No one was barred from the conversation back when there was a conversation

Three paragraphs from Bill Kauffman’s column in the latest issue of The American Conservative:

The War Party called the Peace Party Nazis in 1941, Communists in 1951, Soviet dupes in 1961, dirty hippies in 1971 … must I go on? In 2011, those who heed George Washington’s counsel to seek “peace and harmony with all” will be called mullah-headed appeasers of Irano-fascism.

[snip]

Blame war. Blame TV. Blame the nationalization of political discourse, as regional variations and individual peculiarities are washed away by the generic slime of poli-talk shows. Radicals—even naïve Tea Partiers or idealistic left-wing kids—are dehumanized in ways unthinkable when America was a free country. No one was barred from the conversation back when there was a conversation. No dispatch ever read, “Wingnut Henry David Thoreau today issued a manifesto from his compound near Walden Pond…”

[snip]

The squeezing out even of establishment dissent—especially since 9/11—has left us with an antiwar movement so feeble it makes the Esperanto lobby look like the AARP. Enter the new organization Come Home, America, its name taken from the magnificent 1972 acceptance speech delivered by George McGovern in the last unscripted Democratic convention.

I don’t agree that there was ever a time in the USA when “no one was excluded from the conversation”; when Thoreau published Walden in 1854, after all, chattel slavery existed in 15 states, women’s suffrage in none, and the one thing every US voter could support was war against Native Americans.  That said, Come Home, America and its goal of a left-right coalition against militarism seem to be worth a cheer or two.

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The American Conservative, June 2010

I’m a strange sort of American, one of a handful who has reached middle age without ever having read To Kill a Mockingbird or seen the movie based on it.  Evidently Bill Kauffman also avoided the novel in high school, but has since read it repeatedly and “seen the movie 20 times.”  He makes a fine case for both.   Apostle of “placefulness” that he is, Kauffman defends the book against the charge that it is  “the Southern novel for people who hate the South” by saying that Alabaman Harper Lee is one of a long line of American writers who have shown that “the harshest criticisms of any place come from those who truly love and belong to it.”  Kauffman puts her in the company of “Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, William Appleman Williams, Sinclair Lewis, and Edward Abbey.”  He quotes his favorite line from the novel, noble defense attorney Atticus Finch’s injunction to his daughter to “remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” 

Lest we forget that the magazine is a populist right-wing journal called The American Conservative, Kauffman uses the word “liberal” to mean “self-important hypocritical scold,” as when he writes of that the movie’s “occasional cringe-inducing moments of liberal fantasy- as when the black citizenry, packing the segregated courtroom balcony, stands as one when Atticus passes by- I chalk up, perhaps unfairly, to the vanity of Gregory Peck… Peck’s sanctimony works very well in the film, however; it infuses, rather than embalms, Atticus Finch.” 

My own favorite specimen of the fantasy life of 1960s US liberalism is Star Trek, and Kauffman works a mention of that series into his column.  Praising child actor John Megna, he tells us that Megna would later “chant ‘bonk bonk on the head’ in a famous Star Trek episode.”  I would only point out that the episode in question, “Miri,” is really much better than the line “bonk bonk on the head!” might suggest.   Kauffman’s devotion to the importance of place may inhibit his appreciation of a TV show about people wandering around the galaxy in a spaceship, and his aversion to self-important hypocritical scolds may also get in the way of his enjoyment of Star Trek

Attorney Chase Madar scrutinizes the legal thought of Harold H. Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School, chief legal advisor to the US Department of State, and very likely to be an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court before many more years have passed.  Mr Koh is a renowned expert on international law, which in Madar’s words is supposed to be “much more civilized than mere national law.”  In a recent address to the American Society for International Law, Mr Koh defended the USA’s use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or “drones,” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries where people might be found whom the Obama administration would like to kill.  The same speech praises in glowing terms the administration’s policy of detaining suspected terrorists without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Force Base, and other locations around the world.  In Madar’s words, “Koh’s lecture- warmly applauded by the conventioneers- demonstrates once again the amazing elasticity of international law when it comes to the prerogatives of great powers.”  Madar’s article is titled “How Liberals Kill”; again, the sense of “liberal” here seems to be self-important hypocritical scold. 

A review of Garry Wills’ new book about official secrecy and the US national security state includes a line that reminds me of one of my favorite phrases, C. Wright Mills’ “crackpot realism.”  “Insiders to the world of secrecy loved the idea that they had access to special high-quality knowledge, but as often as not they were victims of wishful thinking, gulled by confidence tricksters  and fake experts.”  Ushered into an exclusive world of secrets and power, people often do become intoxicated by their situation and overly impressed by each other.  As a result of this intoxication, people who might under other circumstances be relied on to show excellent judgment may very well make unbelievably foolish decisions.  Mills developed the concept of crackpot realism in a book called The Causes of World War Three; that title shows just how far he thought the foolishness of such groups could take us.

The American Conservative, May 2010

Can left-wing opponents of the American Empire join with right-wing defenders of the Old Republic to build an effective antiwar movement in the USA?  Fourteen authors, including leftists like Paul Buhle and Matthew Yglesias and rightists like Paul Gottfried and John Lukacs, consider the question.     

The cover image, representing a face-off between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, is a bit of an absurdity.  These two men disagree on certain issues and cannot afford to ignore one another, but they are neither adversaries in world affairs nor equal in international influence.  This absurdity strikes me as out of place.  The American Conservative‘s  line about Israel/ Palestine seems simply to be that the USA should moderate its support of Israel; some of the magazine’s contributors might go so far as to advocate a policy of complete neutrality between Israel and its Arab antagonists, while others would recommend that the USA continue its substantive support of Israel, but would counsel American officials to tone down some of their more overheated Zionist preachments.  Most contributors are located somewhere between these viewpoints.  That range of opinion hardly qualifies the magazine as extremist, yet the cover image and article titles such as “Normalizing Relations” (about Mr O’s willingness “to take on America’s most influential ally”), “Out From the Shadows” (in which we are told that the American-Israel Political Action Committee now “confronts its worst fear: daylight,”) and “Can We Avoid Israel’s War?” (about US-Iran relations)suggest the overwrought tone that we expect from the fringes of the debate. 

The issue includes a reprint of a story by the late Louis Auchincloss, “America First,” originally published in Auchincloss’ collection Skinny Island.  Set in 1941, it tells the story of Elaine Wagstaff, a rich old American lady who was driven from her adopted home in Paris when the Germans overran France and moved in with her grown daughter Suzanne in New York.  Elaine’s friends are ardent advocates of US intervention to aid Britain in its fight against the Third Reich; Suzanne’s social circle are equally ardent in their opposition to such intervention.  At first, Elaine goes along with her daughter and joins the America First Committee, an organization which did in fact exist and which was at its peak the largest antiwar group the USA has ever seen (including such members as Auchincloss’ kinsman Gore Vidal.)  Elaine finds the America Firsters so uncouth compared to her Francophile friends that she eventually finds she cannot tolerate their company.  Elaine turns away from Suzanne and Suzanne’s friends, returning to her old circle and their interventionist views. 

The fascinating thing about this story is how little the characters’ political allegiances have to do with any of the ostensible reasons people usually give to justify them.  None of them really cares very much about who rules Europe or what happens to the people who live there.  Suzanne recoils from her son-in-law’s antisemitism, not because she cares at all about the fate of Europe’s Jews, but because in her circles antisemitism “was ‘hick’: one could not be bigoted and ‘top-drawer.'”  Nor does any character show a very clear idea of what the national interest of the United States might require.  Each character has devised a little drama in his or her head in which s/he plays the leading role and each of the others is assigned a supporting part.  Elaine’s fascination with France has been a bitter disappointment to Suzanne; Suzanne’s staid absorption in American high society has been a disappointment to Elaine.  Suzanne has scripted a drama in which Elaine will make a lifetime of disappointments up to her by playing a supporting role.  Politics is to her merely the stage on which this drama will play out.  Conversely, Elaine is attached to her old friends and to their shared fantasy of a life in the upper reaches of French society.  When she chooses interventionism, she is in fact choosing them and that fantasy.  Through most of the story The last line of the story is It is an ugly story, in a way, but one that rings true.    

An article about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites numerous publications over the years that have exposed the SPLC as a racket that does virtually nothing to advance its stated aim of battling white supremacists, but a great deal to enrich its leaders.  There doesn’t seem to be anything new in this piece, but it might be useful to have several exposés all cited in one place.   

Bill Kauffman’s column calls on the people of Idaho to embrace a writer who was born in their state and spent most of his life there, Vardis Fisher (1895-1968.)  Kauffman lists two books by the late Mr Fisher that sound interesting, a novel called Mountain Man and the WPA‘s Guide to Idaho.  He also mentions Fisher’s novelistic history of the world in twelve volumes that “drove away most of his modest readership.”  Acknowledging that Fisher’s defense of free-market capitalism and rebellion against his Mormon upbringing left him “almost a parody of the cantankerous libertarian/ village atheist,” Kauffman argues that he deserves remembering as a placeful man, who stayed in Idaho and devoted himself to the spirit of that place when he might have gone to the metropolis and lived for money and fame.

The American Conservative, October 2009

american conservative october 2009

The cover may suggest an alarmist piece about Pakistan.  The article actually in the issue, though, is precisely the opposite.  Granting that Pakistan is an important country that has very serious problems, it asserts that there is no chance that it will break up, fall into the hands of Osama bin Laden, or launch a nuclear attack.  If the USA sobers up and pursues a more realistic policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan might even make progress on its real problems.

Elsewhere in the issue, Andrew Bacevich quotes Cold Warrior Richard Pipes’ 1979 declaration to the effect that since Afghanistan is a place of no strategic importance, the Soviet invasion of that country must have been a step towards a goal elsewhere.  Bacevich agrees that Afghanistan was without strategic importance when Pipes said that, and says that it continues to be so.  Where he disagrees with Pipes is in his assessment of the rationality of the Soviet leadership of the 1979-1989 period, and indeed of the US leadership of today.  He claims that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan because they believed that showing power there would shore up their empire; in fact, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was a significant factor in the eventual collapse of the USSR.  Likewise, America’s leaders want to persist in Afghanistan, not because of they have made any rational calculation indicating that they should, but because they are dare not make a calculation that might indicate that they should not.

This issue includes a piece by always-intriguing, highly eccentric writer Eve Tushnet.  Tushnet has a gift for the lapidary; she describes growing up in Washington, DC as one of very few white children in her neighborhood, albeit one “weird enough that my skin color was not one of the obvious targets of teasing.”  Recounting her childhood Halloweens, she writes that “A mask is above all an attempt to communicate, to create and reshape meaning over the silence of skin.”  Quite a provocative phrase, “the silence of skin.”  On a par with her line from 2008, “by religion, I mean an understanding of the nature of love.”

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The American Conservative, 23 March 2009

Sun and Wind on the Roof, by John Sloan

Sun and Wind on the Roof, by John Sloan

 

Bill Kauffman takes on the idea of a federal department of Arts and Culture, a proposal long championed by someone he admires, Quincy Jones.  Kauffman quotes the painter John Sloan, who in 1944 said, “Sure, it would be fine to have a Ministry of Fine Arts in this country.  Then we’d know where the enemy is.”  He goes on to praise William Saroyan, whose pacifist principles led him to refuse to shake President Roosevelt’s hand at a reception during World War II, and William Faulkner, who rejected a social invitation from President Kennedy on the grounds that “the White House is too far to go for dinner.”  Kauffman himself once served on a National Endowment for the Arts panel, and the experience convinced him that Quincy Jones was wrong and these men were right.

Paul Gottfried argues that, contrary to what one might gather from cable TV, for most of the history of the USA it has been conservatives who have been the most prominent and most consistent opponents of the expansion of militarism and of presidential power.  For example, the only senator to vote against internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two was the original “Mr. Republican,” Robert Alphonso Taft.  Today’s “conservative” militarists, Gottfried claims, have succeeded because their approach enables them to combine two basically disparate impulses:

Neoconservative historiography prevailed against the Old Right because it could build on the Left’s moral assessments- treating Lincoln and General Sherman as great emancipators, for example- while at the same time tapping into the patriotic, pro-military sentiments of American Republicans and Fox News-viewing conservatives.

The American Conservative, 15 December 2008

George Frost Kennan, by Ned Seidler

George Frost Kennan, by Ned Seidler

Several pieces this time despair of any prospect that traditionalist conservatism will reassert itself as a force to be reckoned with in American politics.  What, then, do the writers for this traditionalist publication believe is to be done? 

At least two of them seem to think that the time may have come to give up on the USA altogether.  Bill Kauffman writes an admiring piece about Kirkpatrick Sale’s Third North American Secessionist Convention, singling out for praise the doughty Yankees of the Second Vermont Republic, who want to break away from the continental Leviathan in the name of Ethan Allen, Robert Frost, and maple syrup.  A review of Lee Congdon’s George Kennan: A Writing Life includes remarks on Kennan’s argument in his late work Around the Cragged Hill that the USA is too big for anyone’s good and should be broken into smaller constituent republics. 

Elsewhere, a letter to the editor takes issue with those who claim that neoconservative advocates of the 2003 invasion of Iraq could have been so foolish as actually to have believed the sorts of things they said in public at that time.  The correspondent asks the magazine to “spare me the ‘neocons were dumb to believe Iraq would turn into Ohio’ nonsense.  These grown-up guys, smart enough to become advisors to the political leadership of the most powerful military on the planet, weren’t convinced of something a 10-year old knew?  Please.  It’s nice to imagine that some massively dumb, partially blind, amazing social phenomena led us into this debacle, but the truth seems simpler and more banal: the neocons didn’t care and neither did we.” 

The fallacy here seems obvious.  “These grown-up guys, smart enough to become advisors to the political leadership of the most powerful military on the planet”- that’s an impressive description.  The correspondent is right to be impressed, we should be impressed as well.  But keep in mind, every one of the members of that group was at least as impressed by his or her colleagues as we are.  Sitting at a table surrounded by such people, who would dare be the first to say something radically different from what the others were saying?  Unless someone goes first and breaks the spell, a roomful of extremely competent people can march blindly into mistakes any well-informed individual, sometimes any normal 10-year old, could have warned them against.  Many policymakers are acutely aware of this danger; indeed, when President Truman made George Kennan head of policy planning at the US  State Department in the late 1940’s he explicitly defined Kennan’s job as speaking up against the preconceptions under which others were laboring and breaking the spell of those preconceptions.

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