dissent “treason.” No wonder they called Kristol the “godfather.”

The future is unwritten.

September 2, 2009

Should we measure a president by his cultural impact, or by his political decisions? Judging by the country’s reaction to Obama, we’ve decided on the former. The Right’s pseudo-populist assault on “Obamanomics,” despite some lone voices of principle, reeks of desperation. The New York Times’ current nonfiction Top Ten bestseller list includes no fewer than four right-wing attacks on Obama, but there’s something second-hand and shoddy about the bile-slinging — as with Reagan, most of the attacks bounce off the president’s smile. The crazy conviction with which the Right attacked Clinton (a conviction made all the crazier by Clinton’s gradual swerve to the right himself) isn’t here. If Obama weren’t trying to steerhead a change in the country’s health care policy even he admits is radical, these books would plummet to earth unread.

The Left, meanwhile, attacks Obama from the left — and the rest of the country meanders somewhere in the middle, still unwilling to feel too cynical toward the man. The magic of the election and the inauguration hasn’t quite lifted — above all, perhaps, of that night when Obama began: “It’s been a long time coming … but change has come to America.” Even those who didn’t recognize the allusion to Sam Cooke’s great 1964 single “A Change is Gonna Come” — a sermon of sorts that seems bolder and louder and more wrenching and joyful every time you hear it, so firm and unyielding that you can’t believe segregation lasted a second longer than its release date — felt the chill and grace of that moment. The much-lampooned word “change” itself, so empty and meaningless in political speeches for years, at last meant what it said. Every syllable hammered a nail into the coffin of the distant evil of the American past, the evil that still made its presence known when anonymous McCain supporters barked out “He’s an Arab!” (“Arab,” here, stood in for a term that no Obama-hater would have dared say in public.)

Already that moment seems strange and far away. Obama has proved himself every bit the “pragmatist” he campaigned as. Already it’s easy to be reminded of the hints — his tacit alliance with Boss Daley, his praise for Truman’s “sensible” foreign policy. We never should have expected Obama to be Russ Feingold — if we did, we allowed ourselves to be taken over by the wondrousness of the moment. I did that myself. The Obama who confessed that Malcolm X’s autobiography spoke more deeply to him than any other book and the Obama who complained about the “smallness of our politics” are the same person as the man who looks to each side during his speeches and then, slyly, indicates that he isn’t really in the club with either of those crazy extremes, even though he perfectly understands where they’re coming from, because after all, America is… And on, and on, and on, and on.

But if Obama is (probably) a deeply safe sort of politician, the response to him isn’t safe or predictable at all. He’s sent surges of political hope through the populace of a sort that haven’t been felt in a long time — not since the progressive era, perhaps. He’s ended a political regime whose daily message, delivered with cold relentlessness, was that some people didn’t belong in the country. That is not nothing.

Ever since the inauguration, with the painstaking scrutiny and unforgiving relentlessness of Tom Paine (who blasted George Washington himself as a tyrant), Glenn Greenwald has tracked Obama’s political achievements and betrayals with the assumption that none of this matters, that a president (like any politician) should be judged by his deeds alone. Reading him, I sometimes feel my skepticism slumping, something in me rebelling against this assumption. Surely this isn’t all Obama is, I’ll think — surely his good qualities add up to more than a prudent stance on Iran, a couple of good speeches here and there. But how does one measure a gut feeling? Does it have any real-world relevance at all?

Writing in Dissent, Charles Taylor damned Obama’s critics for failing to see the mystic aspect of the president, the side that no political critique could possibly touch:

Just like those rock fans who approach music as if they were English majors, looking for the significance in lyrics, there are disappointed and cynical white pundits who believe Obama, like any other president, should be judged by his decisions alone. … Do Greenwald, Sirota, et al, grasp that those who believe Obama stands for something beyond the sum of his decisions are not all blind Democratic loyalists or starry-eyed disciples? Judging politics by listing each action on a balance sheet to see how it adheres to the catechism, much of the left seems unable to comprehend the visionary aspect of politics. The vision that emerges from their journalism is the clichéd and puny view that politicians are finally members of the establishment representing the same small and powerful set of vested interests.

This is an extremely seductive view — the view that critics are always missing something, some intangible thing that can’t be reached through regular channels, but only through the subjective lens of culture, of sex and race and everything and anything but politics. (Taylor, by the way, is the former movie critic for Salon who declared that anyone who couldn’t see the genius of Brian DePalma’s flop “Mission to Mars” was only parading his ignorance of the cinema.) It’s seductive and it’s dangerous, because it means suspending our disbelief to the point of childishness. If politics means the use of power, then “the visionary aspect of politics” is nothing more than boilerplate, apologist hooey. Rereading this passage, I’m inclined to think it is.

And yet.

I’d be lying if I said I was sure what Obama would look like three years from now. If he fails to pass health-care reform, the fallout throughout the country — the fury and despondency — would be shattering. If foreign crises come upon him unbidden, that could change the entire game — as it did for so many other presidents before him. So I won’t pretend I have any settled impression of him or an opinion that couldn’t change in a week. For the first time in decades, politics doesn’t seem hopeless — and that is not nothing.

So long, Sarah.

July 5, 2009

Sarah Palin is threatening to sue her critics for defamation. Apparently anyone who speculates out loud about her decision to abruptly resign, who fails to take yesterday’s bizarre and rambling statement at face value, is opening himself (or herself) up to a lawsuit:

Van Flein’s letter threatening legal action specifically pointed the finger at Alaska blogger Shannyn Moore as “most notably” claiming as “fact” that Palin resigned under federal investigation.

Van Flein, asked why he singled out Moore, said it’s because she went on national television and talked about it. (emphasis mine — ed.) Moore was on with MSNBC’s David Shuster on Friday, the day Palin said she will resign.

Van Flein wrote that his letter “is to provide notice to Ms. Moore, and those who re-publish this defamation, such as Huffington Post, MSNBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post, that the Palins will not allow them to propagate defamatory material without answering to this in a court of law.”

The New York Times and Washington Post haven’t written anything about this, but Van Flein said he believed they were asking questions. “What I’ve been informed is that they’ve been interviewing people in Wasilla about this, and have tried to interview the governor’s parents about it,” Van Flein said.

Were Palin a figure of any authority, this would amount to an all-out attack on the very practice of journalism — and an imperial decree: Thou shalt not investigate. Had things gone differently last November, this woman would be installed at the center of the executive branch of the United States, her hands firmly grasping the controls of a much-expanded vice presidency with seemingly limitless authority. But things didn’t go differently, and Palin is, thankfully, in no position to do harm to hapless bloggers — even those who dare to “go on TV and talk about her.” She is a public figure — a person whom it is, by legal definition, nearly impossible to “defame” — and now out of office, no longer capable of enforcing any of her whims at the point of a gun.

I wonder how many of Palin’s sometime supporters will now acknowledge that this woman was grossly unqualified for her office — not merely the one she aspired to, but the one she held. She never showed even the slightest awareness of the most basic thing any public figure must know — something even Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton know: You have to take criticism. Criticism is part of the job description. And you open yourself up to speculation — even damaging, unfair, mean-spirited speculation. Because the alternative is tyranny. Imagine if Bill Clinton had tried to put the Drudge Report out of business, or sued Christopher Hitchens for libel. Imagine a world where he could.

It’s doubtful Palin would understand that. This is the same person who tried to launch a national campaign to stop a late-night talk show host from telling corny jokes about her. But she’s gone now, and good riddance.

Another Declaration.

July 4, 2009

In July 1979, Walter Karp published his great essay “Republican Virtues” (also known as “The Two Americas”). He published it at a time when the radical Right — the neoconservatives, dedicated as Karp writes to founding a new religion based on “consecration to the State” — were preparing to seize the country, which had been drifting away from its nationist moorings for more than a decade. The signs of nascent republicanism — demands for government transparency, for election reforms, and above all for a modest foreign policy — had put genuine fear into the country’s rulers. A people that loudly demanded two presidents’ dismissal — wartime presidents — was no longer safe for them to rule. Something had to be done, and the new republicanism would be throttled first in the humiliation and destruction of a Democratic president who spoke of the task of “citizens,” and the exaltation and triumph of a Republican president who blamed “government” for all our ills, and then reminded us of a “government right to confidentiality.” America, declared the neoconservatives, was “proud” again, and “free,” too, free of its own sacred traditions — no longer at risk of being subverted by its own republican principles.

Against so much perverting and defaming of “patriotism,” Karp wrote his essay as a sort of Declaration of Independence. He declared independence from leftists and rightists alike, finding his roots in the half-forgotten principles of the republic itself — the principles that had nothing to do with flags or fireworks. I still remember the first time I read his concluding paragraphs, shivering as I recognized in them thoughts I had always held but never quite been able to put into words. The whole essay deserves reading — and rereading, should you be so moved — but the final paragraphs sum it up. They continue to be the most succinct and powerful statement of republicanism I have ever read.

The republic is more than our form of government plus a few rudimentary maxims and memories. It embodies a profound principle of political action — an “energizing” principle, as Jefferson called it. It is supposed to operate at all times and under all conditions against oligarchy, special privilege, and arbitrary power. The energizing principle is the preservation and perfecting of self-government, the securing to each citizen of an equal voice in his own government. That grand object, as Lincoln once said, we must as republicans constantly strive for, constantly try to “approximate” even if we can never perfectly achieve it. Without its energizing principle a republic becomes a hollow form, or still worse, a ponderous hindrance.

Yet it is a truly burdensome principle to live by. It is easier to be servile than free, easier to submit to the rule of a few than to keep up the endless struggle for self-rule. It is easier to fight enemies abroad than to fight for the republic at home. That is why the virtue of virtues in a republic, as Montesquieu long ago observed, is the citizens’ love of the republic — “to be jealous of naught save the republican character of their country,” as the Workingmen’s party put it 150 years ago when it campaigned for free public schools in America. That is why the enemies of popular self-government have striven to erect and strengthen the rival cult of the nation, by war if possible, by the menace of war when there is a perilous lull in the fighting. It is the only way to undermine the people’s love of the republic and subvert among the citizenry themselves its energizing principle.

In the name of the nation, that undermining goes on unceasingly. It is the reason why the one thing never taught in our free public schools is “to be jealous of naught save the republican character” of our country. In my own schooldays we learned more about Betsy Ross and the wonders of the Panama Canal than we did about Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is no longer celebrated in a dozen states that once paid his memory that homage. Above all, it is the reason why what old Henry Cabot Lodge called the “large” foreign policy — the policy of having a busy foreign policy — has governed our foreign affairs for so many long years. It is precisely the “large” policy that keeps the nation alive and the republic in twilight.

In defense of conspiracy theories (sort of).

June 13, 2009

The neoconservatives’ rise to power in the early part of this decade was accompanied by a stranger phenomenon, the rise of the “neoleftists.” These strange creatures were steeped in the beliefs and principles of the Left, but found themselves tumbling out a different exit than most other self-described leftists. They thought of the Iraq War in particular as a noble people’s struggle against Middle Eastern fascism, more like the Spanish Civil War than Vietnam. All of them devised different means of explaining away the fact that most people who shared their basic principles found this war abhorrent. Christopher Hitchens came up with the novel argument that “doing nothing is also an intervention,” and that hence the Iraq War was simply reversing a bad “intervention” (leaving Saddam Hussein in power) in favor of a good, progressive one. Paul Berman decided that leftists were simply not capable of recognizing irrational mass movements anymore, and hence incapable of seeing the self-evident righteousness of the struggle against “Islamo-fascism.” Nick Cohen, a British writer, thinks our minds are too muddled by “conspiracy theories” to be able to see it.

Cohen’s article, poorly written and tastelessly accompanied by a picture of the exploding Twin Towers, is notable only for two reasons. First, it’s linked to on Arts and Letters Daily (why?), so numerous smart people will read it. Second, it provides yet another example of a tendency so widespread we ought to invent a name for it: Dismissing a charge of political maneuvering for profit or ill as a “conspiracy theory.”

The reason for the popularity of this move is obvious. Calling something a “conspiracy theory” instantly reduces the level of the entire conversation. It implies that your opponent is fundamentally an unserious person, and that politics itself is not to be taken too seriously. Your opponent is not a genuine political thinker but a person led astray by some sad mental ailment. Really, your opponent is more to be pitied than opposed, since his arguments are so self-evidently unfounded. “Their delusions impose a comforting coherence on the mess of life and randomness of death,” Cohen explains. He includes the notion that “the Bush and Blair administrations knew in advance that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction worthy of the name but lied and went to war under a false prospectus” among these “delusions,” right up there with the “Princess Di was murdered” conspiracy. Has he read the Downing Street Memo? Probably, but what chance have mere facts got compared to how lame all those anti-war protesters looked?

The stumbling block to this ever-useful rhetorical move is that conspiracies do exist. Strictly speaking, a conspiracy simply means a plan by a group of people in private to do something for an end that they cannot justify in public. This perfectly describes the actions of the Bush Administration in the year leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Calling it a “conspiracy” may summon up visions of John Birch pamphlets, but it is also an entirely accurate description. Politicians do scheme for advantage, both political and private; judging by the Iraq War, their schemes can have far-reaching and devastating consequences. Bush wasn’t even the first president to drag the United States into war on a made-up pretext; Lyndon Johnson beat him to the punch by 40 years. To assume that politicians always have our best interests at heart isn’t merely naive; it contradicts most of our history.

This tendency also stands in sharp contrast to our willingness to praise politicians for maneuvering for good ends. Last year, Hillary Clinton was fond of citing LBJ’s political savvy, which surely helped him pass the most important civil rights legislation of the century. Did Johnson’s passing of the Voting Rights Act make up for his lies about the Gulf of Tonkin? We can’t know, since that “conspiracy,” being an example of political savvy put to distasteful ends, never comes up these days, although it couldn’t be more relevant in these days of Nick Cohens and Robert Kagans, shaking hands across the political spectrum and fully agreed on the pathetic mental delusions of the ignorant, contemptible masses.

When a body meets a body…

June 5, 2009

Since he’s largely to blame for me beiing a writer in the first place, I can’t help but pay attention when the great J.D. Salinger emerges from his self-imposed silence. This time he’s trying to put the kibosh on, of all things, some schmuck’s attempt to write a sequel to Catcher in the Rye. 

Since Salinger, according to a number of sources, refers to his characters as if they were real people, it’s understandable that he’d react to this invasion of his literary space with as much fury as he reacts to invasion of his property. This puritanical attitude is visible even to people who haven’t read him: Unlike virtually every other book in the world, the Salinger books boast no bright covers, no illustrations, no “about the author” sections. The only hint that these books were written by an actual person, living or dead, comes in those coy dedications that preface the later books, or that winked from the original dust jackets. 

The reason this hasn’t discouraged people from wanting to know more about the author is, of course, the inimitable voice of the books themselves. Holden Caulfield may be one of the most convincing human beings in fiction, but we can still sense Salinger’s presence — at once appalled and loving — behind him, while some of the later stories all but dispense with plot and character altogether and give us the author’s uncensored voice. Salinger has a way of seizing on the small, absurd details of the universe — like Holden’s pointless irritation at his old roommate who “was always hanging stuff up in the closet” — and phrasing them in a way that never leaves you. 

Unlike almost every other major artist of the century, Salinger sought to remove himself, as much as possible, from a reader’s perception of his work. He seems to have aspired to the kind of two-sentence biography enjoyed by Shakespeare. Had he lived a century or two before, he might have gotten away with it. But in the age of celebrity, Salinger’s reclusiveness seemed too much like a “come-on,” as his ill-fated biographer Ian Hamilton put it, to pass up. Thanks to Hamilton — and a couple of tell-all memoirs — we now know rather too much about Salinger for comfort. Few of the “revelations” add much to our appreciation of the books, since Salinger seems to have never discussed his writing with anyone, even family members. 

The miracle is that the work holds up, and stands apart from the legend. Nine Stories is as perfect a short-story collection as anyone has ever written, and the Glass stories — with their charming blend of the elliptical and the comic-tragic — are much better than anyone gave them credit for at the time. As for Catcher, it’s a perfect novel buried under an avalanche of attention (and poor teaching). We should ban it, like those school boards in Alabama often suggest, and come back to it in sixty years; that line about the guy who’s always hanging stuff up in the closet will still be hilarious.

Democracy vs. judicial fiat?

May 28, 2009

As reluctant as I am to agree with a Wall Street Journal editorial about anything, they’re right about the California Supreme Court’s ruling on the gay marriage initiative. It’s been bizarre to hear liberals suggest that the judiciary has any right to reverse the democratically expressed will of the people. If the California court had overturned Prop 8, it would have made a mockery of the entire initiative system. If we’re going to have initiatives at all — and I’m strongly in favor of them, for all the awful propositions I’ve voted against — we’d better stick by their results until the next election, or start waiting for the state courts to jump on the results of every progressive decision from here on out.

The best way to legalize same-sex marriage is to allow the people to make up their own minds on a state-by-state basis. Imposing it on the entire nation by “judicial fiat,” as the WSJ puts it, would be as self-defeating as banning it by fiat. Unfortunately, this strategy means that same-sex marriage isn’t going to pass for some time in a lot of states. But it’s only a matter of time. Society is moving fairly rapidly in the direction of total acceptance of the notion of same-sex marriage — right-wing urgency on the issue doesn’t mean that liberals are on the verge of forcing gay marriage on an unwilling electorate, but that the electorate is on the verge of turning its back on a right-wing policy.