Posts Tagged ‘Walter Karp’

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.

Hannah Arendt revisited.

April 6, 2009

If I had to pick the best political thinkers of the century, Hannah Arendt would have to top the list. No one else — not even my personal journalistic hero, Walter Karp — ever asked so many original questions, and delved so deep into the answers. More than a mere philosopher, Arendt was “a storyteller, like a guide in the catacombs of history,” as Greil Marcus put it. Immensely well-read, she picked her way through each essay as if cliches were land mines, ever on the hunt for whatever it was she really thought.

Her writing is lucid enough, but it often takes me several rereadings to figure out what she meant; the flow of her argument sometimes seems more fanciful than logical, as if she were leaping from point to point without pausing to make logical connections. In her 1963 masterpiece, On Revolution, she dreams her way back into the French and American Revolutions in search of their meaning, and comes up with answers that no academic scholar — or Marxist — would ever countenance. Does that mean they were wrong? To paraphrase a much-overquoted movie line, is academia equipped to handle the truth?

The true mark of Arendt’s power and originality is that she remains, to a surprising degree, detested. I’ve been thinking about her because I just stumbled on a remembrance of her by the poet Robert Lowell, and it’s a remarkable piece, as generous and understanding as virtually every other piece about Arendt I’ve read has been prissy and judgmental. And it’s beautifully written. Lowell’s account of how he got lost on his way to Arendt’s apartment the first time he went there reminds me more of my own impressions of New York City than anything else I’ve ever read, and it’s only a paragraph long.

He also remembers a terrifying moment. In 1963, Arendt wrote a remarkable book about Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was seized and put on trial in Jerusalem that year. The book, which Arendt once admitted she wrote “in a curious state of euphoria,” pursued Eichmann’s career as a thoughtless bureaucrat with deadpan relish. You read the book’s cool collecting and recounting of facts with a growing sense of helplessness, knowing what’s coming — and yet Arendt doesn’t let her mask slip. Then, at the end, Arendt turned around and spoke in the voice of some cosmic judge, saying what no real judge could ever say, in the only convincing argument for any use of the death penalty I’ve ever heard:

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

But the book infuriated people. Not only had Arendt identified Eichmann as an empty suit who did what he did for no reason — not a demon, but a terrifying vision of what any of us might become if we fell into the wrong circumstances — but she condemned Jewish leaders for cooperating with the Nazis. This did not go over well:

When Hannah’s Eichmann was published, a meeting was summoned by Irving Howe and Lionel Abel, normally urbane and liberal minds. The meeting was like a trial, the stoning of an outcast member of the family. Any sneering overemphasis on Hannah, who had been invited but was away teaching in Chicago, was greeted with derisive clapping or savage sighs of amazement. Her appointed defenders drifted off into unintelligibly ingenious theses and avoided her name. When her tolerance was eloquently and unfavorably compared with Trotsky’s, Alfred Kazin walked self-consciously to the stage and stammered, “After all Hannah didn’t kill any Jews.” He walked off the stage laughed at as irrelevant and absurd. His was the one voice for the defense. I admire his bravery, and wish I had dared speak. Half my New York literary and magazine acquaintance was sitting near, yet their intensity was terrifying, as if they were about to pick up chairs.

It could be said, as one critic of Arendt did, that there was something “heartless” about her tone. But Arendt did not write to make anyone feel better. She understood that truth was seldom a pleasant, sensible thing. Her refusal to cover up that fact is surely part of why no one can write about Hannah Arendt these days without adopting that smirky, patronizing tone, as if independent minds are all well and good for the young but the rest of us have moved on.

The myth of the money power.

March 21, 2009

Glenn Greenwald is beyond doubt one of the most thoughtful and independent political thinkers around today. I say that with just the slightest twinge of uncertainty, because I’m not entirely sure what Greenwald’s politics are. Judging from things he’s written about himself here and there, he was a fairly apolitical type — thought we were being well taken care of by our “checks and balances” system, just like they teach you in Social Studies — until the authoritarian pretensions of the Bush Administration shocked him into the realization that the Constitution is not a self-running, self-perpetuating machine — that all popular government will deteriorate if left to our rulers alone. To my knowledge, he’s yet to explain exactly what his view of government is, what it should be doing and what it ought not to interfere with. But our greatest political thinker, Jefferson, never wrote a systematic treatise on politics either. Greenwald’s running commentary on the misdeeds of our rulers is better political thought than 95 percent of the drivel being pumped out at any Washington think-tank. He’s our most indispensable blogger, the only one I’m aware of who might merit a comparison with I. F. Stone.

So it’s distressing to see Greenwald choke on the oldest and most self-destructive leftist myth about politics in his latest entry. Behold:

Matt Taibbi’s new Rolling Stone article perfectly summarizes what the AIG scandal reveals about our political and economic system, and should be read in full. In sum: financial elites own the Government and both political parties. Their money drowns Washington and their lobbyists control it. They used that ownership of Government to abolish decades-old legal and regulatory protections which previously constrained what they could do. In the lawless environment which they literally purchased from our political leaders, they were able to pillage and pilfer and steal without limit. And even now that everything has come crashing down, they continue to dictate what the Government’s response is, to ensure that they — the prime authors of the disaster — are the prime beneficiaries, at the public’s expense, of the “solutions,” solutions which preserve their ill-gotten gains and heighten even further their power and influence.

What I object to here isn’t the content so much as the way it’s framed. It’s incredible to believe that Greenwald, our most penetrating observer of the deviousness and Machiavellian ambitions of the political ruling class, actually believes that our political leaders let “financial elites” tell them what to do. We suffered eight years under a president who thought the Constitution a “piece of paper” to be rewritten at will, a vice president who thought the president had the right to refuse to carry out Congressional laws he disapproved of, and an Administration eager to seize upon any pretext to trash American liberties. We heard nothing but snivelling excuses and evasions from the oppositional party — which, for most of Bush’s term in office, held the support of half or more of the voters — about why they refused to oppose any of this, why they cracked down on any upstart Democrat who dared speak out against any of it. Even in the last election, when a majority of Americans would have been happy to see Bush hauled up in front of their county judge and sentenced to 60 years of janitorial work, Democrats insisted that all Americans cared about was “the economy.” They hastened, in fact, to criticize Wall Street and big business in general. Why would they do that, were they beholden only to Wall Street and big business?

Greenwald knows all this — he hammers it harder, in fact, than any blogger I know of — which is why I find it so hard to believe that he could even entertain the notion that allegiance to big business, of all things, made them do this. Why would a Wall Street broker be eager to see the power of the presidency expanded, or see American troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, or see the Democrats lose elections? Do “financial elites” often favor undemocratic policies? Certainly. But it’s a major leap from that to assuming that financial elites run the country. (Yes, I’m aware that most politicians are rich. But most celebrities are rich too, and we don’t assume that Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson have any sway over our politics.) Why do we not assume that politicians, who actually wield real power, have their own reasons for wanting to maintain that power?

In truth, there is no evidence whatever that the major tenet of leftist thinking — that corporations and corporate bosses run our political system — is true. It amounts to nothing but an extended apology for our political class. Rather than a powerful oligarchy, eager to swindle us out of our democracy, they appear as nothing but well-meaning schmucks who would help us if only they weren’t so frightened of those CEOs. The notion of Washington as a city cowering under the vicious gaze of lobbyists is a pathetic one, but that doesn’t stop foolish leftists from assuming that clamping down on lobbyists would result in a virtuous Washington.

The great Walter Karp, in Indispensable Enemies (the one and only indispensable book ever written about American politics), disposed of this hoary myth beyond any reasonable doubt, and I can’t hope to do justice to his remarkably persuasive argument in a few words. In brief, Karp’s thesis is that there’s no need to resort to hidden forces or conspiracy theories to explain why we are so badly misgoverned. If we assume that we are misgoverned because our political leaders — the bosses of the Republican and Democratic parties — want to misgovern us in order to secure and sustain their own power. It is the very nature of republican government, Karp argues, that forces them to do this. In an authoritarian state, the leaders would largely be free to ignore the discontented unless a revolt broke out; here, the parties’ monopoly control over politics is constantly threatened by the very freeness of our politics, founded on the Constitution and the federal principle. This is why the extension of democracy — contra the Menckenian objections of our libertarian friends — is always and forever a threat to undemocratic government, and the only real solution to it.

If you buy this — and I admit that it seems difficult to swallow at first, considering how schmucky our leaders look and sound on C-SPAN — it becomes increasingly hard to feel safe, to retreat to banalities about “pluralism” and such. Our wrecked economy, dominated by corporations, becomes easier to explain: What better way to prop up corrupt power than to give the moneyed class a stake in it? (Alexander Hamilton, no fool, understood this and believed that it ought to be written into the Constitution.) Karp writes:

It is obvious … that those who wield party power, or would consolidate party power, have compelling political reasons of their own to foster monopoly and no political reason of their own to sustain an economy of small competing producers. We should expect to find in the history of monopoly capitalism the oligarchs’ determined effort to engender monopoly and destroy competition-and that is what we do find. We should expect to find that effort strenuously opposed by the great majority of Americans-and that too we find. What we will not find is what conventional history tells us to look for, namely the “triumph of laissez-faire,” for the history of the formation of monopoly capitalism is history of deliberate government intervention to further monopoly. … what the majority of Americans once clearly understood (is) that behind every monopoly stands the government and, by extension, the party bosses. The notion that the monopoly system developed through autonomous economic processes is an ideological myth.

The list goes on. Our frighteningly arbitrary foreign adventures begin to make sense: Why is it that every major war happened at a time of tremendous domestic turmoil, when the parties’ power over the populace was threatened? Why were party leaders so eager to encourage a centralized school system, with an ever more ferociously dictated curriculum? Why are our tax dollars forever funneled into maintaining a vastly overblown standing army — the very thing the Founders most dreaded and warned against, as the ultimate pretext for governmental abuse — instead of being used to fix that same miserable school system? Finally, why is it that the press is so eager to blame everyone in the world for our troubles — bankers, the rich, the poor, even the press itself — but politicians themselves? Could it be that this is really the most unlikely taboo of them all — to hold those in power responsible for what happens on their watch?

Thoughts on Russia and a Cold War revived.

October 26, 2008

For anyone whose memories of the Cold War are as dim as my own, it was shocking to behold the oligarchs’ fierce, and very successful, campaign to portray Russia’s “invasion” of Georgia as “unprovoked.” Unsurprising, perhaps since reducing all of world history to Munich 1938 has been their chief rhetorical instrument of warmongering since — well, since World War II. What the oligarchs want — what they so desperately need, with Bush’s war mangling their prestige and their power with every passing week — is a revival of the old Cold War. Not a feeble, deflated “war on terror” — a war that, by its very definition, is no war at all — but a perpetual enemy and a perpetual pretext for warmongering nationalism.

The citizenry, as always, is helplessly dependent on the sickly advice of its betters. Rick Shenkman, author of the recent “Just How Stupid Are We,” thinks this is all to the good: “…voters have proven time and again that they cannot fulfill their responsibilities acting on their own. They must be members of a mass group (political party, labor union, etc.). They need to take their cues from people who have 1. studied the issues and 2. can tell them which candidates will best look after their interests.” Leave the politics to the professionals, sayeth the professionals, and leave to us the task of running your imperial republic!

Who can fail to recognize, in the recent spate of books deploring the ignorance of our citizens and their patent inferiority to our wise and noble intelligentsia, a sinister plea for tyranny untrammeled and unchecked by pitiful “inefficient” democracy? Who can fail to recognize it as the grunting resentment of ideologues who long to run the economy themselves, free of interference? Who can fail to hear the echo of the Stalinist gangsters the ideologues so hypocritically pretend to despise?

Americans are not eager for war with Russia, do not even despise Russia — much to the ideologues’ indignation and the oligarchs’ frustration.

Glenn Greenwald is angry, but not surprised:

Since all of the major candidates accept the deceitful premise about what happened — that Russia’s “aggression” against Georgia was “unprovoked” — nobody refutes it, and Americans thus assume it is true. And: Americans are alone in this world in being lied to about what happened. Virtually the entire rest of the world — at least the rest of the world that is affected in some way by Russia and Georgia — has access to the truth. But here, not only is the lie not debunked, it’s not even discussed or debated (with some rare exceptions). The propaganda is just asserted to be true by the political establishment and thus accepted by most of the citizenry, and then becomes the unchallenged foundation of all sorts of dangerous, militaristic policy orthodoxies that nobody is free to dispute (upon pain of being ejected from the political mainstream).

Of course, the original Cold War was built on a lie as well — Truman’s astonishing assertion that “a breach of the peace anywhere in the world threatens the peace of the entire world,” and his determination to provoke Stalin at every turn. The Soviet Union, for all its crimes, was not aiming to rule the world in 1947 (just as Russia is not aiming to rule the world in 2008), and it wasn’t for nothing that Truman, in Sen. Arthur Vanderburg’s words, set out to “scare the hell out of the American people” in order to get his Cold War and his nationalized Imperial Republic.

Of course, Stalin was much worse than Truman — unimaginably worse. But we err if we imagine that Truman foisted on us the CIA, the National Security Act, NSC-68, and the war in Korea out of the goodness of his heart. He did it to crush a republic and flatten it forever beneath the iron rule of the oligarchs. And he was very successful, since no prominent public man dared challenge the Cold War for 20 years.

Walter Karp, as usual, tells us what every other historian won’t:

We are “the strongest nation on earth,” the new President boasted on Labor Day, 1945. Then why, Americans rightly wondered, was the strongest nation on earth simultaneously so weak and so vulnerable that it had to dominate the world just to be safe? Because “America must behave like the Number One World Power which she is,” replied Senator Arthur Vandenberg, foreign policy leader of the Republican Party, begging the question in the safety of his diary. “The position of the United States in world affairs,” noted a typical official statement, “is based on the premise that our security and welfare are intrinsically related to the general security and welfare, and upon an acceptance of the responsibility for leadership in world affairs which is called for by that premise.” Alas for “world leadership,” this kind of high-toned sophistry, reeking with dishonesty in every cant phrase, could neither move a people nor subdue a republic.

General George Marshall would speak of “the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country,” but the overwhelming majority of Americans, unenlightened by higher education, did not understand that “history” told their leaders what to do. “No sudden cultural maturation is to be anticipated in the United States,” lamented a political scientist named Gabriel Almond as late as 1950, “which would be proportionate to the gravity and power of its newly acquired international status.” The only thing Americans want to do, complained Averell Harriman, our ambassador to Moscow, is “go to the movies and drink Coke.”

“Bipartisan foreign policy is the ideal for the executive because you can’t run this damned country any other way…. Now the way to do that is to say politics stops at the seaboard-and anyone who denies that postulate is a son-of-a-bitch and a crook and not a true patriot. Now if people will swallow that then you’re off to the races.” Thus Dean Acheson, explaining how to muzzle a free-people and stifle their freedom.