Liberal Intellectuals

I’ve been wanting to comment on Tony Judt’s article attacking the American liberal intelligentsia’s supposed spinelessness on Iraq for a while. Now, a blog post comparing Judt to Chomsky and one of his critics to Orwell that made it to the Carnival of the Liberals gave me a good starting point. Says Judt,

Magazines and newspapers of the traditional liberal centre – the New Yorker, the New Republic, the Washington Post and the New York Times itself – fell over themselves in the hurry to align their editorial stance with that of a Republican president bent on exemplary war. A fearful conformism gripped the mainstream media. And America’s liberal intellectuals found at last a new cause.

Or, rather, an old cause in a new guise. For what distinguishes the worldview of Bush’s liberal supporters from that of his neo-conservative allies is that they don’t look on the ‘War on Terror’, or the war in Iraq, or the war in Lebanon and eventually Iran, as mere serial exercises in the re-establishment of American martial dominance.

This is already a sign of lunacy. The New Republic is centrist rather than liberal. Liberal intellectuals rallied behind Dean or Kerry in 2004; TNR endorsed Lieberman. The New York Times and the Washington Post have never been liberal outside some conservatives’ imaginations – indeed, throughout most of the Cold War, the Washington Post was closely affiliated with the CIA.

Except for The New Yorker, there are no publications in the US dedicated to liberalism; there are arenas where liberals skirmish with other leftists, like The Nation and The Progressive, and arenas where liberals skirmish with moderates and conservatives, like The New York Times.

One of the effects of the withdrawal of radical leftists from liberal ideology has been to purify liberalism of radical pathologies; liberal intellectuals are therefore far more likely than intellectuals of any other bent to engage people who disagree with them instead of write shrill articles that everybody who doesn’t already agree with will hate.

And on these two arenas, liberals have in fact opposed Bush. On the left arena, which is politically irrelevant, it’s obvious. On the central arena, Paul Krugman has attacked Bush from day one – in fact, he was for a few years the de facto leader of the opposition to Bush; and yet in giving a host of examples of pro-war liberals, Judt fails to even mention Krugman. Thomas Friedman, who Judt casts as a run-of-the-mill neocon sympathizer, referred to the war on Iraq as a war of choice and said it was imperative that Bush seek a broad coalition composed of more countries that matter in global arena than just the US and Britain.

But what’s even more insane than Judt’s claim that liberals failed to oppose Bush is his caveat:

To be sure, Bush’s liberal supporters have been disappointed by his efforts. Every newspaper I have listed and many others besides have carried editorials criticising Bush’s policy on imprisonment, his use of torture and above all the sheer ineptitude of the president’s war. But here, too, the Cold War offers a revealing analogy. Like Stalin’s Western admirers who, in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations, resented the Soviet dictator not so much for his crimes as for discrediting their Marxism, so intellectual supporters of the Iraq War – among them Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick and other prominent figures in the North American liberal establishment – have focused their regrets not on the catastrophic invasion itself (which they all supported) but on its incompetent execution. They are irritated with Bush for giving ‘preventive war’ a bad name.

Actually, the correct Stalinist analogy isn’t to discrediting Marxism, but to letting a large political segment hate the idea of government intervention in the market. The problem with the Iraq war wasn’t that the US ousted Saddam, but that it killed civilians doing so – in fact, many more civilians per year than Saddam killed – and that it created a new Islamist hydra.

And the liberal intellectuals who’ve so vociferously criticized the US in Iraq recognize just that. For all his rhetoric about not seeing things in black and white, Judt is as monochromatic as an intellectual can be; he just reverses the traditional black and white. Thus every American foreign policy plank is necessarily bad, and the US should do nothing but retreat to its corner of the world and feel guilty.

After all, I’ve yet to see a single intellectual write about human rights abuses without offering any political or social angle on it, unless the intellectual viscerally hates the abuser. Radical anti-Americans like Chomsky have no trouble rationalizing violence whenever it’s committed by groups that aren’t allied with the United States. Charitably, then, Judt is asking liberal intellectuals to have the same skewed view of reality as Chomsky, Said, and Zinn.

But reality is less than charitable to fringe writers. Liberal intellectuals don’t even apologize for American atrocities or rationalize them. Some people, consumed and blinded by patriotism, think about human rights exclusively from a national-interest angle. Most liberals don’t; they either talk about the moral outrage of torture, or coax it in national-interest terms simply to appeal to people who disagree with them.

Judt would have you believe that pragmatism and consequentialism are dirty, which to some degree they are. For writing about politics is a dirty business, in which you have to appeal to people with worldviews vastly different from yours. It’s not that surprising that a certain segment of intellectuals, who on the left are called radicals, eschew that completely and take pride in basking in their ideological purity, political effectiveness be damned.

It’s not any more surprising that these radicals attack first and foremost the liberals. The first enemy of the radical is never the other side; it’s always the liberal or the moderate, who’s ruining the self-aggrandizing party by talking of such dirty terms as evidence, reality, results, and human rights. On the contrary, the other side is a great recruitment tool. Just as Ahmadinejad’s main enemy is the democratic movement at home, and for that purpose the US and Israel are just propaganda items, so is Judt’s main enemy liberalism, with neoconservatism being nothing more than a stick to beat liberals with.

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9 Responses to Liberal Intellectuals

  1. SLC says:

    Actually, the New York Times was dubious of the Iraq adventure early on and has become more critical as time has progressed. Although the Washington Post has editorially supported the war, its reporting has been negative, especially lately (of course, one has to be aware that the reportial tone at the Post is generally negative about everything, particularly their movie, TV, book review, and music sections).

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Well, either way, calling them liberal publications is something I expect to see nowhere outside shrill conservative talking points.

  3. [...] I’ve already criticized Tony Judt’s hit piece on American liberalism. Now Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin published a somewhat longer, and entirely misguided, critique of Judt. Instead of explaining why Judt has no idea why he’s talking about, they write a meandering manifesto that isn’t worth the electrons it’s displayed on. [...]

  4. Judt’s piece definitely has problems. The biggest flaw, IMO, is his imprecision about who counts as an mainstream American liberal intellectual. He conflates pundits with academic public intellectuals.

    Judt’s essential point, if you read him charitably, is well-taken. There was virtually no strong dissent against the war in the mainstream media in the run-up to the invasion. Sure, there were a few people who argued that we give the inspectors more time, or that we should go in with a real coalition if we were going in at all. Those were very good arguments. I made them myself. As the situation deteriorated in Iraq, some liberals found enough courage to assail the administration for its handling of the war. But you still don’t hear words like “illegal” and “unconscionable” and “crimes against humanity” nearly as much as you should, given what actually happened.

    What frustrated me as relatively recent migrant to the US from Canada was the fact that almost nobody could get on CNN or the Op/Ed page of the NYT saying, “This is a put-up job. We have absolutely no reason to attack Iraq now. Even if we do unseat Saddam Hussein, who’s going to replace him, and how do we know his replacement will be any better than the original dictator?”

    You never heard anyone in the established media saying that invading Iraq would be a crime, an abomination based on a fraud. In fairness, the administration lied about the evidence for WMD.

    J.Garofalo was just about the only full-throated opponent of the war to get onto mainstream TV talk shows on a regular basis before the invasion.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Judt’s essential point, if you read him charitably, is well-taken. There was virtually no strong dissent against the war in the mainstream media in the run-up to the invasion. Sure, there were a few people who argued that we give the inspectors more time, or that we should go in with a real coalition if we were going in at all.

    I don’t think it’s his essential point. He’s not saying that the media marginalized anti-war voices; that’d be obvious. Rather, he’s saying there was no anti-war liberal voice for the media to marginalize. It’s an open secret in the US that you can get media coverage if you’re a liberal, a centrist, a conservative, or maybe a libertarian, but not a radical leftist or even a social democrat.

    When Judt attacks liberal intellectuals’ support for the war, he doesn’t say that the media paid more attention to Beinart or even Friedman than to Krugman; he says that liberals supported the war almost in one voice. He even goes as far as to say that the centrist publications that marginalized anti-war voices, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, are liberal.

  6. I disagree that it’s an open secret that liberals can get media coverage. I mean, it’s just false that anyone that I’d call a liberal can get regular media coverage on the opinion-making talk shows.

    James Wolcott is another hero of the anti-war left who actually managed to get on Imus in the Morning and other mainstream shows to put forward a vociferous anti-war message. I should have remembered him earlier. He did yeoman’s work.

    Getting media coverage for an event is very different from getting booked on mainstream talk shows. Sure, you can get reporters to show up at your anti-war rally, but that’s no guarantee that your head organizer will be given a reasonable interview, let alone a slot on a major television show, or syndicated radio broadcast.

    It’s quite outrageous, really.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    The open secret isn’t so much that liberals can get coverage – I debated with myself whether to list liberals first or to list them last with a “maybe” – but that people who are left of liberalism can’t. It’s impossible for a socialist, even a social democrat, to get good media coverage. To take an extreme example, nobody shone a spotlight on Ward Churchill until Horowitz found in him a convenient scapegoat; meanwhile, Ann Coulter and Michael Savage routinely get mainstream coverage. One of the reasons American liberalism is to the left of European liberalism is that a European leftist can say he’s a socialist and get traction, while an American leftist who wants people to listen has to call himself a liberal.

    What I was getting at is that the US media rarely invites liberals to talk shows, but it never invites (left-wing) radicals.

  8. eteraz says:

    I’m reading Judt’s PostWar right now. When I finish I feel as if I will have a better understanding of his ideas. Then I will go and look into his liberals piece (which I read a while back and didn’t know what to make of). I will definitely include your quite interesting analyses when I write that post. Thanks for teasing all this out.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Thanks. My understanding of him comes mostly from this article, plus a few other tidbits I’ve read about him (for example, he’s apparently so pro-Palestinian that the ADL blackmailed a group to prevent it from giving him a podium).

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