December 10, 2004

A Fighting Faith

As if the Cold War nostalgia of the Bush League of Neo-Con Beltway Imperialists and God-Is-On-Our-Side Red State Evangelicals weren't bad enough, now comes the purportedly left of center editor of The New Republic, Peter Beinart, issuing his own retro clarion call for "a new liberalism," A Fighting Faith, as he styles it, in a black and white world of American might and right locked in another life or death, existential battle with the forces of totalitarian darkness and their fellow travelers at home and abroad. As he sums up:

Islamist totalitarianism--like Soviet totalitarianism before it--threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.

Lest anyone doubt that Beinart's over-drawn analogy between Islam and Communism, under which there appears in A Fighting Faith no Islam but Jihadist Islam, no possible Communism but Stalinist Communism, as well as his talk of a "litmus test of a decent left" beyond debate, does not betoken a return to the Cold War "loyalty tests," political purges, and McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s, Beinart is at great pains to make his intellectual pedigree explicit from the very start of his manifesto:

On January 4, 1947, 130 men and women met at Washington's Willard Hotel to save American liberalism. A few months earlier, in articles in The New Republic and elsewhere, the columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop had warned that "the liberal movement is now engaged in sowing the seeds of its own destruction." Liberals, they argued, "consistently avoided the great political reality of the present: the Soviet challenge to the West." Unless that changed, "In the spasm of terror which will seize this country ... it is the right--the very extreme right--which is most likely to gain victory."
During World War II, only one major liberal organization, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA), had banned communists from its ranks. At the Willard, members of the UDA met to expand and rename their organization. The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization's principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, "[B]ecause the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere," America should support "democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over." That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology "hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great."
At the time, the ADA's was still a minority view among American liberals. Two of the most influential journals of liberal opinion, The New Republic and The Nation, both rejected militant anti-communism. Former Vice President Henry Wallace, a hero to many liberals, saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress. As Steven M. Gillon notes in Politics and Vision, his excellent history of the ADA, it was virtually the only liberal organization to back President Harry S. Truman's March 1947 decision to aid Greece and Turkey in their battle against Soviet subversion.
But, over the next two years, in bitter political combat across the institutions of American liberalism, anti-communism gained strength. With the ADA's help, Truman crushed Wallace's third-party challenge en route to reelection. The formerly leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled its communist affiliates and The New Republic broke with Wallace, its former editor. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) denounced communism, as did the NAACP. By 1949, three years after Winston Churchill warned that an "iron curtain" had descended across Europe, Schlesinger could write in The Vital Center: "Mid-twentieth century liberalism, I believe, has thus been fundamentally reshaped ... by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism."

I quote at length from A Fighting Faith primarily for the benefit of those Democrats unfamiliar with the history of the post-war institutional Democratic Party, specifically with its late 40's Red-Scare turn which, far from preventing the victory of the "very extreme right," did much to lay the groundwork for and a lend a "non-partisan" veneer of legitimacy to the more generally known and ever since ritually denounced Republican-driven Red-Baiting terror of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s. It is well to remember that it was not these ADA Cold War "liberals" who stopped McCarthy. It was the US Army.

Indeed, it is not too much to trace to the ADA's early, influential capitulation, alternately eager and reluctant, to the late 1940's and 1950's Cold War assault upon civil liberties and to the sharp narrowing of the breadth and diversity of American political discourse much of the responsibility for ushering in one of the bleakest and most frightening periods of this nation's domestic history.

Similarly, in foreign policy, the ADA's active propagation of the Cold War delusion that wherever the United States faced resistance to its political and economic interests that resistance was both proof and result of a grand, unified, global "Communist Menace" contributed to the political and institutional miscalculations that led the US to intervene in what became the debacle of Vietnam, as well as, more "successfully," to meddle in the internal politics of even its European allies, and lend its active, overt and covert support to some of the most ruthless, "anti-communist" slaughterers of their own peoples throughout Latin America and South East Asia. Most egregious was in Indonesia in 1965-66, where the labor movement was not afforded the opportunity afforded US labor unions in the late 1940s and 1950s simply to expel "communist affiliates." Instead the Indonesian labor movement was itself even more simply "liquidated" along with -- estimates vary -- perhaps 500,000 other Indonesians, with the CIA reportedly helping to supply and keep track of check lists of bad apples that simply had to go for the good of the barrel.

Whatever the ADA's assignable degree of responsibility for the ultimate conduct of the Cold War, these uglier consequences also compose the legacy of the Cold War "victory" over Communism, which parts some of today's Washington "liberals," anxious over Kerry's defeat and House and Senate losses in the 2004 election, are all too eager to forget in the rush to find and embrace some formula, some ideology, some "magic bullet" that will lead them back to power.

And so we have the truly ugly spectacle of even the likes of preeminent liberal blogger Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, in agreeing to disagree with Beinart, proclaiming his own pride and prejudice for the ADA Cold War legacy:

I should start with what I agree with. In fact, I should begin by declaring a prejudice. Like Peter, I see that moment in 1947, the birth of the ADA, and more generally Cold War liberalism as a defining moment and one of the proudest moments of the liberal political tradition in the United States. It is a touchstone against which I measure my own political views.

If the ADA Cold War legacy is indeed now the touchstone against which we must measure our own loyalty and claim to be a part of a "decent left," we, a great many of us, are doomed to be rather indecent.

And it is precisely the great many of us that is the problem in Beinart's analysis. It is "We, The People" -- at least those of us who are left of center -- who just don't get it, who don't understand why putting US civil society on a permanent war footing to kill Islamic fundamentalists everywhere they might have or hereafter crop up around the globe is the central, exclusively defining challenge of our time. We, the People, don't get it. But according to Beinart, our leaders already know better:

Kerry was a flawed candidate, but he was not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem was the party's liberal base, which would have refused to nominate anyone who proposed redefining the Democratic Party in the way the ADA did in 1947. The challenge for Democrats today is not to find a different kind of presidential candidate. It is to transform the party at its grassroots so that a different kind of presidential candidate can emerge. That means abandoning the unity-at-all-costs ethos that governed American liberalism in 2004. And it requires a sustained battle to wrest the Democratic Party from the heirs of Henry Wallace. In the party today, two such heirs loom largest: Michael Moore and MoveOn.

What better symbol in America today than flabby, overweight, rude, frequently disheveled, and just downright unsexy Michael Moore to stand as strawman for the unwashed, indecent masses of "Softs" who must be reformed or purged from the Democratic Party?

Oh, yes, make no mistake about it, Beinart, not content with an anti-populist nostalgia for a Democratic Party that could be turned about on a dime by a privileged intellectual elite meeting privately in a posh Washington hotel, also revives the classic, anxious homophobic "Girlie Man" rhetoric of the period. Then, as now, erectile dysfunction seems the Democratic Party's root political vulnerability, with only the far-sighted ADA and their modern disciples demonstrating the liberal "hard on" for killing Communists or Jihadists -- what difference does it make? -- needed to prod the party into getting it up again in the polls. Beinart quotes approvingly and adopts for the course of his entire argument this order of boys locker-room language from a rabidly anti-communist 1940's journal with, to today's ears, the fascist-sounding title of The New Leader. That it was, in later decades, widely reputed to be directly or indirectly CIA funded, seems almost anticlimactic:

In 1950, the journal The New Leader divided American liberals into "hards" and "softs." The hards, epitomized by the ADA, believed anti-communism was the fundamental litmus test for a decent left. Non-communism was not enough; opposition to the totalitarian threat was the prerequisite for membership in American liberalism because communism was the defining moral challenge of the age.
The softs, by contrast, were not necessarily communists themselves. But they refused to make anti-communism their guiding principle.

His prescription for this party of confused, wimpy masses: an urgent infusion of hard-headed, balls-to-the-wall elitism. Today, the "hard" elites of the Democratic Party must once again conspire to save the party from its "soft" self.

[T]he Democratic Party boasts a fairly hawkish foreign policy establishment and a cadre of politicians and strategists eager to look tough. But, below this small elite sits a Wallacite grassroots that views America's new struggle as a distraction, if not a mirage. Two elections, and two defeats, into the September 11 era, American liberalism still has not had its meeting at the Willard Hotel. And the hour is getting late.

Beinart's militarist "hard on" for war, death, and destruction, his "muscular liberalism," as this rhetorical strain was called during the recent presidential campaign, his all or nothing, black and white, we lead and you follow view of political necessity, hardly differs from the Big Brother Republicanism of flight-jacket-donning, macho-posturing President George Bush: "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror." The only discernable difference on this score is that Bush manages to proclaim all the same airy nothings about the ever-onward march of Truth, Justice and the American Way, without at the same time broadcasting a contempt for the average Americans he's in the process of bamboozling. Which goes a long way toward explaining why he and Cheney and company are in the White House, and not Kerry and the rest of the Democratic party's "fairly hawkish foreign policy establishment."

Like Bush, Beinart's noble cause, the "Faith" for which the "Fighting" is suposedly justified, remains as lofty as it is nebulous and thoughtlessly vague. Like Bush, he intones high sounding phrases and dark prophecies, such as, "totalitarian Islam" would, if it could, "reign terror upon ... anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom," in such ambiguous and self-legitimating phrases that one's left wondering what's threatened here: the right to vote or the right to choose between a can of Coke and a can Pepsi.

The problem, of course, is that the world is never so simple, never so black and white. If people throughout the Muslim world do indeed thirst both for the vote and the right to choose, as Americans do with fierce, patriotic determination, between a bewildering array of products and services designed to satisfy every variety of artificial need advertising and marketing can conjure up, they first "thirst," as any American would, for running water, a functioning sewage system, electricity, basic food and shelter, and to be protected from the kind of "spreading freedom in the Muslim world" that the US military recently visited upon Fallujah -- a classic case of not merely a village but an entire city that had to be destroyed to be saved.

Beinart concludes his manifesto on behalf of A Fighting Faith transforming it into a sort of thinly veiled sermon. How fortunate for this "new generation of liberals" that "yearn" for "moral purpose" is this new, he all but says, holy war against "totalitarian Islam." War, once again, beckons as the true "calling" of the party's faithful:

Of all the things contemporary liberals can learn from their forbearers half a century ago, perhaps the most important is that national security can be a calling. If the struggles for gay marriage and universal health care lay rightful claim to liberal idealism, so does the struggle to protect the United States by spreading freedom in the Muslim world. It, too, can provide the moral purpose for which a new generation of liberals yearn. As it did for the men and women who convened at the Willard Hotel.

But if ever there were a universal candidate for indisputable, ecumenical blasphamy it would have to be this rhetorical placement of gay marriage, universal health care, and global warfare simultaneously upon the same pedestal of the Ideal. Regardless what different peoples of different and even no faith might feel about each of these three, who in the world is going to believe that all three together don't constitute some kind of indisputably sick, perverted sacrilege? How can a supposedly sane, educated, intellectual human being be led to utter such absurdities, and such dangerous absurdities at that?

To anyone actually familiar with the cast of characters that gathered at the Willard Hotel in January 1947 to save liberalism from itself, however, these dangerous absurdities and, indeed, their inverterate "liberal" elitism, will come as no surprise. Throughout his piece, Beinart repeatedly cites Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and it is from a passage of Schlesinger's that he derives his title A Fighting Faith. But even in the phrasing of this title, Schlesinger is a mere stalking horse for the intellectual master of this brand of "muscular liberalism," the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) remains a "must read" for anyone wishing to understand the history of twentieth-century American politics and, beyond the pretense of democratic politics, America's institutional, establishment apparatus of policy-making.

Perhaps it is unfortunate that Reinhold Niebuhr's highly influential masterwork is best known today for supplying the main title for Noam Chomsky's "Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies." But one needn't agree with Chomsky to read Moral Man and Immoral Society and realize that here is a dangerously self-satisfied intellectual, convinced of his own benevolent moral bearings, in the act of providing tortured justification for the use of violence, coercion, and mass deception to accomplish "moral good" otherwise impossible due, as he puts it directly, to "the stupidity of the average man." Bush White House General Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, soon to head our Justice Department, would feel right at home in Niebuhr's world of elite-defined moral immorality, coordinating the administration's post-911 effort to redefine the meaning of "torture." The New Leader, quoted so unqualifiedly by Beinart, which sounds so manifestly fascist today, in fact, resonates with Niebuhr's thought from the 1930's, not Hitler's nor Mussolini's. But it's a challenge to read Niebuhr's 1932 work today without thinking of both, each and every page along the way.

And these are "the forbearers half a century ago" from which Beinart would have contemporary liberal intellectuals and party movers and shakers take inspiration.

But actually the true forbearers of this supposedly new, hard, muscular, elite, war-fighting liberalism are even older than that. This is not the first time the The New Republic has trumpeted the "liberal" intellectual cause, the high moral virtue, of a "war against terrorism" as a means to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world.

In February 1917, The New Republic began its turn toward war, proclaiming that the Kaiser's "Germany cannot be permitted to terrorize international territory and rather than permit a reign of terror, the United States, which is born of maritime freedom and order, has every justification for fighting. ... The cause of the Allies is now unmistakably the cause of liberalism and the hope of enduring peace," following up in April 1917 with words of congratulation to the elite intellectual class it saw itself as addressing and representing:

The American nation is entering this war under the influence of a moral verdict reached after the utmost deliberation of the more thoughtful members of the community.... The United States might have blundered into the war at any time during the past two years, but to have entered, as it is doing now, at the right time and in the clear interest of a purely international program required the exercise of an intellectualized and imaginative leadership.

The extent to which the American public had no taste for "entanglement" in a war of European empires and had to be moved, persuaded, propagandized for years before Wilson dared ask Congress for a declaration of war is a matter of historical record. How this record is seen, as a triumph or catastrophe, remains a matter of disagreement.

But in thinking about and "placing" the latest liberal "calling" to join Bush and company in "Making the World Safe For Democracy," we all would do well to consider the disturbing resonance of an account of this current warlike New Republic liberal's warlike New Republic forbearers offered by one who in 1917 saw only massive betrayal of all that had been human, decent, moral and progressive in liberal thought.

In June 1917, Randolphe Bourne published "War and the Intellectuals" in Seven Arts, writing of his one-time New Republic colleagues:

The intellectual state that could produce such things is one where reversion has taken place to produce more primitive ways of thinking. Simple syllogisms are substituted for analysis, things are known by their labels, our heart's desire dictates what we shall see. The American intellectual class, having failed to make the higher synthesis, regresses to ideas that can issue in quick simplified action. Thought becomes an easy rationalization of what is actually going on or what is to happen inevitably tomorrow. ...
War in the interests of democracy! this was almost the sum of their philosophy. The primitive idea to which they regressed became almost insensibly translated into a craving for action. War was seen as the crowning relief of their indecision. At last action, irresponsibility, the end of anxious and torturing attempts to reconcile peace-ideals with the drag of the world towards Hell. An end to the pain of trying to adjust facts to what they ought to be! Let us consecrate the facts as ideal! Let us join the greased slide toward war! the momentum increased. Hesitations, ironies, consciences, considerations -- all were drowned in the elemental blare of doing something aggressive, colossal. The new found Sabbath "peacefulness of being at war"! The thankfulness with which so many intellectuals lay down and floated with the current betrays the hesitation and suspense through which they had been.

In September, Bourne followed up with "War Diary," again Seven Arts:

The "liberals" who claim a realistic and pragmatic attitude in politics have disappointed us in setting up and then clinging wistfully to the belief that our war could get itself justified for an idealistic flavor, or at least a world-renovating social purpose; that they had more or less denied to the other belligerents. If these realists had had time in the hurry and scuttle of events to turn their philosophy on themselves, they might have seen how thinly disguised a rationalization this was of their emotional undertow. They wanted a League of Nations. They had an unanalyzable feeling that this was a war in which we had to be, and be in it we would. What more natural than to join the two ideas and conceive our war as the decisive factor in the attainment of the desired end! This gave them a good conscience for willing American participation, although as good men they must have loathed war and everything concerned with it. ...
Thus the "liberals" who have made our war their own preserved their pragmatism. But events have shown how fearfully they imperiled their intuition and how untamable an inexorable really is. For those of us who knew a real inexorable when we saw one, and had learned from watching war what follows the loosing of the war-technique, foresaw how quickly arms and purposes would be forgotten, and how flimsy would be any liberal control of events. It is only we now who can appreciate The New Republic--the organ of applied pragmatic realism--when it complains that the League of Peace (which we entered the war to guarantee) is more remote than it was eight months ago; or that our State Department has no diplomatic policy (though it was to realize the high aims of the President's speeches that the intellectuals willed American participation); or that we are subordinating the political management of the war to real or supposed military advantages (though militarism in the liberal mind had no justification except as a tool for advancing social ends). If, after all the idealism and creative intelligence that were shed upon America's taking up of arms, our State Department has no policy, we are like the brave passengers who have set out for the Isles of the Blest only to find that the first mate has gone insane and jumped overboard, the rudder has come loose and dropped to the bottom of the sea, and the captain and pilot are lying dead drunk under the wheel. The stokers and engineers, however, are sill merrily forcing the speed up to twenty knots an hour and the passengers are presumably getting the pleasure of the ride.

In October 1917, Seven Arts ceased publication, its patron's funding withdrawn over the journal's opposition to America's entry into the Great War. Randolphe Bourne died the following year during the influenza epidemic.

Posted by rri

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