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The Problem with Liberalism Today

29 Oct

Over at The National Interest, my Crooked Timber co-blogger Henry Farrell has a dissection of a certain strand of contemporary liberalism—embodied in the critiques of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald offered by Sean Wilentz, George Packer, and Michael Kinsley—that is well worth reading.

Some highlights:

Yet their problems go deeper than sloppy practice and shoddy logic. For one thing, Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are all veterans of the Clinton-era battles between liberals and the Left. Wilentz in particular poses as a latter-day Arthur Schlesinger, shuttling backwards and forwards between his academic duties and his political fealties. As for Packer, he has championed a muscular liberalism, pugnacious in the fight against moral purists at home and political Islam abroad. And Kinsley, a veteran of the wars over neoliberalism, has always been a contrarian with a talent for repackaging the common wisdom of the establishment as something edgy and counterintuitive.

Each has manacled himself to an intellectual identity forged in decades-old combat with the Left. Each, as a result, is apparently incapable of understanding the actual challenge that Greenwald and Snowden pose to American politics.

Snowden and his companions have shown that national-security liberals’ arguments for deference rest on false assumptions. The truth is that not only are America’s overseas interventions problematic by themselves, but they are also increasingly undermining domestic liberties. Intelligence efforts that are supposed to be focused abroad turn out to have sweeping domestic consequences. It’s impossible to distinguish intelligence data on domestic and foreign actors. Security officials in various countries can work together across borders to circumvent and undermine domestic protections, actively helping each other to remake laws that restrict their freedom of operation. And at home, officials can use these new arrangements to work around and undermine civil rights. This commingling of domestic and international politics is complex and poorly understood. It helps explain why national-security liberals have such difficulty in comprehending—let alone refuting—Snowden’s and Greenwald’s arguments.

Hence, it is unsurprising that Wilentz should view Greenwald and Snowden—the one a left-wing skeptic of American foreign policy, the other a libertarian skeptic of the state—with unabashed horror. What is rather startling, given Wilentz’s prominence as a writer and historian, is the absence of a coherent argument to structure and discipline his detestation.

The whole exercise in amateur taxidermy has the rhetorical purpose of stitching two very different claims together, creating the illusion that they are naturally conjoint. The first is that Wilentz’s antagonists are enemies of the “modern liberal state.” The second is that they are enemies of the “national security state.” The first, obviously, is rather more likely to worry liberal readers than the second. However, Wilentz’s evidence largely concerns the second. He eschews logical argument in favor of a superficially impressive accumulation of quasi-relevant details about his antagonists’ personal histories, which appear intended to suggest connections where none exist.

The resulting artificial monstrosity, like P. T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, doesn’t hold up on close examination. Bits fall off if you poke it at all hard. If Wilentz’s underlying thesis—that it’s profoundly illiberal to oppose government spying—were expressed in seven words rather than seven thousand, it would be so obviously ridiculous as to be unpublishable in a serious magazine.

GEORGE PACKER’S indictment of Snowden and Greenwald is better structured than Wilentz’s, and by far better written. Perhaps no writer alive is as skilled as Packer at conveying an air of weary and hard-won rectitude in a world of ethically ambiguous choices. It is unfortunate that this moral aristocratism is so deplorably misemployed. If anything, Packer’s article is more actively misleading than Wilentz’s.

Perhaps, then, Packer’s patrician disdain can in part be forgiven. What is quite unforgivable are Packer’s own dubious standards of argument, which are starkly at odds with his de haut en bas style of ethical condescension.

Kinsley here exemplifies a broader problem. Halpern has observed that Kinsley and other critics of the leakers like to focus on Greenwald’s and Snowden’s purported personal flaws rather than the issues that motivated them to act. Put differently, Kinsley, Wilentz and Packer have a hard time distinguishing between personality and politics. Each apparently believes that Greenwald’s and Snowden’s radical political beliefs show them to be paranoid demagogues, while their paranoid demagoguery demonstrates the worthlessness of their radical beliefs. This circular reasoning allows them to circumnavigate the difficult question of whether Snowden and Greenwald might be largely right, and what this might mean for liberalism.

In short, Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are a dismal advertisement for the current state of mainstream liberal thought in America. The fundamental problem is not that they’re disagreeable to their opponents (who can certainly be disagreeable themselves). It isn’t even that their unpleasantness is hypocritical (although it surely is). It is that the unpleasantness and hypocrisy conceal an intellectual void. When the screen of misrepresentations, elisions, prevarications, misleadingly curtailed quotes, historical grudges and ad hominem attacks is removed, there is nothing behind it.

This absence is all the more depressing because Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are probably as good as it gets. There are no prominent national-security liberals who have done better—and a few who have done worse, lapsing into baroque conspiracy theories. Their failure is not simply a personal one. It’s the failure of an entire intellectual tradition.

WHY DO national-security liberals have such a hard time thinking straight about Greenwald, Snowden and the politics of leaks? One reason is sheer laziness. National-security liberals have always defined themselves against their antagonists, and especially their left-wing antagonists. They have seen themselves as the decent Left, willing to deploy American power to make the world a happier place, and fighting the good fight against the knee-jerk anti-Americans.

This creates a nearly irresistible temptation: to see Greenwald, Snowden and the problems they raise as antique bugbears in modern dress. Wilentz intimates that Greenwald is plotting to create a United Front of anti-imperialist left-wingers, libertarians and isolationist paleoconservatives. Packer depicts Greenwald and Snowden as stalwarts of the old Thoreauvian tradition of sanctimonious absolutism and moral idiocy. Kinsley paints Snowden as a conspiracy-minded dupe and Greenwald as a frustrated Jacobin.

Yet laziness is only half the problem. A fundamental inability to comprehend Greenwald and Snowden’s case, let alone to argue against it, is the other half. National-security liberals have enormous intellectual difficulties understanding the new politics of surveillance, because these politics are undermining the foundations of their worldview.

If you’re still interested in this topic after you finish Henry’s piece, which again is something you really have to read, you might want to check out my own meditation on the fate of the national security liberal in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Mine is now a bit outdated, since it doesn’t engage with the questions of surveillance that Henry raises. But it gets at, I think, what happens to a national security liberalism that was historically oriented around its attack on the left when that left is no more.

Liberalism Then and Now

27 Oct

Historically, liberalism was proffered as an answer to the left. That is what gave it its political heft and social depth. For the last half-century, it’s been proffered as an answer to the right. Therein lies the problem.

On Arendt and Jewish Collaboration with the Nazis

25 Oct

Here’s another interesting factoid that I just learned from Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial.

For all the abuse heaped on Arendt for what she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem about the issue of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis—leading some to claim that she put the Jews and the Nazis on the same level, a charge that Lipstadt unfortunately indulges*—there’s an irony to the trial that few have noticed.

In the words of Lipstadt:

The law under which Eichmann had been tried, the 1950 Nazis and Their Collaborators Law, was instituted in response to grassroots pressure from survivors, not to punish Nazis, but to punish Jews. The Knesset did not adopt the law in anticipation of the arrival of Nazi war criminals in Israel. The intent of the law was to ensure that Jewish survivors who had “collaborated” with the Nazis by serving as Kapos or the like were punished.

* “She [Arendt] saw symmetry between the Nazis and their victims where there was none.” (175)

What’s the point of having a political theory of American insanity when American insanity so seamlessly theorizes itself?

23 Oct

From Jezebel (h/t Anthony Galluzzo):

A proposed new law in Arizona would give employers the power to request that women being prescribed birth control pills provide proof that they’re using it for non-sexual reasons. And because Arizona’s an at-will employment state, that means that bosses critical of their female employees’ sex lives could fire them as a result. If we could harness the power of the crappy ideas coming out of the state of Arizona, we could probably power a rocket ship to the moon, where there are no Mexicans or fertile wombs and everyone can be free to be as mean a cranky asshole as they want at all times! Arizona Heaven!

Yesterday, a Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed Republican Debbie Lesko’s HB2625 by a vote of 6-2, which would allow an employer to request proof that a woman using insurance to buy birth control was being prescribed the birth control for reasons other than not wanting to get pregnant. It’s all about freedom, she said, echoing everyone who thinks there’s nothing ironic about claiming that a country that’s “free” allows people’s bosses to dictate what medical care is available to them through insurance. First amendment. The constitution. Rights of religious people to practice the treasured tenets of their faiths, the tenets that dictate that religious people get to tell everyone who is not of faith how they’re supposed to live, and the freedom to have that faith enforced by law. Freedom®.

I was going to say that if you wanted to understand this peculiarly American insanity from a political theory perspective, you could start with this post I did on “Birth Control McCarthyism” or this piece I wrote on “Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom.”

But then I thought: what’s the point of having a political theory of American insanity when American insanity so seamlessly theorizes itself?

George Lakoff and Me

17 Oct

In the current issue of The Nation, in an article called “What Liberals Don’t Understand About Freedom,” George Lakoff writes:

FDR, in giving his Four Freedoms speech of 1941, suggested that Democrats’ mission was to expand human freedom. Yet today Democrats have ceded the very concepts of freedom and liberty to Republicans. It’s time to take freedom back as the central Democratic issue.

For conservatives, individual responsibility is central: democracy provides the “liberty” to pursue your own interests, without any help from others (which would make you dependent and weak) and without any responsibility for others.

This is the exact opposite of the progressive view…democracy is about citizens caring about one another and working through their government to provide public resources that allow freedom for all.

The same is true of individual private life. Physical well-being is fundamental to a free life. If you do not have access to health care and you get cancer, you are likely to be trapped not only in debt peonage by the healthcare industry, but in physical anguish or death. So-called “women’s issues” are freedom issues, too—the freedom for individuals to be able to control their own bodies, and follow their doctors’ advice. Without safety regulations for our food and water supply we are not free. Without highways or air traffic controllers or an air force that trains most of our pilots, we would not be free to travel without fear for our safety.

The freedom to control one’s life and participate in our democracy is what unites progressives. Yet, very few progressives actually say this out loud. Progressives are bad at communicating the interdependence of issues and hence the links among forms of freedom.

In the April 6, 2011 issue of The Nation, in a piece called “Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom,” I wrote:

Conservative ideas have dominated American politics for thirty years. The centerpiece of that dominance is the notion that the market equals freedom and government is the threat to freedom.

If there is to be a true realignment—not just of parties but of principles, not just of policy preferences or cognitive frames but of deep beliefs and ideas—we must confront conservatism’s political philosophy. That philosophy reflects more than a bloodless economics or narrow self-interest; it draws from and drives forward a distinctly moral vision of freedom, with deep roots in American political thought.

The secret of conservatism’s success—as any reading of Reagan’s speeches and writings will attest—has been to locate this notion of freedom in the market. Conservative political economy envisions freedom as something more than a simple “don’t tread on me”; it celebrates the everyman entrepreneur, making his own destiny, imagining a world and then creating it.

We must confront this ideology head-on: not by temporizing about the riskiness or instability of the free market or by demonstrating that it (or its Republican stewards) cannot deliver growth but by mobilizing the most potent resource of the American vernacular against it. We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.

Armed with universal healthcare, unemployment benefits, public pensions and the like, I am less vulnerable to the coercions and castigations of an employer or partner. Not only do I have the option of leaving an oppressive situation; I can confront and change it—for and by myself, for and with others. I am emboldened not to avoid risks but to take risks: to talk back and walk out, to engage in what John Stuart Mill called, in one of his lovelier phrases, “experiments in living.”

George Lakoff writes New York Times best sellers, teaches at Berkeley, is a big-time political consultant who advises presidential campaigns, and judging by his speaker’s bureau page and press profile, gets gazillions of dollars just to talk to people. And to write stuff like this.

What am I doing wrong?

Princeton Hillel Ponders Barring Princeton Professor from Speaking at Event on His Own Campus

16 Oct

A PR flack for the Israeli government at Princeton’s Center for Jewish life is thinking of barring a Jewish professor of history at Princeton from speaking at Princeton’s Hillel. Because that professor has the wrong position on Israel.

Inside Higher Ed reports:

As one of the student organizers, Kyle Dhillon, the president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine, explained it, his group and two others – Tigers for Israel and J Street U Princeton – got together at the end of the summer to organize a panel on the Gaza conflict. They planned to invite Princeton professors – including Max Weiss, an associate professor of history and Near Eastern Studies – and they decided to seek co-sponsorship from the university’s Center for Jewish Life, an affiliate of Hillel International.

The center could provide funds and space, Dhillon said, and also lend the event greater legitimacy. “It wouldn’t be a student-only event; it would also have some university weight behind it.”

But Weiss’s inclusion as a potential speaker proved a problem. In a Sept. 8 email to the student organizers, a redacted version of which was provided to Inside Higher Ed, Slav Leibin, a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Hillel, wrote, “I would like to bring to your attention that Max Weiss has recently signed a public statement supporting boycott of Israel. This issue complicates the program for us, as it is Highly sensitive for a CJL [group] to sponsor a program with a speaker who made a statement like this, which is one of the red lines in our Israel policy.”

“Let’s deliberate about this issue in more depth before sending an official invitation,” Leibin’s email continued.

Hillel International’s guidelines for campus-based Israel activities prohibit the organization from partnering with or hosting individuals or groups that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, that deny “the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders” and that otherwise “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” Weiss is among the signatories of an August letter from Middle East studies scholars calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

“When I got word of this about a month later on Oct. 7, I was saddened and concerned to learn that campus life and the exercise of free speech here on campus at Princeton were in fact being policed, monitored and determined in the final analysis by non-academic members of the Princeton community, indeed someone who is here at Princeton with a specifically political and to a lesser extent cultural mandate,” said Weiss, who penned an op-ed titled “Is the Center for Jewish Life stifling free speech on campus?” that was just published in The Daily Princetonian.

Weiss noted in the op-ed that Leibin is on Princeton’s campus through a partnership between Hillel and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit organization: “Although technically autonomous, the JA effectively operates as an advocate for the government of Israel,” Weiss wrote. “For someone representing the JA to bar a member of the Princeton faculty from sharing his or her expertise and perspectives is no more acceptable than it would be for an envoy of the Chinese, Canadian or any other government to do the same.”

According to Hillel’s website, the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows “are charismatic young professionals who have served in the Israel Defense Forces. In their roles on campus, they share personal experiences of modern Israel through the lens of its socially progressive values and its accomplishments in technology, life sciences, and the arts.”

Waiting for all those historians and scholars who were so exercised by the ASA boycott, which would have barred not a single historian from Israel from speaking on an American campus, to raise a fuss about this.

David Greenglass, 1922-2014

14 Oct

David Greenglass has died. Actually, he died over the summer. He was 92.

In the Book of Daniel, there’s an Aramaic phrase for an informer: Akhal Kurtza. Its literal translation is “to eat the flesh of someone else.”

By his own admission, David Greenglass made up testimony that sent his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair. David Greenglass was worse than an informer.

Update (9:30 pm)

In 2001, Greenglass was interviewed by Bob Simon for 60 Minutes. Here’s a brief account of part of that interview.

Why did think Julius and Ethel maintain their silence to the end? Greenglass has an answer: “One word: stupidity. My sister was not very smart about what she did. She should’ve confessed.”

But many saw the Rosenbergs as martyrs. There was great sympathy for Michael and Robert, their two young sons, orphaned by their own uncle.

Greenglass hasn’t seen the Rosenberg children since the trial. What would he say to them today? “I would say I’m sorry that your parents are dead. You’re basically the real victims of those, of the attitude of the people the time of their deaths.”

He would not apologize for his role. “I can’t say that,” he says. “That’s not true. I had no idea they’re gonna give them the death sentence.”

Greenglass says he had affection for his sister, and still does. “I do. I’m sorry, very sorry, that she made such a very bad decision,” he says, laughing. “She should have said “I did’t, I wasn’t a spy, but I, I heard my husband say it.’ That would have been fine.” He holds Ethel responsible for her own death.

At the trial, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer said in his closing remarks, “You may remember this: ‘Any man who will testify against his own flesh and blood, his own sister, is repulsive, revolting.'”

Greenglass is unfazed by this quote. He says he has a clean conscience: “I sleep very well.” He has never visited his sister’s grave, but admits that he has been haunted by his experience 50 years ago. “To some degree, yeah. But every time I’m haunted by it, or say something, my wife says ‘Look, we’re still alive. We have our kids. Everything’s OK.'”

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