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Monday, April 26, 2004

Guest blogging, kind of

I said last week that I’d been getting some great feedback on my brief post on Paul Berman and prowar liberals.  Here’s one example, from Dan Borus, professor of history at the University of Rochester.  I’ll skip the opening paragraph-- in which Professor Borus generously thanks me for having the only blog that talks about Peggy Noonan, novelist Richard Powers, and the St. Louis Blues (whom, he says, he used to cover as a radio reporter back in the days when they had Derek Sanderson)-- and cut right to the substance of the letter.

Depending on how the week shakes out (it’s the final week of the semester, and I’m chin-deep in final papers), this may be “Guest Blogging, Kind Of” Week.  I don’t have comments on this site, for reasons that Professor Quirrel summed up eloquently in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when he cried, “Troll!  Troll in the dungeon!” But I do get plenty of letters from readers, and I do reply to every one of ‘em . . . even the ones that promise me that they can help me blog all night long.  So, without further ado, Professor Borus:

“I second your contention that Berman’s advocacy, whatever its merits in terms of heartfelt wish, has become unrealistic and counterproductive. The image of throwing a rock and watching the ripples (at least it wasn’t knocking down dominoes) is wishful thinking and more than a bit reckless. One objection to the Berman position rests on feasibility. American power is damaging in one vein (we have the weapons) and inspiring in another (we have a set of stated principles that often attract others) but nonetheless not omnipotent. There are far too many unintended consequences to such a mammoth project. This seems especially true in light of the demonstrated incompetence of our leaders and their lack of knowledge of the facts on the ground. That they believed the Shia were secular, and denied there were any holy places in Iraq, is breathtaking ignorance. I knew they were venal; I didn’t think of them as so incompetent as to so thoroughly alienate large segments of the Iraqi population. And academics are supposedly the ones who live in an ivory tower.

“The problem is, of course, deeper than incompetence. Your Tikkun analysis was, I always thought, quite on target. The quarrel is not with fighting Bin Laden; he is, as we used to say, an enemy of the people-- both the American people and the people of the Mideast. The ‘thinness’ of Berman’s view of democracy leaves him susceptible to certain difficulties and supporting untenable and, to my mind, unjustified actions. In not seeing democracy as a lived experience to be defended, Berman can end up coming fairly close to supporting actions that seem more than likely to never allow for the Iraqi people to begin to live democratically-- at least in the foreseeable future.

“I suppose I’d frame the objection about thinness a bit differently that you have. Perhaps it is my own recent reading of Randolph Bourne, but I also find the Wilsonianism of Berman worrisome. As you imply, I think, but do not quite say, it rests on an uncritical association of democracy with America. It is then an easy step to associate democracy with the actions of the American state, a far different matter. Posing the problem as a grand narrative of transcendental evil versus transcendental good often moves people of good will such as Berman to treat American actions as ipso facto democratic and to substitute American government for democracy in the world, with the same kind of logic that prompted the Leninist party to substitute itself for the proletariat. In the process, the people for whom the acts are taken become ciphers, abstractions, rather than performing people. So little thought is given to the needs, desires, and institutions of the Iraqi people, except in the abstract. . . .

“Nowhere is slippage from support for democracy to support for the American government so clear in Berman’s Times piece as in the fourth paragraph you cite. There, he rather ludicrously sees the rather ineffective Baathist firing at American planes (I can’t recall any of them being hit) as a defiant transgression against American interests that has world historical implications.

“Somehow this defiance of the American state is linked with actual attacks on the American people and makes Saddam-- whose movement only rarely ever articulated, much less acted upon, the four tenets Berman outlines as the essence of the terrorist political movement-- a key enabler of a movement that despised Baathist secularism as a miniature version of the true Satan. I’m still mystified by the incorporation of Saddam and Bin Laden, which is a constantly meme of liberal war hawks. I worry that such logic underwrites military action against any action that could be construed as demonstrating American weakness.”

I should probably add that Professor Borus agrees with me on another key issue as well, namely, that U.S. policy in Afghanistan is not a question of “imperialism,” as some people on the antiwar left would have it, but rather an instance of criminal negligence-- which is another matter altogether.  But I have to confess that I had completely forgotten that Derek Sanderson had ever been a member of the St. Louis Blues.  I knew him only as a Boston Bruin and as a nemesis of my New York Rangers-- and, of course, as one of the very first NHL stars to adopt the porn star look of the 1970s (long hair, thick sideburns, Fu Manchu mustache).  And I think Borus is entirely right to link the “thinness” of Berman’s conception of democracy to the prowar-liberal willingness to try to remake Iraq by force.  Thanks, Dan.  Wish I’d thought of that. . . .

Posted by Michael on 04/26 at 11:34 AM
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