The War and the Intellectuals, Revisited

Agnes Heller*** I had the opportunity to write this paper for the 2008 Historians Against the War conference. I lightly revised it to present it here since I feel the piece is the foundation for events today dealing with Russia, Syria, and the Middle East, particularly the saber-rattling against Russia. Liberal hawks and neocons share one thing: American military intervention as a form of state terrorism against international law and diplomacy.

Source: The War and the Intellectuals, Revisited

Autonomy, the State, and Authoritarianism in the United States Presidential Election of 2016

castoriadis-in-paris

Back in late January, I knew the election misinformation campaign resembled the mass persuasion phenomenon that the Frankfurt School had studied and theorized so thoroughly, given the fact that the reputable polls could not have been so erroneous. It pointed to other factors that had skewed the polls.

Source: Autonomy, the State, and Authoritarianism in the United States Presidential Election of 2016

The War and the Intellectuals, Revisited

Agnes Heller

*** I had the opportunity to write this paper for the 2008 Historians Against the War conference. I lightly revised it to present it here since I feel the piece is the foundation for events today dealing with Russia, Syria, and the Middle East, particularly the saber-rattling against Russia. Liberal hawks and neocons share one thing: American military intervention as a form of state terrorism against international law and diplomacy. Let’s not forget that Obama denied Evelyn Farkas’ recommendations to commit US ground troops to Syria and to arm the Ukrainians against Russia, thus averting the US to war on three fronts while trying to extricate the US from Bush II’s Middle East Wars ***

“American power can be turned to good ends or bad”

George Packer, New York Times Magazine, 2002

In December 2002, the journalist George Packer published a feature piece describing a new breed of leftist, “the Liberal Hawks,” in the New York Times Magazine. Schooled in the “realpolitik” of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, these liberals decisively broke away from the anti-imperialist and pacifist far Left. “These writers and academics wanted to use American military power to serve goals like human rights and democracy – especially when it was clear that nobody else would do it,” said Packer, since they were “the ones who have done the most thinking and writing about how American power can be turned to good ends as well as bad, who don’t see human rights and democracy as idealistic delusions, and who are struggling to figure out Iraq.” The liberal hawks were a diverse array of neoliberals and right-socialists across the spectrum of the Left, including Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Michael Walzer, David Rieff, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Kazin, and, of course, Packer himself. Reared in the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and student social movements of the 1960s, the civil wars of the Balkans had caused them to support U.S. military intervention in protracted conflicts where human rights could be protected and to prevent massacres of civilian populations. In Packer’s mind, these skeptical liberals “advocated a new role for America in the world, which came down to American power on behalf of American ideals.”[1]

The liberal hawks embraced American military hegemony to protect and expand the Liberal-Democratic world order, and positioned themselves between the neo-conservative foreign policy interventionists of the Project for a New American Century who entered George W. Bush’s administration, and the anti-imperialist and anti-war American Left, which to them, “continued to view any U.S. military action as imperialist.”[2] They believed that American power and wealth could be wielded benignly, and that multilateral international politics and military intervention should be used to unseat dictators around the world. With the United States often seen as aggressive, and the Europeans viewed as complacent of monarchs and dictators in the Middle East and elsewhere, the liberal hawks’ vision constituted a type of neoliberal internationalism akin to their youthful Marxist internationalism. Their vision united the stance of the anti-totalitarian Left of Cold War America, grouped around Dissent Magazine and The Partisan Review, and influenced by Hannah Arendt’s critique of totalitarianism and the Marxist disillusionment with Stalinism. In their call for humanitarian intervention through military action, the liberal hawks, notably Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, and David Rieff, offered little more than the militaristic and interventionist utopianism of the Bush II Administration.[3] Their vision leaves little solace for progressives, Marxists, and socialists because of its morally compromised politics of promoting peace through warfare. The liberal hawks’ call for militarized, humanitarian intervention abandons the traditional anti-militaristic and pacifist ideologies of the American Left for a reformulated Cold War anti-totalitarianism. When the liberal hawks elicit criticism for their stances, they have been immune to their critics by assuming a flimsy moral high ground. Under critical scrutiny, the liberal hawks instead have resorted to questioning their critic’s patriotism and pacifist principles. They mock non-violence, pacifism, international law, and diplomatic solutions to global conflicts.

Unlike previous anti-war intellectuals like Randolph Bourne, A.J. Muste, and Louis Adamic, the liberal hawks choose a militaristic patriotism over a critical patriotism. They elide the ethical theory in the foundation of political philosophy that questions the morality of war and the promotion of state violence and state terrorism.[4] The liberal hawks decided against history by ostracizing a usable past for the critique of military interventionism, state terrorism, and official warfare. The tradition of the American Left offers the richest theoretical perspectives and political ideologies of non-violence and pacifism from the Spanish American War to Vietnam and beyond. Since the liberal hawks display transnational neoliberal and cosmopolitan pretensions, it is interesting they also steer clear of the rich French post-Marxism of the 1950s and 1960s represented by the work of Cornelius Castoriadis, Henri Lefebvre, and other dissident Marxist intellectuals writing during their youth after proud excommunications from the PCF for “theoretical heresies.” Younger Left anti-war activists have found this puzzling since many found intellectual and moral nourishment in the earlier, principled writings of the liberal hawks. Many scratch their heads, for example, when they read the following comment on confronting radical Islamists by Christopher Hitchens: “You want to be a martyr? I’m here to help you.” In its promotion of violence and death, such a statement follows the same, sickening logic as terrorist merchants of death. For a small, influential group of public intellectuals, sound assessments and critical judgments about the war in Iraq are necessary prerequisites to create confidence in their work among politicians, policy analysts, scholars, and the general reading public. Instead, those segments of our society are bombarded with pamphleteer-style publications and calls to arms in the repackaged Huntington thesis of a “clash of civilizations” in the form of “Islamofascism” coming from these political operators. It is unfortunate their work has been given so many platforms and outlets in the major media.[5]

Pacifism’s Usable Past

“Peacefulness of being at war”

Randolph Bourne, 1917

With the Iraq War of the recent past, liberal and socialist intellectuals in the United States relive another episode of a segment of the Left pitting itself against the other segments to promote military intervention. The classic case is John Dewey’s support of Wilsonian intervention during World War I that need not be told again in detail. Writing in both the Dial and Seven Arts from 1915-1919, Randolph Bourne effectively turned Dewey’s pragmatism against his colleague. He argued that during wartime “one’s pragmatic conscience moves in a vacuum. There is no leverage to clutch. To a philosopher of the creative intelligence, the fact that war blots out the choice of ends and even of means should be the final argument against its use as a technique for any purpose whatever – War is just that absolute situation which is its own end and its own means, and which speedily outstrips the power of intelligent and creative control.”[6] Bourne was no idealist, but a hard-headed empiricist. He shared little enthusiasm for the war and believed little social gain would be realized from the effort, although domestically some reform came from the mobilization for war. Bourne believed this intoxication of intellectuals for war as succumbing to “the war technique.” He berated the intellectuals of his time for abandoning ethical means to achieve democratic ends, “War in the interests of democracy!” and how they happened upon their “new-found Sabbath ‘peacefulness of being at war!’” Bourne called for the responsibility of intellectuals, especially those with large public platforms, to exercise skepticism in the face of US and allied war propaganda. Intellectuals needed to practice precision and acuity in their judgments, but rather he found among the intelligentsia that “simple, unquestioning action has superseded the knots of thought.” Similar to John Dewey, even progressives like Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and Alice Hamilton initially opposed the war but came to support it with a mix of loyalty and trepidation. History bore out that they were wrong to support the war. Given the intense carnage and destruction of WWI, the resulting “ends” of the peace such as reparations and national boundary/ethnic disputes were never realized in the “means” of Dewey’s democratic internationalism. Liberal progressives, yesterday and today, have deluded themselves around of the question of peace as war. The world was no safer for democracy through the League of Nations than the balance of power diplomacy pioneered by Theodore Roosevelt during the Progressive Era.[7]

World War II presented a unique situation for social democratic, socialist, and Marxist activists and intellectuals to connect the fight against German, Italian, and Japanese fascism with social justice, racial equality, and social democracy at home. The totalitarian policies of first world nations gone awry presented the context for real action and political commitment. In the popular front journal Common Ground (1940-1949), the organ for the Common Council for American Unity, the war aims presented by the Roosevelt administration inspired an interracial and cross-class vision to jolt the status quo into delivering the radical promise of American democracy. Louis Adamic, the journal’s first editor, felt uncomfortable with FDR’s call for “total defense” and preferred the term “inclusive defense” for Americans: “all people of the country, will have to be drawn, not forced in any way, but drawn, inspired into full participation in the effort ahead, which will include armament, but also – in fact, especially – a wide-flung and deep-reaching offensive for democracy within our own borders and our own individual makeups.” He believed the Left should not advance an “against program – mere ‘anti-fascism,’ mere ‘anti-totalitarianism’ is insufficient” and “may itself result in fascism and totalitarianism.” Adamic knew well his Eighteenth Brumaire. During the war, gross revocations of civil liberties occurred at home, ranging from racial discrimination in wartime employment, white violence against racial minorities across the country, State repression of internal political radicals, to a revived Nativism that had gone into eclipse during the Great Depression. Adamic believed this type of hysteria emanating from the war effort and anti-communism brought undo scrutiny to foreign nationals (German, Italian, Japanese) residing in the U.S. “All of these people must be considered and helped to become identified with America as a country and an ideal,” he said, “They can be aided only by education and through the inclusive enhancement of our democracy.”[8]

Particularly troublesome was the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (Smith Act) that made it mandatory for alien residents in the U.S. to file a statement of their political beliefs, occupational status, and personal information. It also made illegal the advocacy of changing the republican form of government in the United States. Mere dissent and protest against the U.S. government served as a pretext for deportation. Aimed at Left wing political parties, Alan Cranston (the future Democratic senator from California) believed the act had the unfortunate result of punishing foreign-born Americans, for “still others are not only barred from citizenship but are subject to deportation, because they entered the U.S. without inspection, or because they overstayed temporary visas when war prevented them from returning to homelands that by now, in some cases, have vanished from the map.”[9] A.J. Muste, leader of the Christian pacifist movement during WW2, believed the war had unleashed the worst revocation of civil liberties in American history, evidenced by the War Powers Act that gave the US government unprecedented authority to control news and information, allowed for the internment of Japanese Americans on the Pacific Slope and German Americans in the Great Plains, and allowed the government to seize the property of foreign nationals. The reorganization of American politics and culture on martial grounds was rapid and fiercely Mativist.

On the West Coast, besides Japanese internment, race riots against Chicano youth by US servicemen erupted in Los Angeles in 1943 in the Zoot Suit Riots. Carey McWilliams, the west coast public intellectual, saw the riots as particularly troubling, unleashed by the forces of reaction created by wartime legislation curtailing civil liberties. He indicated that there were two theories about the riots circulated by the L.A. Times, “first, that ‘subversive groups’ in Los Angeles had organized them; and, second, that ‘the gangs are the result of mollycoddling of racial groups.” The L.A. incidents touched off racial rioting in midsummer 1943 in San Diego, Philadelphia, Chicago, Evansville, Indiana, Beaumont, Texas, Harlem, and the deadly riots in Detroit on June 20-21. In the call for wartime sacrifice to save democracy from the rise of fascism, the federal government had unleashed the violent forces of Nativism, white nationalism, and vigilantism with few provisions for the promise of democracy at home. McWilliams warned L.A. mayor Fletcher Bowron the racial rioting needed quick resolution since the Axis propaganda machine in Latin America would exploit the incidents. It is also no coincidence that the white nationalist and white supremacist rioting touched off an unprecedented Leftist, wildcat strike-wave in the U.S. labor movement against major industrial employers, fully conscious that the war was not about the promotion of participatory democracy or social and racial justice, but rather the maintenance of the US empire and its extended global interests for markets, investment, and geostrategy.[10]

During the social turbulence and escalation of the war in Vietnam in the early 1970s, the political philosopher John Homer Schaar envisioned a critical patriotism in the American Review, entitled “The Case for Patriotism.” Thoughtful and with great moral clarity, Schaar believed the nationalism and anti-nationalism spawned by the Vietnam War required formation of a radical patriotism rooted in participatory democracy and a non-martial ethic. The younger generation’s anti-patriotic appeals to oppose the war in Vietnam often alienated the “silent majority” and “hard hats” that would come to eventually support Richard Nixon in 1968. Student radicals within with the civil rights movements believed Vietnam was a matter for liberals to settle while they tried to mobilize the poor to overthrow capitalism. The emerging anti-imperialist Left found ways to confront both the war and the social and economic system that had created it. Increasing militancy to oppose the war rather than radicalism unnerved both student activists and civil rights leaders due to specters and incidents of violence.[11] Schaar believed a new, covenanted patriotism could break the ugly martial nationalism, disguised as containing the threat of communism in East Asia that justified the massive destruction and torching of the civil population and landscape in Vietnam.

He invoked the words of Lincoln on the sacrifice and forgetting of the revolutionary war to preserve liberty and self-government, and the danger of those ambitious and self-interested politicians to promote historical amnesia as the foundation for uncritical patriotism. Schaar believed Lincoln’s patriotism, which was not granted to humanity as natural but as both a noble idea and citizen activity, “sets a mission and provides a standard of judgment. It tells us when we are acting justly and it does not confuse martial fervor with dedication to country.” As both idea and activity in a culturally-diverse nation, Schaar noted this conception of patriotism “calls kin all who accept the authority of the covenant – this covenanted patriotism assigns America a teaching mission among the nations, rather than a superiority over or a hostility toward them. This patriotism is compatible with the most generous humanism.” These are echoes of Randolph Bourne’s optimism in his iconic essay, “Transnational America.” Viewing the escalation of the Vietnam War by Nixon and the destruction of North Vietnam by the massive, carpet-bombing campaigns, Schaar notes that America’s mission in Vietnam is pointless as it destroys the attachments to place held by the Vietnamese and the death of their kin, giving them no hope for the future, and breeding resentment of the US. He believed Americans should have been more outraged by these atrocities filtered through the lens of racial hatred and the lack of sympathy for those uprooted by the war, and to exercise their critical patriotism at home for economic and racial justice, for “liberalism and capitalism corrupted the covenant, while racism denied it to large groups of the population.” A “teaching mission” of American democracy delivered by M-16s and B-52 carpet bombing raids will never endear a sovereign people to the United States, and Americans should express outrage and take to the streets when politicians devise foreign policies that advocate peace through war and desensitize the American people to state terrorism and violence through patriotism.[12]

Twilight of Ideals for the Liberal Hawks

“Pacifism is always a potentially immoral stand”

Jeffrey Issac, Dissent Magazine, 2002

The recent war in Iraq has polarized the American intellectual scene once again during the long twentieth century. The 1960s generation of neo-conservative intellectuals and former New Left, neoliberal hawks have come to a consensus for intervening in Iraq through the “war on terror” and “humanitarian intervention,” which are keywords in their lexicon that serve as cover for promoting state terrorism and violence, and the expiration of international law. This strange confluence of conservative anti-isolationism and liberal interventionism has collapsed the poles of traditional pro-militarism and anti-imperialism founded during the Cold War. The road to the Iraq War pulled conservatives from Nixon Era multilateralism (perfected by Henry Kissinger) and offered Left liberals their own generation’s version and fervor of the Spanish Civil War. For liberal hawks, the extention of the liberal-democratic order through war in Iraq serves as “other-directed” activity since they’ve given up on the progressive aspects of domestic social reform. Militarized humanitarianism also re-energizes at middle age their violent and masculine, youthful fantasies of militancy when they idolized figures such as Chè Guevara, Mao Tse Tung, Régis Debray, Fidel Castro, the Weathermen, and the Red Army Faction among others militant, radical Left wing organizations. They are not armchair intellectuals even in their 60s, but “men” of action ready for an orgy of violence at another’s expense! For the liberal hawks, Paul Berman stands out as the leader of New Left defection towards the right-wing and humanitarian militarism in his popular books Terror and Liberalism (2003), Power and the Idealists (2005), A Tale of Two Utopias (1996). Christopher Hitchens and an ambivalent Todd Gitlin also join this group of well-known public intellectuals.

A gifted, indeed brilliant, polemicist, Berman charts a path in his trilogy from the radical democratic, anti-totalitarianism of Eastern European dissidents like Václav Havel, to the differing political legacies and styles of Bernard Kouchner and Joschka Fischer regarding youthful activism. His books chart the path from political intervention in the Balkans and Iraq, to the rise of the radical Islamist movements based on the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the aesthetics and politics of Islamist terror represented by al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam. His corpus of work contains a generational tone that highlights the decline of the Leftist idealism of the New Left from the 1960s to the early 2000s. To neoliberals such as Berman, the 1960s social movement activism did not quite work out as well as those student activists had hoped, and are thus worthless. His judgments in A Tale of Two Utopias makes one feel guilty to still believe in political activism let alone Marxism or socialism because all activisms are extremisms, and all Marxisms are totalitarianisms riven with a cult of violence notably Mao and Chè, but also his own. The individual rights revolution for racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and immigrants cannot create a universal sense of social justice in his mind. And political radicalism in the United States masquerades as subjective, individualized forms of psychotherapy for overly-entitled Americans compared to the deprivation and persecution of the Eastern Bloc dissidents until 1989-1992. Berman believes, overall, that “along with the cultural transformations came, almost everywhere, a feeling of bafflement. There was bafflement that a movement so grand and touching in its motives as the student leftism of the 1960s could have degenerated and disappeared so quickly.” In his view, idealism turned to ideology, radical visions to radical extremism, and freedom to violence. In most ways, this is far from the truth about the legacy of 1960s social activism and the individual rights revolution that was the direct legacy of the pre-World War 2 Civil Rights Movement.[13]

Berman continued to explore “The ‘68’ers” in Power and the Idealists, Or The Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath, examining the impulses for humanitarian intervention between two typical social activists of the 1968 generation, the German Green Party’s foreign minister and vice chancellor Joschka Fischer, and the maverick physician Bernard Kouchner. Berman describes each man’s responses to totalitarian regimes and human crises in the post-Cold War World, namely Bosnia, Kosovo, and the recent war in Iraq. What emerges is a portrait of student radicals, reared in the working class, youth movements of postwar Europe, who chose different paths to activism. Fischer flirted with the revolutionary, direct action guerilla politics of 1960s and 1970s Germany, with its militant antiwar politics. His past was revealed by the “Fischer Affair” that showed a photograph of the foreign minister as a working class, street-fighter beating a policeman during a demonstration in 1973. It also reveals his links to fire-bombings in Frankfurt in 1976. Berman paints Kouchner as a saint, where the young French doctor dropped out of radical politics to join the Red Cross in the early 1970s, eventually founding Doctors Without Borders, and emerging as the United Nations administrator in Kosovo in 1999. When the United States indicated its intent to invade Iraq in December 2002 through March 2003, Kouchner came to support it, with reservations, and Fischer expressed Germany’s unwillingness to join the invasion, opposed to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s plans. Why would Fischer at this juncture refrain from committing Germany to the invasion? Berman explains that the:

“upsetting point, to Kouchner, was mostly a matter of principle. How could it be, after all, that Fischer had responded to the Iraq crisis the way he did? – Fischer: a man with an upstanding background as revolutionary militant. A man who had lived his life by asking, résistant or collabo? A man who had learned about Srebrenica and had firmly responded by saying, “No more Auschwitz,” and had pushed Germany to take action. From Kouchner’s point of view, it was hard to understand why this same Fischer would have turned against the interventionist logic now, in the crisis over Iraq – Fischer of all people, the impudent rebel against despots and dictators of every sort. Kouchner suspected that, like Tony Blair, Fischer had kept his eye on the polls, and this was natural. But there had to be more to Fischer’s response than political opportunism, there was obviously more, the tremble in his voice at Munich made this indisputable – and none of this was mysterious, not really.”[14]

Unlike Kouchner’s call to a “higher power” for humanitarian intervention, Fischer worried about myriad issues, including multilaterialism and its meaning, the United Nations, international law and state sovereignty, American economic interests, and the human misery that would afflict ordinary citizens from an invasion of Iraq. After all, unlike the Balkan civil wars, there was no civil war in Iraq until the American occupation.

Berman’s prequel Terror and Liberalism (2003) reads almost as an interim piece, incomplete, and makes the obvious point that radical Islam is both primitively anti-modern and exists as a cult of death and martyrdom. Nonetheless, Berman erroneously likens the Iraq of 2003 with the Germany of 1938, and claims he himself “proposed a policy that was not diplomatic or pacifist, and not Nixonian, either. I proposed an anti-totalitarian war – an “anti-fascist” war – a war with “progressive” goals, echoing his generation’s fascination with the great 1930s popular front support for the socialists during the Spanish Civil War. It was a “war about democracy” to him, where Berman and his “stouthearted comrades of the democratic left and some of the liberals – those people tended to oppose the war altogether. Opposition was instinctive for them. They worried about America’s imperial motives, about the greed of big corporations and their influence on White House policy; and could not get beyond their worries.” History has proven Berman wrong, of course, since just these worries were revealed to be true. However, he remains a widely read public intellectual despite his inabilities in analytical acuity and ideologically-driven assessments regarding the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He merely decants the old wine of war intellectualism from Randolph Bourne’s generation into new bottles of militarized humanitarianism. He repackages older concepts of “savagery and civilization,” since he accepts Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, and Cold War Era anti-totalitarianism. Their “project” promotes militarism and state-sponsored terrorism and violence in the name of replacing militarism and state-sponsored terrorism and violence. The enlightened democracy they so cherish eluded them under the Bush II administration.[15]

Yet more liberal hawks such as Christopher Hitchens (with his love of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) and David Rieff fought their own private Spanish Civil Wars in the little magazines and their pamphleteering. Writing in Dissent in Winter of 2002, Rieff believed Western hesitation to intervene in Bosnia instigated atrocities, likening the situation to Western appeasement in the League of Nations and the Sanctions Committee during the Spanish Civil War. He said, “I will go to my grave not simply believing that these people were wrong, but that their commitment to this brand of impartiality was a species of appeasement that cost 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica their lives and led ineluctably to the Kosovo crisis.”[16] After 9/11, Hitchens departed the ranks of the far Left and his column at The Nation to return intellectually to the 18th century fight between the secular Enlightenment and medieval religious tyranny. “After the dust settles, the only revolution left standing is the American one,” said Hitchens in the New York Times, “Americanization is the most revolutionary force in the world. There’s almost no country where adopting the Americans wouldn’t be the most radical thing they could do.” In his personal make-over, Hitchens explained that “I’ve always been a Paine-ite.” Writing a column in Slate, Hitchens published them in A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq in June 2003, a “Paine-ite” tract of 104 pages intended to generate support and justification for the impending war in Iraq. Hitchens believes “one cannot hope to write as a historian about the present, but one can hope to contest, as an essayist, the dishonest, ahistorical view that some events and tendencies that followed the intervention would otherwise never to have occurred – and those who kept alive the dream of a free Iraq must accept the responsibility of the logical and probable consequences of their demands.” Intended rightfully so as a polemic situated between Wolfowitz’s hawkism and the desire to expose the regional machinations of the Saudis, Hitchens’ pamphlet still continued to argue that American power will be used for good in Iraq in the end. After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Hitchens wrote of antiwar protestors: “At the meeting or debate, the person concerned would get up and – without loss of time – announce that of course we’d all be better off without the bad guy Saddam Hussein. Having cleared his or her throat in this manner, the phony would go on to say what the real problem was – None of the hysterical predictions came true, of course, but now I can’t open a bulletin from the reactionary Right or the antiwar Left without being told that Iraq is already worse off without Saddam Hussein.” Indeed, Iraq is worse off than Hitchens’ dismissal. Christian Parenti and the film makers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds have revealed from the trenches a country descending into civil war, staggering civilian casualties, the ineffective U.S. rule through cultural miscommunication, and intense political corruption within the Iraqi government and among foreign contractors rebuilding Iraq. One wonders if Hitchens, in George Packer’s words, drank “Champagne with his comrades around Valentine’s day” in Baghdad?[17]

Nonetheless, liberal hawk, public intellectuals like Berman and Hitchens have found scholarly supporters on the Left to give their ideas the academic sheen of respectability. The polarization of the American Left elicited verbal broadsides against the pacifist and anti-imperialist Left from Todd Gitlin and Dissent magazine writers like Michael Walzer, Michael Kazin, Mitchell Cohen, Jeffrey Issac among others, creating brisk debate among progressive and Leftist intellectuals about the role of the U.S. in the post-Cold War World. Gitlin wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in September 2002, where he criticized the far left for standing behind anti-imperialism in the war in Afghanistan. He explained they believed “responsibility for the attacks had, somehow, to lie with American imperialism, because all responsibility has to lie with American imperialism.” Overreaching his case, Gitlin’s charged emotions implied that “intellectuals and activists on the far left could not be troubled much with compassion or defense,” questioning whether anti-imperialist leftists exhibited proper patriotism and compassion, and dismissing critical patriotism. “Liberals should affirm that American power, working within coalitions, can advance democratic values, as in Bosnia and Kosovo – but they should oppose this administration’s push toward war in Iraq.” That much is true, however, American intervention rid Afghanistan of the Taliban even though not all is perfect. But the personal and intellectual support or lack of support for war is a question of conscience. Persecution of conscience is not a platform for ethical criticism nor moral argumentation. The fringe Left pointed out by Gitlin hardly characterizes the position of the American Left (unless Ward Churchill, Richard Berthold, and silly literary scholars attached to South Atlantic Quarterly constitute the “far Left”). Some leftist scholars questioned why Islamic fundamentalists would attack America, others embraced pacifism as a principle for lack of retaliation and spreading human misery, while others saw the infringement and revocation of civil liberties on the horizon. Some predicted the cycle of violence unleashed by 9/11 would increase vastly in interest repaid the number of war dead in Afghanistan and eventually Iraq. Mike Davis, the prominent Marxist critic, revealed that “As if the anger in the refugee camps were not enough, we propose to bomb the most broken country in the world, Afghanistan.” To Baltasar Garzón, one of Spain’s leading jurists, it was the “pledge to unlimited support for the hypothetical bombardment of nothing; for the massacre of poverty.” Violence would beget more violence. However, Gitlin’s position on the war in Iraq has been consistently opposed to the Bush II administration in a number of publication venues, the only high-profile boomer, public intellectual to lend support to the antiwar movement.[18]

The righteousness of conscience on the baby boomer Left, found prominently within the pages of Dissent, likely had pacifist luminaries such as Randolph Bourne, Charles Beard, Jane Addams, and Merle Curti rolling in their graves. Jeffrey Isaac likened the stance of anti-imperialists and pacifists on the far Left as “a form of powerlessness; it is often a form of complicity in injustice – pacifism is always a potentially immoral stand.” In a rebuttal in the arguments section to an article on the peace movement, he retorted “None of the nine pieces I’ve written since September 11 have idealized violence or war: their point instead is that all politics must pragmatically attend to questions of means and ends, and that such consideration must include the possible use of violence,” although his explanation is not sufficient and rationalizes his embrace of state violence and terrorism without acknowledging the rule of international law. Michael Walzer castigated in disingenuous fashion the supposed unsympathetic response of the far Left to 9/11. “Maybe the guilt produced by living in such a country and enjoying its privileges makes it impossible to sustain a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics,” he said, “Maybe festering resentment, ingrown anger and self-hate are the inevitable result of the long years spent in fruitless opposition to the global reach of American power” without critiquing the position of one, single writer and standing upon a false pedestal of moral right while advocating peace as war. Michael Wreszin, the biographer of Dwight Macdonald, argued against this agony of the liberal hawks, noting “Walzer, among others, decries the ‘indecent’ left’s lack of sympathy for the victims of terrorist attacks. There is something drastically wrong with a political analysis that judges whether one has shown enough concern for the victims.” With Dissent writers strong on polemic but short on insight, Wreszin lamented, “From the offices of the White House to the chambers of Congress, we now hear demands that Americans speak with one voice. If that should happen, all is lost.” Michael Kazin responded with a dismissive temper tantrum: “A left that followed Wreszin’s lead would continue to be essentially what it was in the months right after the minions of Osama Bin Laden smashed into our lives: a movement of bitter iconoclasts and moral cynics.” History has proven Dissent wrong, of course. No matter, they will rewrite their former positions in future issues of the magazine as they often do.[19]

And they certainly did. Both before and after the events of March through July 2003, liberal hawks like Walzer, Mitchell Cohen, and Michael Kazin rooted their appeals in a pragmatic idealism that proved ineffective to sway the public mind and define a critical patriotism on par with previous pacifist and antiwar intellectuals. As public intellectuals, their analysis of the road to Iraq had failed, indicating a lack of critical acuity in writing about the war on terror that resulted in the US embracing state terrorism to fight this threat. Walzer, like Berman, erroneously conflated the nature of the Iraqi regime with the Nazi Germany of 1938, and explained, “I could not support a peace movement whose purpose or effect is the appeasement of Saddam Hussein” while opposing the security policy of the “Bush Administration and its doctrine of preemptive war.” Walzer seemed to want it both ways, and we must ask, “How can one support both viewpoints? This shows moral equivocation and the rationalization of false moral equivalencies. Is the call for further diplomacy on the Left equal to a policy of appeasement? Mitchell Cohen stated that the “threat of terror is real. Anyone who scoffs at it will lose moral and political credibility – and ought to.” Michael Kazin appealed to political populism to define a “patriotic Left,” without acknowledging the reactionary legacy of populism, especially today. He said it consisted of America’s “civic ideals – social equality, individual liberty, a populist democracy – and the unending struggle to put their [its] laudable, if often contradictory, claims into practice.” The Left should espouse its own brand of critical patriotism and it has done so before. “Populist democracy” today conjures images of white nationalism, corporatism, and the conservative ascendance since the 1960s. Republicans own “patriotism” since the Democrats declined to define their own brand after 9/11. After all, Bush had declared “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 off the coast of San Diego, stating “And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” Liberal hawks must have been glowing with uncritical patriotism that American power had been used to promote democracy in Iraq and initiated an unprecedented refugee crisis not seen since World War Two. Since the president said it, then it must be true.[20]

In Defense of Humans, Freedom Without Violence

“In defense of humans, lay down your sticks and stones, weapons and violence, are better left alone. You don’t rise when people fall”

Ian MacKaye, “In Defense of Humans,” Dischord Records, 1989

After five years of combat in Iraq, the civilian casualties number roughly 100,000 deaths, with over 4000 U.S. service people killed. One 2006 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University estimated over 650,000 “excess” deaths from violence and disease, yet subsequent studies revised the number down to 223,000 deaths.[21] This is still a staggering loss of human life. The neoconservative foreign policy establishment of the Bush administration and liberal hawks have to ask themselves, “was the invasion and occupation worth it?” To this question, they can offer few answers or accept any accountability for their views on the invasion of Iraq. The acclaimed Marxist historian and urbanist Mike Davis recently wrote numerous works that propose the need for a “universal empathy” and “decommissioning of minds” to end the cycle of global violence and state terrorism. US foreign policy has been hijacked from American citizens by corporate interests and the foreign policy establishment to envision an enduring American empire and liberal-democratic order. It is a global order based on maintaining a hegemonic hold on global markets and resources, and to support state terrorism to unseat autocratic and totalitarian leaders by ignoring international law and diplomacy. His call is also to fellow American citizens to exercise their critical patriotism in the manner John Schaar suggested 30 years ago, as both noble idea and citizen activity. Writing about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Davis believes it was “a complex history of oil, Zionism, and CIA ‘ghost wars,’” where “the lives of thousands of New Yorkers were consumed in an inferno of volcanic grandeur and supernatural terror.” In the most terrible way, he believes Americans “became citizens of a world where one atrocity is repaid with interest by another; where the price of oil is the slaughter of innocents.” Davis describes the humanistic writing of Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah, who enlightened readers about the ultimate moral horror of 9/11 by envisioning the last moments of a woman holding her 4-year-old child as her plane approached the World Trade Center. Shukrallah wondered how the living could understand her anguish, and pondered the monstrous politics that used children as suicide weapons. The Egyptian journalist also wrote of other terrified and helpless children, Palestinian youth in the occupied West Bank and the 500,000 dead Iraqi children from US-imposed sanctions from 1991-2003. Davis notes that Hani Shukrallah reminds those in the West and Middle East of one important fact, that empathy – “that innate capacity that makes us worth of the self-designation ‘human’ – must be a consistent principle.” Crimes against humanity are the same, no matter whether they happen in the North Philadelphia slums, the streets of Tel Aviv, the West Bank, or in Baghdad. Ordinary people of every country are usually the sacrificial lambs for the interests of their nation states and its business interests. We die or suffer or sacrifice as elites prosper. “We are now offered as responses to al-Qaeda extremist versions of the same policies that have proven so catastrophic to human rights in the past,” concludes Davis, “we are harangued that war, relentless and unending, without boundaries or time limits, is our salvation.” Davis’ works extend a universal empathy rooted in social and economic justice from the world’s megacity slums to the disturbing phenomenon of the car bomb. His proposals imply the need for people to disaffiliate themselves from their nationalisms, and rally around a strong internationalist human rights sensibility that is anti-capitalist and against the neoliberalism of the Liberal-Democratic order both as mass protest movements of dissent and as internationalist-based political movements.[22]

The liberal hawks like Berman, Hitchens, and others have no answers for the debacle in Iraq except that the Bush administration did not meet their initial expectations or fulfill their militant fantasies. Which is no answer at all, the intellectual equivalent of channel-surfing on the couch or Sunday afternoon quarterbacking. The neoconservative foreign policy establishment devised the strategies and visions, through their conservative, Washington DC think tanks, for the United States to maintain its power in the world. It is a cynical, international politics of state terrorism and violence without the necessary universal standards of empathy and humanity, despite their proclamations that US democracy furnishes such a universal vision for the world.[23] Why did some of the socialist Left, former 68’ers all, invest so much faith that the far right of the Republican Party would intervene with the best of intentions? The liberal hawks believed their ideas would carry weight in the world of events and the marketplace of ideas. And it was wishful thinking. Their self-declarations of “realpolitik” make them both an historical anachronism and callous to the “actually existing” human miseries created by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. How could they not believe that a sovereign, state revolution to topple a dictator is preferable to a foreign invasion, granting legitimacy to the nouveau régime? There is not one example in modern history of a foreign invader endearing the sovereigns to their cause. Perhaps Berman’s November 2007 exchange with Ian Buruma in the New York Review of Books summarizes the mea culpa of the liberal hawks, where he responded “I have tried in my writings to do what I think everyone ought to have done, which is to look for ways to compensate for Bush’s blunderings – to salvage whatever successes might be salvageable from the wreckage of Saddam’s overthrow  – I condemned the [Bush] doctrine’s every aspect – except for the elements that might better be described as ‘the Franklin Roosevelt Doctrine of the Four Freedoms.” Buruma replied that his “point was the question whether it was right to go to war in Iraq to fight ‘Islamofascism,’ – I see no difference between the neocons and the neo-left.” Buruma noted that in 2004, Berman had cold-heartedly drawn a line in the sand in a mediocre fictional piece in Dissent entitled “A Friendly Drink in a Time of War,” where he stated “Antifascism without international law; or international law without antifascism. A miserable choice – but one does have to choose, unfortunately.” The course of world history took a different path, and Berman and the liberal hawks decamped to pithy moral equivalencies as the world-historical dialectic dropped off their writing desks. Of course, a universal empathy and a daringly independent critique of foreign policy and war misery do not suffice for the militaristic segment of the liberal Left.[24]

Similar to their 1960s idealism for the cult of militancy and masculinity, the liberal hawks have always been hypnotized by subjective power fundamentally in their life course, whether by inherited wealth, status, class privilege, or a mix of all three. By proclaiming that egalitarian (or democratic) governance cannot emerge organically from Muslim culture (that Islam and secular rule cannot coexist) exposes the inherent racialism of their vision. Cornelius Castoriadis explained that the definition of the self and the nation requires that the “other” and “the foreign” will necessarily be devalued as inferior, in order that the individual psyche and homeland can be validated on its own terms. He explained it entailed the “Rejection of the other as other: this is not a necessary, but an extremely likely, component of the institution of society. It is ‘natural’ in the sense that a society’s heteronomy is ‘natural.’ Overcoming it requires a creation that goes against one’s inclinations – therefore, a creation that is unlikely.” In his words, and this applies to logic of the Liberal-Democratic order and its invasion of Iraq, “For racism, however, the other is inconvertible.” One cannot support a universal ideal of human rights and advocate the radical difference of the cultures of humanity that forbids value judgements. “Human rights discourse has, in reality, relied on the tacit traditional hypotheses of liberalism and Marxism: the steamroller of ‘progress’ was to lead all peoples to the same culture (in fact, to our own – which was of enormous political convenience for the pseudo-philosophies of history),” said Castoriadis, “The questions I raised above [on relativism] would then be resolved automatically – at most after one or two ‘unhappy accidents’ (world wars, for example).” Despite the global embrace of Western democracy and materialism, notes Castoriadis, the “planetary victory of the West is a victory of machine guns, jeeps, and television, not of habeas corpus, popular sovereignty, and citizen responsibility.” Writing about “challenge and mistrust” during the Cold War of the early 1960s, Henri Lefebvre believed peaceful coexistence, between classes and nations, could emerge in the world without ulterior motives through the hard work of “challenge,” the rule of international law and diplomacy that would reduce both fear and mass destruction. He explained that “challenge puts the solidity of existing structures permanently to the test, and at the same time it tries their ability to adapt to circumstances. When it is explicit, challenge resembles intimidation; when it is covert, it resembles tolerance and understanding, and therefore flexibility” (an obvious reference to the French Algerian War and Vietnam).[25]

This covert “challenge” and “creative overcoming of one’s inclinations” in the antiwar movement offers a more thorough empathetic, global humanitarianism defined by anti-militarism than the misidentified “antifascism” and “militarized humanitarianism” of neoconservatives and liberal hawks. Most of the antiwar writing has appeared in venues such as The Nation, and the writings of Mark Danner, Joan Didion, and Tony Judt in The New York Review Books since Winter 2002. Writing about social justice in the “postmodern world” before the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Agnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér advocate that “We can raise claims concerning rules of international cooperation, for rules, once accepted, would permit resolution of international conflicts by negotiation and discourse, rather than by force (war). We can also recommend that all people, irrespective of their history, cultural traditions, and the like, should enjoy political freedom, and the members of all countries should have equal political rights.” This body of ethical thought on freedom, humanism, and autonomy only received a sneer from a hawk like Berman as “the purest of the pure on the radical left – they had never entirely gotten over the need to proclaim themselves truer and more orthodox than everyone else.” Tony Judt, the noted European historian, explained the rise of the liberal hawks and their “special pride in their ‘toughmindedness,’ in their success in casting aside the illusions and myths of the Old Left. For these same ‘tough’ new liberals in fact reproduce some of the old Left’s worst characteristics.” “They may see themselves as having migrated to the opposite shore; but they display precisely the same mix of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism,” said Judt, “not to mention an exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformations at other people’s expense, that marked their fellow-travelling predecessors across the cold war ideological divide.” He revealed these types of intellectual camp followers, first noted by Lenin himself, constituted “America’s liberal armchair warriors” and were “useful idiots” in the war on terror. One wonders why Berman and his generation never found inspiration in this body of post-Marxist thought during their own youth and adulthood, since it existed alongside Debray, Castro, Guevara, Mao, and other militant revolutionary Marxist thinkers.[26] One can only guess that its inherent nonviolence proved not to be exhilarating enough for these young men of action. Likely the nonviolent radicalism had not appealed to the youthful rapture for militancy and the eroticism inherent in violence.

If the liberal hawks such as Rieff, Hitchens, Berman, Wieseltier, Walzer, Isaac, and Packer found their own private Spanish Civil War and German appeasement in the invasion of Iraq, perhaps the underreported US air war in Iraq, with its heavy civilian casualties, might have fomented their righteous indignation. History showed they were on the wrong side of their Spanish Civil War. Writing in The Nation in February 2008, Tom Englehardt noted that in a ten day period, the U.S. had dropped 100,000 pounds of ordinance on Arab Jabour, south of Baghdad, and that “those 100,000 pounds of explosives that US planes dropped in a small area – was simply an afterthought” to the media, but was “undoubtedly the most extensive use of air power in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003.” 100,000 pounds of ordinance, said Englehardt, should ring a bell, since this figure was the same as the German saturation bombing of Guernica, Spain on April 26, 1937, which killed over 1600 civilians, of which the “self-evident barbarism of the event – the first massively publicized bombing of civilians – caused international horror.” However, the history of saturation bombing, Dresden, Japan, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, has made people immune to the carnage of these civilian atrocities and “one hundred thousand pounds of explosives is now a relatively modest figure,” said Englehardt, while “the military was proud to publicize that fact without fear of international outrage.” Devastating results of the air war are deemed “collateral damage” by the Pentagon and the U.S. media, explains Englehardt, and that “In our world, what was once the barbarism of air war, its genuine horror, has been transformed into humdrum ordinariness.” Similar to John Schaar’s understanding of loss and enmity among the Vietnamese thirty years ago, the “good” of democracy delivered through 50 tons of ordinance with heavy civilian casualties has little chance of endearing the Iraqi people to the American system. With the loss of kin and home, Iraqis have nothing to lose in opposing the US occupation. In the words of Christian Parenti, “clearly sovereignty remains fragmented, localized, ephemeral – and mostly imaginary. Neither Iraqis nor the Americans have control. The new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, threatens to declare martial law. How he might impose martial law and how it would differ from the current methods of the occupation are difficult to envision. In the new Iraq, only chaos is truly sovereign.”[27]

Perhaps such carnage would cause the liberal hawks to drop their pens, and find the inspiration to create a humanitarian work as powerful as Picasso’s infamous painting, Guernica. It is doubtful.

NOTES

[1] George Packer, “The Liberal Quandary Over Iraq,” New York Times Magazine, 8 December 2002; On the Balkan War genocides that caused the shift among the liberal hawks, see Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), 247-327, 391-473; Some Balkan historians saw the “genocide” as simply the brutalities of a common civil war, where blood is always shed in the name of the nation. If the casualties of every civil war are termed “genocide,” the term is cheapened by not distinguishing between common atrocities of warfare set against the state-sponsored, legal elimination of an entire ethnic group. Most Balkanists do not agree with the liberal hawks’ assessments. It is certain that the Balkan massacres and concentration camps are atrocities of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia; Stephen Cohen, a historian of the Soviet Union, has also noted the destabilizing transition from state socialism to free market capitalism in Russia in his many recent pieces in Dissent and The Nation. He has likened the transition to capitalism in the former Soviet bloc as politically unstable and full of social dislocation, thus too unregulated and rapid without the rule of law.

[2] Packer, “The Liberal Quandary Over Iraq,” New York Times Magazine.

[3] Harold Meyerson, “Their War, Too,” The American Prospect, 31 August 2005.

[4] On war as state terrorism from the 1970s forward, and the eclipse of international law and politics , see Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War (New York: Semiotext, 1983); Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics (New York: Semiotext, 1986).

[5] Packer, “The Liberal Quandary Over Iraq,” 107; On the issue of “accuracy” and “reliability” in the public intellectual marketplace, see Richard Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 83-127.

[6] See Randolph Bourne, “Conscience and Intelligence in War,” Dial, 63 (13 September 1917), 194; Allen F. Davis, “Welfare, Reform, and World War I,” American Quarterly, 19.3, (Fall 1967), 517-533.

[7] Randolph Bourne, “The War and the Intellectuals,” in Carl Resek, ed., War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays, 1915-1919 (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999), 11; Robert Westbrook notes that Dewey’s support for the Polish socialists in the KON, in exile in Austria, against the reactionary Paris Committee and its public relations program among Polish Americans was “manipulation to end manipulation,” thus another step away from his politics. See John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 214-221.

[8] Louis Adamic, “This Crisis is an Opportunity,” Common Ground, 1.1 (Autumn 1940), 62-63, 67; On the vision of Common Ground during WW2, see Deborah Ann Overmyer, “‘Common Ground’ and America’s Minorities, 1940-1949: A Study in the Changing Climate of Opinion,” Ph.D. dissertation, History, University of Cincinnati, 1984, 116-208.

[9] Alan Cranston, “Alien Registration Accomplished – What Now?,” Common Ground, 3.1 (Spring 1942): 100; Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 97-98, 104-105.

[10] Leilah Danielson, “Christianity, Dissent, and the Cold War: A.J. Muste’s Challenge to Realism and U.S. Empire,” Diplomatic History 30, no. 4 (September 2006): 653-655; Carey McWilliams, North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States (1949; reprint New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), 252; Peter Richardson, American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 115-124, and “Always in Fashion: Carey McWilliams, California Radicalism, and the Politics of Cool,” University of California, Los Angeles, Cashin Lecture Series, no. 2 (2007): 12-13; George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 69-95.

[11] Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 180-186; Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam, 1993), 321, 391-392; On the emergence of the “New Right” during the recession of the 1960s among the working class, see Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso, 1986), 157-180; David Farber, Chicago ‘68 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 59-64.

[12] John Schaar, “The Case for Patriotism,” American Review 17 (May 1973): 72-75; See also John Schaar, “The Circles of Watergate Hell,” in Legitimacy in the Modern State (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1981), 117-143; Randolph Bourne, “Transnational America,” in Resek, ed., War and the Intellectuals, 107-123.

[13] Paul Berman, A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 121-122; A cursory look at works on social activism would enlighten, for example, see Maurice Isserman, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (New York: Public Affairs, 2000), 256-337; Peniel Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), 241-304; Akim Reinhardt, Ruling Pine Ridge: Oglala Lakota Politics from the IRA to Wounded Knee (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2007), 164-216.

[14] Paul Berman, Power and the Idealists, Or the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2005), 141-150, 275-276.

[15] Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 6-8; 103-153.

[16] David Rieff, “Murder in the Neighborhood,” Dissent (Winter 2002): 47.

[17] Packer, “The Liberal Quandary Over Iraq,” 107; Christopher Hitchens, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (New York: Plume, 2003), v-vi, 85. These dispatches were written between November 2002 and April 2003, with a pub date of June 2003. The later chapter cited from is entitled, “Oleaginous: People Who Prefer Saddam Hussein to Halliburton.” How can the antiwar Left respond to these options, set by him?; Christian Parenti, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New York: The New Press, 2004); Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, Occupation Dreamland (New York: Greenhouse Pictures/Subdivision Productions, 2005).

[18] Todd Gitlin, “Liberalism’s Patriotic Vision,” New York Times, 5 September 2002; Mike Davis, “The End of American Exceptionalism,” in In Praise of Barbarian: Essays Against Empire (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007), 14-15. Garzón is quoted therein; Todd Gitlin, “Empire and Myopia,” Dissent (Spring 2002): 24-26; Gitlin, “Anti-Anti-Americanism,” Dissent (Winter 2003): 103-106. This book review recounts the weird essays in SAQ; “Drums of War, Calls for Peace: How Should the Left Respond to a U.S. War Against Iraq?,” Dissent (Winter 2003): 10-11. Here Gitlin states, “Should Bush take the country to war, I would join an antiwar movement – or rather, I consider that I already belong to an antiwar movement.”; Gitlin, Intellectuals and the Flag (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 143-155; Gitlin, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals (New York: Wiley, 2007), 251-252.

[19] Jeffrey Isaac, “Ends, Means, and Politics,” and Michael Walzer, “Can There Be a Decent Left,” Dissent (Spring 2002): 19-20, 35-36; Jeffrey Issac, “Arguments,” Dissent (Fall 2002): 76; Michael Wreszin, “Confessions of an Anti-American” and Michael Kazin, “Response,” Dissent (Spring 2003): 85, 87.

[20] Michael Walzer, “Drums of War, Calls for Peace: How Should the Left Respond to a U.S. War Against Iraq,” Dissent, (Winter 2003): 5; Mitchell Cohen, “Editor’s Page,” Dissent (Winter 2003); Michael Kazin, “A Patriotic Left,” Dissent (Fall 2002): 41-44; James Crawley, “President’s Landing Historic Touchdown,” San Diego Union, 2 May 2003; Transcript of President Bush’s Remarks on the End of Major Combat in Iraq,” New York Times, 2 May 2003.

[21] David Brown, “Study Claims Iraq’s ‘Excess’ Death Toll Has Reach 655,000,” Washington Post, 11 October 2006; David Brown and Joshua Partlow, “New Estimate of Violent Deaths among Iraqis is Lower,” Washington Post, 10 January 2008.

[22] Mike Davis, “The End of American Exceptionalism,” in In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007), 11-15; Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006); Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (London: Verso, 2007).

[23] Meyerson, “Their War, Too,” The American Prospect, 31 August 2005. These people include William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Friedman, Victor Davis Hanson, and Andrew Card among others.

[24] Paul Berman and Ian Buruma, “‘His Toughness Problem – and Ours’: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, 8 November 2007, 67-68; Paul Berman, “A Friendly Drink in a Time of War,” Dissent (Winter 2004): 58.

[25] Cornelius Castoriadis, “Reflections on Racism,” in David Ames Curtis, ed., World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 28, 30; Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, vol. 2, John Moore, trans. (1961; London: Verso, 2002), 228-229.

[26] Agnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér, The Postmodern Political Condition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 132; Berman, A Tale of Two Utopias, 280. These remarks were leveled at Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, and the magazine Socialisme ou barbarie, whose denunciation of Soviet communism found solidarity with its victims, in the way of Marxism’s original reason for a worker’s state and a revolution in human autonomy; Tony Judt, “The Silence of the Lambs: On the Strange Death of Liberal America” in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 388.

[27] Tom Englehardt, “From Guernica to Iraq,” The Nation, 25 February 2008, 8-10; Parenti, The Freedom, 195.

A New Historical Narrative for San Diego (2009)

under-the-perfect-sun

*** In 2007, the Journal of San Diego History invited me to participate in a round table discussion of Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew, and Jim Miller’s book on San Diego, published in 2003 by The New Press. I thought I would re-post it again since JSDH is published by the San Diego History Center and is often not consulted by the larger historical profession since the journal mainly goes to members of the Center ***

I appreciate the invitation to join the forum on Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew, and Jim Miller’s book, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See. I was quite excited when The New Press released the book in Fall 2003 because there was no scholarly interest, critical writing, or research being published about any aspect of San Diego history, except in the Journal of San Diego History, where I was book review editor and interim co-editor from 2002-2005. At the time, I was finishing the final revisions for my book on San Diego’s two world’s fairs, and was fortunate to meet all three of the authors at the San Diego Public Library one summer day. As you can imagine, the mutual interest in San Diego’s history led to professional relationships based on shared research interests. Those who write on the city’s history constitute a very small circle. I know the authors quite well, but I also feel that I can speak objectively about the significance and problems with the book.

There are very few writers and scholars involved in writing book-length works about San Diego. Kevin Starr has written brief sections on San Diego in his volumes on California history, but most of the information comes from the Journal of San Diego History. Roger Lotchin included two chapters on San Diego in Fortress California (1992), but most of the material was also drawn from secondary works. An older generation of scholars, including Harry Crosby, Raymond Starr, Iris Engstrand, Ramòn Ruìz, Paul Vanderwood, and Richard Griswold Del Castillo, has done important work on the city. Their collective work has focused on either San Diego proper or the relationship of Tijuana to San Diego. However, these scholars have retired or are close to retirement, even if most of their work is fresh.

The study of San Diego skipped a generation and no baby boomer scholars write about the city, except perhaps Larry Ford and Lawrence Herzog at San Diego State University and Mike Davis at the University of California, Irvine. Some journalists, editors, and lay historians like Gregg Hennessey, Rick Crawford, Richard Amero, and Roger Showley have written some very good works in San Diego history as well. Some younger scholars like Miller and Mayhew and myself have published book-length works on the city’s history (University of Oklahoma Press published Miller’s San Diego novel Drift in Spring 2007), and Kyle Ciani, Theodore Strathman, and Judith Schultz have written dissertations on social welfare and water development respectively in San Diego’s history that will reach publication soon at university presses. So far as I know, The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880-1940 (2005) is the only scholarly book researched from archives to be published in a generation, except for the two chapters on San Diego in Phoebe Kropp’s new book California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (2006).

So grandparents and grandchildren appear involved in writing the history of the city. There are almost no parents. For some strange reason the scholars at University of California, San Diego in the humanities have shown almost no interest in examining San Diego within the larger history of Southern California, California, the western U.S., or the United States. The exception at UCSD is Abraham Shragge, who wrote a very impressive dissertation about the role of the military-industrial complex in the urbanization of San Diego, which is necessarily a post-1941 phenomenon. He has published a number of fine articles from the dissertation in Pacific Historical Review, JSDH, and the Southern California Quarterly. Yen Le Espirtu’s work in Asian American Studies has utilized San Diego’s diverse Asian communities, particularly Filipino-Americans, and a few scholars have considered the large Vietnamese American community in Linda Vista. San Diego history is strongest at both University of San Diego, under Engstrand’s guidance, and at San Diego State University. However, these programs only offer master’s degrees in history, although the M.A. theses from these programs are often indispensable reference works on local history. The finest, most artful and insightful work ever written on the city is a product of fiction. The novelist LÍ Thi Diem Th·y’s wonderful novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003) is arguably the greatest work ever written about San Diego.

Despite some excellent contributions, scholarly work on San Diego pales in comparison to the literature on cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Phoenix, or Philadelphia (where urban social history was codified through the Philadelphia Social History Project). In addition, San Diego history has rarely shown conceptual innovation and often lags far behind the main fields and sub-fields of American history.

I believe Under the Perfect Sun helps rectify this problem. The authors succeed in constructing a new narrative for San Diego history. This has not been done since Richard Pourade’s multi-volume History of San Diego commissioned by the Copley’s San Diego Union-Tribune Company during the 1960s. Regardless of whether one agrees with the arguments in Under the Perfect Sun about power and injustice in the city’s history, it is an achievement in terms of scholarship and cultural criticism.

When scholars and even ordinary people think of “Southern California,” the importance and image of Los Angeles invariably comes to mind. I often wonder whether Under the Perfect Sun will generate new scholarship on San Diego history, as Davis’s famous book City of Quartz (1990) did for Los Angeles. Thanks in part to City of Quartz, the study of Los Angeles has become somewhat of a cottage industry within academe. With this book and future books on San Diego history, one hopes that San Diego’s historical significance will be greater recognized and that this will alter our understanding of both Southern California and California history.

It is true that Under the Perfect Sun does not make comprehensive use of archival research. If they had drawn extensively from archives, they never would have finished this book. I spent close to ten years researching my book on San Diego’s world’s fairs, and I only peeled off a thin layer of San Diego history. The lack of a rich historical literature makes works of broad synthesis, such as this, extremely difficult. That said, the book does use enough primary sources to forge its arguments, and the book does uncover and synthesize the “public transcript” of magazines and newspaper sources, municipal government publications, and secondary sources.

The one section that draws on original primary-source research, Kelly Mayhew’s oral historical investigation, will remain of interest to both general readers and scholars for a long time. The sections by Davis and Miller are compelling interpretations of the city, but they but they compress far too much history (over one hundred years) into their respective essays. When the next young writer or scholar does necessary work in the archives, the story and interpretation laid out by their essays will be revised and find more nuance. Still, their essays are as fruitful as Carey McWilliams’s bold, ambitious, and generous work from the 1940s.

The book is bold and ambitious, constituting an entire research agenda for future San Diego scholars. The essays offer a modern, sophisticated conceptual framework for local history. It replaces the empty rhetoric of years worth of Chamber of Commerce and local booster histories with serious and unsentimental portrayals of how private interests, greed, and power have shaped the city over time.

When The New Press released Under the Perfect Sun, it pleased me to see largely positive reviews. It received very few scholarly reviews, which is appropriate for a commercial trade title and for cultural criticism. When scholars did review the book, I could not feel anything but disappointment at the reception. Los Angeles scholars largely ignored the book, perhaps since a high-profile title on San Diego competed with the master narrative of Southern California history under their complete dominion.

The review of the book in the San Diego Union in September 2003 by Elizabeth Cobbs-Hoffman from the history department at San Diego State University focused on whether the book reached the level of muckraking insight achieved by Lincoln Steffens or Upton Sinclair, with much of her critique focused on recasting the authors’ criticisms as “cynicism.” She believed the authors had not been fair and had not cataloged the city’s triumphs over time. The reviewer thought Davis’s focus on white-collar corruption excessive, yet the Los Angeles Times recently ran a story in April 2007 entitled “San Diego Elite Shun Public Spotlight” to indicate the “closed door” nature of politics and influence-peddling in the city, thus confirming Davis’s compelling argument about the problems of “private government” in the city over the twentieth century. I believe Davis nailed San Diego’s historic lack of coalition interests on the head, and Paul Vanderwood’s new work on the “Border Barons” will also confirm Davis’s view when published.

Cobbs-Hoffman also takes Miller to task for his “Marxist interpretation” of local politics and his focus on social movements, like the Magonistas and the Industrial Worker’s of the World Free Speech Fight during the 1910s. Yet those familiar with San Diego history know that a very concerned San Diego Chamber of Commerce between 1912 and 1916 asked Governor Hiram Johnson repeatedly to mobilize the state militia to deal with the I.W.W. and border insurrectionists. The correspondence is in the Hiram Johnson Papers at the Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley.

Cobbs-Hoffman had almost no criticisms of Mayhew’s interviews. Overall, the review focused on what the book lacks rather than evaluating its stated intent. To this writer, Cobbs-Hoffman, like some conservative reviewers of Mike Davis’s other books, engaged in ad hominem attack rather than seriously addressing the intent and achievement of the book in question. The review certainly did not live up to the infamous and generous suspension of belief seen in the criticism of Susan Sontag or Joan Didion.

In the end, Under the Perfect Sun should be evaluated within both the corpus of work on San Diego history and also according to its stated goal: it is a work of both history and cultural criticism that hopes to initiate discussion about the city’s future by looking at its past. The book inherently calls for a sense of civic and municipal accountability rather than allowing private government in search of generating wealth for the bipartisan political elite of the city to undermine a larger sense of the “commons.” I think the authors offer important historical context for understanding the city’s political instability and financial insolvency since 2000. The authors also offer some road maps to a more progressive and accountable politics as the city moves into the twenty-first century.