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Friday, March 18, 2005

The Beinart Effect

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In my characteristically belated, catching-up kind of way, I’ve finally decided what I think of that New York Times roundtable on liberalism featuring Peter Beinart, Michael Tomasky, and Katrina vanden Heuvel.  Yes, I know– I’ll be weighing in on the significance of the French Revolution next (though personally, I think it’s too soon to tell on that one).  Most of what I’ve read so far, among liberals-progressives-lefties, takes Beinart to task for repeating one of the ripest items in the RNC bag of chestnuts: “It’s remarkable to me how many people still mention the fact that [the anti-abortion Pennsylvania governor] Bob Casey was denied the right to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention.” Yeah, well, it’s really remarkable to me too, since, as everyone and her brother has pointed out, Casey was actually denied a speaking slot because he hadn’t endorsed the damn Clinton/Gore ticket.  Listen.  Anyone who repeats this canard again is a GOP android.  You don’t have to go to all the trouble of giving them the Voigt-Kampff empathy test from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?– just ask them if the Democrats are so stridently pro-abortion that they wouldn’t even let poor Bob Casey speak at the 1992 convention.  If they say yes, you may feel free to “retire” them.

And then there’s Beinart’s last-gasp defense of the thing that has been killing Democrats for the past three years, the item on which Kerry was so spectacularly, extravagantly incoherent.  Iraq.  Beinart is no longer pro-war, but:

Let me say a couple of things as someone who did support the war in Iraq. There is no question that the war is going very, very badly. But I think two things remain even if we do end up deciding that Iraq was a terrible disaster. The first is that there is an important connection between dictatorship and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.  Secular dictators like Saddam Hussein or secular autocrats like Hosni Mubarak create a political dynamic in which liberalism gets weakened and weakened. And the only alternative becomes Islamic fundamentalism.

I happen to think he’s right that there is such a connection, and that its roots go all the way back to the CIA’s Original Sin of overthrowing Mossadeq in Iran and installing the Shah in 1953.  (Though I don’t mean this to suggest that I think we’re to blame for everything that’s happened in the region since; nor do I think that we “created” Islamism by means of our foreign policy.  I think Islamists did that pretty much on their own.) I also think that liberals and leftists should be at one in opposing dictatorships regardless of whether they involve any Islamic fundamentalism.  But this is not, not, not a justification for pre-emptive invasion and war.  Saying– or even implying– that the connection between dictatorship and Islamic fundamentalism is a legitimate reason for war in Iraq is tantamount to signing on for the entire century-long PNAC package of wars in the Middle East, as one dictatorship after another is toppled in Syria, Iran, Jordan, and then we have to decide just how we’re going to tell our secular autocratic friends in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that we’re coming to clear them out.

But, folks, I know you know all this already. So I’m going to focus not on Beinart himself but on the Beinart Effect.  His clarion call in last December’s essay, “A Fighting Faith”– as Mark Schmitt put it last month, “apparently soon to be a major motion picture perhaps starring John Cusack as the late Senator Henry M. Jackson”– for Democrats to repudiate Michael Moore and MoveOn.org contained a tiny but crucial grain of truth:  Michael Moore does indeed go around saying that terrorism is a phantom menace.  “For Moore,” Beinart wrote, “terrorism is an opiate whipped up by corporate bosses. In Dude, Where’s My Country?, he says it plainly: ‘There is no terrorist threat.’ And he wonders, ‘Why has our government gone to such absurd lengths to convince us our lives are in danger?’” The closing minutes of Fahrenheit 9/11 strike a similar note, as well.

Now, it’s one thing to ridicule the color-coded terror alerts and Tom Ridge’s special sales on duct tape.  That ridicule is entirely appropriate, especially when you take into account the very curious timing of those orange alerts.  It’s quite another thing to say, as Ed Herman did in December 2001, “the idea that the Taliban is a fascist and expansionist threat, and that Islamic fundamentalism more broadly speaking is the same, doesn’t hold water.” Remarks like these suggest that one wing of the American left just doesn’t take Islamic fundamentalism or al-Qaeda very seriously, and they (that is, the remarks and the people who’ve made them) have now become the source of both Paul Berman’s and Peter Beinart’s analogies between what they see as the naive, trusting fools who were soft on Communism in 1947 and the naive, trusting fools who are soft on Islamism today.  (My 2003 review of Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, which broaches this issue at greater length than I’ll impose on you in this post, is now available online here.) [UPDATE:  Nope, not anymore.  They yanked it!  Very well, here’s a .pdf version.]

The problem, then, is that this determined underestimation of political Islam and groups like al-Qaeda produces a compensatory overestimation of political Islam and groups like al-Qaeda.  Josh Marshall– no shrinking violet he, and no lefter-than-thou guy either– called Berman on this phenomenon almost two years ago in his review of the book, suggesting that Terror and Liberalism had given in to what he called “The Orwell Temptation,” the tendency to “take momentous, morally serious questions and make them out to be slightly more momentous and world-historical than they really are.” The Beinart Effect is a closely related phenomenon; it is not, however, a question of how the “soft” left has affected Beinart so much as a question of how Beinart’s insistence on “a fighting faith” has affected other liberals. 

And here, this leather-clad and easily-caricatured blog is looking at you, Michael Tomasky.  Don’t get me wrong– I love you like a brother or maybe a cousin; I didn’t much care for your argument, ten years ago, that the academic left bore some responsibility for the Gingrich Revolution (you remember that line about how we “sit around debating the canon at a handful of elite universities and arguing over Fish’s and Jameson’s influence on the academy”), but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of your work since, and I cite you all the time, really I do.  But you’ve got to stop saying things like this (from that Times roundtable):

First, terrorism is a threat. It threatened our shores more directly than the Soviet Union ever did. And it must be the focus of a foreign policy.

The “threatened our shores more directly than the Soviet Union” line is just asking to be kicked, and (as I’m sure you’re aware), the sharp-toed Tom Tomorrow delivered precisely that kick two weeks ago.  Quite apart of whether it’s accurate (and it’s not), it plays right into Beinart’s thesis in “A Fighting Faith,” and promises to fight even harder to combat the most serious threat we have ever faced, ever.

Likewise, you really shouldn’t have announced your “principled realism” in The American Prospect by way of that banner headline, “Between Chomsky and Cheney.” Look, I know what this really means: it means Chomsky supports no international interventions led by the U.S. or its allies, military or otherwise, and Cheney supports international intervention 24/7, preferably unilateral, military and otherwise, whereas principled realists support some international interventions (Liberia and Darfur as well as Afghanistan, say), maybe led by the U.S., maybe not, and preferably (though not dogmatically) not military.  And I realize that you can’t fit all that on a magazine cover.  But if you really split the difference between Chomsky and Cheney, you wind up with Scoop Jackson or Joe Lieberman, and trust me, you don’t want that.

Besides, as Rick Perlstein pointed out to me a few days ago, there’s something very, very troubling about the whole Beinart analogy between anti-Islamism and anti-Communism, and “principled realists” ought to be much more wary of it than they are.  Yes, the Americans for Democratic Action met at the Willard Hotel in 1947.  Yes, they announced their opposition to Communism “because the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere” and America should support “democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over.” And yes, they had a better sense of totalitarianism than did their critics on the left at the time.  But it doesn’t seem, in retrospect, that this managed to inoculate American liberals and progressives against McCarthyism over the course of the ensuing decade. A fat lot of good it did, actually.  When the shock troops of the Right broke down your door fifty-odd years ago, searching for spies and softies and fellow travelers and people who’d voted for Norman Thomas in 1932 and people who knew someone who’d just denounced the Taft-Hartley Act, and when you insisted, as you were being led away, that you were in fact an anti-Communist, you remember what the reply was: they didn’t care what kind of Communist you were.

So yes, let’s have a fighting liberalism:  let us oppose violent, fundamentalist, patriarchal, homophobic, and theocratic forces abroad, just as we do at home.  But let’s not give in to the Orwell Temptation, or its corollary, the Beinart Effect.  And let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that adopting a “fighting liberalism” will keep the wolves of the Right at bay.

Posted by Michael on 03/18 at 10:33 AM
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