Scholarly Publishing and Social Provision

Andrew Schiffrin

*** I had the opportunity to contribute this piece to the “Tenured Radical” section of the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014, however, some mitigating circumstances at work prevented me from publishing the essay. I’ve retooled it somewhat and made some updates, but it remains close to the original draft. Thanks to Heather Stauffer, my colleague, for giving it a thorough reading ***

In the recent past, academics and university press publishers have had conversations about the “crisis” in scholarly publishing and the attending devaluation of academic labor. As the ranks of tenured, research professors decreases, the sacrifice to become a scholar and publish research monographs is often met with disappointment at low sales from their university press publishers. Nonetheless, scholars show intense dedication to research and scholarly inquiry, and university presses continue to innovate in an evolving marketplace to maintain the quality of publications and deliver the tools with which scholars generate discourses in their disciplines and fields of inquiry. This national research matrix in the university system is central to the knowledge economy in the United States. Every non-profit, scholarly publisher certainly recognizes and sympathizes with the amount of time and resources each and every one of their authors dedicate to their work. However, the rise of the research library aggregators and book vendors’ demands for e-publication formats as a quid pro quo to marketplace entry is often met with dismay by scholars. To phrase scholars’ concerns simply, monographs offered for free on research library portals and e-pubs for e-readers has created the perception of the devaluation of academic labor. I will admit here that I fully understand how scholars feel that their abilities are being devalued within their university systems and on their campuses, myself having been an academic who now works in scholarly publishing. However, the university presses that represent and publish scholarly monographs are key partners in helping to elevate the value of scholars’ academic labor, while navigating a scholarly book marketplace and larger domestic and international book market that is heavily slanted against non-profit, university presses.

Where I work as a senior acquiring editor, we believe all of our authors deserve compensation from the sale of their work in all formats. Much like the devaluation of academic labor, non-profit university presses exist in an ecosystem of scholarly communications similarly devalued by the national, public fiscal climate that rolls back public spending for social provision, particularly funding for public universities. Public universities typically offer small subsidies to their university presses to manage annual budgeting, so presses are affected by lack of commitment to social provision. This is the current fiscal environment for university press publishers, in addition to external market forces that impact our organizations and define the size of the reliable, yet shrinking, scholarly book market. Fewer tenure-track scholarly researchers causes this market to contract; larger trends in the domestic book marketplace can reduce our access to the national marketplace; and our large, corporate vendors make demands to university presses for simple, marketplace entry for our book products that causes our costs to rise. Therefore, scholars and university presses feel the impact of the segmented, academic labor market, public spending for research universities, and book marketplace competition that shapes the size of the scholarly book market and the aggregate, national research matrix.

In essence, scholarly publishing has always been part of a larger, public fiscal outlay for public universities, as well as private universities that receive federal student loan and research grant subsidies. Scholarly publishing is also a critical part of the 20th Century expansion of social provision that began during the New Deal and Postwar WW2 Eras. Tony Judt, the noted European historian, wrote about the quality of our public universities in his last two books before his untimely death. In Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, Judt marveled and cherished our public, land grant university systems in the United States as shining exemplars of social provision, for these “internationally renowned institutions have no peers outside the US,” including our underestimated community college systems. The fate of public universities as well as other government agencies of social provision suffer under a general and “marked reluctance to defend the public sector on grounds of collective interest or principle.” The rise of state and federal disinvestment in social provision ultimately affects university presses and their ability to furnish the tools of scholarly discourse and contain rising costs to meet their primary market.[1]

In the most practical terms, university presses produce, manufacture, and market scholarly book products in much the same way that record companies, for example, produce, manufacture, and market slabs of plastic and digital sound recordings. Scholarly books exist as tools of the academic trade primarily. However, scholars also create works in their disciplines that can also be entertaining or timely to current events, and these books can resemble the majority of commercially-published books in the US. In this wider, domestic book marketplace, trade books at commercial publishers originate as entertainment products and key investment vehicles meant to sustain the stockholder and investor value of the commercial publisher, and boards of directors’ control these imprints on behalf of multi-integrated, media holding companies. This national trade marketplace is extremely difficult for non-profit, university presses to compete within, since the key vendors in this largest marketplace, book distributors, discount bookseller chains, and online book retailers like Amazon and others, earn the majority of their own annual net profits from the largest book publishing groups. All these book marketplace actors are also highly reluctant to cede any domestic market-share when possible to other publishers. The books that university press publishers sell do not wholly sustain economically the US domestic book supply chain, and there are both upsides and downsides to the limits of this trade marketplace. Andre Schiffrin, the celebrated book publishing intellectual, noted in Words and Money that multi-integrated media holding companies receive roughly 80-85% of annual US domestic sales; religious and vocational publishers receive roughly13-19% of those sales; and university presses receive roughly 1-2% of sales.[2] This shows that non-academic readers do not buy books that are meant for research and study; they buy books to be entertained. However, the “entertainment-book” in the trade market can also be ephemeral and have a short life on a publisher’s backlist, where the scholarly book marketplace is highly-reliable, almost recession proof, and books last longer on the publisher’s backlist, with backlist sales typically contributing 50% to as high as 65% of annual sales for university presses. Scholarly book publishing entails less financial risk and is overall more highly-stable than the commercial book marketplace because university presses create books that facilitate scholarly discourses, and the advancement of research and discovery of new knowledge.

The only comparison or metaphor I can use to describe university presses would be an independent record label; much like independent records labels such as Dischord Records, In the Red Records, or Subpop Records, university presses cater to a niche marketplace of scholarly communication in the sales of hundreds and thousands of copies of scholarly and trade books. It is a rare occasion that a university press will have the music equivalent of a Fugazi, selling well beyond 100,000 copies of a book. The economies-of-scale between university presses and independent record labels are comparable, and university presses could learn much from consulting with independent record labels for that very reason.

The comparatively low, lifetime sales of scholarly books does not indicate a trend of anti-intellectualism in my opinion; rather, it shows that the current reading trends among the public-at-large have changed since the early to mid-twentieth century, when knowledge acquisition among ordinary citizens was central to aspirations for social mobility more generally. Needless to say, there are “intellectuals” in many sectors of the workforce in the US and perhaps they are purchasing their own books in the religious and vocational book marketplace, as Schiffrin’s statistics indicate; that is, people who possess impressive historical knowledge of their vocational fields, whether it be welding, furniture design, ministering, health care services, music recording, or what have you.

Scholars need university press books as tools to perform their teaching and research duties in the end. However, there are some unrealistic and disturbing trends on university campuses and in federal and state government agencies for “open access” publishing, which means to offer scholarly or research content for free in the public domain. In the recent debates about open-access publishing, its proponents rarely have insight into the value-added that university presses contribute to scholarly publications and communication. In university press book publishing, peer review, sometimes developmental editing, copyediting, book composition and design, and typesetting are services that solidify the reliability and integrity of scholarly books, since all disciplines in the world of knowledge demand the high expectations of accuracy and reliability for research. In that case, there is only slight cost-savings to open access publishing; the savings are only reflected in paper, printing, and binding costs, as well as some savings of inventory carrying costs in publishers’ warehouses. But even at that, many university presses are moving to print-on-demand for cloth and paperback editions of scholarly books. Per project, paper, printing, and binding is roughly 15%-20% of the cost of a book.

Among the nation’s research libraries if they could have their way, in my opinion, they would try to obtain our authors’ books for free. I have found this development somewhat odd, since one would believe that both university research libraries and university presses share so many common interests. And there are segments of the research library world that embrace the university presses as key partners in the organization and dissemination of knowledge. However, I am afraid that the differences between a fixed-budget university unit and a profit-oriented state agency like a university press presents limitations to partnership based on budgetary and financial expectations within the larger university fiscal environment. In the end, I feel the enthusiasm for open-access publishing has some deeper thinking to do about how their model is problematic from the practical and fiscal standpoint. Research librarian hostility to university presses’ model of scholarly communication and knowledge dissemination seems misplaced in some of the recent debates on open-access publishing.

There are also some negative perceptions of university presses by scholars that I meet on my regular travels to academic conferences, and they are a challenge for acquiring editors, editorial directors, and press directors to quell. Some scholars I meet believe university presses view scholars as uninformed about publishing and publishers, and take advantage of them. Among acquiring editors, I feel this is quite the contrary; it is the wide availability of very good books on the economics and how-to of publishing that keeps negotiations transparent between editor and author. White lies from publishers can be easily detected in the vast secondary literature on commercial and non-profit book publishing. More so than commercial publishers, university presses tend not to view our authors, scholarly or otherwise, as uninformed dupes to be taken advantage of, indeed, university presses are consistently strong advocates of each and every author we publish, all the way through the compensation we provide on royalties and subsidiary rights. University press book contracts are very fair and transparent on the rights and responsibilities of each party in the contract, unlike, for example, contracts that exist in other art and entertainment industry sectors, the music industry being the worst offender in supporting recording artists’ interests. When a scholars’ book does not sell as well as they think it should, that is fine with us, some scholarly fields have very small markets and we are not upset with the sales performance of a book that has a market of perhaps 200-400 scholars working in the subject area. However, university presses always love it when a scholarly book does much better than we expected. We also do not “blame” our authors or the quality of their research for lower than expected sales, indeed, we feel proud to have published the book. The expectations for a “break-even” point in sales is roughly 175-270 copies of each title. University presses are non-profit entities and our thresholds for break-even are not extremely high. With over 300,000 individual titles published in the US annually, sales competition for scholarly books in the domestic book market is often intense, however, university presses exist in a smaller-scale, niche marketplace that is highly-reliable and for the most part, stable and predictable. Schiffrin explained in Words and Money that the lifetime sales history of scholarly books averages 350 copies or less today.

In scholarly publishing, we would certainly be envious to have access to investment and working capital, much like Time-Warner Corporation, Bertelsmann SE & Co., Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, Sony Group, and The Walt Disney Company, which are publicly-traded and investor-driven, multi-integrated media corporations. In lieu of the immense economic scale of these corporations, university press publishers recycle profits into future fiscal years or into endowment funds, and rely on press friends and benefactor donations to endowment development for extra working capital. In many respects, this makes scholarly publishing a mix of annual net revenue; university support; and voluntary giving. Where I work, our mission-driven editorial program finds reflection in the need for roughly 5% or less of annual support we receive from our university system. We strive to close it and there is also a lot at stake when we invest sizable direct and indirect costs in a scholarly author and their work. We mind the gap on each project we acquire. It makes me feel bad when I hear scholars express the opinion that university presses should go out of business, for example, since we cannot organize investment on the scale of major, multi-integrated media holding companies, or create literary celebrity for our scholarly authors. These considerations exist on a larger economy-of-scale in the commercial publishing world. This leads me to believe that the current neoliberal economic thinking about social provision, which Tony Judt wrote about with great insight, has made significant inroads into the professional culture of academics. Where else will scholars publish the tools of their trade if non-profit university presses go out of business and declare bankruptcy? It will certainly not be commercial publishing imprints, and it might be for-profit scholarly publishers like Reed-Elsevier (now RELX Group) if they deem a discipline or subject area of sufficient profit to their publishing group. It might also be some other platform where profit is not a consideration and the premium, and the offset printed book is not the final format. But why leave the future of scholarly communication to chance or sheer market forces or the adoption of for-profit business models? The attitude reflects the punitive side of neoliberal disinvestment in social provision more generally. I cannot fathom the harm that would result from the bankruptcy of university presses upon the US domestic research matrix across all science, humanities, social sciences, and arts disciplines. This is why non-profit, university press publishing is such a critical part of our nation’s willingness towards social provision. New discoveries in the world of research knowledge are often not easily monetized, nor should they be held to the standard of the economic marketplace.

The most significant force currently driving the contours of the scholarly book market is technology. With the rise of digital book content, either direct-to-consumer e-pubs or research library aggregation formats, new external variables present new challenges for all publishers. An experienced publishing colleague of mine once remarked to me that technology is the genie in the bottle and it is not wedded to any particular ideology. He believes this is why so many businesses and publishers want to bend the potential of technology to their interests, either through law, court decisions, or new products and formats. However, university presses especially will want to employ the advantages of new technology vigorously to promote and sell books if a market exists in a new, technological format. In my opinion, the multi-integrated computer, tablet, and cell phone corporations have exerted an undue and intense market volatility for all publishers, since they have moved into a book business sector seeking profits where they have historically had no marketplace presence or influence until the recent past. Due to the immense economic scale and large consumer market portals that Apple, Amazon, Nokia, Microsoft, and other corporations exert on the book market, they dictate the terms in vendor to vendor relations on profit margins, suggested list price, returns, and other market considerations. Amazon, for example, will not carry a title if a direct-to consumer e-pub is also not offered, even though for a scholarly book this format constitutes 1%-5% of lifetime sales in all formats. This industry quid pro quo passes the costs of e-pub preparation onto the publisher, when we’d rather do without it. This is more acute for commercial publishers than for non-profit university presses, however, especially conflicts over suggested list price (SLP) of direct-to-consumer e-pubs. Both commercial publishers and university presses are somewhat caught up in the “market share” wars of the multi-integrated computer, cell phone, and tablet manufacturers whose lawsuits against one another can be followed regularly in the business section of the Wall Street Journal and other business publications.

John Tebbel, the historian of book publishing and a former editorial director at a prestigious commercial house, states that during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, the average profit margins for all publishers existed in the range of 3%-4% net revenue per year.[3] More recently, Andre Schiffrin revealed in The Business of Books that publishers “have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books.” Since the rise of multi-integrated media holding companies, the historical rates of annual net revenue in commercial book publishing exist within an historically aberrant and skewed range of 10-15% and even higher, and, as Schiffrin explains, it “is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much of it as possible.” Due to the rise of multi-integrated media conglomerates within the publishing industry generally, “publishing diversity,” which entails the aggregate and healthy variety of nonprofit, corporate commercial, and independent commercial publishers, has decreased significantly since the mid-1970s and the origins of discount book-selling. With monopoly and even oligopoly conditions, the variety of publishing imprints, and different types of books involving financial risk has decreased vastly in the international book marketplace.[4]

Monopoly if not oligopoly rules the US domestic book market today by the top 10-20 commercial firms. Independent commercial publishers and non-profit university presses would benefit from greater regulation of the book publishing sector through anti-monopoly laws already on the books in the US Code. A publishing colleague of mine who is a university press director and former American Association of University Presses president, talked with me once about the significance of the Bell Cases of the 1970s as the legal template by which the US domestic book industry could be broken apart to restore publishing diversity and better marketplace access, since those cases offer precedent to federal regulators to dismantle an industry sector monopoly. We agreed this was wishful thinking due to the lobbying obstacles with the US Congress. Schiffrin echoed similar thoughts about regulatory laws in Words and Money, stating that “to stop or slow the increasingly rapid disappearance of independent bookstores and publishers, the most important step these governments could possibly take would be to use these laws to break up the vast media conglomerates.”[5] This proposition is certainly appealing to non-profit and independent publishers, but regulation is very unlikely to happen given recent US circuit court decisions regarding publishers’ business relationships with multi-integrated computer, tablet, and cell phone manufacturers’ marketing portals that have favored these manufacturers almost exclusively.

In the short term, the market conditions are somewhat unfavorable to both scholars and university presses, but university presses are fortunate to exist in the reliable niche market of scholarly communication to compensate for limited, trade marketplace access. In the long term, and I’ll share my optimism, there may not be a continuing trend of public disinvestment in social provision that includes our public and private universities, and by extension, the health and growth of university presses in the United States. But university presses will not be the primary agent to improve public investment in the knowledge economy of the university. My own feeling is that the consumers of education, mostly parents and family shouldering the burden of tuition or repaying their kids’ student loans, will not tolerate rising tuition costs and the lower level of instruction provided by provisional faculty in our public and private university systems. My thought is that once the intrinsic quality of a product, in this case higher education, is decreasing yet costs increase (due to bulging administrative hiring), consumers will notice and let their concerns be known to their elected representatives. If such a backlash leads to greater public investment in higher education, this will certainly benefit both scholarly authors and university presses as the US domestic research matrix increases by hiring more tenured academic researchers with expertise for the classroom.

NOTES

[1] Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin Press, 2010); and The Memory Chalet (New York: Penguin Press, 2010).

[2] Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (New York: Verso Books, 2010).

[3] John Tebbel, A History of Book Publishing in the United States, vol. 1 (Reprint: Clock & Rose Press, 2003).

[4] Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (New York: Verso Books, 2000).

[5] Schiffrin, Words and Money (Verso Books).

 

Strange Species: The Boomer University Intellectual

Henri Lefebvre

*** I had the opportunity to first publish this review essay in Reviews in American History toward the tail end of the Bush II administration, and right as the 2008 financial crisis ruined the country. I brushed it up a bit for presenting it below***

Strange Species: The Boomer University Intellectual

Matt Bokovoy

Eric Lott. The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual. New York: Basic Books, 2006. xi + 260 pp. $26.00.

      “As historians, we do take opposing positions, but we seem to be united on one thing: a reluctance to debate” controversial topics in American history. So says Richard White recently, president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Worried about scholarly timidity and “a prickly over-professionalization,” White notices there has been “a culture of caution – that has begun to influence all of us. We have become each other’s hostages” in a university system that exists to minimize controversy, and where a new genteel ethic rewards cautious historical interpretations and scholarly demeanor. “Politics” has been shorn from informed historical critique, and academics hide behind the authority of credentials. On the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the OAH, White believes, “In a profession where we should wear our wounds proudly and confront our critics gladly, we prefer to be safe and guarded and fear that we have enemies who can cost us our reputations – We should celebrate scholars who draw strong reactions,” he worries. “Instead, we shy away from them.” Certainly, this development is not new regarding the place of intellectuals within both the American university system and society-at-large. The critical writings and political stances of academics have consistently elicited internal and external pressures since the post-Civil War emergence of the modern university, especially during times of conservatism, social upheaval, war, or anti-intellectualism. Writing more than forty years ago, Laurence Veysey explained how university administrators worked to maintain the integrity of their institutions, where dignity “was a jealous master. It required, first of all, a certain solemnity of countenance; it frowned upon the humor born of irreverence – Still more importantly,” noted Veysey, “dignity urged that the institution, no matter how torn with dissent, appear united and harmonious to all who look upon it from the outside. – If unfavorable publicity prevented such a posture, then dignity insisted that the leadership take visibly stern measures against the threat to its authority.” Much like the recent past, the early modern university “had little room for trouble-makers in its midst.” Provocative historical writing today, notes one scholar of the profession, usually leads to undue scrutiny by special interest groups, dismissal from the university, or both. Whether this is a problem of “quality” of product in public intellectual work or not, historical criticism can become relevant only when present questions of political concern lend understanding to the past.[1]

Eric Lott’s The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual examines the generational gap in the American academy during the last fifteen years with fighting words and bold claims, revealing an impaired radicalism on the academic Left he calls “boomeritis.” Lott charges university-affiliated and independent, boomer scholars with wimpy progressive and reformist thinking in his construction of recent intellectual history, such as Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman, Michael Lind, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Berman, Stanley Crouch, Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others. Boomer intellectuals write and speak “in the service of a new ideal of social democratic reform” and “lament the rise of ‘divisive’ new social movements – often described as ‘identity politics’ or the ‘cultural left’ – and the decline of a liberal Americanism that is in most of its versions explicitly nationalist, racially revanchist, and at best Clintonian in its address to social class” (pg. 2). The author finds the radical spirit of university intellectuals reared during the 1960s and 1970s lacking in critical vision, defining the condition as “little more than political complacency with a relatively youthful face” where one can “see boomer liberalism in all its aspects as a kind of ‘progressive osteoarthritis’ of the mind – a boneheaded degeneration of the radical spirit and one of the chief obstacles to a reconstruction of social and political life in the twenty-first century” (pg. 2). Even though Lott finds himself a cohort of the baby boom generation, scholarly circles under age forty will likely respond with quiet enthusiasm to the author’s accusations disguised as informed criticism. This may be true because the book speaks to the transformation of scholarly imperatives in the university system and a younger generation’s distance from – and direct inheritance of – the legacies of 1960s radical intellectuals.

     The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual resembles a manic, scholarly lament rather than well-wrought criticism of the Clinton and Bush Era intellectual scene. The author proposes to critique the boomer intellectual retreat on African American social justice movements, liberalized radicalism, the perils of cosmopolitan nationalism, and liberal support for the Iraq War and economic globalization. Lott lays out a three-part topology to group boomer intellectuals, following “an organizational commitment: to identify these apparently various minds as a front in order to better combat them.” For Lott, argument about the role of the intellectual left could take a lifetime, so he finds his efforts “as a warrant to take out bourgeois thinkers in the relatively autonomous realm of debate and polemic” (pg. 17). He calls these tendencies neoliberal historicism, neoliberal Marxism, and neoliberal culturalism that stand as so many modest proposals of boomer liberalism shorn from the history of radicalism. With fists raised, Lott proclaims with a lack of seriousness, “I smell boomer blood” (pg. 22). What the author actually unravels in The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual is a generational shift within the academy, where the history of social and economic class has been subsumed by younger scholars of race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender, and the relationship of “culture” to political and economic power. And this development worries the New Left, boomer intellectuals and has become the basis of their public criticism: a type of intellectual cannibalism where Zeus eats his young so that no heirs would contest his power.

The author examines the legacies and transformation of New Left intellectuals, and their move away from formerly radical positions in public intellectual debate. His main purpose aims to “help clear the air of certain false prophesies and propose some ideas for a fresh conception of radical democracy in the United States” (pg. 3). Products of a lifetime spent in the American university first as students and finally as professors, it is no wonder some New Leftist’s radical and youthful activism changed to reformist institutionally-based proposals. This is the problem of generations and age, a tempering of vision due to experience and the rewards of success within university bureaucracies. Lott portrays Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998) as little more than a contentious reform tract more prone to attacking the academic Left than proposing radical, social and political change. The author believes Rorty “conveniently presents himself as a liberal martyr drowned out by noisy know-nothing leftists who just don’t get that intellectuals, boosted by the kind of national pride found in Lincoln or Whitman, should focus on policy rather than speculative debate, on economic inequality rather than what Rorty calls ‘stigma’ (race, for example), and on practical reform rather than radicalism” (pg. 30). Rorty offers little more than the plans devised by Clinton’s centrist, Democratic Leadership Council during the 1990s.

Lott finds a “similar political Cassandrism dressed up as tough-minded intellectual responsibility” as he turns to Paul Berman and Todd Gitlin, arguably two high-profile New Left intellectuals (pg. 31). The author brings the social critic Berman to task for his belittling historical revisionism focused on the excesses of the New Left and ethnic-based social movements in his book A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (1996), as well as Gitlin’s The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars ( 1995) that blames scholars of racial and ethnic identity, and its politics, for destroying the legacy of the New Left with unrealistic academic radicalism. Lott uncovers the mea culpa of an aging intellectual generation, noting that Berman merely thinks “such radicalism lives today in a variety of new social struggles around race, sex, class, disability, and many others,” and that Berman “finds these too mere ‘revolutions of self,’” therefore, there are no intellectual heirs to the New Left (pg. 32). Similar to Berman, Lott examines how Gitlin denigrates the scholarship of political autonomy found within multiculturalism, identity politics, and new social movements rather than “demonstrate how that autonomy cripples the left, which would at least necessitate taking new social struggles seriously” (pp. 38-39). Berman and Gitlin share a special disdain for the Black Power Movement, blaming the Black Panthers’ militant rhetoric and racial separatism for the destruction of the New Left. As with so much selective memory and lack of scholarly insight, Peniel Joseph has recently shown the legacy of Black Power to be quite the opposite despite the movement’s problems, steeped squarely within the American radical tradition of the 1930s civil rights movement, and connected to women’s and gay rights movements at its demise.[2]

Incapable of believing that new social movements after 1968 embraced radical humanism, New Left public intellectuals like Gitlin and Berman view new social movements project as abandoning a “univeralist left” for smaller prizes. One wonders where to lay the blame, on the assimilation of university-based New Left intellectuals into the comforts ofo institutional life or on new research trajectories in the modern university. Historian Robin Kelley argues the failure of Gitlin’s generation to “conceive of these social movements as essential to the emancipation of the whole remains the fundamental stumbling block to building a deep and lasting class-based politics.” In a similar vein, literary critic Timothy Brennan alleges leftist intellectual debate from 1975 to 1980 shifted from a commitment to social democratic politics to a commitment to political identities. He believes both tendencies require integration for effective leftist politics. The shift from a universalist left to a separatist left, however, had little to do with debates among university-based Left intellectuals. The new legal climate in the United States after civil rights created the legal infrastructure and federal programs needed to ensure economic and racial equality. Agencies of the federal government defined individuals and social groups by markers of race. The terms of debate on the intellectual Left became shaped by society’s acknowledgment that historic recompense for racial discrimination and inequality required delving into questions of identity and culture. And there was nothing necessarily disingenuous, as scholars like Gitlin and Berman have claimed, about this turn of events.[3]

The roles of cosmopolitanism, liberal nationalism, black intellectuals, neoliberalism, radical social movements, and anti-Americanism preoccupy Lott in later chapters of The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual. Regarding David Hollinger’s Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (1995), Lott charges “it’s frankly a bourgeois fantasy to suppose an affirmation of cultural diversity could proceed in any meaningful sense beyond the reach of the disadvantage in and through which many U.S. cultural fractions have been formed” (pg. 51). Rather than offer evidence to counter Hollinger’s argument to move beyond political and biological racial categories, Lott ridicules him without knowledge of recent historical scholarship on race and politics, identity and community, to bolster his claims.[4] The author positions minor works in American and literary studies as evidence of “public intellectual work,” like Walter Benn Michael’s Our Country: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995) and Eric Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations: Race and the Making of American Literature (1993) that garnered limited, academic audiences only. Lott accuses Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with tailoring their criticism to assuage white guilt over racial discrimination. The author thinks Dyson’s work “speaks without tooth to power” (pg. 102), implicates Gates for speaking out against “black anti-Semitism” in the op-ed pages of the New York Times (pg. 105), and excoriates Cornel West for his Christian-Marxist emphasis to oppose the “loss of hope and absence of meaning” and the “culture of nihilism” among black youth in America. West’s argument is “not only wrongheaded but purely ideological. It is difficult to overstate the danger of this virtually neoconservative perspective,” (pg. 114). Lott misses West’s concerns that beyond socio-structural limitations to black equality, the psychological effects of poverty and a life of diminished expectations immobilizes individuals. To explain political apathy in the United States, the author suggests fascination with Bill Clinton’s body “became the chief way of coming to grips with our relation to the state apparatus” (pg. 133). The argument that certain boomer intellectuals lack radical vision to transform society is alluring and likely true, yet Lott mobilizes little evidence or rhetorical skill to persuade the reader otherwise.

In the last two chapters, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual proves more convincing in its evaluation of the work of Robin Kelley and the agony of accusations against the “cultural Left” found in the pages of Dissent Magazine and other liberal review venues before and after the invasion of Iraq in March 2002. Lott wonders whether holding “fast to their ‘60s beliefs did they [boomer intellectuals] ensure their own obsolescence in an age of queer, feminist, and other new(er) social movements?” (pg. 5). The author praises Kelley’s willingness to see local political resistance in the workplace and everyday life as forms of class politics based on racial identity and economic inequality. In works like Hammer and Hoe (1990) and Race Rebels (1994) “Kelley produces an array of skirmishes between black workers and whites’ overseers,” explains the author, “to indicate not only the untold ways in which workers fought back but what they fought about” (178). Kelley’s work resonates with the Post-War projects of independent French Marxists like Cornelius Castoriadis, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel de Certeau, all of whom wrote extensively about the working class, political autonomy outside of traditional trade union structures, consumer movements, and within the everyday life of worker leisure. Particularly striking here is the similarity to Castoriadis’ theory of worker autonomy during the wildcat auto strikes against the AFL-CIO union bureaucracy when he visited Detroit during the 1950s and fully developed this theory as a staple of working class organization under bureaucratic capitalisms. Lott rightly shows the social democratic possibilities of Kelley’s work against the dismissiveness of boomer intellectuals. The boomer intellectuals find no activist inspiration in this well-articulated tradition, likely due to the parochialism of boomer intellectuals locked in unaware, nationalist intellectual traditions. They would rather berate the “political fantasies” of the cultural Left for drawing on other national traditions despite the empirical basis of this work. Boomer intellectuals see little value in the home-grown writings of radical, social democratic critics like Carey McWilliams, who was venomously red-baited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and other New York intellectuals during the 1950s and 1960s, or the writings in Common Ground (1940-1949), the publication of the Common Council for American Unity during World War Two.[5] For boomer intellectuals, followers of various internationalist traditions such as that of Castoriadis, Lefebvre, and others must reflect “academic radicalism,” despite the fact both philosophers’ theories derive from social action and political experience when they fought against German, Italian, and fascism in the underground resistance during World War Two. The experience influenced their critiques of Cold War bureaucratic capitalisms profoundly.[6]

The polarization of the American Left preoccupies Lott in the final chapter, where he details the verbal broadsides of Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman, Michael Kazin, and Christopher Hitchens against the anti-imperialist and activist far Left. Commenting on an opinion page feature Gitlin wrote for the New York Times in September 2002, where he criticized some on the far Left for standing behind anti-imperialism and not supporting humanitarian imperialism, Lott charges “any sense of hesitancy about a war on ‘terror’ is ascribed to a loony left; U.S. imperialism, if it isn’t seen as some left fabrication, seems peculiarly untroubling” (pg. 184). The author believes Paul Berman’s much discussed Terror and Liberalism (2004) “is downy soft on U.S. imperial ambitions – and he continues to defend the anti-totalitarian language of Cold War liberalism, now in the context of fundamentalist Islam” (pg. 199). Boomer intellectual criticism of the lunatic left conjures the diatribes of Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado and Richard Berthold of University of New Mexico, but it hardly characterizes the position of the American Left. Some leftist scholars questioned why Islamic fundamentalists would attack America; others embraced pacifism and calls for diplomacy as a principle for lack of military retaliation; while others saw the erosion and potential revocation of civil liberties on the horizon. In this respect, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual has uncovered a tendency among boomer intellectuals to crowd the stage of public debate and pave over their previously held political positions in one fell swoop when their proposals become unpopular or simply wrong-headed.

The righteousness of conscience on the boomer left, found prominently within the pages of Dissent, likely had 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.” 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 naming or critiquing the position of one, single writer. Michael Wreszin, the biographer of Dwight Macdonald, argued against this agony of the boomer intellectuals, 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: “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 to disguise their inabilities to offer insight on the pertinent issues. During World War Two, Louis Adamic, the Slovenian-American socialist, preferred the term “inclusive defense” for love of country. It was “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. To Dissent, Wreszin the World War Two veteran is wrong. The old adage, “beware those who have not known war” still holds true.[7]

      The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual follows in the long tradition of the American jeremiad in many respects. The historian Russell Jacoby had previously riled the academy with his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: Politics and Culture in the Age of Academe. Jacoby equated the professionalism and scholarly antiquarianism of the university with the gentrification of the American city, the decline of urban bohemia that cultivated independent critics and scholars, and the uneasiness of institutional censorship during the Reagan years. Nearing the twentieth anniversary of publication, Jacoby’s durable book called for a more open, daring, and independent engagement of scholarship with public life. He argued the free-thinking intellectual had “been supplanted by high-tech intellectuals, consultants and professors – anonymous souls, who may be competent, and more than competent, but who do not enrich public life.”[8] The book caused a major stir because his argument rang true. It rankled professional historians who sensed a Trojan horse among their ranks. In Intellect and Public Life, Thomas Bender charged Jacoby’s book was “a careless, ill-conceived, and perhaps even irresponsible book,” but noted that scholarly irrelevance and careerism constituted worrisome trends for university-based intellectuals.[9]

Jacoby documented a quiet censorship and uneasy comfort behind the university barricade during the 1980s. Lott reveals similar trends, finding behind the barricade uninspired criticism, plum commercial publishing contracts for mostly vapid trade books, a bully pulpit in the mass media where scholars are experts of everything, and increasing institutional rewards for contributing nothing of real value to the public debate. Jacoby pinpointed correctly the demise of public intellectuals with changes in the modern university, especially the structure of incentive regarding compensation and promotion. He explained, “New Left intellectuals acquired the benefits” of university employment such as “regular salaries, long vacations, and the freedom to write, and sometimes teach, what they wanted.” But this steady arrangement came with a price: “Vast insecurities beset the academic enterprise. One’s future depended on a complex set of judgements made by colleagues and administrators. Academic freedom itself was fragile, its principles often ignored.” Lott merely berates boomer intellectuals for reaping the structures of reward and status in the new corporate university. Nor does the author engage the ideas of boomer intellectuals well, and embarks upon an intellectual project largely of his own making. Lott does usefully suggest, however, why baby boom intellectuals did a “political about-face” and came “home to centrism tail between the legs” (pg. 5).

But are boomer intellectuals really more influential than the cultural Left they bemoan? Perhaps not. Laurence Veysey explained the “price of structure” for intellectuals during the early years of the modern university. As a product of institutional prestige and incentive, “only a handful of American professors in this period were as influential as they liked to think. Most faculty researches stand unopened on the shelves of university libraries a half-century later, since in the interim nearly every field has turned its attention to newer problems of inquiry.” Peter Novick has explained well the plight of radicalism in the historical profession and university, for the “very acceptance of radical historians as legitimate participants in a pluralistic professional discourse carried with it the likelihood that particular aspects of their work would be assimilated in a way which defused its bite” due to the relationship between institutional acceptance and the structure of scholarly incentives. The majority of authors who publish timely and selling public intellectual work reside outside the main confines of academe, writers like Mike Davis, Liza Featherstone, Thomas Frank, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti among others.[10]

Perhaps the aging conservatism among select New Left, public intellectuals signals their move off the historical stage and the twilight of their ideals. Or maybe the Old Left and new social movement intellectuals, like the bond of grandparents and grandchildren, have one common enemy: the child-parent. Russell Jacoby notices how the “utopian spirit – a sense that the future could transcend the present – has vanished” from the work produced by academics today. Finding importance in new work on race and ethnicity, gender, disability, and LGBT in the U.S. academy, Jacoby also reveals a lack of a larger, political vision driving such work, where “politics becomes simply a series of slogans about marginalization, power, discourse and representation. These terms address real problems, but they fail to specify any particular politics. Marginal groups want power or representation, but how or why does this reflect cultural differences or an alternative vision?” Jacoby notes the very reformist and mainstream basis of political proposals in this work, akin to an inclusive bureaucratic capitalism within a broader neoliberal order. Richard White admitted recently that “Public intellectuals are certainly public; it is the intellectual part that worries me” regarding a screed written by Todd Gitlin in Raritan Review. White believes the “best public interventions by scholars are when the stars align and a matter of urgent public interest corresponds to topics to which we have been giving considerable thought and research.” “Then we have a responsibility to speak out no matter how unpopular our positions might be,” counsels White. “The worst moments are when we become pundits – experts on everything, masters of the superficial, purveyors of opinion for opinion’s sake.” Jacoby finds among university intellectuals “collapsing intellectual visions and ambitions – radicals have lost their bite and liberals their backbone.” In our recent climate of war and national conservatism, young professors have little incentive to speak to the public, and feel the quiet censure by their tenure committees and Deans, neoconservative special-interest groups, and university administrators and donors. Most scholarship stays safely within the parameters of professional peer review of publications, subfield discursive communities, institutional incentives, and scholarly “objectivity.”[11]

     The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual although provocative in argument is poor overall in execution and clarity. Should scholars take the book seriously under these circumstances? Perhaps so, even if the combative tone is not one’s style. Lott’s book received sharp rebukes similar to reviews of Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals almost twenty years ago. Nonetheless, the generational shift and intellectual odyssey within the New Left proves an irresistible and promising topic for further investigation and debate to understand the neoliberal intellectual mind.

NOTES

[1] Richard White, “What Are We Afraid Of?,” OAH Newsletter 34, no. 3 (August 2006): 3; Laurence Veysey, The Emergence of the American University, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 381-382; On investigations of controversial scholars, left and right, in the recent past, see Jon Weiner, Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower, (New York: The New Press, 2005). Historians on the left, argues Weiner, attract more scrutiny than conservatives; On the issue of “quality” in the public intellectual marketplace, see Richard Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 83-127.

[2] Peniel Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006).

[3] Robin Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 110: Timothy Brennan, Wars of Position: Cultural Politics Left and Right, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), ix, 147-169.

[4] The list could be exhaustive, see Nancy Shoemaker, American Indian Population Recovery in the Twentieth Century, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999); Matthew Whitaker, Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005); George Sánchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); James Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[5] Peter Richardson, American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 198-200; Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, (London: Verso, 1996), 445-454.

[6] See Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings, vol. 2, David Ames Curtis, trans. and ed., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) and The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey, (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1975); See also C.L.R. James, Grace Lee, and Pierre Chaulieu (Cornelius Castoriadis), Facing Reality, (1958; reprint, Detroit: Berwick/ed, 1974); Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 1, trans. by John Moore, (1947; London: Verso, 1991) and Critique of Everyday Life: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, vol. 2, trans. by John Moore, (1961; London: Verso, 2002); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). Certeau was influenced by Lefebvre’s work, and brought the volumes of the Critique towards social science through structural linguistics.

[7] Jeffrey Isaac, “Ends, Means, and Politics,” and Michael Walzer, “Can There Be a Decent Left,” Dissent (Spring 2002): 19-20, 35-36; Michael Wreszin, “Confessions of an Anti-American” and Michael Kazin, “Response,” Dissent (Spring 2003): 85, 87; Louis Adamic, “This Crisis is an Opportunity,” Common Ground 1.1 (Autumn 1940): 62-63.

[8] Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: Politics and Culture in the Age of Academe, (New York: Basic Books, 1987), x.

[9] Thomas Bender, Intellect and Public Life, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 172n1.

[10] Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals, 118; Veysey, The Emergence of the American University, 335; Novick, That Noble Dream, 459: Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, (London: Verso, 2006) and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, (New York: The New Press, 2005); Liza Featherstone, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker’s Rights at Wal-Mart, (New York: Basic Books, 2004); Doug Henwood, After the New Economy, (New York: The New Press, 2003); Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004); Christian Parenti, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, (New York: The New Press, 2004).

[11] Richard White, “Are Public History and Public Intellectuals in Danger of Becoming Oxymorons?,” OAH Newsletter 34, no. 4 (November 2006): 3; Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, (New York: Basic Books, 1999), xi-xii, 40-41.

 

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 Nativist.

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 other 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.