Jumaane Williams is fast on his way to becoming the Gerald Ford of New York City’s progressive Democrats, putting his foot in his mouth on one issue after another. Turns out he has some interesting views on abortion and same-sex marriage.
On abortion, he does the communitarian two-step that was so popular back in the 1990s:
I don’t know that the two choices [pro-life or pro-choice] I have accurately describe what I believe. You have to check off a box of pro-choice and you have to check off a box of pro-life and I don’t know that I’m comfortable in any of those boxes. I am personally not in favor of abortion.
But his big complaint is that men are being left out of the discussion and decision-making process. When a woman aborts her fetus without the knowledge or consent of the man who contributed his sperm, says Williams, “there is no space I think for fathers to express that kind of pain.”
Williams says this happened to him. A woman he was involved with terminated her pregnancy in the first or second month without his knowing it.
“It was just very painful. It’s still painful now,” he said, tearing up as he recalled learning about the abortion. “I have the clear image of the sonogram. I have the clear image of the doctor. I have the clear image of being in the room, hearing the doctor say, ‘Everything’s going along fine.’”
The story sounds a little fishy to me. If the woman he’s talking about had the abortion in the first or second month of her pregnancy, would she have had a sonogram? And as for that “clear image: what could he possibly have seen? This?
Anyway, that’s Williams on abortion.
And here he is on same-sex marriage: “I personally believe the definition of marriage is between a male and a female.” Though he wants the state to get out of the business of marriage altogether.
Lyndon Johnson, from his memoirs (1971):
When asked about black power in 1966, I responded: “I am not interested in black power or white power. What I am concerned with is democratic power, with a small d.” As I look back now, that answer seems totally insufficient. It is easy for a white man to say he is “not interested in black power or white power.” Black power had a different meaning to the black man, who recently had had to seek the white world’s approval and for whom success had come largely on white people’s terms. To such a man, black power meant a great deal—in areas that mattered the most—dignity, pride, and self-awareness.
Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall….
Barack Obama on the Republicans and the shutdown at yesterday’s press conference:
I was at a small business the other day and talking to a bunch of workers, and I said, you know, when you’re at the plant and you’re in the middle of your job, do you ever say to your boss, you know what, unless I get a raise right now and more vacation pay, I’m going to just shut down the plant; I’m not going to just walk off the job, I’m going to break the equipment — I said, how do you think that would go? They all thought they’d be fired. And I think most of us think that. You know, there’s nothing wrong with asking for a raise or asking for more time off. But you can’t burn down the plant or your office if you don’t get your way. Well, the same thing is true here.
Yep, that’s how we got emancipation, civil rights, unions, feminism, and gay rights in this country: just by “asking.” I mean, what the fuck does Obama think they were doing at Stonewall?
Update (1 pm)
Jim Johnson at the University of Rochester reminded me of this wonderful photo from the 1936-37 sitdown strike at Flint. Mr. President, this is what workers do after they’ve asked for something and not gotten it.
Cornell historian Holly Case has a fascinating piece in The Chronicle Review on Stalin as editor. Reminds me of that George Steiner line that the only people in the 20th century who cared about literature were the KGB.
Here are some excerpts. But read the whole thing.
Joseph Djugashvili was a student in a theological seminary when he came across the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Bolshevik revolutionary. Thereafter, in addition to blowing things up, robbing banks, and organizing strikes, he became an editor, working at two papers in Baku and then as editor of the first Bolshevik daily, Pravda. Lenin admired Djugashvili’s editing; Djugashvili admired Lenin, and rejected 47 articles he submitted to Pravda.
Djugashvili (later Stalin) was a ruthless person, and a serious editor. The Soviet historian Mikhail Gefter has written about coming across a manuscript on the German statesman Otto von Bismarck edited by Stalin’s own hand. The marked-up copy dated from 1940, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. Knowing that Stalin had been responsible for so much death and suffering, Gefter searched “for traces of those horrible things in the book.” He found none. What he saw instead was “reasonable editing, pointing to quite a good taste and an understanding of history.”
Stalin always seemed to have a blue pencil on hand, and many of the ways he used it stand in direct contrast to common assumptions about his person and thoughts. He edited ideology out or played it down, cut references to himself and his achievements, and even exhibited flexibility of mind, reversing some of his own prior edits.
For Stalin, editing was a passion that extended well beyond the realm of published texts. Traces of his blue pencil can be seen on memoranda and speeches of high-ranking party officials (“against whom is this thesis directed?”) and on comic caricatures sketched by members of his inner circle during their endless nocturnal meetings (“Correct!” or “Show all members of the Politburo”).
The Stanford historian Norman Naimark describes the marks left by Stalin’s pencil as “greasy” and “thick and pasty.” He notes that Stalin edited “virtually every internal document of importance,” and the scope of what he considered internal and important was very broad. Editing a biologist’s speech for an international conference in 1948, Stalin used an array of colored pencils—red, green, blue—to strip the talk of references to “Soviet” science and “bourgeois” philosophy. He also crossed out an entire page on how science is “class-oriented by its very nature” and wrote in the margin “Ha-ha-ha!!! And what about mathematics? And what about Darwinism?”
But Stalin was still not satisfied. In the next round of substantial edits, he used his blue pencil to mute the conspiracy he had previously pushed the authors to amplify (italics indicate an insertion):
The Soviet people
unanimouslyapproved the court’s verdict—the verdict of the peopleannihilation of the Bukharin-Trotsky gang and passed on to next business. The Soviet land was thus purged of a dangerous gang of heinous and insidious enemies of the people, whose monstrous villainies surpassed all of the darkest crimes and most vile treason of all times and all peoples.
Do you think that you’ve shown enough love toward President Obama?…Where is the love for this president?…You’ve got the first black president, and where is the love? I understand the critique, but where is the love?”
It’s like what Gershom Scholem wrote to Hannah Arendt in response to Eichmann in Jerusalem:
There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete — what the Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.
There’s a long profile of NYC Councilman Jumaane Williams in BKLYNR, a new Brooklyn-based magazine, by Eli Rosenberg. It’s a fascinating read of a fascinating politician, who played a less than fascinating role during the Brooklyn College BDS controversy. Williams is a former student of mine, and he and I wound up in a heated Twitter argument about his role.
In his piece, Rosenberg discusses the Williams and the BDS controversy at length. You should read the whole article, but I’m excerpting the BDS part here:
The perils of navigating the dual worlds of politics and activism were resoundingly clear earlier this year. Two leaders of a movement critical of Israel — pioneering gender theorist and activist Judith Butler and Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti — were scheduled to speak at Brooklyn College in an event billed as a lecture on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which advocates for economic protests against Israel. The event was sponsored by a student group, Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine, but the college’s political science department had signed on as a co-sponsor.
A couple weeks before the event, another student organization, the college’s United4Israel chapter, posted a petition online that expressed “deep concern” over the school’s co-sponsorship of the lecture. By the time Harvard law professor and Brooklyn College alum Alan Dershowitz weighed in a week before the event with a Daily News op-ed that called it a “propaganda hate orgy,” the story had bloomed into a full-blown controversy.
Local politicians like assemblymen Dov Hikind and Steven Cymbrowitz, who both hail from heavily Jewish districts near Brooklyn College, organized a press conference to denounce the college. Much of the city’s political establishment soon weighed in on the controversy, with nearly all of everyone coming down heavily against the school.
A self-proclaimed “progressive” coalition officials sent a letter to college president Karen Gould, signed by a who’s who of politicians in the city — including four of the top Democratic candidates for mayor — expressing “concern” that the college had signed onto the event and accusing it of stifling academic freedom. A group of ten council members, led by Lew Fidler, penned a letter to Gould asking her to cancel the event entirely, and hinted that the CUNY school’s funding, some of which passes through the city council each year, could be affected by the decision.
For a couple of days, as event spiraled into a larger and larger story, Williams and his office were quiet on the issue. It was a notable silence given both Williams’ strong connections to the school and its political science department, as well as the simple fact that its 26-acre campus lies squarely in his district.
But on February 1, Williams’ office released a copy of a letter the councilman had sent Gould. “I have concerns regarding the sponsorship by the Political Science Department of this event,” Williams wrote. “I am asking for your intervention with Chair Paisley Currah in an effort to allow both sides of this hot-button matter to be discussed with equity, preferably in the same forum. If that cannot be accomplished, I urge the removal of the department’s sponsorship of this event.”
The chorus of voices was getting louder for the department to cancel the event; media across the globe picked up the story, with articles in the Jerusalem Post and Al Jazeera in addition to the city’s major news sources. Glenn Greenwald weighed in on the pages of The Guardian, calling the liberal politicians a “lynch mob.”
For a moment, it seemed Brooklyn College would have to buckle. But it stood its ground and, at the last minute, received some support from an unlikely ally. At a press conference on Hurricane Sandy relief, Mayor Bloomberg, prompted by a reporter’s question, forcefully defended the college’s right to hold the event.
“If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea,” he said. “The last thing we need is for members of our city council or state legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run.”
In two minutes, any steam left behind the movement to get the college to cancel or change the event was gone. The idea of the mayor, the most powerful official in New York City and an avid supporter of Israel, announcing his support for the school caught the rest of the establishment off-guard.
Most of the city’s politicians who had so loudly protested the event released statements in support of it. The so-called progressive group of politicians sent a follow-up letter to Gould, thanking her for her “leadership on the issue,” and expressing support for the college and its forum. Council members Steve Levin and Letitia James revoked their support for the letter they had inked earlier in the week, claiming they “unsigned” it. And Williams released another statement expressing support for the forum and “confidence” in the state of academic freedom at Brooklyn College.
“No institution of learning should stifle voices in a debate, no matter how controversial or problematic they may be,” he wrote.
But the damage had already been done.
“The gr8 progressive @JumaaneWilliams ‘supports views expressed by my fellow alumnus Alan Dershowitz’ on #BDS event … SMH,” remarked Alex Kane, an editor at progressive sites AlterNate and Mondoweiss, on Twitter. Soon Williams’ feed and Facebook page were ablaze with comments from academics, progressive journalists, and enraged commenters.
Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College who served as the department’s unofficial spokesman during the controversy and a former professor of Williams, entered into the most heated debate with him, in a lengthy exchange that Robin published online.
By the end of the hour-long debate, during which Williams was thoroughly chided by Robin, the councilman conceded numerous points to the academic and had assumed the role of a chastened student, referring to Robin as “professor,” and admitting that he would definitely “do more homework,” in the future.
“What I was trying to get across was correct. I don’t think that got across in my first letter,” Williams said recently. “I had not spoken to the chairperson, which I should have done. So my intention with the first letter was basically to say that there needs to be some rules about how sponsorship happens, and that everybody should have access to that sponsorship.”
Still, if you believe people like Robin, the event may yet come back to haunt him.
“He’s the pride and joy of the department, but people were surprised and are not going to forget that easily,” said Robin. “Everyone expected that Christine Quinn would do what she did, but I think we all expected more of him. I expected more of him.”
Williams has made a career out of calling it like he sees it, cultivating the image that he is the rare politician who will speak the truth without regard for the consequences. But part of that veneer was lost with the week’s events.
“It takes a Republican mayor who is horrible on many issues that progressives care about to explain that politicians do not meddle with curriculum or extracurricular discussions to people like Christine Quinn, Jumaane Williams, and Brad Lander?” said Robin. “It shows there are real constraints on liberalism and leftism in New York.”
Dobbs said the dust-up demonstrated the fundamental conflict between Williams’ identity as an activist and as a politician. “They’re incompatible,” said Dobbs. “Most people believe that politicians and elected officials are leaders, but actually they follow much more than they lead.”
Perhaps most damaging for Williams reputation was the perception of him as weak and susceptible, vulnerable in the game of politics.
“The media misunderstands liberals and thinks they want someone who is pure, but what the left really wants politicos who are shrewd about power and use it to achieve progressive goals,” said Robin. “He got played on this one; the moral reasons are very troubling, but it’s also very a troubling politically. He should have been shrewder about this. He went to Brooklyn College, he should have called the damn school, found out the facts first and spoken as an alum, to say ‘I understand the issues around this, I understand the department. Let me tell you about what I learned.’ It would have been a very moving statement. Instead he comes out looking like a chump.”
The latest issue of Jacobin came out the week before last. It’s already generating a lot of discussion and debate. Just a few highlights.
1. Jonah Birch’s interview with NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber about Chibber’s new book on subaltern studies and postcolonialism theory has pissed a lot of people off.
A typical maneuver of postcolonial theorists is to say something like this: Marxism relies on abstract, universalizing categories. But for these categories to have traction, reality should look exactly like the abstract descriptions of capital, of workers, of the state, etc. But, say the postcolonial theorists, reality is so much more diverse. Workers wear such colorful clothes; they say prayers while working; capitalists consult astrologers — this doesn’t look like anything what Marx describes in Capital. So it must mean that the categories of capital aren’t really applicable here. The argument ends up being that any departure of concrete reality from the abstract descriptions of theory is a problem for the theory. But this is silly beyond words: it means that you can’t have theory. Why should it matter if capitalists consult astrologers as long as they are driven to make profits? Similarly, it doesn’t matter if workers pray on the shop floor as long as they work. This is all that the theory requires. It doesn’t say that cultural differences will disappear; it says that these differences don’t matter for the spread of capitalism, as long as agents obey the compulsions that capitalist structures place on them. I go to considerable lengths to explain this in the book.
Here’s one of Chibber’s critics, University of Chicago English professor Chris Taylor:
When Jacobin published Vivek Chibber’s “Marxist” polemic against postcolonial theory, I wanted to write a counter-polemic. In fact, I did. As both a Marxist and a postcolonialist, I felt like Chibber was forcing me to choose sides where sides did not need to be chosen. After all, Chibber has to make several logical leaps in order to land his criticism of postcolonial theory; in a very real way, he has to invent it. The most obvious problem with Chibber’s argument is the representativeness he ascribes to the South Asian Subaltern Studies collective—for Chibber, they epitomize postcolonial theory in all its anti-Marxist glory. The second most obvious problem with Chibber’s argument is his refusal to count as constitutive of postcolonial theory all anticolonial Marxist thinkers whose work was foundational for, or retroactively incorporated into, the postcolonial canon: George Padmore, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney…
And here’s one of Chibber’s critics’ critics, Paul Heideman, who’s a grad student in American studies at Rutgers Newark:
Chris Taylor’s post (“Not Even Marxist: On Vivek Chibber’s Polemic against Postcolonial Theory”) presents what purports to be a quite sharp critique of Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. He takes the book to task for being un-dialectical, for orthodoxy-mongering, and a host of other theoretical sins. As the most extensive response to the book yet published, it has garnered a good deal of positive attention from those uncomfortable with Chibber’s promotion of a frankly universalistic theory and his attacks on the fetishization of particularism.
Unfortunately, Taylor’s article deserves none of the attention it has received. It exemplifies the kind of evasiveness and non-engagement which typifies the culture of the academic left. What are presented as incisive blows against the intellectual architecture of the book are in fact a series of passages that, at their best, do not even contradict the arguments made in the book and, at their worst, descend into mere name-calling.
And that’s the nice stuff. It’s a lot more heated on Facebook and Twitter.
2. Laura Tanenbaum, who’s one of my favorite writers, makes her Jacobin debut. Here she revisits some of the classic feminist texts of the 1970s (you need a userid and password, and I guess a subscription, for this one, which means…you should get one!):
In texts like [Adrienne Rich's] Of Woman Born and Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, women thinkers built on their understanding of the relationship between biology and the oppressive division of the sexes. They asked how we had organized ourselves in social and economic relations, what the consequences of these organizations were, and how it might be done differently. The result was not a laundry list of “issues” to be dealt with, but an analysis of a system that deforms everything from work and family to art and science. It’s an analysis that continues to resonate, even as public discourse declares on the one hand that feminism’s goals have been accomplished, and on the other that they were always impossible.
3. Jeremy Kessler is another writer you should watch. He’s a grad student in history (and the Law School too?) at Yale, and he’s got a very sharp and shrewd mind about politics and the law. In this issue, he offers up a smart take on Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.
The intended moral of Fear Itself, that the American state crafted by southern domination was necessary lest democracy fall to dictatorship, is the product of rhetorical excess and unexamined political assumptions. Ironically, it is Katznelson’s adoption of the language of fear and the logic of emergency, so often used to justify dictatorship, that leads to his portrayal of the southern New Deal as the only viable path the United States could have taken out of its mid-century crisis.
4. The magazine devoted an entire section to Palestine. A whole bunch of articles, headed off by this editorial:
Why now? Because almost without anyone noticing, the movement in solidarity with Palestinian rights — with all its solipsisms and ultra-leftist foibles, its quarrels and magnetic attraction for eccentrics, opportunists, and, yes, the occasional antisemite — has grown to become one of the most important, inspiring, and fast-growing social movements in the country.
Palestine is no longer a dirty word on college campuses. The last Students for Justice in Palestine national conference attracted well over 300 delegates from more than 140 colleges and universities across the country, converging on Ann Arbor to discuss capitalist state formation in Israel, solidarity among prisoners, colonialism, the persistence of the occupation, refugee rights, and remarkably, with a minimum of rancor and sectarianism, the Syrian conflict.
Much of the energy that in the past would have found its home in student antiwar movements has migrated to the cause of Palestine. That is not without its problems: after all, children are gunned down by helicopter gunships in Afghanistan as surely as they are gunned down by snipers in the Gaza Strip. But the bloom of student interest in this old and bloody colonial conflict is something the Left ought to take interest in, because the Left is not just an idea but also the masses in motion, and scarcely anywhere — except for the environmental movement — are young people in motion with such a mix of revolutionary élan and disciplined militancy as they are in the case of Palestine.
But radical action has outpaced radical understanding. In part, that is because young people have gotten involved just at the moment when the Palestine question is in unprecedented political and ideological flux.
5. And, last, the magazine’s editor Bhaskar Sunkara, well, I’ll let him speak for himself:
It’s an old adage of city life: commute home to masturbate, but don’t masturbate during the commute. Such are the reasonable burdens of living in a society.
Last week I was reminded that this sentiment isn’t universally shared. On a Euclid Avenue-bound C train…
There’s a lot more. Check it out.
In The Reactionary Mind, I wrote:
One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power: “Here is the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.
Feminism—and the backlash against it—is the paradigm case of the battle over the private life of power. As historians have shown, the attack on Women’s Lib gave the modern conservative movement what it needed to achieve its counterrevolution in 1980. But to understand why that was the case, we have to recall just how radical feminism truly was: it sought to disrupt concrete and tangible relationships in the most private relations of power.
In the current issue of The New Yorker, Susan Faludi has a wonderful profile of Shulamith Firestone, who died last August. Firestone was a pioneering radical feminist whose book The Dialectic of Sex did for feminism what Camus did for existentialism: it gave it a language and a shape, a fixture and a feel. But Firestone was not just the master of suspicion; she was also the master of disruption, organizing actions that confronted male power exactly where it lay: not merely in the far-off halls of Congress or the Supreme Court, but also in the office, the factory floor, the kitchen, the bedroom, the left-wing meeting. Understanding that sexist domination was above all in-your-face, she responded and agitated in kind.
By then, the groups that Firestone had founded, and a host of offshoots, were making headlines with confrontational protests and street theatre. They disrupted state abortion-law hearings in Albany; occupied restaurants that wouldn’t serve “unescorted” women; conducted a “Burial of Traditional Womanhood,” in Arlington National Cemetery (the deceased wore curlers); released dozens of white mice to wreak havoc at a bridal fair at Madison Square Garden; held an “ogle-in” on Wall Street, to dole out some payback to leering men; and, most notorious, hurled brassieres, high heels, pots and pans, copies of Playboy, and other “instruments of female torture” into a Freedom Trash Can at the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City. When Firestone was fired from a waitressing job and her boss withheld her wages, feminists stormed the restaurant and made him pay her on the spot.
In September 2005, on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, The Nation ran a long piece I did on liberal support for the Iraq War and for US imperialism more generally. By way of Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, and Peter Beinart—as well as Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty—it addressed what I thought and still think are some of the deeper political and intellectual roots of the liberals’ support for the Iraq War. On the tenth anniversary of the War, I thought I might reprint that essay here. Some things I got wrong (Beinart, for example, went onto have something of a turnabout on these issues; it wasn’t Oscar Wilde but Jonathan Swift who made that jibe). Other issues I over-emphasized or neglected. But still, it’s got some useful stuff there. Without further ado…
• • • • •
It’s the fourth anniversary of September 11, and Americans are getting restless about the war in Iraq. Republicans are challenging the President, activists and bloggers are pressing the Democrats and liberal hawks are reconsidering their support for the war. Everyone, it seems, is asking questions.
Two questions, however, have not been asked, perhaps because they might actually help us move beyond where we are and where we’ve been. First, how is it that few liberals and no leftists in 1968 believed that Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most progressive President in American history, would or could airlift democracy to Vietnam, while many liberals and not a few leftists in 2003 believed that the most reactionary President since William McKinley could and would export democracy to Iraq?
Second, why did certain liberals who opposed the war in Iraq refuse to march against it? The reason they gave was that left-wing groups like ANSWER, which helped organize the antiwar rallies, failed to denounce Saddam’s regime. Yet many of those who could not abide an alliance with ANSWER endorsed the war in Afghanistan–even though it was waged by a government that recently invaded three Caribbean countries, funded dirty wars in Latin America and backed the government of Guatemala, the only regime in the Western Hemisphere condemned by a UN-sponsored truth commission for committing acts of genocide. Politics, of course, often entails an unhappy choice of associations. But if the deeds of the US government need not stop liberals from supporting the war in Afghanistan, why should the words–words, mind you, not deeds–of leftists deprive the antiwar movement of these very same liberals’ support?
Both questions register a fundamental shift among liberals, and on the left, since the 1960s: from skepticism of to faith in US power, and from faith in to skepticism of popular movements. During the Vietnam era, liberals and leftists believed not only in social justice but also in mass protest. Whether the cause was democracy at home or liberation abroad, men and women afflicted by oppression had to organize themselves for freedom. Yes, some of yesterday’s activists were blind to coercion within these movements, and others joined elite cadres bombing their way to liberation. Still, the animating faith of the 1960s was in the democratic capacities of ordinary men and women, making it difficult for liberals and leftists to believe in conquering armies from abroad or shock troops from on high.
Many liberals, and some leftists, no longer hold these views. Their faith is guided not by the light of justice but by the darkness of evil: by the tyranny of dictators, the genocide of ethnic cleansers and the terrorism of Islamist radicals. Despite their differences–some of these liberals and leftists support the war in Iraq, others do not; some are partial to popular movements, particularly those opposing anti-American governments, while others favor constitutional regimes, particularly those supporting the United States–theirs is a liberalism, as the late Harvard scholar Judith Shklar put it in a pioneering essay in 1989, that seeks to ward off the “summum malum” (worst evil) rather than to install a “summum bonum” (highest good). Reversing Augustine’s dictum that there is no such thing as evil–evil being only the absence of good–today’s liberal believes there is only evil and progress is measured by the distance we put between ourselves and that evil.
Hostility to popular protest and indulgence of American power follow naturally from this position. Mass movements, liberals claim, are blind to evil or apologize for it. Sometimes they actively court it. In their reckless pursuit of utopia, they march men and women to the gulag or into shooting galleries of terrorism and civil war. Only a politics of restraint can shield us from the temptations of violence. While such a philosophy would seem to militate against George W. Bush’s empire, many liberals have concluded that evil in the world is so titanic that only US power can deliver us from it.
Straddling minimalism at home and maximalism abroad, many of today’s liberals are inspired by fear. This “liberalism of fear,” as Shklar called it, is not to be confused with the terror Americans felt after 9/11 or with Democratic timidity in the face of Republican success. No, today’s liberal believes in fear as an idea–that it inflicts such suffering on men and women that we can assess governments by the degree to which they minimize it. Fear is the gold standard, the universal measure, of liberal morality: Whatever rouses fear is bad, whatever diminishes it is less bad. In the words of Michael Ignatieff, liberalism “rests less on hope than on fear, less on optimism about the human capacity for good than on dread of the human capacity for evil, less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind.”
Though leftists in the sixties certainly spoke of fear, they viewed it not as a foundation but as an obstacle, a hindrance in the struggle for freedom and equality. Whites resisted civil rights, James Baldwin observed, because they were possessed by a “sleeping terror” of ceding status and privilege to blacks. Blacks, in turn, were like “the Jews in Egypt, who really wished to get to the Promised Land but were afraid of the rigors of the journey.” The goal was to eliminate or overcome fear, to take one step closer to the Promised Land. This required not only courage but also an ideologically grounded hope for progress. Without an answering vision of social justice, no one would make the journey.
Many contemporary liberals have given up that hope, turning what a previous generation saw as an impediment into a path. Fear is no longer an obstacle but a crutch, a negative truth from which liberalism derives its confidence and strength. “What liberalism requires,” according to Shklar, “is the possibility of making the evil of cruelty and fear the basic norm of its political practices and prescriptions.” Liberal values like the rule of law and democracy obtain their worth not from reason or rights–which many liberals no longer believe in as foundational principles–but from the cruelty and fear illiberal states and movements routinely inflict upon helpless men and women.
Today’s liberals are attracted to fear for many reasons, including revulsion at the crimes of the last century and the miserable state of the postcolonial world. But one of the main reasons is their belief that fear possesses an easy intelligibility. Fear requires no deep philosophy, no leap of reason, to establish its evil: Everyone knows what it is and that it is bad. “Because the fear of systematic cruelty is so universal,” Shklar wrote, “moral claims based on its prohibition have an immediate appeal and can gain recognition without much argument.” Once liberals realize that they are “more afraid of being cruel”–and of others being cruel–”than of anything else,” Richard Rorty has argued, they need not worry about the grounds of their beliefs.
How did a philosophy so averse to utopia and violence get hitched to the American empire? I don’t just mean here the war in Iraq, about which liberals disagreed, but the larger project of using the American military to spread democracy and human rights. How did liberals, who’ve spent the better part of three decades attacking left-wing adventurism, wind up supporting the greatest adventure of our time?
The answer is that liberals need fear: to justify their principles, to warn us of what happens when liberalism is abandoned. And so they are driven abroad to confront the tyrannies that make life miserable elsewhere, in order to derive confidence in their own, admittedly imperfect but infinitely better, regimes. A souped-up version of Churchill’s adage that democracy is the worst possible government except for all the others, the liberalism of fear sends writers and fighters to foreign lands in search of themselves and their beleaguered faith. In the words of Ignatieff:
When policy [in the Balkans] was driven by moral motives, it was often driven by narcissism. We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that the West “meant” something. This imaginary West, this narcissistic image of ourselves, we believed was incarnated in the myth of a multiethnic, multiconfessional Bosnia.
The moral exhilaration of which Ignatieff speaks is closely linked to the revival of an activism discredited since the sixties–an activism, ironically, liberals helped to defeat but now miss and mourn. The military incursions in Bosnia, Ignatieff notes, were “a theater of displacement, in which political energies that might otherwise have been expended in defending multiethnic society at home were directed instead at defending mythic multiculturalism far away. Bosnia became the latest bel espoir of a generation that had tried ecology, socialism, and civil rights only to watch all these lose their romantic momentum.”
Bosnia was certainly not the first time that liberals looked to a benighted regime abroad in order to compensate for the stalled pace of domestic advance. In 1792 France’s Girondins sensed that their revolution was in peril. Beholding long-suffering peoples to the east, they decided to export progress and promptly declared war on… Austria. And it was Robespierre, so often denounced as a utopian scourge, who issued this prescient warning to his distracted comrades: “No one loves armed missionaries.”
Nor was Bosnia the last time. Since 9/11 liberal hawks–and their fellow fliers on the left–have turned the rest of the world into a theater of social experiment and political reform, endorsing foreign expeditions in the name of an enlightenment they can no longer pursue at home. They have opted for a detoured radicalism, which, like all detours, paves a convenient path to an obstructed destination: yesterday Afghanistan, today Iraq, tomorrow ourselves. Though the peregrinations of Christopher Hitchens are by now familiar to most readers of these pages, his confession after 9/11 reveals how easily internationalism can slide into narcissism, the most provincial spirit of all:
On that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration…. here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan…. On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.
More recently, Paul Berman has called the war in Iraq this generation’s Spanish Civil War. Berman’s own biography, of course, makes mincemeat of the analogy. Spain’s civil war demanded, in Stephen Spender’s words, “a very personal involvement.” But unlike George Orwell, André Malraux or any of the other writers who fought for the Spanish Republic, Berman has yet to pick up a gun to defend the Iraqi government. Martha Gellhorn claimed that Spain’s foreign fighters “knew why they came, and what they thought about living and dying, both. But it is nothing you can ask or talk about.” Yet all Berman can do is talk… and talk and talk. Meanwhile, the only international volunteers who seem to believe that Iraq is worth fighting and dying for are joining the other side.
But the real reason Berman’s analogy does not hold up is that where yesterday’s progressive insisted that the struggle for freedom and equality was a two-front war–”if freedom and equality are not vouchsafed” for “the peoples of color” at home, A. Philip Randolph wrote in 1942, “the war for democracy will not be won” abroad–Berman and his allies hope to find in Iraq precisely what they cannot find in the United States. Trotskyists of defeat, they export revolution not in order to save it but in order to evade it.
Liberals and leftists panning for political gold in the wreckage of downtown Baghdad–or New York–is not a pretty sight, which has led some critics to chalk up these scenes to illicit motives. But the infatuation with political fear and imperial deliverance from evil cannot be explained away as mere opportunism. It has a long history in modern politics, arising whenever reform comes up against reaction, whenever movements for progress lose their bearings and buoyancy. At such moments of doubt, nothing can seem as real as fear itself, nothing more tempting than to make evil–and the fear it arouses–the basis of all politics.
It was Alexis de Tocqueville, I think, who first noticed this tendency. In one of his lesser-known writings on the French Revolution, Tocqueville noted the inevitable deceleration and disillusionment that consume failed movements of reform. After every great defeat comes a great despair. Comrade accuses comrade of treachery or cowardice, soldiers denounce generals for marching them toward folly and everyone is soon seized by what Tocqueville described as the “contempt” that broken revolutionaries “acquire for the very convictions and passions” that moved them in the first place. Forced to abandon the cause for which they gave up so much, failed rebels “turn against themselves and consider their hopes as having been childish–their enthusiasm and, above all, their devotion absurd.”
Since the 1960s, liberals and leftists have been beaten at the polls and routed in the streets. Equality no longer propels political argument, and freedom–that other sometime watchword of the left–is today the private property of the right. Unable to reconcile themselves to their loss, liberals and leftists are now seized by the contempt and embarrassment Tocqueville described. Berman cringes over the “androidal” complexion of sixties sectarians, with their “short haircuts” and “flabby muscles,” their “flat tones” of Marxism so “oddly remote from American English.” Others wince at the left’s lack of patriotic fervor and national identification, its hostility to all things American.
Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king and the revolutionary truths of reason and rights, Tocqueville hoped that his contemporaries might find succor in the idea of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to liberal ideals. “Fear,” he wrote, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty.” And so he dedicated himself to a career of liberal pursuits whose only success would be a scheme of mild improvement in Algeria–and leadership of the counterrevolution in 1848.
So has it been with today’s liberals: However much they may argue for domestic reform, it is liberalism’s conquering thrusts abroad–and assaults on the left at home–that earn their warmest applause. Again, other factors explain this turn to empire and fear, including the appalling violations of human rights throughout the world and the left’s failure to respond adequately to those violations. But given this vision’s periodic appearance at moments like ours–one could also cite the case of cold war intellectuals offering their own politics of fear after the setbacks of the late 1940s–it would seem that the appeal of fear has as much to do with defeat and disillusionment as it does with the stated concerns of its advocates.
If Oscar Wilde is right–that you can’t reason a man out of a position he has not reasoned himself into–it’s not likely that the liberals of fear will be persuaded anytime soon to give up their faith. (Indeed, proving that nothing succeeds like failure, Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, has taken the Democrats’ defeat last November as the signal for a renewed commitment to the liberalism of fear.) Responding to political forces beyond their control, they won’t cede their beliefs until a vigorous movement marches past them. The question for the rest of us is: What should that movement stand for?
For some on the left, liberalism is a bankrupt project, hopelessly compromised by its alliance with capital and indulgence of empire. These critics see liberalism as a weak tea–too suspicious of social movements, too soft on capitalism. They long for a stronger brew: if not Marxism, then some notion of radical democracy.
No dispassionate observer of American liberalism would dispute these charges, and some liberals happily plead guilty to them. But what critics and defenders of liberalism overlook is how often liberalism has inspired the most radical of transformations. The war against slavery, the fight for industrial democracy, the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights and sexual freedom–each of these battles was waged in the name of liberty and equality, twin pillars of the liberal ideal.
Hoping to emancipate men and women from all manner of domination, America’s greatest social movements have sought to extend liberalism’s promise to every sphere of social and political life: the family, the workplace, sexuality and so on. Liberalism’s earliest armies marched against the personal–and physically coercive–rule of kings and lords. Its later militants have made war on the equally personal and physical rule of husbands and fathers, slave owners and overseers, bosses and supervisors. That idea–of freedom from external control, of personal volition, of saying no to those who rule and ruin us–is as radical today as it was in the time of John Locke.
Even America’s most left-wing voices have found in liberalism a useful vocabulary to advance their claims. Big Bill Haywood defended the general strike as a potent form of electoral democracy: It “prevents the capitalists from disfranchising the worker, it gives the vote to women, it re-enfranchises the black man and places the ballot in the hands of every boy and girl employed in a shop.” Malcolm X did not favor the bullet over the ballot; he insisted that “it’s got to be the ballot or the bullet,” that America had better live up to its ideals lest it face a more violent uprising. Stokely Carmichael defined black power as “the coming-together of black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs,” which is a fairly good gloss on liberal pluralism. And we would do well to recall that the Black Panther Party repeatedly invoked the Constitution in its ten-point platform. More recently, Katha Pollitt has argued in these pages that if America took seriously the liberal commitment to equal opportunity, everyone would have “safe housing…healthy diets, doctors, fresh air…well-stocked libraries open all week”–Sweden itself.
There is perhaps no better measure of how radical and disruptive liberalism truly is than the ferocity of American elites’ resistance to it. It took more than a half-million lives to eliminate slavery. American workers suffered more strike-related violence than workers in Western Europe–just to get an eight-hour day, freedom of association and a weekend. And imagine how many feet would have to march–and heads would have to roll–to secure the equal opportunity Pollitt envisions.
Liberalism’s radical critics are not wrong about its failings and compromises. Nor would they be wrong to point out that the defenders of America’s old regimes have used liberal language to fend off challenges to their power. Slaveholders invoked the rights of private property, employers prized the freedom of contract, and big business still warns against big government. But these are not liberalism’s only or finest statements. If we are to recover its throatier voices and political momentum, we would do well to recall those moments when it marched as the party of movement rather than when it swilled as the party of order.
Of course, liberal hawks might argue that this history of liberal activism perfectly expresses their purposes in the Middle East. Indeed, Hitchens has mustered Thomas Paine and the American Revolution for his war against Islamo-fascism, arguing that America is once again fighting for “the cause of all mankind.” Beyond pointing out the evident hypocrisy–and wild implausibility–of a government reneging on the most basic liberal commitments at home while trumpeting its final triumph abroad, what’s a progressive to say to this? If we object to the marriage of human rights and American military power, what do we propose instead?
Again, American history provides an instructive answer. In the past, America’s most radical liberals looked to the rest of the world not as a tabula rasa for imperial reform but as a rebuke to illiberalism at home or a goad to domestic transformation. “Go where you may,” Frederick Douglass declared in 1852, “search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. reminded Americans that “the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” Even mainstream leaders of the National Organization for Women argued in 1966 that the American feminist movement was not a beacon to the world but “part of the worldwide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders.”
America under the Patriot Act is obviously not America under slavery, and the anticolonial movements that inspired King and feminists in the 1960s have not fared well. Yet this history reminds us that American liberalism, at its best, has always been internationalist, but its internationalism has meant taking instruction and provocation from abroad rather than flying freedom across the water.
Liberalism’s past also reminds us of another, more sobering, fact. During the second half of the twentieth century, progressives were able to look abroad for inspiration because there was something for them to look to. They could believe in international democracy because there were actual movements fighting for it–not under the kitschy banner of the American empire or through staged photo-ops of toppling statues but for real. If we on the left have a hard time today summoning the same belief, it’s because at the very moment those activists were heralding liberation movements elsewhere, the United States was doing everything it could–successfully, we now know–to destroy them.
It’s true that there are democratic movements today–in Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia–that deserve and receive progressives’ support. But there’s always the risk of the US government hijacking them with arms or handouts. And though liberal hawks like to cite the occupations of Germany and Japan as models for current or future US interventions, we should remember that the New Dealers who led those occupations were far more liberal than the occupiers of today and–until something fundamental changes in the United States–tomorrow. Foreign assistance or interventions are not likely to generate democracy abroad if the powers doing the assisting or intervening are so resolutely antidemocratic at home.
So if we find ourselves at a loss when challenged by liberal hawks–who are right, after all, to press us on how to promote democracy in Iraq, human rights in Sudan and so on–it’s best, I think, first to admit defeat. We don’t know, because we lost the great battles of the twentieth century: not just for social democracy and anti-imperialism but for social democracy and anti-imperialism with a human face. Having admitted defeat, perhaps we can begin to figure out a better answer.