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.