Liberalism Agonistes

After a couple of Twitter skirmishes tonight about Alexander Cockburn and his apologetics for the Soviet Union—though see this reconsideration from Cockburn (I’m told there are others in The Golden Age is Within Us; since we’re moving, my copy is now boxed up somewhere in Brooklyn, so I can’t check it out)—I come back to my age-old conundrum about the American liberal.

Why is he or she willing to make his or her peace with the American state—despite all its crimes (crimes acknowledged by liberals!)—yet never willing to make his or her peace with critics like Cockburn, whose only “crime,” if you can call it that, was to apologize for the Soviet Union long past its sell by date? Why so much room at the inn for Truman, JFK, or LBJ—all men with real blood on their hands—while people like Cockburn and Chomsky are denied entry?

I realize this is one of those questions that cuts to the bone of 20th (and apparently 21st!) century politics, and obviously I’m not a completely disinterested party. But I do come to it out of a genuine curiosity—and confusion.

I asked a version of it at the height of the Iraq War.  It got published in The Nation in 2005, but I actually first posed on the eve of the war in a draft of an article that never got published.

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?

I’ve never gotten an answer.

Update (July 24, 10:30 am)

Eric Rauchway has a thoughtful response to this post.  I don’t think he quite gets my point—perhaps because I wasn’t as clear as I could have been—but I’m going to chew on what he says.


  1. Leinad July 24, 2012 at 1:24 am | #

    Isn’t that a trend with liberals of all stripes, from the mid-1800s onwards? Broadly speaking aren’t most liberals usually uncomfortable with mass politics and activism as they offend their conception of politics as a civil dialogue between respectable interlocutors?

    • Corey Robin July 24, 2012 at 1:27 am | #

      That is a tendency within liberalism, yes, but liberalism has also often proven itself not only willing to be pushed beyond itself by those mass movements (the New Liberalism in Britain at the turn of the last century was about that in part) but also willing to work with them — and to see in them a critical source of power.

      • Horza July 24, 2012 at 1:52 am | #

        I’m not hugely familiar with US liberalism (I don’t think many of us non-USians are) but other examples that spring to mind are the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War protests – correct me if I’m wrong, liberals were broadly sympathetic to the first but worried about the radical fringes and in the case of Vietnam were initially largely opposed to the activists – and in bother cases broader establishment liberalism was unwilling to draw support from the movements themselves.

        This would imply to me that moments of liberals working with, and drawing from mass movements are the exceptions, and the posture you decry above, the rule.

  2. Elijah July 24, 2012 at 1:32 am | #

    Corey, are you genuinely surprised by this? Because I would be surprised by your surprise. American liberals (particularly white male liberals) have many, many virtues, but it simply is impossible to confuse them with radicals. The chasm that I see between an American liberal and, say, an Australian liberal (I won’t even mention the Grand Canyon between liberals and radicals) is incredibly, incredibly huge. And speaking as a materialist, we shouldn’t be surprised. Most people have loyalties to systems that have materially benefited them (even if those systems are catastrophically unjust and oppressive elsewhere). Its liberals that pretend that their views are wholly and completely held on principle.

    • Sancho July 24, 2012 at 2:51 am | #

      What’s the chasm between American and Australian liberals (I’m the latter)?

      I see a mostly similar range of values and approaches.

      • Horza July 24, 2012 at 3:26 am | #

        This really hinges on what Elijah means by ‘Australian liberal’ – if he’s using the US definition of the l-word, i.e. ‘left-of-centre’ then an Aussie liberal is somewhat different from a US liberal – a damn sight more statist, for one, and probably not ashamed to say so – but in pretty much the same neighbourhood.

        if he’s referring to the Australian definition ‘socially liberal but favours smaller government’ there’s some overlap with DLC types but Australian liberalism is much more obviously a part of the broad right.

        It’s an interesting comparison, as Australia’s left has come a long way towards the right, especially in the last 30 years, but largely from a position of power and through pragmatic choices informed by a technocratic elite. Despite this, our political culture hasn’t substantially followed the policy consensus and thus you get nominally left-wing Aussies crowing about having implemented cap-and-trade and other orthodox neoliberal policies.

      • Elijah July 24, 2012 at 10:20 am | #

        I meant “liberal” in the U.S. sense, yes. So Australian liberal is someone like John Quiggin. Whatever the great virtues of American liberals, its night and day when he’s compared to, say, Brad DeLong.

  3. ao July 24, 2012 at 1:51 am | #

    I usually defer to phil ochs on this question

    • Phil Scarr July 24, 2012 at 10:13 am | #

      You beat me to it!

    • Ford Prefect July 26, 2012 at 8:58 pm | #

      Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon reprised it and it’s also good:

  4. Paul H. Rosenberg July 24, 2012 at 2:24 am | #

    This is a much better question than some folks seem to realize, precisely because liberals HAVE on occasion aligned with radicals and against the system that largely benefits them. This certainly was the case with a lot of liberals in the 1960s–many of them the same folks Phil Ochs was singing about earlier on in that decade of multitudinous changes. I don’t think there’s any single good answer, but I do think it makes sense to look at situational factors in the political/cultural environment more than dispositional factors in liberals themselves.

    That said, I will add something more specific: I think that someone like Cockburn has a tendency to activate idealist stirrings, even among people who aren’t inclined to act on them. Your average liberal feeling this way will tend to reflect back on Cockburn’s own idealist shortcomings–his apologetics for Stalin–in a way they would never do for some state functionary, whose words and deeds never raise such stirrings in the first place. I’m not just saying that Cockburn made them uncomfortable–though that’s part of what resulted. More fundamentally, he made them more self-aware when they damn well bloody didn’t want to be.

  5. Chris Bertram July 24, 2012 at 2:52 am | #

    The key to the answer is surely in your formulation “even though it was waged by a government” which implicitly characterises the government of a supposedly democratic state as (a) other and alien and (b) enduring. If your mindset is that the government is, in some sense, the people and that each new administration is an opportunity for the people to do the right thing, then matters look quite different. If Reagan supported the Guatemalan dictatorship, then that’s no reason whatsoever to be opposed to “we, the people” overthrowing Saddam. (Perhaps rather the contrary, if the people feels it needs to atone for past crimes done in its name.) That’s the mindset of the “decent left” I think.

  6. Sancho July 24, 2012 at 3:06 am | #

    I think liberals are inconsistent with condemnation because states and governments have great inertia and are answerable to many people, who hold many views, while individuals can simply change their minds and explain why.

    David Keene, for example, can turn around tomorrow and say that he’s been horribly mistaken and now supports gun control measures, for which he would be villified and hated, but can take personal responsibility.

    Governments, on the other hand, can plausibly claim to be limited by circumstances, resources and historical factors. Not that it’s always true, but it’s not so easy for nations to simply have a change of heart.

  7. Benedict@Large July 24, 2012 at 5:27 am | #

    While perhaps not a perfect translation to your question, I think you’ll find at least the seed to your answer in a recent piece at Jacobin by Curtis White on why otherwise liberal philanthropic groups shun certain worthwhile liberal advocacy groups like the plague.

    The Philanthropic Complex

  8. Jeet Heer July 24, 2012 at 8:35 am | #

    Corey: Briefly, the tendency you describe is real and should be criticized. I myself think that both Truman and JFK were wretched foreign policy presidents, and have written as much about JFK — see here:
    And I certainly don’t think anything AC wrote was as bad as the policies HST and JKF enacted.
    Still, even if we are critical of HST and JFK — perhaps especially if we’re critical of HST and JFK — we also need to police any apologetics for state violence from the left. Cockburn for many years tried to excuse away the crimes of Stalin (although as you properly note AC changed significantly on this issue in the last few years of his life. In the grand scheme of things, the harm AC did with his apologetics was minor but it was also real. It wasn’t (unlike the crimes of HST and JFK) harm done to flesh-and-blood people but rather harm done to his own reputation and credibility. AC made it easy for people to dismiss him as a crank and fellow traveler. To me that’s regrettable because I think AC also wrote much that was very valuable indeed and want more people to read.

    • jonnybutter July 24, 2012 at 9:46 am | #

      To build a bit on what Jeet and Paul say:

      There are several moving parts to this phenomenon I think.

      One is that talk/writing – and other protest, even when it’s dangerous to engage in – is in a sense ‘cheaper’ than the kind of political action politicians take. One of the in memorium things said about AC on Counterpunch was that he ‘hated political compromise’. I don’t know that AC himself would ever say something so internally contradictory (practical politics is, to a certain extent, compromise), but it might point to some version of the truth that actual politicians have to compromise in appalling ways all the time. I am not trying to excuse HST, JFK, and the rest, but just noting that comparing argument/criticism/protest with actual in-the-arena political action is apples/oranges. This distinction is manifest in Cockburn’s attempt to rationalize and minimize Stalin’s crimes, for example.

      Another point is that American ‘liberals’ are not now nor were they ever necessarily on what most people would call the ‘Left’. I know this is elementary, but I think it’s pertinent here: the USA is a political product of Weird Olde England, where a putative left/right divide formed which was different from elsewhere in the world – capitalism was generally a given on both left and right in Enlightenment England. I think that carries over to the US to a great extent.

      Groups like ANSWER, and people who apologize for Stalin, have a completely free hand, ideologically. They can take any position at all. They aren’t governing and they aren’t important democratically: they are free in ways that big political parties and major politicians are not. With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why pragmatic left of center people run from them.

      Again, I am not apologizing at all for the cold warriors or neocons. I’m just saying I don’t think the phenomenon in question is very mysterious. It is very interesting though!

  9. Jeremy Nathan Marks July 24, 2012 at 8:58 am | #

    I think this is a great question. I have often wondered if American liberals feel they have to act this way because they are reluctant to see how extreme American conservatives actually are. Or if they see this, they are afraid of conservatives.

    Perhaps this sounds silly but I think that many liberals have a suspicion that the black and white/right and wrong/ good and evil construct that so many conservatives like to use is actually accurate. After 9/11 it seemed as though many liberals were quick to admit that they had not really been willing to see how much evil there was in the world and were prepared to be persuaded. I thought that odd then and still think so now.

    Maybe groups like ANSWERS or the Progressive Party of Henry A. Wallace offer a convenient tagret for liberals who feel that they have to reassure themselves that they are not anti-American.

    Why it is there is this timidity or trepidation is a bit mysterious to me. But I feel like the place to begin is with is the question “are liberals afraid of conservatives?”

  10. Jeremy Nathan Marks July 24, 2012 at 8:58 am | #

    I mean to say “ANSWER.” Whoops.

  11. Richard July 24, 2012 at 9:57 am | #

    I’m surprised by this surprise as well. Liberals believe in the state, period. American liberals in particular believe whole-heartedly in the idea that “America” is a force for good in the world. Any basic criticisms of that idea are anathema. Chomsky’s spent much of his career talking about this very thing.

    • BillW July 24, 2012 at 11:22 am | #

      It’s not every state. It just so happens, that it almost always is their own state whose charms they find so alluring. I remember reading something by that Liberal upholder of “Decent Left” values Michael Walzer to the effect that while states are all legal equals in the world we live in, their “moral equality” is not the same by any stretch of imagination. Given his decades of apologetics of American and Israeli state violence, always with (ineffectual) disclaimers thrown in, it’s no wonder that these are the 2 states that he holds to be on top of the pile when it comes to morality. In other words, his own “Holy States”. Unlike right wingers who can sleep dreamless sleeps at night after a long day’s worth of, say, bulldozing abodes of unworthy races, he is “the kind of liberal who likes to reason his way to a good conscience”.

      This is a mirror image of those who defended violence of the Soviet state against, say, Afghan villagers because the latter were “backward” and the Soviet Union, whatever “excesses” might have been committed as a matter of course, was a force for “progress” in the world. Examples are legion: John Stuart Mill on British violence against India, Alexis de Tocqueville on punitive French operations in North Africa, all the “best and the brightest” who defended the Vietnam War as listed by Chomsky and others, etc., etc.

      • Richard July 24, 2012 at 11:31 am | #

        Well, of course it’s their own state. The whole point of the confusion is why doesn’t it extend to other states.

        It doesn’t just so happen. Liberals are by definition invested in their own state, if that state is presented as a liberal democracy.

        The broader point is that favored/successful intellectuals favor their own state. Simple, really.

      • BillW July 24, 2012 at 11:55 am | #

        I don’t think it necessarily needs to be a particularly openly liberal democratic state either. So long as domestic violence is not too flagrant, a la Pinochet, and the Maximal Leader does not conjure something like a “Night of the Long Knives”, at least without a good fig leaf, they’ll go along with other dispensations too. As recounted by Denis Mack Smith, the great Italian Liberal Benedetto Croce was for well over a decade a well-wisher of Mussolini until things started getting out of hand in the late 30’s. Even Hitler could count on Liberal acquisence for most of his regime, and long term foreign policy aims (expansion and Pax Germanica) were a particular source of concordance between them.

  12. Bill Barnes July 24, 2012 at 10:09 am | #

    It is a major mistake to characterize Answer, Not In My Name and others like them as “Left Wing Groups.” They were (are?) fronts for wacko sectarian groups like the RCP — self-proclaimed “vanguard organizations” — whose ilk have done great harm to the Left over the years. Progressive Labor and others destroyed SDS – doing far more damage than the under-cover FBI and police. The Right loves having these groups available to point at as “The Left.” Of course wackos are often very hard workers with amazing persistance. I’ve participated in demonstrations against U.S. foreign policy that they’ve helped organize for 50 years. But while marching against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I’ve booed their signs and speaches. Center/center-left Liberals are often somewhat open to reasonable argument and debate. The Bob Avakians and their acolytes are not.

    Bill Barnes

  13. david mizner July 24, 2012 at 10:28 am | #

    Good question, one I’ve posed at various fora — such as Lawyers, Guns, and Money — where, for example, most peeps have nothing but fury and hatred for Ralph Nader and blame him for the War in Iraq but exhibit no particular animosity for Hillary Clinton and others who actively pushed for the war. Don’t tell me who you love, tell me who you hate. Cynthia McKinney or Rahm Emmanuel? Dennis Kucinich or Larry Summers?

    Why would many liberals say McKinney and Kucinich? I think Occam provides the answer: because more liberals (progressives) than ever don’t believe in radical politics. They are deeply cynical (or “pragmatic”). They suffer from self-doubt and self-hatred. They have internalized the right’s critique of the sixties. (All those “excesses,” as President Obama puts it.) Hippies embarrass them. (Markos of Daily Kos actively opposed anti-Iraq war protests because, he said, they bring out the freaks.) They admire neoliberals because, say what you will about them, they’ve got power, and power is what impresses progressives. Their theory of change is to elect more and better Democrats. Any other theory is to them fantastical, naive. They say they support OWS, of course of course, but keep urging the movement to focus on legislation and elections. Their number one priority is to reelect President Obama — who, they claim and actually seem to believe — is pretty much the most liberal president we could hope to have.

    They have, in other words, lost hope.

    • David Kaib July 24, 2012 at 10:58 am | #

      The cry of NADER is used to shut down any conversation that includes suggesting alternate strategies or criticism that seems to go too far even if there is no talk of voting for a third party. NADER is used to “police” discourse to make sure that complaining doesn’t lead to rethinking our role (vote for the Dem, give them money on occasion, make phone calls when you’re asked to and exaggerate the [admitted] differences between the parties, repeat all attacks on Romney, and laugh at Palin).

    • Chatham July 24, 2012 at 3:23 pm | #

      I think I agree with about half of what you say. I doubt the anger against Nader is merely a power issue, I’d say it’s more tribalism (he’s not an insider). And I’ve heard from a number of people that shy away from protests and things like OWS because of the type of people that are attracted to it. If you’re trying to actually bring about change, alienating large groups of people should make you reconsider your tactics.

      But you’re right that many view politics like they do sports. They have their team, they sit at home and root for their time, and get pissed off when they lose. When the games over, they switch off the TV.

      • David Kaib July 24, 2012 at 6:54 pm | #

        The problem with this is that those same people find the act of protest delegitimizing for the most part. Otherwise they would organize their own protests.

        Protests need to add supporters, but they don’t need to be popular, to work. By design, they tend to make people uncomfortable. Their power comes in contesting what was previously for granted, and forcing people to takes sides where they might prefer a more ambiguous stance.

        That said, it’s worth remembering that Occupy did better than the Tea Party in polls and it wasn’t lack of popular support but rather government repression that dislodged it.

      • Chatham July 24, 2012 at 8:22 pm | #

        I don’t think most of those people find protests delegitimizing, but rather pointless. I also think most people are too lazy or disengaged to organize their own even if they thought protests were great.

        Protests should have some idea of what their goals are. The three main reasons I can think of to protest is to:

        1. Cause the collapse of the government (happens in some countries but won’t happen here).
        2. Gather and organize people on your side.
        3. Draw attention to your side (to gather more supporters or get more people talking about things).

        These require protests to be part (and maybe not even that big of a part) of a larger strategy, but all too often that larger strategy seems to be missing.

        Occupy was dislodged physically by government repression in most places, though they ended up leaving areas they weren’t forced out of as well. Many of the camps were in pretty bad shape towards the end. Their drop in public support was due to the sense that they were disorganized, ineffective, and sensationalistic. And internally I think the more reasonable and productive members started to leave as things dragged on.

        It does seem like they’re a greater focus on going into the community since the camping was stopped. And the more productive members seem to be able to function better now that they’re doing more of their own thing (though there still seems to be a lot of drama there). And compared to many other groups, at least Occupiers have some people trying (and sometimes succeeding) at making a difference.

  14. Frank July 24, 2012 at 10:43 am | #

    Isn’t liberalism the ideology for those with a conscience, but for whom the suffering masses are always the “other.” That is, if I’ve experienced inequality, exclusion, etc.. myself (ie if these things happen to me), I might become a radical (I might not, I might in fact become a conservative, but the possibility of radicalism is there; whereas, if I’ve experienced these problems as things that have occurred to “others” (because I’m white, and not black, middle class, and not poor), I become a liberal?

    Hopefully this doesn’t sound trite, as it’s not intended that way. I think liberalism and strands of radicalism are often similar in content, but motivate different degrees of action and critique. This, in turn, reflects whether or not I can imagine the state as something in which I have felt, or might one day feel, comfortable.

  15. Chatham July 24, 2012 at 10:48 am | #

    Corey –

    If this confuses you, ask yourself who would you view more harshly – people who write in favore of fascism, or Barack Obama? You are correct that the former merely uses words, while the latter has actually committed violent acts. But we pay attention to the fact that the former tries to to themselves to something that has been much more violent, and the reason they only use words is because words is all they have. The former is also an outlier, while the latter does not fall on the extreme ends of state violence.

    Also, in Chomsky’s case, it raises questions about how much you can trust what he writes.

    • Mitchell Freedman July 25, 2012 at 10:12 am | #

      To say “it raises questions about how much you can trust what he (Chomsky) writes” is the cheap way to attack Chomsky. I can guarantee you’ve read hardly anything of Chomsky and just rely on the propaganda against him.

      Chomsky and Cockburn were great writers and polemicists who allowed a reader to filter their conclusions or opinions from their facts, who were meticulous in citing their sources and in the last fifteen years of the Internet, allowing us to find those sources relatively easily. And what I found with Chomsky and slightly lesser but still most often with Cockburn, their sources were authoritative and knowledgeable.

      • Chatham July 25, 2012 at 11:08 am | #

        Do you always make the assumption that people who disagree with you must be ignorant?

      • BillW July 25, 2012 at 11:47 am | #

        Reminds me of something from a review of Terror and Liberalism:

        In ten pages, Berman manages to make more, and more serious, errors of fact and logic than Chomsky has made in 10,000. An impressive performance.

      • Mitchell Freedman July 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm | #

        Apropos Chatam below, who asks if I always assume people who disagree with me are ignorant. My answer: No, only with certain people…like you. Your response is the equivalent of Sarah Palin saying “You think you’re so smart.” What have you read of Chomsky that would support your statement?

      • Chatham July 25, 2012 at 2:09 pm | #

        I used to read Chomsky ~10 years ago, and found him well informed by usually presenting only the information that backed up his side. I remember articles about Haiti and Aristide that papered over problems with the Aristide government. Also Chomsky’s writing about the Khmer Rouge, but I only read that a long time after the controversy. Still, I think it’d be foolish not to take that into account.

        But I suppose this doesn’t matter because you can guarantee me that I’ve never read anything by Chomsky and rely on propaganda against him. Because we all know that if people were just exposed to “The Truth,” they’d all think exactly the same way (which just happens to be your way).

      • Mitchell Freedman July 25, 2012 at 8:22 pm | #

        Let’s recall your point was that in Chomsky’s case, “it raises questions about how much you can trust what he (Chomsky) writes…” Yet, you now admit, in the course of admitting what you have read of Chomsky, that he is well informed, but that he presented only his side. If that is the basis of your criticism, then that would negate the legitimacy of nearly every opinion writer, something I really doubt you believe. Your new ground for criticism is exposed as vacant. Instead, your criticism was really designed to delegitimize Chomsky for those who are unfamiliar with him. I guess you’re not really ignorant, but you appear now to be dishonest in your criticism of Chomsky.

      • Chatham July 25, 2012 at 9:12 pm | #

        “If that is the basis of your criticism, then that would negate the legitimacy of nearly every opinion writer, something I really doubt you believe.”

        It really depends on the writer. I find that if it’s someone like Paul Krugman, I feel that I can trust his writing without looking up the evidence myself (for most things). For people like James Carville or Charles Krauthammer, I don’t feel like I can trust what they write because I know they often put ideology/party loyalty first. If that makes me a dishonest person who relies on propaganda in your eyes, well, I can’t really help you there.

  16. swallerstein July 24, 2012 at 10:54 am | #

    My impression, from a distance, is that U.S. liberals, unlike anti-imperialists like Chomsky, see U.S. foreign policy as basically well-intentioned (with God on their side),
    with some unfortunate mistakes, that they believe in American particularism and that America is basically, as Ricards says above, a force for good and that it’s somehow different when “we” torture and when “they” do.

  17. troy grant July 24, 2012 at 1:35 pm | #

    The definition of “liberal” has been confused to the point that liberals have changed their name to “progressive”. Older progressives still adhere to the old definition of “conservative” meaning frugal, careful, traditional instead of the new definition of war mongering, war profiteering, corporate criminal, stupid, greedy, racist, etc. Some tend to blame liberals for the actions of neo-liberals and other conservatives. Others still think that Stalin and Pol Pot were liberals, instead of left wing conservatives. The oligarchy has long employed deceivers and demonizers to stay in power. By confusing the definition of “liberal”, these paleocons with their useful idiots have pulled the wool over many liberal’s eyes.

  18. Chris July 24, 2012 at 3:43 pm | #

    Liberals believe the West in the Cold War was good and the East evil. It’s crap, of course, but they’re simple thinkers.

    • BillW July 24, 2012 at 6:22 pm | #

      Liberals believe the West in the Cold War was good and the East evil.

      They may believe that, but some of the more fruitful analyses of the Cold War itself portray it as part of a much older North-South conflict (PDF). Pre WW-I Russia, even though military seemingly powerful, was a peasant society with 20% literacy whose very pretensions of being an equal player on the stage of European industrial powers were to be ripped to shreds within 6 weeks of onset of hostilities:

      …“the tragedy of Cold War history…was that two historical projects that were genuinely anticolonial in their origins became part of a much older pattern of domination.” For Westad, the Cold War was not simply a matter of East versus West but of East and West versus South.

      Also, many scholars date the beginning of the Cold War to end of WWI, instead of WWII.

  19. Bill July 24, 2012 at 8:18 pm | #

    “The broader point is that favored/successful intellectuals favor their own state.”

    I think this is generally true and that intellectuals, using that term in the strict sense, are loath to admit this because they prefer to fashion themselves as rebels against the status quo. But I often find that most of them don’t really challenge but rather voice variations or extensions of their society’s values. The true rebels are few and far between.

    • swallerstein July 24, 2012 at 9:43 pm | #


      So true what you say…..

  20. matt July 25, 2012 at 8:41 am | #

    Could you refine the question by comparing politicians to politicians, or else writers to writers?

  21. jonnybutter July 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm | #

    @Chatham/Freedman and Chomsky:

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the basic Liberal (I guess) criticism of Chomsky is that he’s always the same – sees every problem and every event as further evidence for always-the-same-thesis. That he might have ‘gotten something wrong’ here and there is perhaps less important, in this analysis, than just having committed sins of omission – in other words, being boringly one-note. I have some sympathy for this position. I think, as Cockburn was not the first to notice, that being boring can be a political act. AC was talking about the McNeil Leherer News Hour back in the day, but both tactical and strategic boringness has long since been refined into an rather exquisite social science; it’s not just tv and politicians who are boring now. The whole culture is like a straining tumescence of boredom which everyone is afraid to touch..don’t touch it!!! DON’T TOUCH IT!!

    Professor Chomsky is a far more brilliant person than I could even hope to be, but even on his side of the Divide, being boring – which is of course not intentional on *his* part! – is a political problem. Maybe it’s not his fault so much as it is that there have been so few true radical voices in the US in the last 30 years. Crying in the wilderness can make you sounds repetitive I guess.

    • Chatham July 25, 2012 at 4:01 pm | #

      Kind of. I’d say he tries to force everything through one worldview, and when it doesn’t fit he tries to make it fit (at least, that’s what it seemed like when I was reading him). It’s a view that doesn’t get enough coverage and sometimes works well, but not always. Still, I wouldn’t say that being boring is his problem, as I’d take his work over a contrarian’s any day. Perhaps it’s more that he doesn’t seem to look at his own assumptions critically enough.

      • jonnybutter July 25, 2012 at 10:08 pm | #

        ….I wouldn’t say that being boring is [Chomsky’s] problem, as I’d take his work over a contrarian’s any day.

        The implication that our only two choices are grey, repetitive, avalanche of Truth-data, or the cheap excitement of contrarianism, is a kind of restatement of my point about boringness, namely this is a false, and boring, choice. My problem with Chomsky is that his work doesn’t have a worldview, or a life-view – it has a thesis which is endlessly, droningly supported.

      • jonnybutter July 26, 2012 at 8:58 am | #

        Different thread, sort of, but not really:

        I just read the Ridgeway obit to AC linked-to below. He recalls a tiff in which Cockburn, reaching for a potent insult, calls Mother Jones“…the most boring magazine in the world”. It’s a very serious insult, I’d say.

  22. Thomas Nephew July 25, 2012 at 3:02 pm | #

    Is it just me or is it impossible to read Rauchway’s response at the Chron of Higher Ed.?
    carry on

    • silbey July 25, 2012 at 8:50 pm | #

      Only those with the proper revolutionary spirit may view Comrade Rauchway’s post. Brother, are you a Menshevik?

  23. jonnybutter July 26, 2012 at 11:48 am | #

    Thanks (yet again) to BillW for linking to one of the best short reviews of Terror and Liberalism (in the most boring…..sorry, in The Nation) by the excellent George Scialabba. One of the points he makes is that Berman, as opposed to Chomsky, writes seductively, and so is not at all boring to read; he’s just wrong a lot, and often preposterously so. In fact, though Scialabba doesn’t say this, it seems to me that Berman’s book, which I remember pretty well, embodies what he claims to be afraid of – dark anti-rationalism, romanticism, etc., made all the worse for its being written in a mock-academic (i.e. putatively rationalist) style. It’s the subtle, intellectual analogue to the more simple minded political reaction after 9/11 of Bush/Cheney, wherein the US gov. consciously imitated its enemy.

    I don’t criticize Chomsky in the spirit Berman does – to delegitimize him. I’m just glad that we have some newer voices on the scene – like the host of this blog and some of the (other) Jacobin-types – who write with a little more brio and humor. I don’t know that it’s his fault, but Chomsky’s anti-imperialism/anti-capitalism sounds like a hopeless cause quite a bit of the time, and hopeless/lost causes have their own unfortunate seductive qualities – e.g. they can reinforce stasis. I’m glad we’re having a sort of reformation on the American Left. High time!

  24. Foppe July 26, 2012 at 12:30 pm | #

    Corey: You might enjoy these reviews of The Dark Knight Rises. Quote from the latter:

    As Scott observes, however, “[h]aving Batman battle a reluctant Gotham while he unredistributes Bruce Wayne’s wealth would have been far more interesting but ideologically far too complicated.” It is a measure of Hollywood/Nolan’s chicken-shittedness — in that they love the spectacle of reactionary counter-revolution but don’t have the heart to show us dead leftists — that the entire 5 month period of “occupation” is resolved with barely a trace of lingering hard feelings, that after 5 months of dividing Gotham between collaborators and the resistance, everybody’s happy to just call it a day and worship the bat statue or something. The thing that made the first two movies good was the way Bruce Wayne became the terrorist and Batman became both torturer and operator of a mass surveillance system; it was exactly the point that in fighting the villain, he became the villain. If this movie had any guts, it would have — and almost did — show us Batman fighting against the people of Gotham: as they fall under the spell of Bane’s message of radical wealth redistribution, and as they turn against what used to be the status quo, the only thing Batman would find himself able to do is kill the bejeezus out of whole bunches of them. It mostly pulls back from that; the people we see the cops beating up are not citizens, but a hyper organized criminal conspiracy.

  25. Peter Hovde July 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm | #

    Not defending the people who wouldn’t march because of ANSWER, but to examine the analogy, let’s consider two hypothetical statements:

    1. “I dislike and distrust ANSWER, and so I won’t join marches they’re involved in-I can express my opposition to the Iraq war in other ways.”

    2. “I dislike and distrust the people running my government, and so I oppose their launching an invasion of Afghanistan-I can fight the Taliban and Al-Quaida in other ways.”

    The first of these statements makes at least some sense, whereas the second does not, because the hypothetical liberal can’t really do the “others ways” part.

    • Corey Robin July 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm | #

      Ah, but notice how you subtly change the terms of comparison. In hypo 1, you say “I can express my opposition….in other ways” In 2, you say, “I can fight…in other ways.” And that’s how you generate the conclusion you get. If however the terms of comparison remain the same, you get other conclusions. I’ll also add that many of the liberals I’m talking about who opposed the war and refused to march said expressly that they didn’t feel like there were other ways; they wanted a different anti-war movement b/c they felt like a movement is what you need to oppose a war (and not simply express your opposition to a war, which any individual can do.)

      • Peter Hovde July 26, 2012 at 4:05 pm | #

        I didn’t know about liberals taking these kinds of stands, and I guess if they were saying this in private then they really didn’t feel like they had other ways. A movement does not necessarily have to have a singular associational center-if people wanted to join in opposition to the war they could try to come up with small but attention grabbing protests not affiliated with the group(s) they found objectionable, and of course if they had public followings their expression could constitute movement activity in any case. To the extent people just didn’t go to marches and also didn’t do anything else but express to their friends, then I agree their position was not defensible.

        I think I could substitute “fight” for “express opposition” in the first sentence, and there would still be the difference. Or “struggle” could work in both. It would remain the case that the range of plausible and meaningful methods of struggle are different in the two situations.

  26. Corey Robin July 26, 2012 at 4:10 pm | #

    Peter Hovde: But if you’re willing to take such an ecumenical view of the many ways one can struggle against the war in Afghanistan, then surely you can take an equally ecumenical view of the many ways one can struggle against, say, the Taliban. After all, there was an opposition to the Taliban before the US decided to invade Afghanistan. Feminists, for one, were in the leadership of that opposition, both in and outside Afghanistan. RAWA was an organization that many American feminists supported throughout the late 90s, giving donations, and such. It might not have been the most effective opposition, but then again, neither would a “small but attention grabbing protest” have been. After all, there were large but attention grabbing protests, and they had no effect whatsoever.

    • Peter Hovde July 26, 2012 at 5:02 pm | #

      I think of it in terms of threshold plausibility-will the people against whom I am struggling have any reason to give even the tiniest crap about my actions, or aggregations of actions like mine? It’s true that non-violent protest, small scale or big, did not stop the Iraq war, but the idea of such protest making a difference was not nearly as farcical as the idea that such protest would have any impact on the behavior of the Taliban or Al-Queda.

      • Brahmski July 27, 2012 at 9:31 am | #

        1) Eric Rauchway is right. 2) Horrible cover of Phil Ochs. The original of that silly piece of slander is bad enough. Ironically it’s the Beautiful Souls of the uber-far-left who think in terms of wanting to be loved by everyone for their self-righteous fake moral purity–and so they project this motivation onto others who are in fact much more willing to take the difficult, morally complex sorts of positions that frequently entail precisely not being loved by those who regard Chomsky as an oracle and Ochs/Biafra/Nixon as barometers of whom to sneer at. 3) I attended some of those ANSWER-organized rallies and found the rhetoric so distasteful as well as stupid (“White People Go Back to Europe,” as I seem to recall, was the theme of one of the speakers in San Francisco) that I refused to march beside those nutbag Third-Worldist antisemites out of sheer embarrassment. Separating myself from them, in other words, was as easy as recalling what made the Weather Underground a bad idea back when the issue was another war, and how to destroy a decent left-progressive movement with nonsense. 4) Your question which you never got an ANSWER too, in other words, is another shallow exercise in moral equivalence. If politics didn’t involve dirty hands, they wouldn’t call it politics. It would just be morals writ large, and anyone who did a “bad” thing of the sort that a 10 year old girl would shudder at could properly be refused admittance to the in(n) crowd on that basis by the Ivy League Left gatekeepers of the faith. 5) But since politics is politics, Stalin and LBJ, like Saddam and George W, remain qualitatively different kinds and not only different by degrees–as do therefore Cockburn and Hitchens.

Leave a Reply