Sunday, March 4, 2012

Quotes of the Day - March 4, 2012

The next book on my reading list is Power and the Idealists, by Paul Berman. I decided to read it after a debate with an uncle of mine about humanitarian interventionism. I argued that while well-intentioned, humanitarian intervention has tended to exacerbate conflicts rather than end them and that, more often than not, humanitarian intervention is used a pretext for the expansion of military power. My uncle framed the debate in purely ethical terms; if you have the ability to stop a massacre you are morally obligated to do so. So, I had a general idea of what the book was going to be about. That said, now that I'm halfway through the book, Berman covers a lot of material that I did not expect to see. With a fast-paced, journalistic tone and occasional humorous flourishes, Berman deftly describes the transformation of the radicals of '68 and the New Left into the champions of liberal intervention on the world stage. And, over the course of the first two chapters, he provides a stinging critique of left-wing anti-Zionism and a humorous take on contemporary American conservatism among other noteworthy points that I have highlighted below.

Berman characterizes well the conservative fear of the moral bankrupting of America by spooky academic liberal elites. For the Right, and probably for for David Brooks, too,
 "The American public seemed to have sunk into a swamp of moral indifference, even depravity. Right and wrong had disappeared into a marshy haze. And the conservatives grew wide-eyed in astonishment and horror."

Berman's description of the non-terrorist New Left is harsh. It paints the activists of '68 as silent accomplices in the wave of left-wing terror that gripped Europe in the 1970's. His description also verges on a criticism of lifestylism.
"They were not entirely resistant to the terrorist argument. So they dithered....they labored at building their communes, kindergartens, food co-ops, new gender relations, and other elements of the new Left utopia in its countercultural version. Or else they followed the retro-Marxist example and colonized the factories in search of proletarian followers. They mooned nostalgically over the anarchosyndicalist vision of a revolutionary general strike" (pg. 52).
The last line jumped out at me. As May 1st grows nearer and talk about a general strike seeps into the mainstream media (See this Salon article). Berman's mocking tone frustrates me. A general strike, however unrealistic it is to hope for a complete halt to all business on a single day, could have intense localized effects. Even if only one factory is taken over, or one business shut down, that is a small victory that can propel the movement forward.

As much as I try to avoid Israel nowadays, it always seems to find me. I've argued for years now, with friends and family, about the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Yet, in describing the Left's post-1967 backlash against Israel, Berman shows that there is, regrettably, an often blurry line between the two.
"The 1967 war, in which the Israelis seized a lot of land, seemed to confirm Israel's imperialist nature. The Soviets became fierce enemies of Zionism. Palestinian Marxists stepped forward. Soviet resources poured in. And, under those circumstances, the New Left came up with one more interpretation of the Middle Easter conflict, in which the New Left's vision of a lingering Nazism of modern life was suddenly reconfigured, with Israel in a leading role. Israel became the crypto-Nazi state par excellence, the purest of all examples of how Nazism had never been defeated but had instead lingered into the present in ever more cagey forms. What better disguise could Nazism assume than a Jewish state" (pg. 54).
Of course, to describe Israel as a Nazi state is utterly preposterous. It is not possible to compare the actions of the Nazis to the occupation of the West Bank. Israel may be an oppressive, even apartheid state, but it is certainly not a reincarnation of Hitler's Germany. The great irony of left-wing sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and thus opposition to Israel, is that by opposing Israel for being Nazi-like, the Left puts itself quite literally in the same camp as people who themselves are Nazi-like - Islamic fundamentalists (or Islamofascists) and even Neo-Nazis themselves.
"He found himself in a military training ground where, in one part of the camp, European leftists singing left-wing songs received their anti-Zionist military training, and, in another part, European fascists singing fascist songs received their own anti-Zionist military training" (pg. 55).

I have no love for the French New Philosophers, but Glucksmann's attempts to create a new and coherent set of political ideas out of the antiquated Marxism of both the old and New Left is certainly something admirable.
"[H]e set about trying to construct a new set of political ideas. That was his project. He did this in three big steps between 1975 and the early nineteen eighties. His first step, in the mid-seventies, was to give up on his old-fashioned anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, the fundamentals of the left, in favor of what he began to call antitotalitarianism" (pg. 67).
Today, the Left is in need of revitalization more than ever. The resonance of Occupy Wall Street has provided a certain spark to segments of the political left, but it remains as disparate and factionalized as ever. Every ideological subgroup, from the insurrectionary anarchists to the social democrats, compete for scraps of political power. As much as I loath to admit it, a strong and well organized party, well-grounded in theory, might be the antidote to the Left's chronic disorganization.

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